Well, schooling should be an education. It should prepare the pupil for life. Dictionary.com has this as a prime definition of education:
The act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgement, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for life.
Schooling doesn’t always do this – Greek history is probably of little use to a car mechanic and scientists are only interested in Greek history in so far as it has cool cast list of names and an alphabet from which they can plunder names for obscure fundamental particles or asteroids.
Arguably, though, Greek history is a fascinating window into an early culture, and studying events in Greek history can provide insights into contemporary society and while it may not be of obvious direct benefit to the mechanic and the scientist, such studies can inform sociologists, political studies specialists and many others, and it is worth remembering that mathematics, science, logic, philosophy, politics and many other fields of human endeavour have their roots in ancient Greece.
But back to schooling. Everyone has been bored at school, for a number of reasons. The subject could be more than the student can handle, or it could be too simple, or it may not be a subject in which the student has no interest.
One of the issues with schooling is that we are taught, well, “subjects”. Well, we are taught “maths” or “biology” or “French”, or “Woodworking” or whatever. We are taught “English”, which is about how sentences are formed and we are drilled in verbs, nouns, adjectives and more esoteric beasts of the English language. Then there is “English Literature”, which largely consists of forcing pupils to read and “study” relatively old English language texts ranging from Shakespeare to Dickens. Rarely anything more modern.
There is a syllabus, specifying what we are to be taught. This is used to constrain the teachers and students, so that they can be set examinations to see, basically, how much the teachers have been able to force into usually unwilling minds.
This all seems mechanical and soulless, but a good teacher will try to insert into the gaps and voids of the subject and the syllabus a little education. He or she will try to convey the beauty of the English language as used by Shakespeare and the other authors, he or she will try to make Romeo and Juliet into real people for the students, he or she will explain the societal background of the Dickens tales.
The good teacher will teach something more – how to look beyond the surface story to the people and the societal background, not just in the set books or any books, but in all the situations that life may throw at the student over the years.
A study of literature can not only give the student the knowledge of what is in the books, and maybe an appreciation of the era in which the books are set but may also provide the student with the ability to look critically at the era in which they are living. For some, maybe more than a few of the students, this will provide them with the tools to examine sources like the media and consider such things as bias and veracity.
A teacher of maths will try to not only enable the students to pass their maths exams but also to prepare them, a little, for life. The simple techniques of addition and subtraction may be all that they need, but sometimes they may need a bit more. Some of the students may go on to be mathematicians, to study the subject in its own right. But many more may acquire the tools to understand some of the numbers that surround us all in our daily lives.
For instance, when a poll result is given on television, often they also quote a ‘margin of error’. A small but significant number of people will have some idea of what that actually means from some long ago statistics class. The vast majority doesn’t have a clue as to what it means, but the brightest might gather that it relates to how accurately the poll represents the wider population.
Another example of a mathematical tool that could be useful is contained in an episode of the British sitcom, “Please Sir!”. This is a comedy about an inspirational teacher and a class of pupils who are rejects from other classes. The teacher follows an informal teaching agenda as it is evident that his class is not going to pass any exams.
He tries to instil some mathematics into his students, using as an example a bet on a horse race. He calculates the odds only for one of his students, the son of a bookie, to correct him. The teacher is astounded that the student can calculate the odds so accurately in his head, saying to the student that he didn’t know that the student was good with maths. The student replies that this wasn’t maths, it was “odds”.
Science, likewise, has ramifications beyond the bland and often boring stuff a student learns at school. While he or she may come close to disaster in a lab, he or she may take away the concept of analysis and the scientific method that may help him or her in later life. At least when one of the TV detectives grabs a scrap of clothing or a sample of blood or something and sends it for analysis, he or she may have an inkling of what is happening. Though these shows are an education of a sort in themselves.
So why is the educational system focussed on schooling rather than educating? Well, for one thing it is easier to measure schooling rather than education. Facts trotted out for an exam yield a measurable yardstick to judge both student and teacher. It’s altogether more difficult to measure education.
That’s because an education is not about facts learned. It’s about facts learned and a deeper understanding of how the facts interrelate within the system, be it Greek history, English literature, maths or science. Nevertheless, the best teachers provide an education as well as schooling. They should be applauded for it.