In recent weeks as the war in Ukraine has unfolded I have watched educators trying, with significant success, to use events as teachable moments. The intricacies of shifting boundaries and conflicts used to fuel debates about historical context. Economics teachers use economic interdependences between countries, evidenced through oil and gas supplies, phosphates and grains to great effect. Exploring ethnic identities form a core part of anthropological and social sciences conversations. What I see, are teachers in the English-speaking liberal democracies, the ‘West’ (where I have sight), teaching this war as not being ‘over there’, as some distant disconnected experience. Rather it is being taught in the context of ‘it is happening here’ or at the very least ‘could it happen here?’
Very often teachers are struggling to answer questions from students and still ‘getting through’ the prescribed content, predetermined in curriculum structures and resources imposed from outside. The best national, regional and institutional systems empower teachers to leverage events that are affecting their students. The worst amongst them have rigid content requirements. These later are written by bureaucrats not by teachers. Concepts are more powerful than content, ideas more enduring than facts. Giving students a framework for critical thought using ideas and concepts allows them to seek out and identify facts and content. Importantly, it empowers the student to make connections between disparate thoughts, across time and geographies.
I think education should be radical, it should be focused on change, not on maintaining the status quo; it should be focused on transformation not normalising; it should be focused on the individual as a member of diverse and overlapping communities, not as unique cogs in a machine. Radical education should be innovating not perpetuating, enriching not sustaining, challenging not confirming.
Oscar Wilde said that
“The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.”
True. So little has changed since the 19th century despite the dawning of a digital Information age. In my view, we are still too committed to a curriculum of content rather of concepts.
Courageous teachers across the world are navigating troubling times with creativity and insight. They are often forced to bend and circumvent an imposed curriculum to make the learning effective and real. Why teach about supply and demand to business students using Californian almond production when you can explore the impact of disrupted wheat exports from Ukraine? Why explore the English Reformation when a contemporary example of religious disaggregation is happening today in the Orthodox Churches. Ideally, teachers should have the flexibility to compare and contrast established (predetermined resources) with students’ own contemporary comparators.