What is the most important subject we should be teaching our students? After speaking to many friends in the UK and UAE they would probably all agree that their schools would argue that Maths and English are the most important subjects to teach. Certainly our own government would agree that Maths and English are also the two subjects that schools must focus on above any other subject. Following some concerns I have recently had with the ‘teach to test’ culture that is clearly in many of our schools and the massive focus on Maths and English that there is, I decided to email the government’s department for education. I was keen to hear if they thought there was a teach to test culture and if the government might consider other curriculums like the International Baccalaureate for example (I have some experience of this from teaching in Abu Dhabi). As you can see in the screenshot of their response below they did not deny that there is a teach to test culture and explained that it allows students to succeed beyond school. As a parent and a teacher of 10 years I do not feel that focusing so much on Maths and English is the best way to prepare our students for the future, especially when a lot of the jobs they will be going into may not even have been developed yet.
Email response from Department of Education:
Dr Pasi Sahlberg who is a key figure in Finnish education would certainly agree that focusing on just a few subjects does not give students the holistic approach to education they need (or deserve). When you look at the Finnish approach to education it is refreshing that climbing up the PISA ladder is the last thing they were actually looking to do. Finland’s education is run by education specialists (actual qualified and experienced teachers, can you believe it!) and there is a focus on transferring the cultural heritage, values and aspirations from one generation to another. They have state generated social capital and believe that making students well rounded individuals with a thirst for knowledge and not just a thirst for grades is the best way to develop their society (Nokia would probably agree with that). Professor Guy Claxton also shares the view that developing well rounded individuals is best for them and society. He makes an interesting point about our narrow focus in education in his book ‘Whats The Point in School’ in which he says:
‘The purpose of education is to prepare young people for the future. Schools should be helping young people to develop the capacities they will need to thrive. What they need and want is the confidence to talk to new people, to try new things out, to handel tricky situations, to stand up for themselves, to ask for help, to think new thoughts. That is not too much to ask – it is every young persons basic educational entitlement’.
As an education system we can do far more. When I hear of schools getting rid of some PE lessons for students to do more Maths and English I genuinely scratch my head in amazement. As important as Maths is it is surely not as important as your health? Our narrow exam based curriculum is something that Finland decided against around 40 years ago and they are now thriving. They don’t over test their kids, or give them lots of homework. They don’t start school until they are 7, around the same time students in primary school take their first official tests. They still test students officially but it does not come until much later on. Yet as a nation they can still produce excellent well rounded students who go into a range of careers, even mathematicians and writers. We had a great chance in making a change to our education system when Nicky Morgan was rightly sacked from her role as education secretary. When Justine Greening took charge I was gutted she was once again not a qualified teacher (in fact none of our politicians within education are, see photo below and check their backgrounds) however she seemed more open minded than others that have been in her role. Unfortunately there does not seem to be any talk of moving away from this teach to test culture – instead there seems to be a focus on grammar schools (I am not saying there is anything with Grammar schools but this is not the priority for our education system at the moment).
Our non-teacher leaders of Education:
To me the most important subject is not Maths or English, its you. Learning to understand yourself through developing self-awareness, emotional intelligence and a set of strong values is far more important than any academic subject and helps to developing a well-rounded student (and no of course I am not saying Maths and English are not important but we should definitely put all subjects on an equal par as Finland do). At my school there is definitely a clear focus on developing well-rounded students. Last year we trialed out a positive education programme. We taught students in year 7 and 8 wellbeing through psychology, neuroscience and philosophy based lessons and introduced value based lesson objectives in PE. It was a huge success! Our wellbeing tests showed over 80% of students wellbeing improved and we were rewarded for our efforts with the ‘Outstanding Sport Award’ from Youth Sport Trust and our programmes helped us win school of the county. We were also invited to the House of Lords to talk about our work. This year we are stepping things up a notch. I will break down our programmes now and be tweeting some of the work we do over the year. If anyone wants to know more please contact me. All the work is also part of my PhD in Psychology:
My schools approach to developing wellbeing (or what I call developing their ‘Emotional Cocoon’)
There will be weekly positive education lessons for year 7, 8, 9 and a selected group of year 10 and 11 students. All students will take wellbeing tests (EPOCH tests/ Margret Kern) in September, January, April and July, to allow them to track their own wellbeing and set themselves targets. For the second year running we have teamed up with Steve Peters and his team at Chimp Management and designed a 6-week neuroscience programme called ‘neuro-me’. My theory on this is that everything we do starts and ends with the brain so it makes sense to help students understand it. Our brain has been developing for millions of years, its complex and not designed to live in the world we live in (unless you live in an Amazon Tribe!) – therefore we need to understand how it works, especially ‘fight, flight and freeze’ reactions (or over-reactions). Following the first wellbeing test and the 6-week neuroscience programme students then break off into their own specific programmes.
Year 7 – The Characteristics and Virtues programme which is developed by the Jubilee Centre at the University of Birmingham.
Year 8 – A Positive Psychology programme based mainly on the work of Martin Seligman.
Year 9 – The ‘Olympic Mindset’ Programme; something I have developed based on using key sport psychology theories (e.g, NACH v NAF) and teaching them to students. This was inspired after watching the Olympics this year as initially I was going to use another Positive Psychology programme.
Year 10/11 – Follow an edited version of the year 7 programme.
Mindfulness – At the start of all lessons students take part in a 1-3 minute mindfulness session. Here the aim for students is on being able to realign their focus. Check out Mark Williams Mindfulness programme, track 8 is the one we mainly use. We also use diaphragmatic breathing with students.
ABC Model – We teach students the ABC Model as developed by Albert Ellis. I wont go into details about this but research it and try it out, it can be life changing for some students and can help prevent irrational thoughts or blowing things out of context.
Manor Chats – Students in year 7 and 8 also take part in lunch time positive education lessons. Here students take part in what we call ‘Manor Chats’. These are basically mini TED talks in which students present to small groups on a topic of their choice then to the whole year group (great for developing confidence).
My Personal Best – All the work we do in positive education is linked to our work in PE. Students in key stage 3 follow the ‘My Personal Best’ programme, developed by Youth Sport Trust. This is a series of values which students use as learning objectives at the start of each lesson. We may focus on the value of ‘resilience’ but through the smash in badminton. We then bring the students in at the end and discuss how we might use resilience in life.
We feel that not only do these programmes improve wellbeing but also give students some of those key skills that they require to ‘thrive’ in life. It would be great to hear from any teachers who are doing something similar.
Thanks for reading, hope it made sense!