Wish list

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.

8 thoughts on “Wish list

  1. JP says:

    Hi Bernard,

    I’m interested to know in items you’d put on your own educational wish list

    My additional wish would be to fully develop into one’s own individual, unique, person, despite the tremendous pressure to conform, the risks involved in being different and, perhaps, the comfort of being just what others expect us to be.

  2. Edwin says:

    Your wish list is amazing. I feel it fairly comprehensively covers everything one should get out of education. The obvious question is, given our flawed and exam-centred education system, how do I go about this? What advice do you have, for someone with one year of high school remaining?

  3. Hi Bernard,

    With 3 middling kids, this is a subject I’m very passionate about. I’ll admit I’ve sometimes felt jealous of those parents whose kids top the charts in all the traditional subjects to which we assign so much importance in school, while mine have merely ticked off the milestones on schedule or just slightly behind. But they can build one hell of a lego creation from their own imagination, as well as go karts out of scrap timber and broken push chairs. And one kid in particular has a memory so fatally brilliant he can recall entire lines of books several years after first hearing them (which has its downsides, believe me) despite not learning to read himself until he was 8.

    But if I’m using your list, which I read to be as much about social intelligence as anything, I feel much more reassured. They’re polite (to others!), and they look out for kids who are smaller than them of their own accord (if not always their siblings) and they know how to get along in group situations (though alliances within the family walls are forever shifting). In our line of work our kids are also regularly required to meet and greet people in very formal (bicultural) situations which, because I can see the picture, I know will stand them in good stead in the future too.

    But what about our ideal skill set, if this is what you are getting at. I agree with Edwin that your list is near comprehensive, but having brought up our kids in two foreign countries as well as NZ, I would add something about world view. In particular the importance of culture and religion in the shaping of societies (at the macro level) and our daily lives (at the micro level); and more crucially the interplay between the two. We might call this “social studies” in the current curriculum but, last I looked, the topics were way off the mark… I go back to your earlier post on the importance of being wrong and think that this demonstrates that we should be open to these questions with kids when they are young. For us, living in a Muslim country where we hear the call to prayer 5 times a day, these discussion are inevitable. We are the minority here afterall, and our secular beliefs (which might otherwise have been invisible to our kids) are viewed strangely. This, in itself, is an education.

    So to your list something like “how to deal with and accept the knowledge that people can believe in fundamentally different things in life, and that’s ok.”

    One final thing (apologies for length!) – it is so nice to hear a teacher reflecting on their past students with pride. I think we could draw up a similar wish-list for the kind of qualities that make a great teacher, which I think you’ve shown simply by writing your post, is as important if not more important than any practical lesson being imparted. I really believe that if we even get a single teacher who can “move” us in life, we’re lucky. But that’s another whole blog post isn’t it!

  4. Hi Edwin

    An excellent question, to which my answer will be inadequate. I think all I can really note is that despite the surface obsession with grades and measurement, our schools do still offer world class opportunities to engage in many activities where this richer learning is more likely to learn. I speak of trips into the mountains, or chess tournaments, or film making projects, or dance competitions, or school balls, or a bunch of people getting together to make a robot.

    And so it seems to me a certain amount of power still sits with the student, who has these choices and opportunities available. If we then decide, no, I’m going to devote all of my year to making other people, particularly my school happy, or alternatively I’m going to devote all my spare time working for money to buy alcohol so that I can spend every weekend either drunk or recovering, then we have at some level walked away from the list, and ought to bear the consequences.

    So that’s my advice, look for the chances to do things that you’ll always remember.


  5. Hi Nadine

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, and don’t apologise for the length, things take as long to say as they do.

    I agree that coping with plurality is central in the modern world. How to live respectfully alongside those whose views are radically different – yeah, what could be a better thing for a child to learn? And such a fragile, nuanced concept.


    • Thanks Bernard, great subject and yes, sensitive too. But sometimes it shocks me to realise just how much of human history has been shaped by wars, which themselves have been fuelled by ideology (which is often just another way of saying religion). So I think kids should definitely be encouraged to explore these issues at school with their friends and their teachers. But I suspect there would be opposition to this (in fact I recall a RNZ Insight program a few years ago confirming that) because of the fear parents had about being contradicted on moral or philosophical subjects which they see to as their exclusive right to impart.

      By the way, I found this quote from Neil Gaiman (who doesn’t love Neil Gaiman) and thought I would share it here as it has some relevance. A bit too black and white perhaps, but that line “They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind” captures what is in your list, I think. I guess it’s the key to empathy, which is a key to so many other things…

      “I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be famous. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don’t teach you how to walk away from someone you don’t love any longer. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you anything worth knowing.”
      ― Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, Vol. 9: The Kindly Ones

  6. Edwin says:

    Thanks for the response. Although it certainly isn’t new advice, it is definitely important. I shall bear this in mind when making decisions about participation from henceforth.

  7. Thanks Nadine

    His list is much cooler than mine. no surprises there.


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