I use the words you taught me. If they don’t mean anything any more, teach me others. Or let me be silent… Samuel Beckett, Endgame.
I like students to learn about things that are outside of their everyday experience. Once I arranged a trip for my class to see Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. After this bleak, funny play a fifteen year old boy said: “That was shit, sir.” “Yes!” I said, “You’ve got it! Life is shit and then you die, great interpretation of Endgame! Well done!” The boy scuttled off, dazed and confused. Three years later, he said to me: “My Nan died recently and Endgame helped me understand how she felt in hospital, thank you.” Not every student will experience such an epiphany but there is the possibility that something outside of the student’s immediate experience might matter one day.
I recently attended a thoughtful talk by Michael Rosen entitled: ‘Time to Become Literature Activists, Doing and Thinking.’ Rosen said: “A good deal of education implies that language belongs outside of yourself… It’s a nonsense. Language belongs to all of us because we’re the ones who use it and change it.” Rosen went on to say that the desire to teach ‘Chinese’ to our kids ignores the fact that there are “Mandarin or Cantonese speakers already in our classrooms, it’s constantly the idea that we need to pump some Mandarin in rather than draw it out.” Rosen attacked Michael Gove saying he is someone who believes in the ‘Jug and Mug’: children as empty mugs sit in a classroom waiting for the teacher to pour in knowledge from a jug, this Rosen said was ‘cultural deficit theory’. I don’t want to get into the nuances of that theory here but the kids who can’t speak Mandarin, do have a deficit, a knowledge deficit and it is one that I share: we can’t speak Mandarin. Often teachers have to take language, or knowledge that is ‘outside’ of the student and somehow implant it to ensure it ‘belongs’ to them.
On Start the Week Jeanette Winterson said: “It’s always over-educated people who want to make people have no education or have no access to it.” she says: “The idea that things are difficult only happens if we become cut off from language, it’s all about keeping continuity and not endlessly worrying that people won’t understand…” She asks that we: “Expand the self rather than narrow the self… Something that anchors you… If you want to think freely and also take risks in your imagination you need some sorts of boundaries… you need to recognise… these boundaries might be good for my life, at some point they may not, they may become prison bars instead of something that contains and holds me… when suddenly you have to smash up all that you have known and where you’ve been safe and you’re left naked and howling like a new babe, but that’s later on. To begin with having these shapes around you, structures, however arbitrary, does help your soul to grow.” Language and knowledge from outside ourselves should not be cut off from us just because it’s not readily accessible, we can internalise it, and incubate it, just as a parent’s hug does for a misunderstood and crying child.
The external boundaries and structures are missing from Rosen’s vision of education yet he talks about hearing the phrase “It’s all a matter of doing and thinking,”often repeated by his mother but he says he didn’t know what she meant by it at the time. This phrase originally belonged outside of him yet it festered away in his subconscious and later it helped him make sense of something. Matthew Taylor, director of the RSA made this point to Rosen: “You learn something and for thirty years you forget all about it then suddenly, when you need it, it pops back again… we don’t know until the day we die what learning is going to be useful to us.” The knowledge that is handed down to us from all our yesterdays is a cornucopia of cultural riches and is not, in the main, drawn out of us.
The motto of ‘St Saviours and St Olaves school‘ is: ‘Heirs of the Past, Children of the Present, Makers of the Future’. Let us take Rosen’s mother’s phrase and place it alongside this motto. The children of the present are thinking, the makers of the future are doing but what of the heirs of the past? They are knowing. Knowing, Thinking and Doing, is a way of thinking about education that fits with the trivium. We should not constantly draw stuff out of kids and pander to what they already know, this approach only narrows the self. We should teach children to know, think and do, and this is the basis of my argument in Trivium 21c.
We should educate to expand the self.