There is a big difference between teaching and learning. OK, seems pretty obvious doesn’t it, or does it? One might be forgiven for thinking that they are almost synonymous. Children learn what they are taught, I will give you that one. It’s the basic premise of teaching that by following a system of commands and applications you can impart facts, build understanding and thereby knowledge and stand a better than evens chance of establishing what a child has learned by testing. But the test you apply to their learning will only capture what the test allows for. In the same way as a liquid takes the shape of the vessel holding it, a test or assessment will only offer conclusions based on its design. Ultimately children are likely to be learning more than a test or assessment can capture.
You may remember my story about the BBC reporter on his visit to a monastery in Japan? Having arrived and set up, he asked the Abbot what he thought he would learn. The wise old Abbot laughed and told him he had never heard such a stupid question before. How could anyone know what another will learn? I believe that it is absolutely the case that children are learning a great deal that goes beyond what we designed or planned for them to. At home with your children, you bring them up to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and you encourage them to share. OK the latter can be massively problematic and fraught with the need for repetition and revision. The repetition of these protocols reinforces their importance and in conversation we explain the reason why we do it. I suspect we are so successful at this that it becomes routine, unthinkingly routine. Nevertheless, the experience of home and more importantly the experience of children observing patterns of behaviour with adults builds a picture or a pattern of behaviours which they adopt. As parents, our need to correct and intervene is about our sensitivity to the degree that their learning needs careful adjustment to achieve the values we expect.
Teaching values is not nearly as straightforward as teaching quadratics; what a metaphor is or the significance of the Dutch East India Company. True, you can apply the same pedagogic principles and for sure you will be able to garner understanding, but crucially values are lived in a way that a child’s understanding of the concepts listed previously are not. This is not to say that the Dutch East India Company is not unimportant, but it is less immediate than an appreciation of the value of another person and the fact that they have an inalienable right to life; to our deontological duty to afford them a respect that issues forth in a ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ regardless of the transaction we are undertaking. The learning of those values is so deeply engrained as to go unnoticed in conscious thought in our daily interactions.
We mark the beginning and end of term assembly with the same reading from St Paul. In one of his letters to the early Christian church he offered advice on what was important. In setting out such values he believed the community should hold to, he lists: Faith; Hope and Love. Of the three values, he identifies Love as the most important. His sense of Love is not the romantic kind, but a disposition to regard the other selflessly and to seek their good before one’s own. It seems to me that much damage is wrought from self-interest and disregarding the concerns of the ‘other’. Before we broke up for Easter, you will have participated in the formation of some values you thought important for us as a school to work to inculcate in the children. I will say more on this in the weeks to come, but the exercise itself gives pause for thought. What do we value? What is it beyond the curriculum that I want me child to learn? One consistent theme was the desire for compassion, for kindness.
We don’t have a timetabled lesson for either. Shame on us for not doing so? No, I don’t think so because they underpin every lesson. Acquiring all the knowledge in the world without a sense of compassion seems an empty or hollow task. To go back to my first example, it is akin to burnishing the vessel by honing the test only to find there is nothing worth drinking to fill the vessel with. Along with academic ambition and an authentic belief in oneself, compassion is one of our foundation principles. This is learned through interaction, through habit and with the understanding that we all share one common humanity. There is a challenge to model this, but there is also a challenge to accept the kindness that comes to us. There is further challenge to be appropriately compassionate to ourselves, to consider that we are all too human and the good we will to do or the standards we strive to achieve may be missed. Our values, rather like quadratics and the Dutch East India Company are taught for sure but only truly learned by being lived.
Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@EmbleyHead)