One of the great joys of the last year has been, for a variety of reasons, the number of ex-students I have come across. This year, the first senior students I ever taught turned forty, which rather dates me. Of the thousands who have since passed through my classrooms, those I have rather randomly bumped into lately represent only a very small sample. Nevertheless, the variety of lives they have settled into is delightful. I’ve met up with an abseiling window cleaner, a prime ministerial advisor, a mother, a barrister, a lecturer in maritime law, an applied physics researcher, a lab assistant, a Department of Conservation manager, a jeweller, an actor, a police officer, a dancer, a drama teacher, a portrait artist, a political scientist, a travel agent… the list goes on. There is something hugely satisfying about seeing these once-were-teenagers moving on to become delightful adults: charming, loyal, confident; attentive partners, devoted parents, gentle souls; the sort of people of whom, I am sure, their parents are very proud.
Thinking about them brought home a couple of points. The first is, none of them had really changed much. The characteristics that had made them such wonderful teens appear to have by and large been imported across to their adult selves. As a teacher, often we come across a child, even when they’re quite young, and have the strong feeling, ‘you’re going to be okay.’ Those students who instinctively acknowledge those around them, who take nothing for granted, who are generous, resilient, don’t blame the world for their misfortunes, have a sense of fun and adventure about them. They’re the lucky ones. Teachers don’t create those students (nature and home, I suspect, largely manage that) but we do envy them.
The second point is that academic achievement, within a certain range, is a lousy guide of future satisfaction. For the students who drop out early this isn’t so, to leave with no formal qualifications in the modern world is, I think, a formidable challenge for most. But beyond that, the outstanding student appears to have very little advantage over the middling one, even in terms of things like establishing a career. Slightly less tangible qualities like passion, curiosity and confidence, as best I can tell, are the real game changers. A percentage point here or there really ought not be the goal of a sophisticated modern education. Yet, how easy it becomes to use academic profiles as a proxy for educational success, and this false focus in turn skews the way we shape and deliver our curricula.
So, if we were to think of schools as something other than machines by which students are ranked and sorted according to a transient and broadly irrelevant scale (and it must be worth a go, surely), what could they be used for? A few years ago, in the opening chapter of my book Falling for Science, I made a list of things I would like to think a student would take away from a sound education. Although I might be tempted to tinker with that list now, here is how it reads (in no set order). I’m interested to know the items you’d put on your own educational wish list:
– How to introduce myself to strangers, and establish myself in a new social setting.
– How to make choices for myself, and stand by them in the face of pressure.
– How to compromise.
– How to read, write and deal with number and measurement at the level needed in a modern society.
– How to take what I know and apply it to new things.
– How to stick at something that is hard.
– How to make myself known to someone I’m attracted to, and the face the risks involved.
– How to bounce back from failure and disappointment.
– How to deal with the fact I have more questions than the world has answers for.
– How, in the face of all the challenges implicit above, to maintain an enthusiasm for living.