Middle child has a controlled assessment in German next week. He’s predicted A/A* in all of his subjects except German, where he’s currently working at a grade D. I need to do some work with him on his fixed mind set in languages but our conversations seem to stall at “I’m just crap at it”. So I was a little surprised when he came home seemingly unperturbed about his latest challenge. “I just put some of these phrases together and make sure I’ve got my tenses right – I know my tenses – and then I learn it off by heart and write it up. If I can do that, I should pass it,” he says nonchalantly.
He can’t/won’t speak a word of German. He’ll leave school having studied a language for five years, like his brother, who gained a grade B in the subject, unable to communicate on even a basic level with a German speaker. It’s not the fault of his teachers who are enthusiastic and committed. It’s the fault of a system that has prioritised the rote learning of grammar and tenses over the practicality of speaking a language. How absurd. It is no wonder that take up at A Level and University level for languages has fallen. At advanced level, there is an expectation that one can communicate in the chosen language. Surely that’s the bottom line? Well no, because learning in this way ‘Works’. It works for the school – EBacc measures are met. It works for the government – Ebacc measures are met. It does not in any way, shape or form, work for the child in being usefully applicable to his/her future.
It’s an extreme example of how our obsession with passing tests has blinded us to the real purpose of education, which at its most basic level is surely to equip children with knowledge and skills which will help them in some way in the future. Whether this is simply being able to access a classical reference at a dinner party and not feel like an idiot, or if it is to be able to accurately figure out how much carpet you need, time spent in education should produce either joy, interest or useful application. Beauty and utility.
When I hear the words ‘what works?’ I want to ask ‘works for what?’ If it is to simply pass tests, especially when the tests themselves are flawed, we have a very short term vision indeed. We are not equipping children for life. We are crippling them. The recent 75 year longitudinal study from Harvard on quality of life summed up its findings in three words – ‘Happiness is Love’. We should be looking at our education system and asking ‘Does education equip children for love?’ For loving learning, for loving people, for loving life? How much joy is there in being able to reach across a language barrier and connect with another human being? How little joy in learning a paragraph off by heart on healthy living?
Let’s ask again, “what works,” but let’s add to those two words some others: “What works in order to live a full and happy life?”