Take a glance at this ‘map’ of learning theories:
This map has the impressive ability to simultaneously impress and equally overwhelm you.
Dating back thousands of years to the grandparents of educational philosophy with Aristotle, Socrates et al, humankind has pondered the widest possible range of perspectives relating to education. Clearly, however, there has never been a convergence of these approaches in order to clarify and simplify why, what and how we view and deliver education across the world.
Naturally, each nation-state and population has settled on what they believe is the right way of doing things for their citizens, best reflecting their cultures and traditions. There does however seem to be one curious common denominator in almost all countries and their systems; a focus upon teaching academic facts and figures as opposed to human development, emotional intelligence & preparation for life.
Is there a difference between ‘Learning Theories’ and ‘Pedagogical Approaches’? Some purists would argue that the former focuses on the learner, whilst the latter puts emphasis on the teacher. Somewhere hidden in the semantics of this discussion, I believe, lies a gem of a message; all teaching, indeed all pedagogical strategies, should put the learner at the very heart of the experience. The truth is, as a global community, we have never agreed on a common answer to a very simple question; What is the purpose of education?
We have been socialised, institutionalised and almost brainwashed into believing that what happens in school is education, and that the education children receive in school is what is necessary for society and the wider global community to function effectively.
Returning to the core question of ‘what is the purpose of education?’ hand on heart, I truly don’t believe that one educator worth their salt has ever answered this question with: ‘to pass exams’. We all know there is a much greater purpose to education than a set of grades, yet we all continue to sustain and perpetuate a system which fundamentally contributes to so many of the inequalities in our society.
What if as a school, a community, a society, a nation, or indeed one global community, we collectively agreed that regardless of our geographic location, history, heritage and traditions, the common global purpose of education was to prepare our young people for life on this ever-changing planet as global citizens; helping each student to thrive emotionally, psychologically, physically, socially and economically? How would this common goal change our learning theories and pedagogical approaches, because so many pedagogical approaches have been designed to fit an academic framework and pay little attention to what the learner actually needs?
Many of the best schools I visit are fundamentally child-centred in spite of being restricted by a system that demands the opposite. Many of these schools, for obvious reasons, are Primary schools, but sadly as a student passes through our system, the focus shifts from being on the child to being on their academic progress and attainment. Much discussion in staff rooms, teacher training events, educational conferences and literary publications is focused on what we can do to drive grades and progress upwards. Little time, energy, effort or expense is devoted to discussing how we develop pedagogical approaches which help young people become more emotionally intelligent, more well-rounded or happier human beings.
Occasionally, school leaders and their staff are asked to become driven by the latest fad or buzzword such as grit, resilience or mindset, when they are challenged to create additional or extra-curricular activities to prove they are making a meaningful contribution to students lives, their wellbeing or character development. What if these concepts were central to education and preparation for life? What would happen to our pedagogical approaches then? How would teaching change?
Effective teachers of traditionally non-academic subjects over the years have been familiar with developing ‘soft-skills’ or ‘life-skills’; PE, performing arts, technology teachers have always used the wider boundaries of their subjects to enhance and develop young people in a broader sense. Similarly, devoted pastoral leaders and committed form teachers have always known that developing strong relationships and forming lasting bonds with their students is often the most effective approach to pedagogy.
How will we ever move away from the focus on teaching and academic? What if we started asking questions which focused on the holistic development of young people, on the skills they will need for life, on how they can contribute to the world? What if we challenged the status quo, the institution, the profession, the teachers with questions such as:
- Can we teach & measure happiness as rigorously as academic subjects?
- Can you put mental health & wellbeing at the heart of your lessons?
- How can you effectively teach Hope?
- How can we ensure that young people leaving school are set up to thrive, not just survive?
- How can we prepare young people as global citizens?
- How can we ensure that our young people are adequately prepared for life and its challenges?
What if these questions were central to a commonly agreed global understanding of a definition of education, and educators across the world were challenged to develop pedagogical approaches which sought to respond to these agendas, rather than an academic focus? I am certain that a transference of energy and attention to providing a much more holistic educational process would have far and wide-reaching implications on the health and wellbeing of each citizen, on global harmony and, fundamentally, on the pedagogical approaches of every educator.