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April 08, 2004
Education in Putney

Tomorrow night at the Evans household I am to speak, at the April 2004 "Putney Debate". I use inverted commas because there is not usually much in the way of a debate at these events, more a talk and comment that is mostly in approximate agreement. But education is sometimes different, because when it comes to education there are two entirely distinct paradigms, both recognisable as libertarian, which tend to vie for supremacy. Basically the battle tends to be freedom for parents versus freedom for children. Not that even those two attitudes always conflict, because parents are surely more likely to want the sort of education that their children are going to approve of and make something of. And children are likely to want the kind of education that their parents approve of, because they tend to inherit their parents' tastes and values.

I may say some of the above, but my main approach will be to try to stir up a good discussion about education, and then take notes of anything said that strikes me as interesting, so that I can pass it on here.

I sometimes do a little talk about how to give talks, and the most important thing about talks, I am completely convinced, is that you have to have something you want to say to the people you are talking to. It sounds obvious, and it is, but it is easily forgotten. Yet until today I had failed to ask this question of myself, about this talk. And the main thing I want to say to these particular people, I realised this afternoon, was not this or that opinion of my own on the subject, but: "Tell me what you think/remember/recommend on the subject." Truly. I am genuinely more interested in what they say in the after-talk discussion than in anything I might say to them.

This is because I have come to regard personal thoughts/memories/recommentations as more interesting than most educational newspaper stories. These mostly seem to consist of statistical generalisations of dubious provenance, and politicians saying that things in general are either getting in general better or in general worse. And I now prefer the particular.

I believe the world of education should follow a laissez faire approach, let people sort things out for themselves in other words treat education the way the world ought to treat the rest of the economy not because this will result in an X or Y per cent improvement in educational outcomes of this or that pre-determined sort, but because just what constitutes a desirable educational outcome is best left to free people to decide for themselves. I don't believe in national standards, and in national statistics, and in the arguments that accompany the publication of these statistics. I believe people should set their own standards, and pursue their own preferred outcomes.

I personally believe that teaching people to read is the most important teaching job there is, because reading opens all other learning doors. And I even think that there is a best way to set about doing this, but I don't think that these priorities should be imposed forcibly on people who don't agree with them. I think persuasion will be quite persuasive enough.

That however is a big picture thought, and as I say, I now prefer the small picture thoughts. I find the individual insights of individual people concerning the educational circumstances about which they are truly well informed to be the interesting ones.

As for any individual insights of this sort that I might offer myself, this talk is taking place at the worst possible moment for me. I am about to become one of those Volunteer Reading Helpers, which when it happens will provide a steady stream of insights from me, but that hasn't started yet.

Nevertheless, I'll think of some things to say myself, if only out of politeness.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:59 PM
Category: This and that

From the sketchy description, I think synthetic phonics is pretty much how I learned to read.

In re saying somthing you're interested in to people who want to hear it: I believe that writing assignments are generally a black mass of pseudo-communication, and that the net, by encouraging actual written communication between, should be having a good effect.

Comment by: Nancy Lebovitz on April 11, 2004 01:44 PM
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