Wednesday, 2 February 2011

What should our children learn?

There's been a lot of discussion around the "subjects that matter" in our children's education, clearly with the aim to prioritise educational spending. Even the debate about tuition fees was caught up in this, and I found myself at one point agreeing that students should bear the main burden of the cost of their education (though my view comes from the point of view that it is creating more equality to invest more in the younger years of education to the expense of third level education, and to value education available to all appropriately rather than having a bias towards third level education which not everybody will enjoy). But hold your breath, after lots of soul searching I changed my mind, realising that if at all possible, any education one would like to undergo should be available for free or at least be affordable to everyone.

What do you think schools should teach? Or, asked in another way, what of my school learning has proven useful in my life? What did I miss out on? There's been a fabulous exchange on Radio 5, which I read about this rather articulate take on it and more (how do you link education to ageism? Read for yourself!).

My starting point would be that there are life skills that every child should learn, and that learning takes place not just at school. So these skills can be learned at school, at home, or in the community. I would say that the no brainers are literacy, numeracy and "survival" skills. A latter is a terrible term, I know, but like the other two they allow for interpretation as to what it means, it is adaptable to an ever changing society. Take for instance "home economics" - I think it's a great idea that every child should learn how to cook. Look at it from a health perspective, it empowers you to have a healthy diet. It empowers you to feed yourself. Cooking skills haven't been passed on so well in the last generation and we're left with rather a lot of people unable to live on a diet other than fast food, processed and ready made. Cooking would definitely be on my curriculum, and not just the "baking" variety.

So what about the rest? Is science more important than humanities? Is it the wrong comparison because really they go hand in hand? The school system I grew up in made sure you had choice within a range of areas (after the compulsory years) - so I had to take one science and one language at the very least, one social science and one subject out of either art or sports. Maths was optional and could be replaced by two sciences. As someone who loved languages, I had to make tough choices - I didn't like maths but loved chemistry and physics, but to keep my languages, I had to take maths.

The above discussion is of course a philosophical one, and one that has repercussions on our parenting styles too. Do you go with your child and foster his/her talents and let society develop out of the summative talent of our children, thus reaching the best possible outcome for all of us? Or do you foster a broad education in all areas that you, as the adult, have identified as being important?

I'm intrigued by both arguments, and as usual would opt for a middle way. For one, I do believe that anyone does best when they are motivated to do something, and motivation comes with free choice, liking and being good at something. However, I still think literacy, numeracy and some sort of life skills are important. As a parent I make choices about what I teach/show my daughters and these choices are based on what I consider important. At the same time we do respond very much to their lead. Still, our decision to send them to the outdoors kindergarten was ours, not my daughter's, there are many choices I make for the kids, and I'm happiest when Cubling tells me how she looks forward to the outdoors, how she wants to learn how to knit, and when she colours in a blue tit print out with a blue head, while I've failed to instil any interest in gardening in her at all so far, so she's voting with her feet! Yet I consider knowing how to grow food to be an essential life skill.

Suddenly I wonder if my speaking to the nursery key worker about my worries that she attaches to adults rather children was the wrong thing because now she'll be actively encouraged to play with children. Should I not leave the choice to her, and rejoice that she has bonded with some children and these children happen to be the ones I really love to see her bond with? Is she not, simply put, making the right choices anyway?

What is our role, to offer options and let the child lead the way? How can we ensure we offer all the options in this complex world? Are there essential life skills that are non negotiable? And, will I have to let her go to ballet classes?



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