When I first went to secondary school I couldn’t have been less interested in current affairs. I was determined to become an air-traffic controller and my subjects of choice were physics, chemistry and maths. History, the closest thing we had to politics or citizenship in those days, appeared dull and uninteresting whilst the politics I saw and heard on the news and in the media often went in one ear and out the other.
However all that changed one winter’s afternoon in my third year. I had managed to catch a nasty wee cold that had me signed off rugby for a few weeks. This usually meant passing a few hours reading Sherlock Holmes stories in a nice warm classroom until one day the Head of Politics insisted on taking us all to watch his Upper Sixth class do a Model UN style debate on global warming.
I was quite captivated. The passion and knowledge of those older students was quite simply inspirational. It seemed like a whole new world had been opened to me and I realised in that moment, possibly for the first time, that I could play a part in helping to shape and change that world.
My perspective changed and I never looked back. Yet I think about this incident a great deal. It sparked in me a love and interest in politics that determined my career and pushed me to go to work for the Better Together campaign and to stand for Parliament in 2015. It all started for me in that small classroom almost twenty years ago – and now, as I embark upon a new career as a teacher, I keep asking myself how I too can effect such inspiration in the students I teach each day.
I cannot pretend to have all the answers. But in reflecting upon my own training, and in asking those around me for their thoughts, it seems to me that education has a particularly key role in inspiring young people. And for me, there seems to be four particularly important elements in inspiring and motivating young people.
The first is inspirational teachers. A contagious passion for the subject matter is always a good start but there are many teachers out there who lack even this. Far too many teachers still expect students to sit passively and listen whilst they lecture and then ask the students to regurgitate the same information back to them. Time and time again students are asked to recall and describe when they should be asked to justify, evaluate and analyse. Textbooks, mostly inaccessible and out of date, limit free thought in an environment where the first concern is often discipline. A good teacher rises above this and takes risks, embracing student-led learning and allowing students to ask the big questions – not just those that are on the exam. Above all, if a teacher wants to inspire and motivate their students – maybe they should start by asking what they can learn from them?
This needs to be coupled with relevant content that opens minds and introduces new perspectives. Learning for Life and Work (LLW), a subject that includes Citizenship, Personal Development and Employability, has so much potential – and yet many of our schools fail to teach it well. Meanwhile in the history classroom the Normans and Tudors still dominate Key Stage Three and it is still possible to study history for seven years in a Northern Irish school without studying any history from outside Europe. This needs to change. We need to embrace alternative perspectives, broaden our horizons and we must ensure that the content covered by our curriculum is both relevant and motivating. A little bit of cross-curricular coordination between subjects wouldn’t hurt either.
There is also something to be said for school trips. It is one thing to learn about a subject in a classroom but it is quite another to give students the opportunity to see or hear a location or item for themselves. Far too many of our students don’t have the opportunity to visit a concentration camp, or to see the remnants of the Berlin wall, or even to visit Stormont – our own Parliament building.
Lastly we need to stop talking about extra-curricular activities as some sort of optional extra. For the vast majority of young people who do get involved at a young age, these extra-curricular activities are usually the spark that ignites their interest and the means by which they get involved. Debating clubs, mock trial competitions, Model UN, charity clubs, etc, should be at the very core of school activity. They may not be as glamorous as sports or music but they offer students the means to be inspired and to go on to become better and more active citizens. Above all they give students the opportunity not just to learn, but to practice. These activities must be embraced.
Yet this is not the direction that our schools are headed in. At a time of restricted resources extra-curricular activities and trips are often the first on the chopping block – especially in schools that had fewer resources to begin with. The curriculum is becoming more restrictive and few teachers have the time or the resources to deviate from the dictates of CCEA’s specifications. And some schools are actively choosing to turn away from active learning towards a more traditional approach in the hope of achieving better exam results at the cost of a true education.
This is to be regretted, especially at a time when Northern Ireland’s young people could use some inspiration. The collapse of Stormont and the march of Brexit are enough to cause most of us to despair – but we must not allow this next generation to become disillusioned or down heartened. We must seek to inspire, to motivate, to open minds and to give our young people the opportunity to soar. If we truly want to do that, make way for the teachers.
James worked in politics in Scotland for five years and is a contributor to Northern Slant. He is currently back in Northern Ireland training to become a teacher.