The human genome is a remarkable set of instructions that assists in enabling us humans to live in many climates, on many foodstuffs and to survive the predations of disease organisms large and small. We know a vast amount about the human genome now, thanks to the amazing work of scientists across the globe, and Nobel prizes abound in the science of genetics.
We also know a very great deal about gene expression, and that work precedes our work on
the genome by a century. The Monk Gregor Mendel introduced the science of genetics through his work on pea plants in the 1850/60s, and over the subsequent 100 years we have learned a vast amount about how genes code for our many and various inherited characteristics. What Mendel and others never found out was t
hat we have way more instructions in our genome than we have cause to use. The genes are switched on (expressed) and off (silenced) by a whole host of environmental factors, and this has become increasingly importance in recent years this century as nutrition experts link the vital importance of diet to human health. An obvious example to give is that of alcohol tolerance; the gene that enables us to tolerate and digest alcohol is switched on and off dependent upon the presence of alcohol in our diet. Peanut and other worrying allergies do not seem to develop if very young children are exposed regularly to such foods during weaning. When dieticians are asked “What’s the best food to eat?”, the best answer in reply is “Eat the rainbow!” – in other words, browse on the whole set of food stuffs and you can’t go wrong.
The ability of humans to process information, be that visual , auditory, tactile, through movement or taste is developed in the same ways. Wine or tea tasting are sets of skills developed around specific food stuffs. Great photographers and artists are fundamentally at home with the tools of their trade. Our latest sporting hero, Danny Willett, winner of the Masters 2016 and wearer of the Green jacket learned his golfing trade the hard way through endless practice, an appetite for hard work and a resolute competitive edge. And we know that as adults age and cease to use all of their mental faculties, their ability to process new information rapidly declines. Reintroduce physical and mental activities to a willing student and those signs of old age rapidly disappear.
Inevitably in education, the same is true. A balanced educational diet is essential to ensure children develop the best they can be. And the diet really does need to be of the rainbow quality throughout the early, primary and secondary years, because we simply don’t know where our future lies in this uncertain world (which has been uncertain for decades by the way). Here’s a 1940’s video from the states, extolling the virtues of the new progressive, hands-on education arising to provide America with the enquiring minds it needed for the new technological world arriving at the time.
Since this film was made, some 70 years have passed, and governments in the developed world have tinkered again and again with their educational provision, trying to industrialise it sufficiently well to ensure it gets the key workers in every discipline it needs to provide their country with an economic advantage over their competitors. The most successful countries, such as Singapore and Finland have worked out that ‘streaming’ and ‘testing’ are not going the bring the outcomes they are looking for. Breadth, diversity and depth, with the learners in control as much of the time as the teacher can make available are the ways forward.
As important as the content is, it’s the approach that matters more. Children are their best teachers and aids for their friends, from the age of 4 or 5. Here’s one of the more famous examples of the power of peer advice, Austin’s butterfly, from 2012 which exemplifies all that is best in how peer support works. A school of 500 may have 50 teachers on the staff list, and all will feel stretched beyond bearing if they have to teach everything. The reality is that such a school has 50+500 teachers, and the power that can be brought to bear when 550 support learning in a supportive way is evidenced by the great schools of our land.
So, this coming Summer term in Claires Court, we’ll continue to teach the rainbow of course; we’ll look out for new colours we have yet to appreciate and we’ll aim to deploy everyone of us, from age 3 to 86 years of age to teach – and hopefully we’ll keep our learning genes switched on, and find a few more that have not yet been deployed!