On a sunny September afternoon eleven years ago, a student interrupted my Upper Sixth politics lesson with news that New York was under attack. I remember looking up from my worksheet on British electoral systems to tell him this was ‘nonsense’. There may have been an aircraft ‘accident’ in the US, but this was no reason to deviate from my lesson plan and the importance of the single transferable voting system in Northern Ireland elections. If this ‘red herring’ was supposed to ‘side-track’ the lesson then it had failed. I was a teacher on a mission; I needed to complete the exam syllabus; ‘A’ levels ‘trumped’ reality.
The terrible events of 9/11 shook the world; nothing was quite the same afterwards. They also reminded me that teachers who are preoccupied by examination specifications know the marks available for everything but the value of nothing. Yes we need to teach students to excel in public exams, but the value of such qualifications is limited. They are important for university entry or first jobs, but thereafter their worth fades. Of more permanence and far greater value, is the understanding of the real world and human nature that can be gained from analysing significant events as they occur.
Humanities teachers have a tough job. The world does not stand still, and therefore the subject material in Economics, Politics and Geography is changing and evolving at rates not seen in other disciplines. My European politics notes will need a complete overhaul after the events in France and Greece this weekend. Keeping up with reality in the humanities is hard work but immensely stimulating. Trying to decide which events are significant and which will be forgotten in a week’s time is a challenge for even the most talented students.
I suspect the election results from France and Greece, fitting into a pattern of European voters rejecting ‘austerity’ governments will be significant. Europe faces some huge challenges, and we need to ensure students appreciate the issues involved. For example how do democracies cope when technocrats identify one solution to the economic crisis (austerity) but the electorate vote for another (growth via borrowing)? How do politicians walk the fine line between a population openly hostile to international financial institutions and the financial institutions that need to be courted if money is to be lent at manageable interest rates? What happens when the existing paradigm of European integration (the Euro) is called into question by politicians now wondering if monetary union is possible when countries do not share the same political, economic and cultural objectives? Can you abandon one approach (the Euro) to the operation of the European Union when you don’t have a replacement? At times of economic stress and hardship relationships between people and countries come under pressure; in such circumstances how do you maintain co-operation and harmony?
There is no obvious end in sight to the current economic woes and political turmoil in Europe. It is thus essential that today’s students engage fully with these real world issues, as they will be the generation that picks up the pieces. Teachers must prepare pupils for the challenges of the real world and not just examination questions. Such ‘real’ education based in current affairs and the relevance of what is happening here and now, will excite pupils and raise levels of engagement and attainment.