Why we should take a bite into 'doughnut education'

Why we should take a bite into 'doughnut education'

As teachers across the world head back to their classrooms, our priorities are, rightly, on how we manage it all safely.

But it is important that we do not miss this opportunity to do some deep thinking, not only about how to deliver education but about what education actually is.

In my 20 years of teaching, despite the refrain of "reflective" practice, in striving for excellent exam results we have rarely had much opportunity to reflect on what it’s all about or the idea that it might be possible for the educational landscape to suddenly change.

Until now. If change is on the cards, let’s really grasp it:

In 2017, Oxford economist Kate Raworth published Doughnut Economics, in which she presents the economy as a doughnut of good stuff (housing, energy, water, justice, etc) sandwiched between an inner ring called the "social foundation" and an outer ring called the "ecological ceiling".

The idea is that all our economic activity should focus on the Goldilocks zone between those two parameters, neither letting people fall below a minimum social entitlement nor abusing our natural resources too much.

What would "doughnut education" look like? I suggest an inner ring of basic empowerment: we used to talk about entitlement, but knowledge is really about power, so let’s call it empowerment.

On the other hand, we can observe a significant increase in recent years of mental health issues among young people.

A recent conference in Northern Ireland asked young people about things that had negative impacts on their mental health, and, above all else, they highlighted anxiety relating to school and exams.

I suggest that our doughnut should have an outer perimeter of mental health.

We have spent years trying to break stigmas by telling young people to speak to someone about their mental health issues, but we haven’t invested in ways to cope with the increasing numbers of people asking for help.

Schools can help, but we also need to acknowledge that some young people see us as part of the problem.

Public exams, the anxiety-inducing focus for post-primary schools, superficially seem to have educational benefits. In particular, they encourage teachers to work to a similar set of goals and standards. 

Yet, we could do that without the exams. In fact, the specific educational merit (as opposed to the crude separation of sheep from goats) of our examinations is increasingly lost on me.

Millions of pounds are lost from the education system to pay for public examinations, yet anything that is done with them could be achieved without. We have cancelled exams this year – why not every year?

The funds saved would pay for an extra teacher – or counsellor – in every school.

Pierre Bourdieu argued that schools were necessarily sites of "social reproduction" in which, no matter what subjects are officially taught, the main agenda is always the maintenance of the dominant social order.

Each generation passes on, through the schools, societal norms to the next…until something happens to interrupt the chain. We finally have our interruption, albeit a small chink.

Schools not only reproduce society – they create it.

Now that we have a crack in the cycle of reproduction, we have a chance to recreate our society. But what do we actually want our society to look like?

I’m too shy to suggest abolishing subjects altogether, as they are considering in Finland – frankly, I quite like my subjects; I think they’re important and I’d like to keep teaching them. 

But we need more consultation with people about what kind of empowerment they would like. What we teach in school is valued and respected as cultural capital – and rightly so, because it’s good stuff.

Yet there is a lot of other "good stuff" out there that we overlook. 

I teach in a community surrounded by farmland and yet I can barely tell you which end of a cow to milk. I don’t know when to plant potatoes and I don’t know how much you should pay for a pig.

Different communities will value different things, and that is fine. We must make space for local knowledge and local identities in our new curricula.

Research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies indicates that it is the disadvantaged who are more wary of sending their children back to school.

If we were to give some value to what these communities most value themselves, instead of focusing on what we think is good for them, we could create a new education and a new society for all.

Ian McMillan is a languages teacher in an all-ability 11-18 college in County Down, Northern Ireland