Let ‘Children are Enjoying Learning’ be the Paramount Post-2015 Educational Goal

By Mike Douse, Freelance International Educational Consultant.[1] 

Many contributions to the post-MDG debate embody the well-intentioned yet thoroughly misguided notion that education is all about poverty reduction and material progress. Many participants in that debate take that misconceived stand not as a debatable hypothesis but as a glorious given. They see education as instrumental to economic growth and they measure its effectiveness in terms of marketable skills acquired, employment generated and productivity enhanced.

School students worldwide reject that objective and I was first made aware of this reality when in Australia gathering opinions for a thesis some forty years ago. Time and time again, from school to school and from class to class they insisted that:

“…we are students not future solicitors or future wharfies”, “…there’s plenty of time to consider what an army officer or a bricklayer needs to know once you’ve joined up or started laying bricks…” (and) “…we all want education to be education not preparation, just as pensioners don’t want to keep hearing talks on death…”.

My own experiences ever since, along with just about all of the fieldwork, supports these findings – indeed it is extremely difficult to locate any valid empirical study that shows school students calling for education to incorporate explicit workforce training or for childhood to be geared to career preparation.

For the last eight years the Guardian has run an annual ‘The School We’d Like’ competition: thousands of children have put forward their ideas and there is no direct reference to explicit employment preparation in any of the entries that I have accessed or have seen referred to.

During the preparation of my paper for the UKFIET Oxford conference, I gathered evidence from especially-conducted pupil fora in East Africa, South Asia and Central America, prompted only by the question: “What do you like about school and what do you not like about school?” Many matters were mentioned – friends, poor facilities, lack of textbooks, water and sanitation problems, limited seating, late/absent teachers, corporal punishment, long walks morning and afternoon, limited security, financial pressures on parents, opportunities for sport and music, the kindness and dedication of particular teachers, the preference for particular subjects over others, the enjoyment of learning… There was some mention of examinations but this was not a major topic. Preparing for the world of work was never mentioned.

For my UKFIET paper also, a modified version of the My World – United Nations Global Survey for a Better World questionnaire was administered to sets of secondary school students –in Bangladesh, Australia, Fiji, Trinidad & Tobago and Sudan – who were asked to select which six out of twenty-six issues (14 of the original MY World fifteen, with ‘a good education’ becoming 12 split up alternatives) were “most important for them and their families”.

The now-fragmented ‘A Good Education’ alternatives received in total 40 per cent of all ticks, and those with the most were, in descending order, the following:

  • ‘Interesting and stimulating teaching’ (32.0% of the 259 students ticked this one);
  • ‘Enjoying music, films, literature, art and cultural activities’ (30.1%);
  • ‘Developing a love of learning’ (28.6%);
  • ‘Good opportunities for lifelong learning’ (28.2%);
  • ‘Pleasant, safe and student-friendly schooling’ (24.3%); and
  • ‘Facilities and coaching for playing sport’ (21.2%).

while:

  • ‘Acquiring specific skills related to my future work’ (13.6%) and
  • ‘Getting formal qualifications – degrees and certificates’ (10.8%)

…were very much lower down the list of preferred educational priorities.

It is apparent that a hypothesis along the lines of ‘school students tend not to regard their education as world of work preparation’ has been supported. Clearly, students value enjoyable and stimulating teaching and the development of a love of learning way above the acquisition of diplomas and work-related skills.

Donor-supported interventions seldom address these concerns. Even those involving active learning or child-friendly schools tie these excellent initiatives to targets such as ‘higher attendance’ or ‘reduced drop-out’ or ‘improved exam results’. Enjoying learning isn’t recognised as a valuable objective of itself.

Essentially, the educational agendas of external agencies differ radically from what the young eventual beneficiaries say that they are seeking from schooling. This significant divergence suggests that the key assumption of the post-2015 education debate is dangerously at odds with children’s perceptions and priorities regarding their schooling’s purpose, nature and content.

As I explained to an UKFIET Conference eight years ago:

“Attempting indirectly to create individual and communal well-being – through economic growth – brought about by increased productivity – by means of a better educated workforce – is a remarkably roundabout route to human happiness.”

We have the opportunity to enhance enjoyment and raise self-realisation directly – by letting schooling be stimulating and delightful as an end in itself. By designing and implementing interventions with ‘Education is Fun’ implicit in their Purposes.

On these bases, I propose that the paramount post-2015 educational objective be along the lines of ‘Children are Enjoying Learning’.

And that ‘Learning for Fun and Self-Realisation’ be the theme of the next UKFIET Oxford Conference.


[1]               This blog is based upon a presentation to UKFIET’s Oxford Conference in September 2013 entitled ‘Donors’ Goals and Children’s Perspectives: Antecedents and Incongruities of Present-Day International Development Assistance to Education’. The full paper is available from Mike at MJDouse@gmail.com

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