Thanks to a video by suli breaks that is going viral at the moment (at least 10 people have sent it to me) this question is rearing its ugly head again.
For the record, I like Suli. I think that unlike many he is standing up and saying something and all credit to him for that. Much of what he says is well considered and intelligent.
However this question has always annoyed me for several reasons.
- Are you seriously telling me that aged 12 you know what you will and won’t need to know for the rest of your life? When I was twelve I had no clue what I was going to do with my life. I suspected my dreams of playing football for Arsenal or playing cricket for the West Indies were not going pan out. If you had told me I was going to be a teacher I would have laughed in your face. If you told me that Latin I was learning was going to turn out to be useful for anything other than learning french I wouldn’t have believed you…
- This is a depressingly utilitarian view of the point of school. For me the point of school is not just to make people employable or get them a qualification. The point is to make people smarter, to make them know more, to open minds and open windows of opportunity. If we only taught things that we could say with absolute certainty people would use in “real life” then the curriculum would be very limited and spectacularly dull. Pupils need to be taught how to concentrate, persevere, co-operate, collaborate, seek help, research, figure things out. School is supposed to take the best of the thinking and knowledge that has gone before and transmit it to the next generation. That, done correctly, should make pupils employable and give them knowledge they will use in “real life”
- Pupils need to be able to do things that are dull, things that are difficult, things are complex, challenging. Ultimately “real life” is full of things that we have to do that we don’t really want to. If I hadn’t been forced to do lots of things that I considered to be tedious nonsense at school how would I have coped with the endless tedious nonsense working as a teacher throws at me? Think how difficult the world of work would be if people encountered enforced, tedious dullness for the first time at work.
- While school isn’t solely about making pupils employable (see point 2), it is about making pupils employable. I have lost count of the number of ex-pupils I have bumped into who have been sacked from numerous jobs because they never learned that sometimes you have to do what you are told whether you like it or not. They never learned that something being boring or “long” is not a valid reason to not do it. Some schools abysmal performance where behaviour management was concerned left many pupils virtually unemployable. If school doesn’t teach pupils how to interact with employers and managers then who will (having said that I hardly would hold myself up as a good example of how to interact with management…)
- Holding up Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey or Alan Sugar as examples of those who made it to the top without being qualified helps no one and is fundamentally dishonest. Telling pupils they “need good grades and a good degree to get a good job” isn’t lying. If you look at the people at the top of the financial pile then the vast majority are educated. If you look at the people at the bottom of the financial pile then the vast majority are not. There will be exceptions but they are the overwhelming minority. Most people that leave school without qualifications do not become Alan Sugar. It is POSSIBLE to be successful without being well qualified but it is highly, highly unlikely and it is much harder. Rightly or wrongly qualifications opens doors and not being qualified closes them.
- In this age of instant celebrity pupils geniunely believe the are going to be rappers, footballers, actors, models, musicians etc. There is nothing wrong with those aspirations but there is something wrong with believing you are going to make it big as any of those things WITHOUT WORKING AT THEM, without having any discernible talent at them, without learning how to do them well (or even properly). They also get offended when confronted with realities like “Most people who work at being successful at those things don’t make it. Most people with real talent in those areas don’t make it and you think a lazy, talentless waster like you with your bad attitude and your complete absence of social graces is going to be a winner. Get real.”
- Pupils believe they are going t be gangsters. I had a pupil spend my afternoon registration making “shotgun rounds” out of paper because he is “gangster”. The don’t seem to realise that crime is pretty Darwinian. Judging by the number of ex-pupils that have wound up in jail or dead I would have to say that only the smart pupils who go into crime survive. Not even all of the smart ones do. I tell them to put themselves in the position of gang boss. If someone is a complete idiot who doesn’t know anything, can’t do anything and won’t follow instructions would you trust them to do anything important? Why would you want them in your organisation? Obvious answer, to take the blame if anyone gets caught.
I agree with Suli. Don’t let an exam result decide your fate. Don’t ask me “Why do I have to learn this when I will never have to use this in real life?” either unless you want to listen to a rant of epic proportions.