Education: View From Here - Susan Greenfield

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The Independent Online
RECENTLY, I was invited to give a talk in Gloucestershire, organised by the local Satro (Science and Technology Regional Organisation). The idea was that I would give a talk on the brain, in two separate morning/afternoon sessions. The local schools, from both the independent and maintained sectors, were invited to send along sixth-formers who they thought might be interested.

Although the contents of the talk itself might have been of most immediate benefit to those interested in biomedical sciences, I fancied that the material would have a still wider appeal. How could anyone not be interested in their own brains?

Indeed, the very issues that feature in literature and history, arguably about the human mind and human diversity, were the very issues that I was to be discussing. And if that were not sufficient to hook a sixth- form audience, then there were also the issues of how drugs, both prescribed and proscribed, worked in the brain. Imagine my surprise, then, when my hostess informed me that although the take-up of schools was healthy enough, one or two had declined to send any students because the brain was not in the A-level biology curriculum.

Let's unpack the implications of this attitude. First that sixth-formers should be spending all their time bent on the precise rubric on which they will be examined in their immediate examinations. Presumably here, the problem lies with meeting certain proficiency targets in a way so clearly and conspicuously focused that it cannot be questioned. After all, it is hard to see how, at most, a few hours off can do any serious harm to the eventual grade of the student.

Second is the disregard to how an introduction to the brain, or any extracurricular lecture by an expert, might benefit the academic career of students in the longer term. Certainly, when I have interviewed candidates to read medicine at Oxford, I would have thought it to their credit if they could have recounted some biomedical experience gained outside the timetable. It might have helped them make up their minds as to the degree courses they really wanted to study.

But the third and most important issue is that something as basic as how drugs work, what makes you an individual, and why you need a brain at all, is of relevance to any human being. Surely a wider education of this type is every bit as important as getting the answers off pat.

We are throwing out the baby with the bath water in this country if, in an attempt to have a standardised and demanding curriculum, we leave no room for teachers to exercise a little judgement and imagination in an excursion off the academic piste. If they are so focused on a fixed curriculum, so rigid that there is no time, literally, for anything as important as the human mind, then we are in for a very sorry future society. It could also be argued that the teachers themselves would benefit from a broader view. Surely a teacher who has become excited, and learnt a new angle on a subject, will import renewed enthusiasm and vigour back to the class.

At the tertiary level of education, I have found that motivating students by the sheer excitement of the subject is a better way to promote learning than by drilling in a fixed number of facts. This idea has been confirmed when I have discussed it with secondary teachers, too - that if the student can become curious, he or she will then do all the hard work on their own. How can an extracurricular lecture therefore not benefit pupils and teachers alike?

I would argue two recommendations. First, that the brain be placed on the biology A-level curriculum. The basic concepts are fully comprehensible to the general public. Moreover, the very fact that not all the answers are known, that there is still room for curiosity, reflection, and perhaps even your own ideas, is a heady cocktail all too often reserved exclusively for arts subjects.

And yet, my second suggestion is in danger of contradicting the first. Surely it is time to incorporate some flexibility into the sixth-form curriculum, so that teachers can regain a sense of independence, authority and originality in practising their profession even if - and perhaps especially because - it does mean the odd morning excursion.

The writer is director of the Royal Institution and professor of pharmacology at the University of Oxford