Learning for earning, or learning to think? Education needs breadth and depth

By Andrew Johnson, St Benedict’s School Headmaster


It’s sometimes said that education is what is left when you have forgotten what you were taught.

Einstein himself used this quote, to make the point that the core value of education is not in the subjects taught, but in the learning of mental skills – the ability to think well.

The purpose of education is too often assumed to be for securing work and safeguarding the economy – learning for earning. Of course we need to equip pupils to take their place in the world, and to find the kind of employment that best suits their talents, but the present generation of 18 year-olds faces different challenges which demand a different approach.

Firstly, the future of work is more uncertain now than it’s ever been. Our children will be employed in jobs that haven’t even evolved yet, and it’s unlikely that they’ll stay within one area of work, or one career. Artificial intelligence is increasing exponentially, and many jobs which are familiar to us now, in many walks of life, may soon be performed by computers. An Oxford study recently predicted that more than 40% of occupations could be threatened by automation over the next two decades. To succeed in this new employment landscape, dominated by artificial intelligence, it’s surely real, human intelligence we will need: emotional intelligence, adaptability, and the ability to respond positively to change.

Then there is the creeping threat of fake news. In this post truth era of ‘alternative facts’, we must help our children to make good judgements and to have the ability to distinguish clearly between what is true and what is false. It is vital that we help them to interpret what they see on the internet, and not to accept everything at face value– to be sceptical, and assess the evidence. The consequences of living in a society which has little regard for the importance of truth are hard to contemplate and education has a big part to play in arming our young people against forgery and lies.

Stellar exam results are great, but on their own they can do little to prepare our children for these realities. Good study skills and the acquisition of knowledge certainly have their place, but they are really only the beginning. It’s ironic that, as technology improves, and occupies an ever increasing part of our lives, it is human qualities which will matter more and more, since it’s these which set us apart from clever machines.  Imagination, empathy, kindness, compassion, perseverance, curiosity – these are the qualities that remain when you’ve forgotten what you learned for those exams.

So it is vital that, as well as teaching the curriculum, we help our children to develop these qualities; to be self-starters – independent learners, creative thinkers, team-workers and effective communicators. They will need to be versatile and adaptable in an uncertain world.

So how do we develop children fully, so that they can have these essential qualities? In the classroom, we need to go beyond the syllabus and encourage debate, independent research, curiosity and a love of learning for its own sake.

Co-curricular opportunities have an enormous part to play, and their place in education is essential, not subsidiary. In music and drama, it takes self-discipline and independence to practise an instrument, or to learn the lines of a play. Having a role in a school production or concert and performing will develop confidence and self-belief.

In sport, when you’re 4-0 down with 10 minutes to go, it takes gritty determination to keep going to the end; and if you can encourage your team-mates along the way, so much the better.

Then there’s outdoor adventure activities, taking young people out of their comfort zones, teaching them map reading, survival skills and team work. My own sons still talk about their Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Gold expedition as one of the best things they ever did when they were at school – 4 days of navigating their way around the mountains of North Wales in horizontal rain and icy gales can teach us a lot about perseverance and pulling together.

Young people need to find their leadership potential; to be proactive, and not passive. A school which encourages its pupils to be adaptable, open to change and to other people, is actually going to enable them to lead rewarding, fulfilling lives. Einstein’s message should be loud and clear: think to learn, but above all, learn to think.