Jonathan Brooks-Jones listens in to Chris Corcoran’s views on education
Comedian, broadcaster, and former history teacher Chris Corcoran regaled an audience of more than 60 with tales from his teaching career in the latest of the IWA’s bimonthly coffee shop debates at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff this week. He taught history for six years, at Barry boys’ comprehensive school and at the Hayes school in London. He then joined the comedy circuit, and also became a star of Cbeebies’ Doodle-do. His comedy has a decidedly Welsh flavour, and he is a good friend of Rhod Gilbert.
His approach to education, he told us, was grounded in deconstruction and essentially post-modern. It starts with the realisation that truth, human nature, morality, (and pretty much everything else) are human constructs. Their content is dependent on the social, cultural and political conditions of the time they are created. This led him to question the structures of the education system, the curriculum, the role of teachers, and ultimately, what children are learning at school.
One of the main points drawn out by the debate was that the enjoyment of learning has to be restored to make education worthwhile. One issue often talked about in the media is the stress put upon children at school. But something is being overlooked. Yes, tests can make children’s lives stressful, but they also have a hand in shaping their perception of education, and its value in life. It may be termed a ‘gated’ approach, where education is modular and learnt for the sake of passing the next test, rather than for the sake of the knowledge contained in the module. This often leads to a complete loss of interest on the learner’s part, hindering her or his chances at getting a good education.
It can seem that education is less the pursuit of knowledge than it is training for the world of employment. Part of the problem here is the way 14-year-olds are required to make decisions about their future and the path they want to take in life. Such decisions, made so early in life, play a determining role in an individuals’ life, regardless of whether they are right or wrong.
Corcoran raised the question whether or not children are being trained too early on in life to become what he called ‘economic drones’. For instance, in the citizenship part of General Studies, schoolchildren are taught about budgeting and how to achieve and maintain financial stability. While such life skills are valuable, they can also be a burden to young children when they have plenty else to worry about.
And there are yet more problems… Today’s health and safety regulations are more restrictive than ever, thus stifling teachers’ ability and willingness to take a group out on a school trip for the day. The overbearing presence of risk assessment can lead teachers and heads to the conclusion that it is not worth risking their jobs for the sake of a school trip. Trust in teachers must be restored, allowing them to do their jobs without having to focus on the risks involved.
Of course, it makes no sense to place children in unnecessary danger, but it does no good to try and constantly shield them from all risks. Sooner or later they will be in a situation where they have to make decisions for themselves on how to avoid danger.
The National Curriculum is overcrowded with subjects that pupils might not necessarily need at GCSE level. It may not be necessary for all learners to study mathematics until they are sixteen years old. If they are numerate by 14, why not remove mathematics from the list of compulsory subjects to free up space for other subjects that might be more useful to them? One possibility would be to teach philosophy, which has lots of transferable skills and teaches pupils how to think, rather than filling their head with facts, figures and formulae they may not need in later life. As Corcoran asked, who has ever used simultaneous equations after school, unless they are a mathematician?
All these problems add to the sense that education is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Forcing pupils to decide too early what they want to do in life; overbearing health and safety regulations; the gated approach of modules and tests; and training schoolchildren to become ‘economic drones’, add up to severely hindering the enjoyment of learning. In short, they mar children’s experience of education.
Along with most of those in attendance at the debate, Corcoran would rather see a return to the ancient Greek style of learning for learning’s sake. The point is to instill a love of knowledge among pupils, rather than over-emphasising their future role as an employee and economic drone. If teaching is to be successful, there must be a move towards teaching kids to think, rather than filling them with useless knowledge aimed at passing tests.