Where’s the curiosity and debate?

The trouble with schools at the moment is that they are surrounded by a society which seems to frown upon curiosity, critical thinking and the art of debate.  Are schools following suit?

The only fond memory I have of the Brexit fiasco was that it was the last time we saw any form of genuine, meaningful debate and discussion in mainstream media.  Don’t get me wrong, it ground us down as a nation and we still haven’t recovered from this, but nevertheless, there was real debate.  When back in 2016 Boris Johnson said that leaving Brexit would allow the government to pump an extra £350million per week into the NHS at least this was investigated and the media either challenged or supported the claim. 

For the last 3 years all debate has vanished. In mainstream media there has been next to no questioning of government policy.  Yes, there was widespread condemnation of the various Christmas parties and the personal gains made from PPE, but any questioning of actual policy seems to have vanished. As a country it’s as if we have become one collective mass of flotsam and jetsam, at the mercy of whichever way the current takes us next, all moving unquestionably from one crisis to another, with rarely a question raised or a dissenting comment.  Those that do are branded as conspiracists, naive, or misinformed. 

Is it because Brexit made us weary of debate?  Have we become too fearful of being ‘cancelled’ or shamed on social media? Are the authorities afraid of anything that can be seen as potentially litigious?  Has the degree to which we appear virtuous become the only way we should define ourselves and measure our self-worth?  Surely there is a distinction between conspiracy and a questioning curiosity?

I’m not in schools on a daily basis now and already feel out of touch with what is happening in the classrooms and assembly halls, but if it reflects the society we live in today, I wonder to what extent we are encouraging our children to view the world with an appraising, critical eye? Let’s take a few examples that could be applied to news items over the past few years:

  • Pertaining to Covid, we have been bombarded with statistics.  Have pupils been given the opportunity to practice statistics and statistical analysis (perhaps in maths lessons) by using the Covid data produced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS)?  Have they looked at the different ways the ONS have changed the way they have presented Covid information over the past few years?  Have they discussed how these changes can alter the interpretation of the data and had the opportunity to ask why it might have been changed?   
  • Have they analysed the ONS UK mortality rates and considered these against the collateral damage caused by our responses to Covid? 
  • Have they (perhaps in RE or PSE) discussed the morality of putting the health, safety and wellbeing of the elderly before that of children?
  • Have they compared the media portrayal of the Covid crisis to the ONS statistics?
  • Have they discussed the need to vaccinate young people with the MNRA vaccines?
  • Have they had the opportunity to look at the possible reasons behind the mass vaccinations and discussed the validity of each of these reasons?
  • Have they discussed the morality of mandatory vaccine passports?
  • Have they been given the opportunity to look into the various reasons for the rise in the cost of living, and food or fuel shortages?
  • Has there been an opportunity to explore the effectiveness of the Government and the Western world policies towards combating climate change?
  • Have they discussed why African countries, India or even China are in no position to emulate our environmental policies? Have they been given the opportunity to discuss why they can’t and what we can do about it?
  • Do they know about the various Government Bills that are currently going through Parliament which will radically change our democratic way of life?
  • Have they examined the history of the current Ukrainian crisis?
  • Have they explored the full meaning of the ‘fog of war’, in the current contexts? 
  • Do they know the possible (frightening) implications not only for the Ukrainian people, but for all of us if we continue to pump weapons into the Ukraine rather than negotiate for peace?
  • Have they considered the meaning of right-wing and left-wing politics and to what extent they have become irrelevant in the current climate?
  • Are they able to discuss gender politics without fear of reprisal?
  • Do they know they know what JK Rowling actually said and meant with regards to gender? Have they had the opportunity to discuss how they feel about these views?
  • Have they studied media headlines and looked at the relationship they have with the stories they actually cover?

Even raising these questions above will in the eyes of some brand me as someone who has fallen down the rabbit hole and deluded, however if we want our children to build a better world and flourish in their own lives (surely those must be two prime aims of schooling), then shouldn’t we be encouraging them to ask questions about our world.  These are the questions I have been grappling with over recent years.  They are important.  Over the last 5 or six years the world has been passing through a period of monumental historical change and so now more than ever is an appraising, critical and curious view of the world essential.  Don’t they have a right to take part in debate? 

Accountability and a restricting National Curriculum (in England), gives us the excuse not to provide enough time for pupils to fully explore questions such as those posed above, but we ought to look for ways to do this.  The New Curriculum for Wales (where I’ve worked for the past eight years), does give us the space, IF we take advantage of this opportunity. 

I’ve said it before, partly in humour, but as we progress along the road we’re treading, I strongly believe that in addition to literacy and numeracy in schools, top of the list should be: statistical analysis, communication & media analysis, philosophy and sociology as subjects to study. Young people need to understand the world they live in.  They should learn the art of dialogue; the ability to listen, argue and debate rationally and with empathy. 

The history of education has always been closely linked to the needs of the state and sadly, for much of the time this has been at the expense of the needs of the child, the school closures being the biggest example of this recently.  Perhaps I am naive.  If we were to begin to consider these questions with our students (even in a supportive way which closely monitors the explorative paths our students take), perhaps the response by Government would be to either close this line of study through legislation (who remembers Section 28 prohibiting the promotion of homosexuality in schools?) or restrict the content of our curriculum even further. 

I’m going to sound old now, but when I was a Geography teacher starting out in the late eighties in London, I was surrounded by colleagues who constantly questioned government policy with our students.  We were not necessarily criticising it, rather, we would encourage our students to explore particular policies and raise their own questions.  That’s one of the reasons Section 28 did not last long.  I don’t believe we have encouraged this for many years, but now is the time to find the energy and the will to encourage debate and raise questions, even if as adults we feel beaten down to the point of listlessness and inaction.  We must find the energy and courage to do this, or what future do our children face?

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