Making It Matter
What motivates young people to learn?
Fun? Imagination? Fear of the future without a college education?
If you ask them, they will tell you that you can teach them anything if you make it matter to them.
The easiest way is to make it about them. Nearly 20 years ago, when I took over the History Department of a Nairobi School, the most successful thing I did was to introduce a family tree project.
I had Kikuyu students in my classroom, and Luo and Kalenjin and several born in Britain as well as five or six born in Nairobi but with parents or grandparents born in the Indian Subcontinent. Computers barely existed, so all information was gathered by talking to family members, either in person or on the phone, waiting for visits or even writing letters. Everyone had to keep notes and start drawing their tree – and as they grew, the trees became collages, with stories and even artefacts stuck on: a coin, a bead, a piece of cloth, a photograph.
My students held court, sharing their research and findings, feeling the thrill of an attentive audience. They were the experts on their own lives, and they loved it (a lot more than Napoleon, who they’d done the previous term).
Of course you can’t design thirteen or fourteen years of curriculum around ‘Me’ – at least not without creating a generation of narcissistic monsters. But taking time to relate distant or abstract material to those in the room, and finding ways to engage heart and emotions as well as head, makes excellent educational sense.
This is one area where education can learn from the non-profit sector which has long understood that you engage people by creating proximity. It’s hard to care about people of whom we know nothing in a faraway country; the trick is to tell stories to bring them closer, to show the similarities between their lives and ours, to help us understand how it might feel to be them. To make it more real.
Carl Jung wrote that people cannot stand too much reality, but I disagree: in my experience, teenagers gobble it up. It brings out the best in them, differentiating them as individuals with both abilities and passions.
2 years ago Mayor of London Boris Johnson and I both hit on the idea of a London Curriculum (although I’m pretty sure I thought of it first.) I based mine on an experimental class I’d taught a few years before in the US that used our local city as a classroom. Part of my inspiration also came from CITYTerm, a brilliant programme run out of the Masters School, which uses New York City as a classroom and laboratory. In both cases the approach was project-based and relied on collaboration with experts from the city – architects, engineers, poets, social workers and entrepreneurs.
It can come as something of a shock to learn what’s on your doorstep: the things that are closest to us exert huge influence, yet we seldom look at them carefully, let alone understand them.
The nearly 4 million people who have seen Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk on the danger of a single story will also have heard her descriptions of growing up on a Nigerian university campus reading British and American children’s books. She loved those books, but because of them, the first stories she wrote featured characters with white skin and blue eyes, who played in the snow and ate apples. Only later did she realise that people who looked and thought like her could be in books too.
In January I met Deborah Ahenkorah, Ghanaian Echoing Green Fellow and founder of the Golden Baobab Prize for African literature for children and young adults. She created the prize because
“the tremendous lack of good quality African children’s literature dawned on me. A continent so large and richly diverse has tons of wonderful stories to share with young people everywhere: where were these stories?”
Last year they had more than 400 entries from 25 African countries. They also run workshops for writers and illustrators, and have plans to establish distribution channels across the continent to ensure that African books reach African children in their schools and, at last, in their own homes.
And it’s not just African children on the continent who need stories about themselves. There are millions of children of African heritage in the diaspora who never read stories that connect them with their own identities either. For stories cross continents too. Last month in Ghana I visited the slave castles of the Gold Coast and saw the door of no return through which millions of men, women and children left, many of whom ended their days in Jamaica. With over 200,000 Ghanaians and 250,000 Jamaicans in London, shouldn’t these stories be told in British schools too?
Who else is in our classrooms? Are we telling their stories?
Growing up is an identity project, and if we want to engage young people, we need to show them that school is the place to learn about the things they care about. We do that best by nurturing schools’ most valuable secret weapons – infectiously enthusiastic teachers. They are an endangered species now, killed by the growing exam culture and an obsession with cookie-cutter, lockstep learning, but they are still there. Let’s hope that those who have been taught by them will realise that it is loving learning that matters most, and the freedom to explore who you are and how you will take your place in the world.