Feature,  Philosophy & Science of Learning

We Need New Stories in Education

The Seven Basic Plots is an interesting book by Christopher Booker, the main argument is clear from the title; we have a limited number of story lines and regardless of context or medium, we like the familiar, predictable and comforting. Fairytale, folklore, epic novels and modern film scripts all use variations of basic narrative structures; resilience in the face of onslaught, heroic journeys, monsters and dragons and of course, the struggles of good and evil. The argument is not unique, many thinkers have pointed to a form of collective intellectual comfort blanket. We welcome stories that reinforce pre-existing assumptions and avoid those that challenge our biased views and require re-jigging our model of the world.

The ‘basic plots’ phenomenon is much in evidence when we talk about education. Whether it is media reporting, policy discourse or public commentary, we return time and again to the familiar blandness of the comfort blanket.

I’m tired of hearing about the epic journey of the Leaving Certificate, I’m done with the struggles of the science and engineering to attract and charm the young people of today, I no longer need the wisdom of employers, I’m fed up with tales of cash strapped colleges, disgruntled unions and skills deficits. It’s time we moved on from the great myths of technology and unsupported open learning. I know these stories and I’m sure they will be around for a while but isn’t it time we introduced some new topics and debates? We need new stories in education.

So here is my suggested starter list of four new stories in education. When I say they are ‘new stories’ I am not suggesting that they have not been around before now – far from it, many are as old as education itself, what I mean is they seem absent or under-represented in the public discourse. So here they are, first as a list and then a short paragraph on each:

  • Education and Democracy
  • What Do We Mean by Learning?
  • What Makes a Good Teacher?
  • Learning Throughout Life

Education and democracy – now more than ever we need to discuss the connection between these two ideals. Is it possible to have a functioning democracy without open, informed and truthful discourse among the citizenship? Perhaps we are so busy ‘training’ people to develop instrumental, economically viable skills that we overlook the ‘skills of democratic participation’ such as reasoning and critical literacy. Trump, Brexit, far-right movements … need I say more.

What do we mean by learning? – We use the same word ‘learning’ for the many ways in which we extend our knowledge and develop skills and this variety in itself often leads to confusion. We need to develop a better way to bring the conversation about learning forward. Nobody has all the answers, especially academics, but we do need a common language and fundamental framework for understanding what we mean by learning and how to make it work better. In this way we can have sensible debates and together we can learn-about-learning  for our own sake and that of our children.

What makes a good teacher? – Teachers are everywhere not just in schools. I don’t just mean this as a trite point to make us feel better; it is more fundamental than that. If we were not good teachers we would not survive as a culture and civilisation. All societies are concerned with the means of passing on from one generation to the next, the ‘way-of-doing’. So what makes good teaching? Is it specialist knowledge and deep expertise? Is it about passion and inspiration? Is it about explaining and making things easy? Is it about inclusion and bringing everyone along. Is it empowerment? And what makes a teacher ‘good’? Is it a moral value or a technical skill?

Learning throughout life – Learning has traditionally been associated with nurturing the young and as preparation for life and work. However, it is better to regard learning as part of life itself, it is something that we continue to do so long as we live. Learning may be regarded as a gift we give to our future selves and so long as we have a future we will need to learn.

Let’s talk about the issues and questions outlined above. They are important and I’m sure there are many different viewpoints to be considered and many new stories to tell.

Time to move on.


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