Why should I bother with your subject?

You love your subject, don’t you? All the evidence seems to indicate that you do. You chose to pursue your academic discipline to university level. You spent three years (at least) immersing yourself in this one area of specialism, forsaking all others – and there were so many other subjects you could have pursued. You spent your time among like-minded individuals and learnt from expert lecturers. You spent late nights reading all about your subject. It was hard work. You experienced the pressure of completing graded essays, coursework, examinations, dissertations, perhaps artwork, perhaps performances. You invested your time. You invested your money – and you probably had to take a sizeable loan in order to do so. Friends your age had worked their way up the corporate ladder in companies they entered through apprenticeships, or they started their own successful businesses, or they learnt a useful and practical trade. But none of that matters. Your time at university was priceless. Others may be very financially successful in the private sector, while you’ve chosen something less lucrative. You seized the opportunity to reach your potential in your academic field. You became an expert, relatively speaking. You are richer for all of your experience and hard-won knowledge. And now, having been through all that, you have such faith in the importance of your academic discipline that you have decided to pass it on to generations of children, year after year, perhaps until you retire. Your subject is, to you, worth a great deal of sacrifice. That’s self-evident.

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But not everyone views your subject that way. Inevitably, you will encounter smart-mouth children who denigrate the value of your academic discipline whenever they enter your classroom. “I hate English. All we do is write”. “Why do we have to do French?” and “Why do we do cooking? It’s not a real subject anyway”. You will need to steel yourself against such eloquent and excoriating attacks. Don’t get me wrong. Lots of students love learning. They are well-adjusted, have been well-parented and are lucky enough to have the cognitive ability to understand your subject. Perhaps most importantly, they have a sufficiently agreeable disposition to engage with your teaching. You won’t need to convince these optimistic, bright and compliant young minds to engage with your subject. However, many children can be jaded about their learning from a depressingly young age, and there can be so many reasons for this that are outside of their control. Sadly, you will encounter parents who encourage, engender or support a self-defeating view of learning. “I haven’t ever used algebra since I left school” the disillusioned parent might say to their child, as they shrug off the fact their offspring is playing Fortnite instead of even attempting their homework. “They forced us to do religious studies at school as well. Nothing changes. Completely pointless” mutters another, who has nothing but contempt for the education system that failed them when they were young. When whole families don’t see the value of education, it is more important than ever that you disabuse the children in your care of their dangerous misconceptions.

“They did not choose to be here. Ignore this fact at your peril.”

Secondary school children have little control over the academic subjects that make up their curriculum. There are powerful forces at work, channeling students into particular subject areas and pathways. Though schools have been told they must offer a ‘broad and balanced curriculum’ for years now, the measurement of school performance implicitly nudges leaders towards a narrower model. Exam success at GCSE level is vital for a school’s survival, and one way to ensure this success is to focus the KS3 curriculum on GCSE subjects only, pushing out the enrichment that might otherwise be offered by other lessons. If KS3 students are lucky, they might get to choose which foreign language they study (though even this is unlikely). They have to study the core subjects: English language, English literature, maths and science. They have to study Religious Studies. They have to study geography or history. They have to take P.E. They have to study art. They have to study DT. They have to study IT. Undoubtedly, the degree of prescription varies in schools across the country, but in the main, students don’t choose their subjects. When you are sitting in front of a class of 30 teenagers, ready and eager to impart the skills and knowledge you know that they need, the overwhelming likelihood is that they did not choose to study your subject. They did not choose to be here. Ignore this fact at your peril. I should make it clear that I am not criticising the timetabling and curriculum choices that schools have made and I am certainly not advocating for more choice for children. At 11 years old, secondary school children are in no position to decide on which academic subjects will serve them best as they move forward in their education and career. I have seen senior leadership teams treat children as meta-adults, affording them far too much power and influence over the school that educates them, through school council, student leadership teams and student panels on staff interviews. This is not a good thing for anyone, and such an approach could be viewed as an abdication of responsibility. We are professionals responsible for educating children and we must be trusted to make decisions in their stead, in a way that is akin to a doctor making the best decision for her patients. And yet, as well-justified as the prescriptive timetable of lessons may be, the juxtaposition in your classroom is stark: the person at the front of the room believes in the inherent value of the subject they are about to teach; the rest of the room? They are going to take some convincing.


One response to “Why should I bother with your subject?”

  1. Hey Matt, great read! I’m currently a rising junior in high-school and definitely can relate to a lot of the common generalities that are made regarding certain disciplines, especially regarding the liberal arts vs. the hard sciences. Being a fellow blogger myself, I also really appreciate how organized and well-formatted everything was – it definitely made the content much more digestible overall. Keep up the awesome work!


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