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What’s the most important school subject?

Seven writers choose their favourite subjects – whether they already exist or not

September/October 2015

Philip Pullman Music
Too much of what passes for education splits children in two, and throws away half. Children are turned into little exam-takers far too early; to think of infants being sent home with homework to do is to contemplate a sort of wilful maiming.

The half that’s thrown away is the body, and all the ways it can move and feel and be intelligent and cause delight. And of all the things the body can do, the richest, the most interesting, the most emotionally and intellectually fulfilling thing is music. Every child needs to encounter music as early as possible, and I don’t mean just listen and then answer questions: I mean make, with voice, with clapping hands and stamping feet, with instruments of every kind.

First of all I’d make sure that every school had a talented and qualified teacher of singing. Children will sing very willingly if they can see and hear that it’s fun. I vividly remember the first time I sang a round in class; I can’t remember whether it was “Frère Jacques”, or “London’s Burning”, but I do remember the delight of waiting till it was my turn to come in, and finding the right note, and hearing my voice winding in and out of the lines and making a pattern with others.

Then I’d require every school to provide instrumental teaching for every child. The recorder used to be the first instrument children were given, but I’m glad to see the ukulele being used a lot nowadays. You can play it and sing at the same time, and it’s a great gateway to other instruments.

And finally, once I’d got all the schools making music, I’d do something about the wretched conditions many fine professional musicians have to work in: exiguous rehearsal time, poverty-level pay, a culture that regards music as a free good and sees no need to pay composers or performers properly for their skill and their work. Children need to see that the music they begin to learn in school has a real cultural and social purpose, and is properly valued by the nation.

Alain de Botton Emotional Intelligence
The aim of education is to prepare students for adult life. So the role of schools should be thought through only after we have identified the challenges of being a grown-up. There are two fundamental tasks: working and sustaining good relationships. These goals are generally acknowledged, but in a hazy way. What we need is more systematic instruction to develop emotional intelligence, or EQ (as distinct from IQ).

Classes on self-knowledge would be central to the whole system. Students would be introduced early on to the idea that we are all too prone to misunderstanding ourselves, that we do not automatically have the right view of what we are up to. They would be taken through ideas (many derived from psychoanalysis) as to the role of delusion, defensiveness, projection and denial in their everyday lives.

There would be tutors on hand to work with students on developing a map of their characters, with special attention to neuroses and defences. After this module, students would quite easily, and cheerfully, be able to say in what ways they were a little mad (as we all are). They would know a lot about the ways in which they were difficult to live with, and the sort of people it did them good to spend time around.

A crucial unit would be devoted to career self-knowledge: what job are you best suited to do? Ending up in a job that you like and believe in is perhaps the biggest attainment of all. Self-knowledge offers protection from the ravages of envy. We get less bothered by the fact that others have more glamorous, better-paid careers if we can see why such options would not fit our character or temperament.

Students would learn techniques for reducing anxiety. There would be classes on how to have an argument, how to persuade and how to be persuaded. Students who did well would get some of the glory currently accorded to the stars of maths or English.

We’re so hung up on the challenges of running a massive education system that we’re failing to pinpoint the real source of our problems. It isn’t primarily about money, salaries or discipline. Troubles here are only a consequence of a more basic difficulty that precedes them all: that, right now, with no one quite meaning it to happen, but with untold consequences and costs,we’ve got the wrong curriculum.

 

Jessica Lahey Cultural Literacy
No matter what subject I’m teaching, I have a ten-year rule in my classroom. I’m less interested in what my students memorise today, and forget after their test next week, than in ideas they can string together and apply ten years from now.

Consequently, every subject depends on cultural literacy. The underlying warp of the class could be Latin, literature, writing or law, but the weft is all connection, linking new content to the strands of knowledge the students already possess. Words that are utterly forgettable in their dry state of denotation can be retained given connotation and a bit of context. Characters and plot lines that might otherwise slip through holes in attention become memorable when safely tethered by literary allusion.

Before we read Chapter 15 of “Great Expectations”, I tell the story of Cain and Abel. Cain’s jealousy, murderous anger and subsequent exile prepare my students to meet Orlick, the morose journeyman with no liking for Pip. When they read “he would slouch out, like Cain or the Wandering Jew,” they have a nuanced understanding of Orlick, and see why Pip senses that he may become fuel for his ire.

Given some context, weekly vocabulary lists rise above mere definitions. Words represent stages of human history and the evolution of our language. When I write “quixotic” on the board, I shore it up with tales of Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. The word “curfew” isn’t just an annoying imposition, it’s the alarm that signals the hour to cover the fire – cuevre feu in Old French – lest your house go up in flames. The mazes and golden lifelines of “The Hunger Games” and “The Maze Runner” become more satisfying against the background of brave Theseus and clever Ariadne.

Ten years on, my students may not remember the names of Lear’s daughters or the third-declension Latin endings, but they will remember what mattered: ideas that connected them to the wider world.


Rose Tremain History, backwards
We live in a globalised yet fragmenting world. To understand our place on this chaotic Earth and to acquire some kind of mapping device for our future, we need to have at least a rudimentary grasp of where we came from. The teaching of history in schools is therefore prime. But it needs to be taught in such a way that it joins up to a child’s experience of now.

So here’s a radical idea: teach it backwards – exactly as we would assemble a family tree. Start from where the child is, in his hyper-communicative space of texting and instant messaging, and let him begin to discover aspects of the past through the history of the very technology he uses every day. Tell him that before the smartphone, there were ordinary old mobiles, incapable of sending or receiving e-mails. Before them, there was the swiftly fading fax, on slimy paper. Before that, the landline, reigning supreme in long-distance communication for a hundred years, ever since the establishment of the Bell Telephone Company in 1877. And before Bell telephones, what? Telegraph cables laid down between cities and under vast oceans, through which electrical clicks could be transmitted across great distances. And before telegraphy? No electronic communication at all; a world reliant on letters carried by steam train, and before these by rattling mail coach and finally by panting horses and exhausted servants, covering miles on foot.

Already, we’re back in the 18th century and the child’s imagination will be fired by struggling to conjure up a landscape of silent dwellings in which no ring-tone sounded. Apply this same inverse routing to the last 150 years – from present-day, multicultural Britain back to the days of Empire – and I predict a new generation of children who will become totally absorbed by the past and the lessons it teaches. Later, when they’ve understood how things join up, they can be introduced to King Charles I on his way to the scaffold and the return of his son in triumph down the Thames on his scarlet barge.


Herman Koch Basic Geography
This happened in the golden age of primary school, when the subjects weren’t so defined as they later became. There was some calculating to be learned, some history, some words of foreign languages – English and French. With the English words, we could make out some of the Beatles’ and Rolling Stones’ lyrics. French, on the other hand, served no purpose at all.

And there was geography. Miss Zadelhoff travelled a lot in the holidays, mostly on her own – she was not married and never would be. The Middle East, South-East Asia, the Americas. All of these continents were thousands of miles farther away at the end of the 1950s than they are today. In September, when school started again, she would dedicate two hours a week telling us about her trip. In great detail. By December we were still in Jordan; January held the promise of Egypt, Sudan and Somalia. In April and May we sat next to her in the safari-jeep, seeing lions, elephants and giraffes through her binoculars.

There were no pictures or slides. Everything was just words – and her talent for telling a good story. I remember having a fever one Friday, and begging my parents to let me go to school, because we were due to enter Mongolia with Miss Zadelhoff. What a contrast with later on, when only the slightest queasiness made me beg them to let me stay at home.

And then Miss Zadelhoff taught us to travel on our own. There were quite a lot of maps and atlases in the classroom. The only thing you had to do was start in Amsterdam and travel anywhere you wanted to go, jotting down the cities and villages you passed through, which had to be not more than 50 miles apart. So I went from Amsterdam to Utrecht, then Arnhem, on to Frankfurt, Vienna and Istanbul. Finally I reached Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. Thanks to Miss Zadelhoff, I still know the names of a lot of other capitals as well. Thanks to her, most of the time I know exactly where I am in the world.

Deb Wilenski Open-air dawdling
It’s a school day, and we need to leave the house in ten minutes. I ask my eight-year-old if he’s nearly ready. An enthusiastic “yes”. When I go to check I find him wrapped in a duvet, still not dressed, watching the way his corn snake is gliding expertly down the stairs.

I remember the badge he once made for himself: “Pip Winfield Wilenski: professional zoologist and dawdler”. It seems apt at this moment. Dawdling is a skill he has honed to perfection.

But it’s also one with serious precedents. Newton described himself in similar terms: “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore.” The Nobel prize-winning (and recently controversial) biochemist Tim Hunt described his love of “Saturday-morning experiments” – the kind you do “before the proper ones begin”. Serious play led him to discover cyclins, the proteins that control cell division in all living things. Not bad for a Saturday morning.

The point Pip’s badge makes is educationally challenging. It has none of Newton’s self-deprecation; it’s a clear statement of the right to be professional and playful in equal measure. Dawdling isn’t about wasting time but being caught by an idea, even (perhaps especially) if you’re supposed to be doing something else.

I have worked in the wild outdoors with young children and educators for more than ten years. I work in classrooms too, but there is no better place for dawdling than the woods. Free from the props and expectations of The Curriculum, children become explorers, philosophers, inventors, illustrators, poets, scientists, professionals of every kind.

If I were in charge of education, I would build open-air dawdling into the curriculum, giving every child time, slow time, to explore their own burning questions. The best subject is the one you can’t leave alone. The one that calls you on a Saturday morning. The one that grabs you before you are up and dressed.


Simon Singh Physics
Deciding on the most important school subject all depends on what floats your boat. But if you want to understand why your boat floats, you need physics.

The way it is taught now leans towards the latest discoveries in particle physics or the most dramatic images from the Hubble space telescope. Compared with swinging pendula and ticker-tape trolleys, this sexed-up approach undoubtedly gets more teenagers interested. But it has meant largely abandoning the mathematical side of physics, so teenagers who aspire to become physicists (or engineers, or numerate geeks of any kind) are not properly prepared for university. Physics without maths is like English without grammar. For me, the most important school subject is not just physics, but meaty physics, full of Greek symbols and differential equations.

Am I being a spoilsport? After all, the general public seems to love physics more than ever before. There was massive interest in Philae landing on a comet and then awakening from its snooze. The discovery of the Higgs boson has entered popular culture. But do people who love comets, satellites, robots and so on really love physics? Or do they love great pictures and stories of adventure?

The point I’m trying to make is best illustrated in a comic strip, “Cyanide & Happiness”, by Kris Wilson. One character says he loves science because of some nerdy fact he’s just learned. Another replies: “I’m not sure you really understand love or science. When you love something, you don’t just love the...fun parts…you love the boring parts just as much. People who truly love science spend their lives studying tedious little bits as well as the big flashy facts.”

His conclusion is this: “You don’t love science, you’re [just] looking at its butt when it walks by.”

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