The Middle Way and education

As a trained teacher, I have always been particularly interested in the way that the Middle Way can be used to define the most effective educational strategies. In some ways this is just an application of the psychology and the ethics of the Middle Way to the particular circumstances of education. However, the state education system also raises particular issues about the role of the state in education which are also issues of political philosophy.

Broadly speaking, a Middle Way approach to teaching and learning should be the most effective approach, because it is the approach that addresses the conditions best. This might not sound as though it has much to add to the researches of educationalists in identifying the most effective approaches in practice, and I do think that we owe much to their efforts. However, the Middle Way does not just consist in the identification of a theoretically best approach, but its application to a particular set of circumstances by the teachers and others responsible for it.

Teachers constantly find themselves between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand are the expectations of the state, handed on by school or college inspectors and managers, and laid out in syllabuses and curriculum documents. On the other hand is the reality of the students and their needs. The students may not be receptive to what they are supposed to be being taught today, or perhaps some of them are and others are not. Do you plough on with the expectations to be fulfilled, regardless of the conditions, or do you drop everything to respond to the students? The Middle Way which addresses both these sets of conditions and tries to make them as compatible as possible is the only practical way forward.

In my experience, education in the UK suffers from an eternalistic excess of rigidity. Not only are excessive government expectations reinforced by an over-strong testing regime, but the culture amongst teachers (with occasional creative exceptions) is generally to put those expectations before either the needs of the student or the integrity of the subject. If the syllabus is based on wrong assumptions, you have to teach it anyway, for the students will be examined in it. If the students don't want to learn, you just have to try to get something across as best you can, rather than moving to whatever it is that the students most need to learn at that point. An educational version of "reality" is metaphysically created through bureaucratic controls, and after a while most teachers get used to the gap between that "reality" and the complexity of what they actually experience in a classroom, and take it for granted.

Eternalism in education is much more of a problem than nihilism. There may have been some teachers in the sixties who went with the flow and let the grown-up expectations go too much, but they wouldn't get away with that now without being forced out of the profession. Education is very much a forced process in which the students have to adapt to fixed expectations or fail. Many of them fail to do their best, not out of inability but in response to the alienation produced by the system. Those who manage the education system do not seem to worry about alienation or try to address its causes very much, given how much of it there is around amongst young people. Instead the answer is always stronger expectations imposed from above. Instead of being taught the complex art of addressing opposed conditions by finding a balance, students are too often set an example of how to ignore them.

When the expectations are moral and spiritual, this problem is compounded. In the UK there is an understanding that Religious Education might have a role in "delivering" moral and spiritual education, even in a context of disagreement between different religious groups. However, there is no general agreement about how this should be done. Some see moral education as involving initiation into a Christian faith community, even if the children are not Christians. Others think moral education cannot take place except through the individual choice of the children, so they should only be given neutral information about different points of view. A third group, the experientialists, have tried to develop real spiritual learning in Religious Education which is not just about accepting or rejecting metaphysical beliefs, but they have been hampered by the other two groups.

Moral and spiritual education is unavoidably personal. It involves teachers who feel able to share themselves more personally and thus provide inspiration for students, rather than bureaucratised goals. Such teachers need both philosophical and practical spiritual training, of a type which should carry them away from metaphysics, not towards it. For example, they need training in meditation practices and in the uses of symbology, as well as in critical thinking. However, the widespread reliance on the fact-value distinction in the education system seems to mean that this point is seldom understood, and that even when it is, teaching staff do not have the freedom to put it into practise very much. Religious Education is rarely able to fulfil much of its potential, but at least it is still there in the UK (unlike the USA or France, where there is no religious education at all in state schools).

Links to related discussion

Revelation, wisdom, and learning from religion (A paper originally published in the British Journal of Religious Education)

Discussion of problems raised by the liberal neutrality of the state in thesis (scroll down to subsection vii)

Comment on this issue on the blog

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