My P.E teacher, Mr Smith, used to say something to all the boys in my year group that has always stuck with me. We were a good year group for sports. Two of my friends were gigantic physical specimens, and as a result we dominated most teams in the local district leagues in basketball, rugby and athletics. It was a rare thing for a state school to be able to beat fee-paying private schools in sporting fixtures, but we did it. I had only a little to do with this success, but I was good enough to make some of the teams and it was brilliant to be part of it all. Many of my friends were on multiple sports teams. My statuesque friends, for example, were prominent figures in both the basketball and the rugby teams, though they were not skilled enough to make the football team. And this is related to the words of wisdom Mr Smith used to relate: “You are not footballers, or rugby players, or athletes yet. You are sportsmen.” What this meant was, we had not yet realised our potential in sports. There were sports we hadn’t even tried yet, and it was premature for us to decide that we should focus on just one sport. This gave me (and I believe a respectable number of the other boys) a reason to try my hardest in each games lesson, regardless of the particular sport being played. It motivated me and others to try out for a wide range of teams, and it gave Mr Smith and his colleagues a wider talent pool to draw from. It was a smart move on his part.
This, in part, is the attitude that we need to foster in students in order to have them value every school subject that they take. Students in year 7 need to feel, as they arrive at secondary school, that each subject on their timetable is another opportunity to be successful. They will only believe that they can be successful when they have some evidence that this is the case; therefore, the first thing you must do is ensure that they can experience success in your lessons (more on this later in the book). Yet again, you will need to overcome students’ preconceptions about themselves, about education and your subject. They may think “I am not good at maths. I did badly in my primary school, and I will do badly here. I am better at English, so I will work harder in English. I don’t want to do maths, so I am not going to try my best.” There may be students who already view themselves as artists or creative types and there will be those who, in the age of STEM, have learnt (or have been conditioned) to value maths and the sciences over all other subjects.
One way of combatting this disciplinary prejudice is to make explicit, for students and staff, the inseparability of all academic disciplines. Subjects, in one sense, are simply subjective ways of viewing reality. All of them allow us to view the same world, but through a different lens or from a unique perspective. Therefore, the broader the student’s studies, the better he or she can understand the world. We will learn something different about the Jacobean era when we study it in English literature, history and religious study lessons. The different priorities in these three related subjects will allow for a greater overall understanding. To quote Bruce Lee: “There is no such thing as an effective segment of totality”. Human geography has clear connections with sociology, psychology and religious studies. Philosophy, psychology and art all afford us different windows into the human mind. A student with a good knowledge of history might one day apply that knowledge in media or film production to avoid including anachronisms in a realistic period piece. Mathematics may cross breed with art and design to create a future architect or engineer. It is clearly essential for aspiring medics to develop knowledge across the sciences.
In short, it is inevitable that students will one day specialise in academic disciplines and they will discontinue their pursuit of others, but this does not mean that learning is wasted. The broad base of knowledge developed in the earlier years of secondary school becomes a permanent and interrelated web of information. To use the language of psychology, every subject has its own schema, but all these schemata are connected, so knowledge in one specialism can inform a students’ understanding of another. As well as this, cognitive science tells us that knowledge is ‘sticky’. This means a new piece of information is more likely to be retained in long term memory if there is an existing item of knowledge that is closely related – a point in the existing schema to which it can stick. This is sometimes referred to as the Matthew Effect of accumulated advantage. The more knowledge a student has, the easier it is for this student to accumulate new knowledge. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, so fill their minds with as much knowledge as you can.
Finally, there is an obvious reason that students need a wide diet of subjects at the start of their academic career: they need to try out all the options available to them, and they need to give them a fair chance. Like picky eaters, there is a good chance that students won’t engage with your subject straight away, especially if they have not studied it at all at primary school. Your lesson has an unfamiliar taste and texture, so students may need to try it several times before they are comfortable enough with it to chew it properly and really digest the goodness. Like a parent, you will need to be patient and encouraging as they pass through this period of acclimatisation. Reassure the students that they are doing well and that they can be successful in your subject. Their educational palette will mature. Perhaps they will acquire a taste for, say, geography, and they will pursue it at GCSE and then A level. But they can’t decide what they like until they’ve tried everything on the menu. We owe it to our students to help them find their interests and talents by giving them exposure to a high-quality curriculum in every subject area. We are ambassadors for our subjects and we must show it to our students in its best light – show students literature at its most exciting, mathematics at its most beautiful, geography in all its glory.
None of the students entering year 7 should make any negative prejudgement about the value of any subject. We need to teach them that every subject is another chance to be successful and that all learning is valuable. They have one opportunity to drink at the Pierian Spring. Let’s make sure they are motivated to drink deeply in all subjects.
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