As I See It: Catherine Drea’s fortnightly column as published in the Waterford News & Star
AS young people return to school the weight of expectation rests on their shoulders. Live your dream, get to the top and above all strive for success are currently strong messages about education. But perhaps the biggest stress is on those coming up to exams and the pain of long term study and slog.
I sometimes think we are overeducated in any number of directions except maybe the right ones. It’s as if when you are in school, you are in a sweet shop full of options but the shopkeeper (the Department of Education) chooses what you get. What if I want dark salty chocolate every time? What if there’s none and all I get is boiled sweets and milky bars? That’s how school felt to me anyway, the core subjects were just not my kind of sweets.
School suits the people who like, enjoy and thrive on rote learning. It suits people who perform well in written tests and can answer written questions, which prompt the memory of what they have read. If this is not your thing, and it wasn’t mine, you can feel like a misfit amongst the clever achievers.
‘We ought to celebrate failure more and teach young people that it is an integral part of learning’
Looking back, the best bits of school were the earliest years. These years gave me the skills to read, spell, write and understand money. I remember the joy of adding up rows of figures. Somehow over the years this all led to failing maths miserably and giving up as soon as it was possible. All I remember about maths is dreadful maths books and feeling glum and tired in class.
But oh the pure joy of spending hours cutting up paper or completing colouring books in those early days! Do you remember feeling the true empowerment of education when you ran home with your picture of a horse or a piece of knitted scarf, delighted with yourself? Something precious gets lost as we go through the education system. I think it’s about the lack of exploration or learning how to fail and to continue to have the confidence to try new things.
I remember one of my nephews who was a brilliant musician, saying he didn’t want to study it for the exams as the whole experience would ruin music for him forever. His beloved instrument would become part of the dreaded curriculum and the joy of playing would become the drain of constant practice.
Now we know that to become really skilled in something you have to complete about 10,000 hours of engagement. An element of any skill is talent but ultimately there also has to be love and a lot of ease with overcoming failure. I think we ought to celebrate failure more and teach young people that it is an integral part of learning so that they can utilise failure and recovery in all kinds of new situations.
I see this in many of the younger generation who have had the opportunities to research and develop their learning online. These people are what is known as ‘digitally native’ and they speak the digital languages fluently. If they need to know something, they have the information at their fingertips. They don’t sweat so much about getting it wrong. Rather they remain open to lots of possibilities.
The high tech companies who dominate the business world understand that life-long learning, rather than one off testing, is the only way forward in a fast changing world. They set up relaxed and playful environments for problem solving and creativity. This is much closer to how long-lasting education happens. We are naturals when left to our own devices with the right environment and materials supplied.
One of our greatest poets, Patrick Kavanagh left school at 13. I wonder if he hadn’t would he have become the great poet that he was? Frida Kahlo, who was a self-taught artist, would never have developed if she hadn’t been bedridden due to an accident. Her lack of schooling turned out to be her greatest opportunity.
I’m not advocating that people should opt to leave school at such a young age. Rather I am trying to imagine how school could be revolutionised to expand the scope of education to include self-directed learning and open experimentation as part of the curriculum.
Perhaps it is us, the adults, who have no idea how to do this that stops it happening? I would have loved more courses on nature, weather, all the different branches of the arts, writing, painting, film making, design, architecture. Someone else would have done better with more about food, cooking and wellbeing. Someone else could have spent their days learning woodcraft and making things.
Imagine a school where self-directed learning allowed for more variety and exploration. A place where teachers had a far greater diversity of interests, skills and backgrounds. A melting pot of ideas, creativity and experimentation.
I might even go back to school myself.
Catherine Drea blogs at Foxglovelane.com