Monthly Archives: August 2017

A Level Results Day and the Polymathic Adventurer!


A level results day is always a bittersweet day for me, school left me when I was sixteen and by the time many of my friends were getting their A level results I was working on a market stall selling, amongst other things, whoopee cushions and fart powder. Both products with clear results.

But I digress. As a teacher I loved A level results day, it is exciting to see children, who you have seen grow, at a crossroads in their lives. Where to go? What to do? Did I get the grades? Fear, joy and misery, it’s an emotional day for all. Opening my results as a teacher was nerve-wracking, and sometimes there were individual students I’d think didn’t get the grades they deserved and sometimes the opposite, but mainly it was a day when I’d celebrated the successes with my students and say goodbye and good luck.

Despite this I can’t help think that A levels are doing our kids a disservice. Some years ago the AS level was brought in with one of the results being it gave pupils the opportunity to study a slightly wider range of subjects. A mainly Arts student could carry on with Maths, and a Science enthusiast could keep up their studies in Art; though for only six months.

We have now returned to the ‘gold standard’ three A levels. Yet all around us we see the results of our system’s narrowness in our intellectual and academic lives. Some scientists don’t understand the Arts, and, in return, some arts graduates don’t get science, statistics; many of us struggle with languages, and the humanities become a world of their own. It seems we can’t rely on GCSEs to carry the burden of breadth.

This is why I’d like to see more schools taking on the IB, and in an ideal world where funding and staffing wasn’t an issue, I hope that many would.

I am fascinated by the polymathic individuals whose knowledge across the two or more cultures sustains their intellectual curiosity. This is why I look forward to listening to Monkman and Seagull’s Polymathic Adventure on BBC Radio Four next week, a programme I hope will appeal to all teachers and all students. Despite a narrowness in exams studied it is possible, with great effort, to keep up interests in a wide range of subjects. The effort, however, is worth it –

So here’s to some great A level results and a continuation of a life lived as a polymath adventurer!

Nature or Nurture? Free Will and Education.


If everyone smoked twenty cigarettes a day the difference between those who got lung cancer and those who didn’t would be almost 100% heritable, even though the cause would be almost 100% environmental. Heritability depends on our environment.

It is believed that IQ is around 70% heritable, if all children were to have an educationally rich environment in which to grow then, due to this environment, the effect of heritability on IQ would increase. If children were brought up in an educationally damaging environment the effects of heritability on IQ would reduce dramatically.

Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology and Director of the TwinsUK Registry at Kings College, London, says that: “Any change in environment has a much greater effect on IQ than genes.”

Twin Studies are often used to justify arguments around genetic determinism. Spector, who has been studying identical twins for over twenty years, believes that when it comes to commenting on their similarities: “We put much more importance on these things than we should,” he thinks their differences are just as important, though not often commented upon in studies. Genes are possibilities, not a story of what we will become. Our environments help write the stories.

Nature and nurture both have roles to play.

But what of free will? If we are a product of genes and of our environment do we have much of a say in what we do? Who is this ‘I’ whom we refer to? Buffeted by both, it seems we have little to do but blame or thank history, geography and biology.

This is what it comes down to at the moment of choice about something, are we responsible for what we choose to do? You might say you are guided by values, beliefs, by ‘who you are’ and yet people do change their mind about quite fundamental things. Renouncing a religion or political affiliation for example… would this be due to a change in the environment, to what you are reading or who is convincing you? Would you be different if you were born in North Korea rather than South London? Or Hampshire?

If we accept biases we are born with, are we more free to reject them? Are we more open to the feelings and beliefs of others? Or do we hate them for it?

Is freedom of will completely without constraints? What would a person be like who was not in some way a servant of his or her environment and biology? Someone completely free would probably have to be locked up for his or her own good. One minute they would murder, the next they would laugh and cry and compose a symphony, and play it loud at 1 am.

Yet, we know, when we do something that it is the ‘I’ that does it. I am a product of my environment and genes, that I might be a servant to them is one thing. It doesn’t mean I’m a slave.

Do we need schools? Yes. To create a positive environment in which all can flourish, and in which they can realise their freedom. This freedom involves constraints and becoming aware of their importance. That everyone’s environment is different makes a difference, this is where our lived humanity comes into play. In the end a society in which everyone has to smoke twenty a day is, of course, inhuman, but we should aim for everyone to have an education, and a good one. However, were we to receive exactly the same education worldwide that would be inhuman too, although our differences in IQ would be  more heritable, what would we have lost?

So teach, learn, and not worry too much about our genes… they make a difference but if you want to make a large difference teach great stuff and teach it well. It can be life-changing and life affirming.


NB: In writing this post I am indebted to the book Freedom Regained by Julian Baggini it is also the source of the quotes.

STEM and the Narrow Curriculum








An article in Schools Week reports:

A free school in Newcastle that does not teach humanities, arts or foreign languages has been branded ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted in its first inspection.

The education watchdog singled out the “unacceptable” absence of subjects at Discovery School, which also omits physical education, in its report from an inspection conducted in May.

“The curriculum is failing to meet pupils’ needs and does not prepare them for life in modern Britain,” it said.

The school focuses on: ‘science, technology, engineering and mathematics.’

STEM, an acronym that implies narrowing of the curriculum, is meant to be all about preparing for life in the modern world, a life of robots, 21st century skills and a global market, it is good to see that OfSted believes there is more to life than just these narrow goals. Some would argue this narrow focus is a result of utilitarian thinking.

Jeremy Bentham, the great utilitarian, devised a curriculum for secondary schooling that emphasised science and technology rather than the subjects of Greek and Latin, a curriculum that would be clearly lacking in breadth. John Stuart Mill, a great admirer of his mentor Bentham, described him as being a great thinker but one who lacked the natural feelings that belong in a human being.

As a child Mill was home educated and kept away from other children by his domineering father. He learnt Greek at the age of three and read a lot of Plato, in the original, by the age of twelve. He was never allowed a holiday as the potential of ‘idleness’ worried his father.

His father encouraged John Stuart to think for himself: “Anything which could be found out by thinking I was never told, until I had exhausted my efforts to find it out for myself.” But this education, he thought, turned him into: “…a mere reasoning machine.”

Mill later suffered a mental breakdown and became very depressed. He said that he recovered from this crisis by reading the poems of Wordsworth:

They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connection with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under the influence. 

Mill moved on to Coleridge and was to describe him and Bentham as ‘the two great seminal minds of England in their age’.

Science and technology should be a central part of the curriculum AND so should poetry, the arts, humanities, languages and physical pursuits. This is the right sort of education for the human being. As Charles Darwin put it:

If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry & listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, & may possibly be injurious to the intellect, & more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

Where Ofsted says: “The curriculum is failing to meet pupils’ needs and does not prepare them for life in modern Britain,” they are referring to life beyond the narrow confines of utility and this is to be applauded.

And don’t think that by turning STEM into STEAM you solve this problem. STEAM is a bastardised acronym in which the arts are subsumed into some sort of cross curricular service of commerce, science and/or tech, this is not art, it is subterfuge.