Why education is like smokingPosted: January 15, 2017
During my lifetime, attitudes to smoking have changed.
It was always known to be bad for you. But when I first started to go to pubs, I would come back stinking of cigarettes and would have to wash my clothes. On the dancefloors of clubs, strangers would share smokes in the same way they might share their bottled water.
Most of my school friends started smoking. We even had a smoking room at my sixth form college (for ages 16-18) where students could have a cigarette. Naturally, this was a much more fun place than the non-smoking common room and it heaved at every break time.
Why did smoking have such a long, slow death? Why wasn’t it banned from bars and clubs – and schools – earlier? The epidemiological evidence was available throughout this time.
One reason is that we have very poor intuition when it comes to probability. I won’t try to examine the reasons for this but any maths teacher will be aware of how counterintuitive students find the subject.
One argument that you frequently heard about smoking back in the 1990s – for example, from my smoking school friends – went something like this: “My grandfather smoked 20 a day and lived to 85.”
It confuses the possible with the probable. Smoking is essentially probabilistic. By smoking, you increase the probability of a whole host of nasty things happening to you but you don’t make any of them certain. Some smokers will get lucky. Many won’t.
You don’t hear this argument about smoking so much these days and I think that this is because the public has finally made a shift from pre-scientific thinking to scientific thinking about the subject. I’m not sure what finally did it but it’s taken a long time. The changes in law that we have seen are based upon this new understanding, even if we might argue that bans and restrictions do not necessarily flow from it. These are political decisions rather than scientific ones but they do seem to be underpinned by a better public understanding of the science.
However, the equivalent argument is alive and well in education.
Education is also probabilistic. You can’t say for certain that a particular bit of teaching will lead to a certain consequence and so you play the probabilities. This happens at every scale from small to large and it is why I argue for a curriculum based upon what has proved useful in the past: that which has endured. This gives us our best chance of equipping students for their futures – in the broadest sense.
Yet we often hear stories about business people who did very well without much of a formal education. I was reminded to of this by a rant that was highlighted on twitter:
I wasn’t aware of who Jack Monroe is but they* appear to be some kind of famous cook. They make a point about practice testing for SATs that may be valid – there are plenty of schools where children are asked to do too many practice tests rather than focus on developing the underlying knowledge and skills that are being assessed (Daisy Christodoulou’s new book is good on this topic).
However, Monroe’s argument is something more than that. They have been successful with little formal education (although perhaps more than they give credit for when we consider that previous generations left school at age 12 or 14).
They are like the 85-year-old smoker. Yes, it is possible to do what they did but it’s not the best way of optimising your chances. For a start, Monroe’s path rules out all of the professions and so anyone following it can forget about being a surgeon or a lawyer. It rules out all those paths that require a university degree. For every captain of industry who pulled themselves up by the bootstraps, I suspect there are far more who went to college.
To me, this kind of thinking suggests that, in the public realm at least, education is still in a pre-scientific stage. This is important because it implies that individuals are not yet empowered to make the best decisions about how education can work for them.
*I understand that this is Monroe’s preferred pronoun