'Our curricula must be flexible, adaptable, and high on student input. And it must never, ever presume to think that adults and institutions know best'

Posted on: 29 Mar 2018
Posted by: Colin Baty

Colin Baty, head of Bedales Prep School, reflects on the recent shooting in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School - discussing the student response and the implications for teaching and learning.

I doubt there is a teacher anywhere who absorbed the news of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland, and then the subsequent responses, with anything except a combination of sorrow, fury, admiration for the students demanding that they be kept safe, and bafflement as to how this might be achieved.

Somewhere in the middle of all of this, we teachers must make sense of our responsibilities to the young people in our care. How would I feel about my staff – hired for their knowledge, skill, empathy and dedication – having to carry guns, as has been proposed in the US? I would feel that the game had been lost, in truth. It would seem that a vocal chunk of the Floridian, and indeed the American, student population has also had enough of guns – irrespective of who is wielding them.

Perhaps, then, it is the principal responsibility of educators to help students to understand political and institutional structures. The gun debate is complex, highly politicised, and characterised by a race to the bottom in terms of tactics. The National Rifle Association (NRA) and fellow travellers are not above questioning the credentials and motives of those students who have been brave enough to speak out. Is our responsibility, then, to explain this world to our charges? Of course, the difficulty with this is that the students don’t appear to need anything much explaining to them by adults. Indeed, they seem to have quite enough of what happens when the usual suspects are left to deal with the issue of gun control, and have made rather a decent fist of shoving the NRA and front line politicians out of their preferred routines. The students’ organisation and mastery of media – both conventional and social – has been total, relentless and highly strategic. The NRA has lost advertisers by the score, and has been seriously wrongfooted. Mr Trump has wavered – unthinkable not so long ago.

Instructively, ex-president Obama has broken his habitual silence to tell young protesters, “We’ve been waiting for you. And we’ve got your backs”. I say instructively, because this statement positions young people very specifically as the prime movers in this scenario; the function of adults isn’t to lead, but to make space and afford protection.

As I marvel at the skill, courage and tenacity with which students have conducted themselves, I am even further convinced of the folly that is the idea that adult educators know about the world and that their job is to teach it to young people (who don’t) so that the latter can successfully live in it. The response to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School rips up that particular playbook. Is there is a politics teacher anywhere who would now presume to tell those students that he or she knows better when it comes to the exercise of power? I would hope not, although of course we might offer structure, context, precedent, and room for reflection.

This, in turn, requires us to have a school educational ethos and way of doing things that allows us to pick up on topics such as this one when they arise. Accordingly, our curricula must be flexible, adaptable, and high on student input. It must be mindful of the hopes, fears and interests of students, and it must never, ever presume to think that adults and institutions know best. We must remember that the world is waiting for, and needs, our students at their very best. No less importantly, we must have our students’ backs – to protect them as they work out how to make their worlds, and not simply to maintain the one that we have handed to them.

About Colin Baty

Colin Baty is head of Bedales Prep School in Hampshire.