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School's out

On the subject of subjects

Stick to your subject. Subjects via Shutterstock

Subjects need to be seen once again for what they are. They are divisions of human knowledge made in order to advance knowledge in universities or to teach existing knowledge in schools.

Academics and teachers once argued about what the intellectual disciplines were, and what were their distinct forms and logic. From this brought forth discussions about what constituted a school subject.

These debates need to be revisited by both teachers and teacher trainers. Teacher trainers would have a better case to put forward during the new review of teacher training if they defended the subject of education. Teachers would be better prepared to challenge fads and fashions if they knew their subjects and were authorities on the subject of subjects.

‘Know yourself’ vs knowledge

One of the key blocks to this is “therapeutic education”, which emphasises emotion over the intellect. It covers a range of fads and fashions aimed at improving pupil self-esteem, resilience, confidence, happiness or wellbeing.

The methodology applied by therapeutic educators is often “circle-time” or a variety of small group techniques allowing a narcissistic self-expression in “safe” spaces. It is easy to dismiss these fads when they involve “buddy stops” – like bus stops for pupils who need a friend to talk to – or “purple rooms” for pupils feeling “a little stressy” to relax in.

There is also a growing market in “mindfulness” and “brilliance training” which involve motivating pupils – whether or not they are learning anything.

The popularity of these therapeutic activities with pupils and teachers means they have no academic subject content and refer only to the navel-gazing world of pupils’ subjective feelings, emotions and thoughts on which they are the world’s expert. The Delphic injunction to “Know Yourself” has come true without any effort to gain knowledge on the part of pupils.

Distracting teachers

These activities are not harmless. They divert teachers from their real job of teaching their subjects. Teachers may argue they are useful preliminary activities that help learning, but they have invaded the subject curriculum as well.

This distraction doesn’t only happen via a government-led focus on the social and emotional aspects of learning programme, whether integrated across subjects or taught separately. It affects all subjects.

The content of the curriculum in all subjects has shifted from a concern with imparting knowledge and understanding to imparting therapeutic values related to the personal and subjective experiences of pupils. This comes out in three broad changes.

First, knowledge and understanding is replaced by “skills” and once a subject is broken down into a rag bag of skills it is just that, a rag bag. These “skills” once they are identified soon become detached from subjects and free float. This is most obvious in the popular idea that critical thinking or creativity can be taught outside of subjects, almost as if they were subjects in their own right. The reality is that pupils cannot be critical or creative until they know a lot about their subjects.

Second, skills are much more amenable to teaching methods which have also been broken down into skills such as identifying pupils’ “learning styles”, teaching them to “learn to learn” and to be “active learners” whose learning is “facilitated” by teachers who have given up on knowledge.

The pedagogical theory that brings a skills-based curriculum and a skills-based teaching method together is a therapeutic version of the social constructivism of the 1970s. This is the idea that teachers and pupils, or pupils alone, can “co-construct” their own knowledge starting with what they know.

Third, teacher trainers have been forced since the creation of the Teacher Training Agency and by its its successors to abandon their own subject. Instead of teaching the economics, history, philosophy, psychology and sociology of education, they now teach future teachers how to reach required skills or “competencies” dressed up as “standards”.

Damaging to pupils

Schooling today has had knowledge gradually taken out of it and the vacuum created has been filled with therapeutic education. The defenders of emotional education will sometimes argue that they are not undermining the cognitive aspects of education but bringing a much needed balance.

For example, in a recent editorial in the BMJ, several researchers argued that academic education now needed to be “balanced” by giving children the skills to promote their mental and physical health.

But these arguments ignore the changes that have already undermined subject-based education, filling it full of skills that are often soft ones such as listening, sharing and being respectful.

What the emotional balance actually implies is that children today are different; that they are in some way more vulnerable than children of the past. This diminished view of children is supported by a woolly-minded idea that knowledge is constantly changing and neither teachers nor children can rely on anything certain.

But they can. The failure of teachers to see that knowledge is there as a constant and is only changing at the cutting edge of disciplines results from their obsession with the consumer end of new technology. All those emails, Facebook, the ease of googling and the wonder of Wikipedia is distracting them.

Whatever the reasons for the therapeutic turn in teachers’ minds, it is ultimately damaging to pupils. It is leaving them without the independence and autonomy that is gained only through knowledge and understanding.

In my view, this can only be acquired through a subject-based education. Removing subjects from the curriculum in all but name is a dual attack not only on education, but on the human subject as a knowing subject.

If the “subject” of the curriculum continues to be the child, teachers will diminish the subject curriculum and ultimately diminish the human subject by creating generations of children who are more interested in themselves than the world.

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