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The Most Important Thing in Education

I attended the Future Learning conference at Stephen Perse School on Wednesday. The school is in a tiny street in the centre of Cambridge and there is something rather magical about entering through a very ordinary door in a brick wall, into a space which feels full of light and colour and bigger spaces than one might expect. The organisers had done an impressive job. The speakers were all excellent and we had stimulating and well-presented contributions from Sir Leszlek Borysiewicz, Guy Claxton and several others. There was even chocolate custard for lunch – so, really, nothing more needs to be said (!) – but a little more on thoughts on the day…

My role was as a panelist in the last session of the day.

We had two minutes initially to present on ‘What is the most important thing in education?’ I must confess that, a bit unusually for me, I  blew this initial pitch and it was flat. I’ve been trying to think why.

It may have been something to do with having heard a full day of excellent speakers, many of whom were speaking on issues on which I’ve been writing here for a couple of years and who spoke very well, leaving me with  a slight feeling of not having much to add at that point; it may have been that, for some reason, I had made notes on a slight different question: ‘What does matter in education?’ and so was thrown by my own very last minute tweaking; it may just have been a less good day at the office.

But I now think I was flummoxed because I do not think one can answer this question easily without a good deal of context-setting, and this had not come through to me until I addressed the question.

Even in my local universe, a world-leading university, what is most important in education may be very different for two different undergraduates. A student coming from China who intends to return there to work in a bank or in the family business may seek something very different from a British student looking to work as a social entrepreneur in the UK. And of course, such differences grow wider and wider when we look at vocational education, apprenticeships, basic literacy, EFL qualifications etc, etc.

‘What is most important in education’ will depend entirely on the person, their circumstances, their needs. Is there any way we can seek a generalisation amongst all these legitimate individual viewpoints? Is there something ‘about’ education which we can apply universally?

On reflection, I can now see one such generalisation. And that is: to keep the conversation going. What is ‘most important’ is that we are aware of this diversity of views and educational needs  and of our attempts to try to address them, however incompletely and inadequately. This may not seem like much, but it is. Looking back in history and still across the globe today, you will find countless societies where differences are not considered or are oppressed, where ‘education’ and ‘learning’ mean only one thing. And the fact that it means only one thing is not, in general, good for that society or for most of the individuals within it.

So I guess finally I have come to some kind of conclusion about what is most important in education: that we keep the conversation going; that we do not take what we have gained for granted nor jump at superficial solutions, even if the continued conversations get difficult and noisy sometimes. At the next panel, I hope I am able to articulate this better.

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