Why are children falling out of love with learning?

I find myself in the very fortunate position of being able to pursue and share the things that I care about, that interest and excite me, every single day. This is now part and parcel of my job, but the thinking that goes on my desk leads me down other avenues and leaves me reflecting on all sorts of questions long after I’ve left the office. Taking my work home with me is no longer a chore – I’ve swapped bags of exercise books, nights of planning and a short, stressful commute for pondering poetics on the bus and translating song lyrics on the sofa.  I love learning and discovering new things, and I am thoroughly enjoying the chance to put language, technology and the arts ‘through their paces’, to see not only what they can do for us, but what we can do with them.

Several interesting points arose from chatting to a French friend recently, regarding the emphasis placed on culture in schools. As a Primary school teacher in England, she feels that literature, arts and music are deemed a hugely important part of young children’s education in Britain, but that this stops at age 11. Following a short-lived career as a secondary school English teacher, I would concur that many (though thankfully not all!) secondary schools in the UK are almost devoid of cultural interest and awareness – there is no time for arts and culture in a world where results matter, at the expense of nurturing intellectual development. I have worked in a school where, due to staff shortages (i.e. an apparent refusal to invest in personnel) the music department was in danger of shutting down, while the Modern Languages department had been ‘gobbled up’ by the humanities department. I can’t help feeling that French and Spanish lessons are merely tick-box exercises, the last scraps of an education system which used to value other languages, and a sign of the fact that for contemporary academies, running a school is a question of keeping costs down and league table positions up.

It was not always thus. Growing up in the nineties and early 2000s, my experiences of both primary and secondary school were culturally rich and varied: highlights of my primary school years include studying pointillism in Year 3 and listening to a piece of music (usually classical) every day of the week as we entered and left assembly. The fact that, twenty years later these experiences remain ingrained in my memory is a testimony to the fact that exposing young children to culture actually works: beyond curricula and purple pens of progress, beyond co-operative strategies and learning pyramids, teachers should be allowed to share the things they are passionate about. My Year 3 teacher loved art, my Year 5 teacher adored music – it is thanks to these two inspirational teachers that I found out about the Impressionists, that I heard the New World Symphony before the age of ten and, what’s more, I knew who composed it. These teachers set me on cultural paths which would flourish in the decades that followed when, as a member of a county youth orchestra, I finally got to play flute in an orchestral performance of Dvořák’s 9th Symphony at Symphony Hall in Birmingham or when, at university, I read French writers such as Baudelaire and Mallarmé writing about great artists like Edouard Manet. I might have discovered these artists and musicians for myself later on, but having been so immersed in art, literature, music and culture as a child, encountering new artists, authors, poets, composers was as normal to me as watching a TV series or discovering a new pop group.

Fortunately for me, my secondary school had a secure reputation and I was there at a time where teachers were still able, both physically and psychologically to invest in their pupils and in their subject. In years 7 and 8, my English teachers wrote reading lists as I devoured one book after another while, during my A-levels, my teachers lent me CDs and recommended bands I should listen to, until my collection of compilations overtook their knowledge of French pop music, and I was able to return the favour. Going ‘above and beyond’ like this is something which today’s teachers can only dream of: as a school teacher, I had many good intentions of helping my pupils explore new authors, learn about film studies, read other poems and look at translation; in practice I was always preparing for observations, teaching what I was being told to teach, in the way I thought I ought to do it, with a nagging sense of guilt that I was letting my pupils down and ignoring what really mattered. One of the many part-time jobs I had whilst pursuing postgraduate study involved taking enthusiastic sixth formers further in exploring modern languages, helping them to discover new authors and explore other cultures; this was at a prestigious independent school, which was untouched by the pressures of league tables and in which SEN pupils were rare but overwhelmingly supported. If state schools could afford to create jobs like this, it would undoubtedly serve them well; it might not give them the data they need to prove that they are ‘outstanding’, but it would provide pupils – those without whom no school can exist, let alone thrive – with a chance of an outstanding education which will stay with them far beyond exam season.

Ultimately, the results-driven nature of secondary schools leaves no time for cultural development; but what is the point of a clutch of A* grades if you lack the cultural knowledge that goes with it? These days, the stakes are high for getting into university – securing a place at a highly-regarded institution, on a well-organised and well-delivered course requires high grades and an original, intelligent, eloquent personal statement. But, I would argue that an ability to pass exams does not necessarily co-exist with the intellectual curiosity and self-motivation required to succeed in an university environment and to get the best out of this structure. Some higher education institutions seem to be addressing the changing face of secondary education by becoming more like schools, a move which may well suit undergraduates who are a product of an excessively regimented, over-protective system; others, however, are simply asking for more from their students and – invariably – getting it. These are the establishments which will produce creative, intellectually curious graduates with the flexibility and capacity to succeed in varied industries. The ability to ‘think outside the box’ and to be ‘solutions-focussed’ (to use the business-speak terminology of the current job market) is required in our rapidly changing world of technological growth, political uncertainty and financial instability, yet many young people seem to be concerned not with process but with product, prizing scores and certificates over skills.

Despite the restrictions foisted upon educators, parents and, crucially, by the government and by financial constraints, study is not simply a means to an end but immensely valuable in its own right. I can’t help feeling that, as a nation, we’ve lost sight of this, and are placing a tax upon education, while our European counterparts charge minimal fees for higher education. Of course, the UK still boasts some of the best higher education establishments in the world, but placing a levy on learning and shamelessly attracting international students, to take advantage of the extortionate fees they are willing to pay is a sign that we prize money above intellectual and cultural value. Education is worth so much more when it is not translated into financial terms. By the same logic, a ‘good’ degree does not necessarily mean an easy route into a good job: this might be a problem for some, but is that why we do it? I certainly chose my own degree course because I was passionate about languages and literature, not because I had a burning desire to be a translator or a French teacher (disclaimer: many other excellent jobs are available to a modern languages graduate, it’s just that everyone thinks this is what you want to do if you study languages at university!). With the current jobs market promising varied opportunities for some, but delivering doubt and disappointment for many, it’s easy to fall into the trap of choosing a course for the potential fame and fortune it might bring, than following a course where you have the passion, self-motivation and interest to succeed. But what is the point in investing considerable amounts of time, money and effort in a course which doesn’t excite you?

Many young people are proving that, in the right context, they can think, learn and create for themselves; they don’t need to be taught using Kagan learning strategies to achieve this and they don’t need to have a teacher who is scrutinised to see if they can create the ideal seating plan, when all they want to do is talk about the subject they are passionate about. What young people do need, what we all need, is a chance to fall in love with a subject for themselves, and – sometimes – to know when to sit down, shut up and listen to the expert.  If we give children the chance to explore arts, languages, culture and science for themselves and stop worrying about data, then – who knows – they might actually learn something.