By Andy McHugh

Editor | HWRK Magazine

What are we preparing our students for?

During a recent debate in the UK Youth Parliament, Izzy Garbutt a Youth MP for Wigan and Leigh, delivered a powerful monologue, in which she criticised the exam-laden, memorisation-heavy, academic curriculum which has failed to prepare her for the world. 

Many have taken to Twitter, TikTok and even the national press, to support or criticise her claims. In some ways, she is right – there are ways in which the current system does fail many students. Exams can’t measure everything and some things can’t be measured at all. In our pursuit of educational excellence, there are also many things we wish we could squeeze into our jam-packed curriculum and an equal number of things we might wish to take out. 

However, there are also ways in which Izzy Garbutt might also be wrong. The education system that failed to prepare her for the world is the same system that educated her enough to become a member of the prestigious Youth Parliament; a member who has, for a short time at least, set a small portion of the internet on fire. Hardly a hallmark of a “failing” system. 

But this whole affair does raise an important question, one that I believe we should revisit periodically: what are we trying to prepare our students for?

Recently, I presented at researchED Durham on what classroom teachers might learn from grassroots football coaching. Aside from the pedagogical principles of Rosenshine, Sweller, Lemov and others, there was one particular point that I really wanted to get across to the teachers present: “narrate what you see”.

This is a phrase I’d picked up during my own FA coaching qualification. The idea is simple enough: if you’re putting players into complex, high-intensity, constantly-changing situations, then those players will struggle to maintain focus on what matters and why it matters.

Effective coaches narrate “what matters and why it matters” to their players constantly. Without that narration, the players might not make the link between what they are doing, how they should do it and why they should do it that way. Once they “get it”, they level up. Their education makes sense to them.

Now, if we are preparing our students for the ever-changing complexities of “life”, “careers”, or anything else that the talented Youth MP for Wigan and Leigh has on her wish list, then we really do need to think long and hard about how we design and enact the curriculum so that it makes sense. And we need to think equally hard about how we narrate that to our students.

We should share our ideas on how to make our curriculum “meaningful beyond the exams” and that we signpost it for our students. After all, it’s their curriculum.

There’s a good chance, of course, that many teachers are doing a fantastic job of this. However, from my own experience, it’s easy to think we are doing it well, without the students actually noticing what we want them to notice. We need to be intentional about setting out why the things they are studying matter so much and when that information or those skills will matter to them.

You are probably teaching communication skills deliberately and doing so really well, but have you told the students that this is something you are actively doing? And have you discussed examples where good communication skills would matter in their lives (and also the true cost of poor communication skills)?

You are probably teaching students how to calculate “mortgages”, “interest” and “tax” when you cover percentages in Maths – but do your students realise that this is how it will help them in life? It’s a dull topic, but one that will no doubt save them a lot of sleepless nights when they’re older. The list goes on and on.

When I hear about schools, teachers or the education system being criticised for the way it fails to prepare our students for the “real world”, I do think the critics are missing something huge though. The world is constantly changing. The “stuff” in the curriculum will come into and go out of “usefulness” for different students at different times and we don’t know who it will apply to, or when, and if it will at all.

All we can do, with any curriculum, is to teach what we can and model to students the behaviours we want them to adopt as children and later as adults too. 

The truth (if there ever is one) is that teachers are the living embodiment of the thing we are really teaching our students. We are teaching by example what kind of person they could become. We should be (and I believe as a profession we are) the very type of people our students should be seeking to emulate: people who are knowledgeable about the world, are curious, seek self-improvement and routinely put others’ needs before our own. These are the teachers I see and hear about, day in and day out and I learn from all of you every day. 

A knowledge-rich curriculum, taught effectively provides a passport to success and removes barriers to the most competitive of career opportunities. But that’s not our only mission. 

Aside from instilling our students with the now-infamous quadratic formula, we’re preparing them to live good and meaningful lives. 

Not such a bad curriculum after all.

 

Click here to read other articles by Andy McHugh 

Author

Editor of HWRK Magazine, Andy is a teacher, Head of RE and Senior Examiner who loves nothing more than a good debate.

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