I enjoy leisurely cycling holidays and have just returned from a tour encompassing Austria, Slovenia and Italy. We often pass schools when cycling through towns and larger villages and as a teacher I tend to pick them out. The one thing that struck me in all three countries was the simplicity of the signs identifying the buildings as schools. Not just the secondary schools but also the primary schools. No rainbows or smiley faces, no gaudy colours and fonts, no sentimental guff about nurturing happy, lifelong learners who love learning. I recall a Catholic elementary school in Italy with a Latin inscription about being in the arms of the Virgin Mary, but that was it.
I started wondering whether the British education system’s obsession with creating all these happy, confident people who love learning is a tad unrealistic. I mean, I am reasonably well educated, but I don’t leap out of bed every morning thirsting to learn something new and I lazed about today. Late, leisurely breakfast, a bit of daytime TV, idly surfed the net and read the newspaper. Family business and the approach of a new school term will mean that I am unable to spend every day of my summer holidays doing this, but it was very pleasant.
So perhaps my education was at fault. If I had had the correct nurturing, instead of lazing about, I would be trying out new apps for my smartphone/ipad, joining a summer course, trying something new, taking up a new hobby. My desire to be a lifelong learner would keep me on the ball. I do know a few people like that, but the vast majority of us- no way. Of course, we learn new things when we need to, or when someone suggests that something might prove enjoyable/handy/timesaving/moneysaving etc. But in my experience the majority of us are quite happy to put our feet up occasionally and decline valuable learning opportunities. Is this really such a bad thing? Do we really want a world where everyone is rushing about learning new things over and beyond what we learn in our day to day experiences?
For the fact is that we are all lifelong learners, whether we like it or not. Just learning how to deal with births, weddings and funerals are learning experiences. Likewise learning to drive, buying a house, bringing up a child, assembling flat pack furniture, operating new gadgets, dealing with new procedures in our workplaces. Should we feel guilty that we do not necessarily greet all of these “learning opportunities” with unbounded enthusiasm? Should I really be in rhapsody over the learning opportunity presented to me in the assembly instructions for the flat pack wardrobe I got from Argos?
Much learning is or can be enjoyable, but it is nonsense to suggest that all learning should be and that we should tell our young people that the aim of the education we are giving them is to develop a “love of learning,” so that they will be confident “lifelong learners”. No one loves learning about how to arrange a funeral for a loved one, yet it is something that most of us need to learn at some point. And most of us groan when we see the instructions for flat pack furniture! It seems to me that, once again, other countries are more realistic when it comes to education. They realise that telling children that the school will endeavour to make them lifelong lovers of learning is only setting them up for big disappointments. If you tell children that all learning should be enjoyable, then the moment the children have to learn something which is not immediately appealing, or downright tedious, disillusionment will set in. I wish more UK head teachers (particularly in primary), would do away with the sentimental aim of creating people who love learning – full stop. It is hopelessly unrealistic.