Do your students value their education?

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Photo: iStock

How much do our students value their education, especially compared to others around the world? Karen Sullivan looks at tackling this question in class

Two things recently made me wonder how much our students value their education, or indeed appreciate the fact that they have access to a free system that is designed to provide them with a future.

On BBC2, the documentary Chinese School gave us a taste of how children in China are taught, working as an experiment to assess whether similar teaching methods would improve British students’ grades. They did.

However, the most critical message underpinning this series was the respect that Chinese students have for their education. It is considered a privilege; they feel a responsibility to work hard, to learn, to make something of themselves. They are motivated. One of the Chinese teachers noted that “knowledge changes one’s destiny”, and he could not be more right.

The current and very disturbing migrant crisis also forces us to consider what people will do to attain even the most basic rights. Many of those interviewed are not just fleeing their home countries for their safety, but because they aspire to live in a land where freedom and education exist for all.

Yet how many of our students appreciate their education? The opportunities that they are given? Without an understanding of what education offers, what it can and will provide, there will always be insufficient motivation to learn and to embrace and apply that learning.

The benefits and importance of education are indisputable, both for individual students and the future of our society. For whatever reasons, here in the UK and in many Western countries, it is undervalued.

So what can we do? Research suggests that if a parent holds education in high regard, his or her children are much more likely to do so. In particular, “good models of constructive social and education values and high aspirations relating to personal fulfilment and good citizenship” has a significant positive effect on children’s achievement, the scale of which is evident across all social classes and all ethnic groups” (Desforges & Abouchaar, The Impact of Parental Involvement, Parental Support and Family Education on Pupil Achievement and Adjustment, 2003).

But, as we know, not all students have this type of parental support, guidance or aspirations. It’s interesting to note that many first-generation immigrants are adamant that education is necessary to succeed in life.

For example, the Houston Education Survey found that 90 per cent of African-Americans value a post-secondary education in being successful, while White Americans, at 64 per cent, were least likely to believe that higher education is necessary for success. This is mirrored in an interesting examination of the Australian school system in The Age. It suggests that ethnic minorities are more likely to go on to secondary and post-secondary education because they value and respect it.

Can we make a difference in the classroom? Engage students so that they love to learn and understand and appreciate learning? Explaining to students that they are fortunate is never going to be enough. We can be passionate about what we teach; we can try to get across the concept that knowledge is power.

Most of all, however, we can provide some examples of the lengths that even very young children in poorer countries will go to get an education. Below you will find a link to a journey that one eight-year-old child takes to school every day. Walking 90 minutes each way in Tanzania, avoiding snakes, traffic, trains and kidnappers in the process.

Or show them material from a wonderful organisation called The Butterfly Tree, with some harrowing stories from Zimbabwe, where children are so eager to learn they will set off at 4am to get to school for 7am. Make this a focus of conversation – ask your students why these students are so driven.

Ask them what education can mean to their own lives. How it can change it? What can they gain from it? Ask what they would be doing if they weren’t in education.

Ask students to put together a project on education in a particular third-world country and challenge them to draw conclusions about its meaning. Let them see how a huge percentage of the international population fight for access to the type of education that we take for granted. Let them see what their lives are like without it, what their prospects will be.

Ask students to write a piece of fiction, a diary, imagining what life might be like where there are no opportunities.

Or a project examining the daily life of children in war-torn countries, the daily life of migrants, the daily life of children in poverty-stricken areas. What we need to do is make them think and open their eyes to the less-privileged world around us.

Finally, I would suggest putting a copy of Earnest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying into each and every one of their hands. A seminal work, this moving novel provides an extraordinary look at the status of African-Americans after the Second World War, and the life of the only educated Black man in his community.

Appreciation is something that grows and develops, and it is not something we can change overnight; however, without value, our education system is valueless.

Below you’ll find a series of useful links, and it’s worth taking a peek at the suggestions made in the “Teaching the Value of Science” feature; not only can they be extrapolated for use in all subjects, but we can use them to regain the attention and the gratitude of our students, and help them see the world that can be opened up by education.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email

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