I (Clive) have often proposed in our blogs that schooling should be more “relevant.” In addition to teaching subject content, we should help students develop their general approach to life (which will vary significantly from one student to another). This can be done as we teach subjects – so long as we are selective in what we spend time on and how we teach it – but also through the class community, the teacher-student relationship, and individual and whole-class projects and chats from time to time.
I have recently read a wonderful book Designing Your Life (Knopf, 2016) by Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, in which the authors say that way of life development should go hand in hand career education. Already in school (they do not say how early) young people should be constantly exploring a range of possibilities for learning and doing, trying to figure out what things they enjoy, find fulfilling, and are good at. Then as they begin to consider more concretely what career(s) to take up, they will have a solid sense of what would fit with their way of life.
A key emphasis in the book is that it is not just a matter of choosing IT, law, engineering, etc. but what kind of IT, law, engineering, etc. Work in each field can take many different forms, and it is as much a matter of creating or designing a line of work as choosing one, and continuing to develop it further over time. For this people need a lot of information about the real world, a sense of a preferred and possible way of life, and experience in being proactive rather than passive in life situations. This can begin in earnest in school – I would argue, even in primary school.
I (Clive) appreciated Leah McLaren’s column in the Globe & Mail on Friday. She reported that Tatler editor-in-chief Kate Reardon was recently “pilloried in the British press” for “a graduation speech at a private girls’ school…in which she highlighted the importance of manners over good grades.” Among other things, Reardon said that “if you have good manners people will like you. And if they like you they will help you.” McLaren commented that “as both a feminist and a mother” she agrees with Reardon, but noted that “[w]hen it comes to instilling basic values and good behaviour, parents have never been more on their own.” http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/parenting/the-importance-of-being-courteous/article19661557/
This should not be. Schools should support parents in this basic work (and they do to some extent). As I stressed in a recent posting, way of life (or values) education should be a major component of schooling, integrated into subject teaching and the life of the classroom and school.
The difficulty, however, is that we haven’t articulated a deep and comprehensive theory of way of life education. Advocacy in this area comes across as moralistic or, in the Reardon case, as old fashioned and conformist.
What could be more important than the quality of our way of life, in itself and in relation to others? It’s current neglect by advocates of “coverage” and testing is weird. “Good grades” as the goal of 12 years of schooling is totally inadequate. People should be pilloried for pushing such a position, yet it is so common.
Any goal can seem superficial when advocated in isolation. As educators, we need to develop for students, parents, and the general public a broad rationale for way of life (or values) education in terms of individual and societal happiness and what is ultimately important in life. We should help everyone – ourselves included – to stop fixating on narrow goals to the neglect of general human well-being.
We recently had postings from Shelley on fostering student “well-being” through “mindfulness” and Yiola on “mental health” education. Both these topics are increasingly prominent today. In Ontario character education has been stressed for several years, and currently mental health education is an MOE emphasis.
I (Clive) did my PhD in moral philosophy and researched, wrote, and taught in values or “way of life” education for a couple of decades. I even developed grades 1-12 learning materials in the area. But finding that teachers had very little time for separate values instruction, I broadened my work to teaching and teacher education in general – and haven’t regretted the shift.
However, it’s becoming increasingly apparent to me that teaching well requires a sound set of values and approach to life, society, and the world. Educational issues are ultimately life issues, and we can’t resolve one without the other.
Fortunately, the scope for addressing life issues in subject teaching is enormous. In literacy/literature, for example, a large proportion of the discussion and project work could be on values related matters. What is needed is for teachers and teacher educators to take up this area in a systematic way in the context of promoting subject learning, which is our main occupational mandate.
This in turn requires a much deeper understanding of the nature and importance of values, and the need to have an articulated approach to life. We’ve been used to leaving values up to philosophy and religion, or to saying (especially since the 60s) that it’s just a personal thing. But the task is extensive, fundamental, and something we must all engage in – together. Each person will have their own way of life but there are important general elements, and teachers and students should work together on both.
Reading the New York Times Book Review section on Sunday, I (Clive) was reminded of the rather negative view of life frequently presented in “good literature.” In books reviewed, life was portrayed as hard to fathom, mainly painful, and ultimately tragic. Of one collection the reviewer said: “These stories know suffering, loneliness, lust, confinement, defeat.” (Lust was the one bright spot.)
This recalled my own education at school and university, where tragic literature was the good kind and comedy was mainly fluff. A “comic” life vision, emphasizing pleasure, happiness, and good relationships, was seen as shallow and naïve.
Certainly, some people find sad and violent books more entertaining than comedies; and a well written tragedy can be absorbing. But as Northrop Frye maintained, literature is supposed to educate as well as entertain. So we have to face the question: How well does tragic fiction educate about life? My view is that it helps, but a more balanced picture is needed.
Based on my own fiction choices, I’m coming to the conclusion that entertainment is a major purpose of fiction. You want something you can enjoy on a plane to offset the cramped conditions and bad food; or that you’re glad to read in the evening when you’re feeling tired. So I usually go for David Lodge, P. D. James, Jane Austen and the like, where there’s plenty of entertainment and a fairly positive worldview.
However, there’s no accounting for taste. The main thing is that we discuss the purpose of various types of fiction with our students, helping them figure out for themselves what to read, when, and why.