More from our series from Commonweal’s Book of Ideas. #101 Place the emphasis on positive, happy development of pupils at school, not testing or other practices which create anxiety.
Education should, at heart, be about improving our quality of life. This can mean many things. It can mean exposing us to ideas and thoughts which expand how we see ourselves and our lives. It can mean learning coping skills to help us respond positively to the things that happen to us throughout our lives. It can mean giving us the skills to do the things we enjoy. It certainly means making us feel good about ourselves as valuable members of society. It certainly shouldn’t mean creating a system driven by the need to pass exams as the means of avoiding a bad life. The cycle of pressure and anxiety that an educational regime driven by testing exerts has been shown to change the brain chemistry of children and can effect them throughout their lives. You cannot test a child into being a happy, constructive, and productive citizen.
Education should be an empowering time when children don’t just learn but learn how to learn for themselves. Of course there are certain core skills (literacy and numeracy), and of course education should prepare for work—both those who will go straight from school into work, and those who prepare for further learning. But there are virtually no areas of work remaining which rely on a child’s ability to memorise answers and no further learning which expects it. So it is a pointless cruelty to create a system which drives a child’s development in these directions.
If there are to be formal tests applied in schools they should be held until the very end of school—or better still, should become entrance exams in the trades or learning institutions they go on to after school. Assessment is necessary to be able to support development, but it should be continuous assessment based on a holistic approach to development.
Otherwise, we should be creating a school system not structured along the fairly arbitrary lines of this subject or that subject. Pupils should learn in mixed groups through project work which cuts across many subjects. In this process, pupils should learn how to draw learning out of their experience. The attributes we should hope for are curiosity, creativity, empathy, and understanding. Being exposed to big ideas, to the sweep of history, to art and literature, to how technologies or plants or our bodies work, how food is grown and cooked, how our society functions—these forms of knowledge will produce children who can be happy and interested in their own lives and the world around them. From there, they can do anything they want.