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On not knowing anything about education

Helen Lees

In this blog I want to examine why education is both tedious and yet fascinating as a subject. Where does boredom about education come from? I know it creeps up and silently closes one’s eye-lids because my students tell me this has happened to them in trudging through the basics of teaching and learning issues. I myself often sigh with weariness at the same run through of concerns about bullying as an issue, teacher student relationships, school attendance protocols, formalities of the school system, free school meals, uniforms, homework. I ought to be wide awake but a force of ennui…

Oh boy. So I tell my students: rather than try and swallow it all at once and expect to like every flavour (you won’t), go find an issue that pushes your buttons educationally (with both senses of about education and through learning about education). They say, for instance, ‘Well I think schools aren’t creative in the way they operate’ or ‘I think schools don’t care’ or ‘I think children should be free to go to the toilet without excusing themselves or asking permission’. So I say, go find out! Get into it.

This is really where my focus in this blog is located: for education to be fascinating and it is, one needs to get one’s head stuck into the darned complexity but on one’s own terms. Only then do seemingly repeated and tiresomely repeatable issues come to life. Education is after all about people. People are complicated. What they do is complex and what they want even more so. Then add in a few hundred or a thousand, mix up the ages, the roles, the expectations, the backgrounds, the ability or styles of being, the interests, their relationships. Mix into the pot a need for organisation, pressures of finances, new ideas from academia or practitioners that cutting edge recent research explores, the weather, sleep deprivation or social media, and think on…, bring in leadership, learning, voice, parents, policy.

That education is not a model to fit us but an experience to be lived and only lived or alive if it fits us as individuals

Now you have my attention but I’m bamboozled. And in all this, what matters most? That there is no right answer. That education is not a model to fit us but an experience to be lived and only lived or alive if it fits us as individuals. Which means what matters educationally is yet to be thought, yet to be understood and certainly will be interesting because it came from our own inclinations to know. Oh boy. It’s not an obligation to know or a demand then? No. A project and a set of questions to solve. That is exciting because if it works and it gives joy, brings security or a sense of self then what is education? It is the most powerful tool we have for living well.

So education then is not boring but it does need players and players who haven’t already been told how to play, nor what the outcome needs to be. People who engage with the game in order to play, to win, to enjoy and not ‘cheat’. And cheating would be to accept the boring version of education as a story which cheats us of the individual complexity of the matter at hand –its wide possibilities for being as self and with others – as well as the very self-styled fittingness of that knowledge which can be the most educational gift to us all.

Here (page 5) it is reported that Mr Clarke said: “Mr Clarke made the same point and spoke of ‘a set of cultures’ within schools ‘that was extremely conservative and inflexible’.” Can this be true? I think it is, independent of whether teachers and schools want that. So I call upon any one who is bored with education to lay down their weaponry of educational culture that is conservative or inflexible and wake up. Education is the most interesting thing we have (which includes its content, so then, everything conceivable!) and do (or not do).

Yet, only if we back off, back down, stop striving so hard and allow the creative energy of what is possible in and through education to emerge, unknown at first. Most of that entails adults shutting up about what they think is educationally right and allowing children or other students finding out. An interesting idea?

Right now I’m involved in an ESRC seminar series called ‘Thinking the yet to be thought’ and have there been stimulated to find out about Roskilde University in Denmark where study is done via problem solving or the work being done at Lincoln University called ‘Student as producer’ At my own university we develop students as researchers and there is a strong wish to increase this culture. I know that education is becoming less focused on the didactic figure who imparts and more democratic, more dialogic. But is it enough and fast enough? Can we give up knowing the model in advance and begin to not know?