Mexican Protest against Health & Education Liberalisation.
Eneas De Troya; Creative Commons-BY-2.0

Ailish Carroll-Brentnall – Education: a pause for thought

I am currently working for the Secretariat of Education in Mexico, in the midst of nationwide teachers’ strikes. The protests here are due to, among various things, concerns that the increased rigour of standardisation in education will allow for more political censorship from the state. The education reform programme of right-wing President Peña Nieto, which would periodically evaluate teachers through standardised tests, triggered a mass movement to defend public education and labour rights. Marches, strikes and occupations have dominated the Mexican education scene throughout 2013, as teachers fight to have a say in the new legislation[i].

Five thousand miles away in the UK, our education system is also the subject of debate (although in a less dramatic fashion). A poor performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)[ii] has put the spot light on the lack of progress in reading, maths and science[iii]. Although measuring standards in these areas is important, the test-culture and preoccupation with international standings have wide implications for education. In response to the PISA results, some educationalists are advocating a narrower syllabus, an increase in normative testing and a quantitative grade-based approach to education. Any such developments will have serious implications for our young people.

Bells and uniforms were initially introduced to schools to condition obedience and conformity, and a curriculum which moves back to learning by rote and jumping through hoops will have the same effect on young people’s ability to think. Imposing more pressure on teachers to improve exam results and tick the boxes of Ofsted questionnaires results in a very specific, and limited, education. None of Michael Gove’s proposed reforms address the lack of space to teach creatively in the current system, nor do they encourage development in ways which cannot be marked in a generic final exam.  The nurturing of critical thinking has to be a central component of education, yet it is a principle which has been utterly neglected by politician-led reforms, in Mexico and the UK alike.

I have two jobs here: one as a Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) teacher and one as an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teacher. To the casual eye, commas and condoms don’t have a lot in common, except that they both generally involve a pause, but there is one overlap in my subjects that is unavoidable for me: power.  I was reminded of it this morning while re-watching the first season of Breaking Bad, Walter White teaching chiral isomers over my coffee: knowledge is power. As an EFL teacher, I have power and authority because I am a native-speaker; I have a particular skill set that my students are still learning.  The power I deal with in SRE is different; it’s harder to tease apart why you feel limited in actions that you have the capacity to do – say no to sex you’re not ready for, for example, or say yes to sex that society is telling you is shameful – and to answer questions about why some people who may have the same capabilities as you have more power because of their race or gender or class. These are beliefs and power dynamics which are formed through our own personal and emotional experiences from the moment we become social beings, they therefore need to be approached with a different kind of education – one that is personal and emotional. Though often neglected, the skills developed from such education are extremely relevant to intellectual and personal development, because without the courage to use the information you have, you cannot attain personal and intellectual autonomy.

If you are part of an education system which, from a young age, teaches you that the purpose of education is to learn facts that will allow you to pass a test and have your intellectual value defined externally against a homogenous rubric, you will not learn to think critically. What is more, you will not learn to define your own sense of value. Self-worth that is externally defined is fragile and, I would say, unhealthy. It means that when you make mistakes, which are a vital part of a personal learning process, as well as one of life’s inevitabilities, you are less likely to view them constructively, especially if you are in an education system which marks them unforgivingly. You are less likely to have the self-belief to take leaps of faith in your own ability, to make independent or pioneering decisions. You are less likely, in short, to be intellectually and emotionally autonomous. If education curtails young people and teaches them to replicate rather than innovate, to regurgitate information disseminated by an authority, to externally define personal value rather than internally motivate, it will have more harmful effects than just creating uniformity.

If this is the relationship our young people are encouraged to have towards authority, it will have an impact on the way our democracy functions. I’m a big believer in morally sound means being used to reach morally sound ends and I think that decisions people make should be well informed and independently made. Education is the best way to equip people to make their own autonomous decisions; an education which dismisses the needs of students as individuals, and obsesses over grades rather than growth, hinders the application of knowledge in life outside of the exam hall. When you are denied the opportunity to develop critical thinking and analysis, or lack the emotional capacity to challenge authority, you cannot act autonomously when it comes to politics. Thus, the current exam-focused education system does not only inhibit individual growth, it is also detrimental to the development of an authentic democracy.

Narrow and prescriptive education does the disservice of not only neglecting the individuality of young people but it also disempowers them throughout their youth and, as a result, into their adult life. It’s not merely an issue of the value of the three Rs[iv] or how to push up results in educational league tables; when you deal in education you are dealing in the formative years of a generation and to restrict creativity and personal development in a limited, politically-driven curriculum is to strive for automatons, not autonomy.


[i]A good overview is provided by Alice Driver and Rodrigo Jardón in Open Democracy:

[ii]The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a triennial international survey which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students.

[iii]The UK failed to make the top 20 in English, Maths and Science in the international league tables:

[iv]As in reading, writing and arithmetic.

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