Untangling the mess that is education is an ongoing process, as health officials and politicians try desperately to steer schools in one direction or another. Kids, for their part, are swept along for the ride, and not always to the benefit of their wellbeing.
For every vaulted ceiling and aerated main lawn there is a dusty hallway and ratty tennis court — which is to say, for every well-funded private school there is a shabby, underfunded public school not too far down the road. The quality of these two educations almost surely polarizes, which stirs policymakers in its own right, but, according to a group of British sociologists, actually unites both systems under the umbrella of failure.
What is that failure? Intelligence, actually. In an editorial published Tuesday in BMJ, researchers from the University of London, University of Manchester, and Cardiff University School of Social Sciences, among others, argue that modern forms of education are failing students in the long-run by offering nothing but academic fodder now. School is traditionally a holistic experience, they argue. Diverging from that path, in favor of rote test-taking ability, is the wrong way to approach the system.
“Schools traditionally have addressed students’ overall development,” Chris Bonell, lead author and sociologist, told Medical Daily. “It is only lately that they have become so narrowly focused on attainment.”
Bonell and his colleagues root their contention in a faulty form of logic. People — teachers, mostly — tend to assume that education is a zero-sum game. If I need a certain amount of time to teach reading and grammar, I have exactly that much time less to teach other subjects, they think. And under this system, the resulting intelligence of the students is a direct product of what their brains digested that day. But splitting subjects into blocks is misguided, the researchers argue.
“Research suggests that education and health are synergistic,” they wrote. The students who achieve more academically tend to enjoy better health, and those who are in greater health get better grades.
What administrators, teachers, and parents should actually be concerned with is how children performing on holistic measures of personal development. Bonell and his team refer to this collection as personal, social, and health education, or PSHE. These include the myriad ancillary skills students once learned or maybe never did, such as personal finance, teamwork, nutrition, and empathy. Taken together, the team says, these traits and others like them create a broad foundation for learning that trumps mindless memorization.
But of course this isn’t what actually happens. Teachers do teach to the test, and parents prepare their kids for those tests. At best, students endure intensive homework-filled nights and come out at the end with high grades and even higher stress levels. Like much of the general population, their mental health will be ignored. And their physical health, if they are lucky, will be tended to for at most an hour each day. They’ll be judged strictly on their ability to regurgitate facts, and at the end, rewarded with a number they can cash in for more of the same.
All this is done to make students attractive candidates by the time they enter the job market. But even here, the researchers bristle. “There is evidence that an effective labour force does not merely require cognitive skills gained from academic learning,” they noted. “Non-cognitive skills, such as resilience and team working skills, are also needed, and productivity increases as workers’ health status improves.”
So how can the educational powers-that-be do better? According to the researchers, they can start by boosting their creativity. As Bonell sees it, incorporating health and wellbeing into a school curriculum doesn’t take a truckload of money. It requires, fittingly, education — education about how students learn, how they retain knowledge, and how they can stay healthiest for longest.
“It would definitely be a hurdle,” Bonell said. “But addressing health isn’t expensive and should, according to our evidence, help schools in achieving better academic attainment for their students.”