Professor AC Grayling, philosopher and master of New College of the Humanities, calls on educators to teach pupils to think for themselves
When I was a schoolboy my teachers had the task of downloading from their neck-top computers to my neck-top a great deal of information: dates, capital cities, chemical formulas, spellings, information about sine and cosine, the names of the planets, the succession of kings and queens. All this information is now available on the internet at the touch of a button. Are teachers still laboriously downloading that information to their pupils’ heads now that it can all be electronically accessed in a millionth of the time? The answer, extraordinarily, is yes. And they should no longer be doing it.
Moving with the times
This pedagogical model is now not only outdated but a waste of an opportunity, which is coincidentally the great necessity of our time: to learn how to evaluate information, apply it, and get more of it reliably, in order to become a sharp and accurate thinker.
There are some teachers who have abandoned the downloading method and apply instead the far better model of the ‘flipped classroom’, in which pupils get the basics online, in their own time, with the classroom used for clarification, discussion, exploration and application of what has thus been learnt. In this latter process, the challenge to think things through, and to assess and experiment, lies front and centre where they belong.
It is easy to see why these skills – getting information and critically evaluating and applying it – are what education should be about. Information and its application are accumulating constantly and rapidly. Much of what pupils are taught in school will almost certainly be out of date by the time they leave. They will need to know how to be effective and successful lifelong learners to cope with our ever-changing and novelty-flooded world, a world in which so much about the careers, techniques, technologies and demands of the future are unknown to us today. We cannot teach anything about what we do not know, but we can help pupils learn how to be their own teachers when they meet new knowledge over the ten, 20 or 40 years of our pupils’ future lifetimes.
Life preparation as well as education
We need to also understand that education is not only a matter of preparing our pupils for employment. That has become far too much of a mantra, though of course it is both obvious and necessary that our pupils must be prepared for a life in which, when they become adults, they must make a living – a good and enjoyable one we hope. But the idea that education is only about employability is a very reductive one. How far it is from Aristotle’s view that ‘we educate ourselves so that we can make a noble use of our leisure’?
Aristotle’s remark alerts us to something of great significance. It is wonderful to have a career that provides us with both means and genuine satisfactions, but we must remember that we are never only our careers. We are also many other things: friends, neighbours, voters, parents, travellers, holiday-makers, citizens, members of communities, with responsibilities outside our working lives as well as in them.
Education should fit us for all these spheres; it should be about us as whole persons.
Indeed, education should not only equip us for the variety of our lives, but should help us to flourish fully in them. It should prompt us to be wide awake to the world and to others, to be reflective and thoughtful, to be knowledgeable and mentally strong. These things come from knowing how to get and handle knowledge, applying the insight offered us by T. S. Eliot who memorably said, ‘There is only one method: and that is to be intelligent.’ Education, in short, should be about helping our pupils become people who live, work and flourish intelligently.
Education forms minds, but it also helps to form persons, and we should help our pupils to form their own personhood on the basis not just of what they know, but of what they know how to do. That way lies flourishing – and in flourishing lies happiness.