The pleasure of finding things out

Roger Titcombe's picture
This is the title of the collection of short works by Richard Feynman (1999), undoubtedly one of the twentieth century's most brilliant theoretical physicists and original thinkers. (He died in 1988). This is a great general interest read as Feynman had many talents including a great disregard for pomposity in all its forms. He enjoyed the friendship of people from all walks of life.

Should the 'pleasure of finding things out' be confined to the minds of Nobel Prize winners?

I am sure it must not. I am equally certain that it is a universal human characteristic to take deep pleasure in gaining understanding and intellectual development from the application of curiosity.

Watching my pre-school grandchildren conducting an enthusiastic bug-hunt in the garden convinces me that such curiosity is not only an innate characteristic of the human species, but is also too precious to be dulled or squandered in an education system driven by the testing needed to provide school performance data that drives false 'choice' in a marketised education system.

I argue for a broad and balanced curriculum for all pupils up to at least the age of 16. This is because if curiosity is the driver of learning then the full spectrum of possible exploration should be available as a resource to all pupils.

I also believe in 'plastic intelligence'. This implies a dynamic interaction between perception and the mind, leading to the enhancement of general cognitive abilities. When a pupil gets absorbed and mentally challenged in (for example) a historical study topic, then she also gets better at maths and science, and vice-versa. This is a powerful argument for maintaining subject breadth in the school curriculum for as long as possible and certainly at least up to the age of 16.

Eclecticism as a quality was greatly valued and apparent in the lives of our great Victorians in diverse fields of human endeavour. It is in need of restoration in our schools.

The knowledge gained from an eclectic education is important at all ability and attainment levels. Not only do we benefit from well-educated employees and professionals at all levels but even more so from well-educated mothers and fathers.

Curiosity can lead along all sorts of diverging pathways. Barrow-in-Furness, near where I live has within the borough boundary an impressive medieval abbey. However Furness Abbey is in ruins, but nearby Great Urswick church, dating from the same period is not. Should every well-educated school leaver understand the reason for that? It is a very spicy story.

What is the connection between that observation and the fact that Cilla Black (1960s pop singer who performed with the Beatles in the Liverpool Cavern Club) was not allowed by her father to date boys that attended the 'wrong' school?

Labour have set out their plans for ‘gold standard’ vocational courses provided by FE Colleges, for students that do not wish to go to university. This is admirable and long overdue. Just because KS4 'vocational alternatives' were a largely educationally worthless scam for raising school's league table status does not mean that vocational studies should not be satisfying, cognitively enhancing and high status in their own right. Too many former FE Colleges have for too long been pretending to be universities and have lost the plot in terms of what they should be doing.

The problem lies in the populist suggestion that school students should be divided into academic/non-academic streams at 14. This is to be a ‘Tech Bacc’ route to give 'less academically able pupils a meaningful qualification'. This policy aim was repeated by Labour leader Ed Milliband' speech at the 2014 Labour Party Conference.

In my view such a policy would be a disastrous retreat to the era when ‘non-academic’ pupils attending secondary modern schools ceased general education at 14, compared to ‘academic’ pupils in grammar schools who took GCEs at 16.

What does ‘non-academic’ mean? There is no distinctive level of performance in any test, that can validly divide a population into academic and non-academic streams at any prescribed level let alone the 50th percentile as Labour appears to be suggesting. All you can say is that pupils with lower standardised cognitive ability scores generally find academic studies more difficult. But does this mean they shouldn’t be allowed access to them?

Pupils are ‘turned off’ learning by inappropriate and undifferentiated teaching methods, not by the subjects themselves. What about technology and the arts? Are these subjects academic or vocational? Are we to assume that our most academically able pupils should be directed away from cooking, dance, drama and art, or that less academic pupils don’t need to study and understand history, geography, literature, science and a foreign language?

How should a potential ‘Jamie Oliver’ be directed at 14 years old?

The task of the education system should be to raise educational outcomes for all, so producing a better educated and more intelligent population at every level. What is wrong with having well educated plumbers, actors, motor mechanics, shop assistants, footballers, tennis players, care workers etc. as well as more broadly educated teachers, doctors, lawyers and engineers?

Both requirements are achievable within a comprehensive school system provided all schools enjoy genuinely all-ability intakes of children. Is the Tech Bacc to be an alternative to GCSE, A Levels or to a Degree? Is Labour wanting to reform the KS4 school curriculum, Further Education or Higher Education?

If Labour wants to promote higher quality vocational education and training post-16 then this I support. However, I oppose all vocationally specific teaching pre-16. There is simply too much 'pleasure of finding things out' standing to be lost without a truly high quality, broad and balanced education for all. Some argue that abolishing GCSE need not mean streaming at 14. But worryingly a lot of politicians from all the main Parties want to take us back to the grammar school/secondary modern split, but at 14 instead of 11 and within the same school.

Michael Gove really did want to raise academic standards for all, but he hadn't a clue how to do it and he didn't realise that it is impossible within his league table driven, marketisation ideology.


Our education system could be facing a dismal future if our schools deny to our pupils 'the pleasure of finding things out'.
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Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 28/09/2014 - 07:04

Roger - you're right that all pupils should be able to follow a broad, balanced curriculum to 16. That's what happens in many parts of the world where lower secondary ends at 16 and pupils proceed to upper secondary courses chosen by aptitude and interests. In these systems graduation is at 18 often by multiple routes. If these multiple routes were adopted in England then the TechBac would sit well against A levels.

Vocational education pre-16 in England has changed from the general vocational emphasis encouraged by the Technical and Vocational Educational Initiative (TVEI) which was designed to raise the status of general vocational education among all pupils. TVEI wasn't geared to particular jobs such as Child Care or Tourism but became an important part of careers education: preparing pupils for life after school/college. It comprised such things as work experience, mock interviews etc. Unfortunately, this initiative declined as the pressure to push children through mandatory hoops increased.

You're also right that people, not just children, should have the pleasure of finding things out. Learning is lifelong. The latest U3A magazine suggests that learning new things should be offered to residents in care homes to encourage active minds.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 28/09/2014 - 10:31

I agree with you Janet, but unfortunately Labour policy is quite clear and has been consistent from the Twigg era.

Thank you for including the link to chapter 1 of Feynman's book. Now everybody can read it. The rest of the book is great too.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 29/09/2014 - 07:05

Labour education policy is, as you imply, a hangover from the era of Adonis (aka tony Zoffis) and Twigg (aka Sven Turge). So far, Hunt has made gaffes about LA 'control' (not existing for decades) and class size rise (up to 70) while missing easy targets (eg the accusation that Labour's to blame for school place shortage. Labour allocated money to shortage hotspots from 2008 and the challenge during most of its tenure was to reduce school places, the NAO said. You'd think Hunt would know that).

Tatiana's picture
Mon, 29/09/2014 - 17:04

And here is the BBC program itself:

It's a real pleasure to listen to Feynman.

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