You may have heard the howls of anguish from my study this week. They were provoked by Nick Gibb’s views on the value of pupils reading one ‘great work of the English literary canon’ each week – to instil a love a reading in order to promote social mobility and raise standards.
Have you noticed how much this government promotes ‘instilling’ in order to raise standards? We should instil character, we should instil a love of reading, instil knowledge, etc. etc, as if learning is merely a matter of instilling empty minds with certain behaviours, some facts and the necessary soft skills to enhance employability. I cannot comprehend how you can juxtapose the words ‘instil’ and ‘love’ in the same phrase.
The dictionary defines ‘instil’ as the gradual but firm establishment of an attitude in a person’s mind, or to put a substance into something. It defines ‘love’ as strong affection or great pleasure. One is about training. The other is about a very personal, emotional response. Education is, as Yeats probably never said, not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.
That isn’t to say that we can’t nurture a love of learning, or reading, or maths, or that we can’t model the way to learn. But to do so, we have to commit to a relationship, both with what we are teaching and with the people to whom we are teaching it. We live in relationship with each other in a common humanity – a fact that John Donne understood when he wrote: ‘No man is an island, Entire of itself’. As he went on to write:
‘Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee’.
That is the essence of our humanness: connected with each other and with the world around us. J. B. Priestley understood it too – read Inspector Goole’s words in his play ‘An Inspector Calls’.
‘One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and a chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives and what we think and say and do. We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.’
If we are Christians, we have another connection: with God, as well as with fellow humans and God’s created environment. So while we may not be teaching about God explicitly, we take God into our classrooms with us. That influences our pedagogy. If influences the ethos of our classrooms and defines our learning communities. It affects every aspect of our relationship not only with our students but also with what we are teaching them. They are made in God’s image (whether or not they know it) and we are teaching them about God’s created world – whether or not they acknowledge God as the author of that knowledge. We are, as Parker Palmer expresses it, finding ‘the hidden wholeness’ in each student.
They don’t come into our classrooms to have their heads filled with facts. They don’t come into our classrooms to pass tests, although the current culture of measurement might lead them to conclude otherwise. They come into our classrooms to learn and the best learning happens in relationship. Our job, as Christian teachers, is to open windows onto God’s wonderful world for that learning to take place.
The DfE is currently seeking views on the purpose of education. Nick Gibb defines it as ‘the engine of our economy’. I beg to differ. I suggest that a better definition of education is one of connectedness with each other, with our world, and with God. It’s about finding inner wholeness. It’s about drawing out ‘the full human potential of each child of God’ (Rt Revd John Pritchard).
It’s about educating for shalom.