The lost power of subject?

Written by: Gus Lock | Published:

Teaching today has become too obsessed with pedagogical theory or, even worse, the hoops of assessment objectives and examination criteria, writes Gus Lock


As teachers, our academic disciplines sit at the very heart of what we do and how we see the world. When preparing for a recent assembly, I asked our heads of department to summarise how they saw the current pandemic, based on the lens of their subject area. The results were startling.

Economists saw the global economic impact of lockdowns; biologists the intricate details of the 15 genes of the Covid-19 virus; classicists heard references to the opening book of the Iliad and the terrible plague that Apollo sends down upon the Greek armies; geographers imagined the potential long-term demographic ramifications; while musicians pondered the lasting impact this may have upon the performing arts in the UK and across the world.

In each case, the world was seen through a very specific lens; our academic subjects shape the way in which we interpret the world around us.

As a history teacher, for me, my enjoyment of history always came first. It was this that led me towards a particular university course and later into teaching.

The teachers who inspired me as a pupil loved speaking about their subjects; it is not that they were the most accomplished academics, but rather that the subject material gave them an obvious sense of satisfaction and joy.

They were always learning and took great pleasure in sharing that learning with their students; they lit fires. Many years later, having the chance to teach history twice a week is a great joy and pleasure (and sometimes a welcome escape from the relentless responsibility of headship). Yet more than this, I learn something new in every lesson.

Yet in schools today, I worry that teaching has become too obsessed with pedagogical theory or, far worse, the mind-numbing hoops of assessment objectives and examination criteria, all at the cost of real subject expertise and enjoyment. The very best teachers speak with a burning passion for their own subject area and nurture that sense of wonder and magic within young people. When I am interviewing for teaching posts, my favourite and often most revealing question is “What is it that is truly magical about your subject?” – but it can be depressing to see how many people refer back to transferable skills and other utilitarian purposes, as if education was merely an opportunity to collect tokens to help you secure a good job and pay more tax in the game of life. The likelihood is, I will never appoint them.

The best responses, however, send tingles down the spine and give a glimpse into the wondrous secrets that lie within each subject. I want to be taught by these inspirational people who understand and live out the very magic they feel within their subjects.

Some experts believe that pupils can become too siloed in one subject they are passionate about, but I would say that everyone needs balance. The greatest minds in history were able to straddle the range of academic disciplines.

Indeed, the distinction between arts and sciences, for example, is a relatively modern phenomenon and would seem anathema to the great minds of the Renaissance. We should not wish children to become siloed but enriched and broadened in their education. We want them to grow up to enjoy a balanced life, but balance, by itself is not enough.

We should want that to be a rich life, too, enhanced by the marvels of science, creativity, beauty and the great events of the past.

Inevitably, very few will achieve anything like mastery across all subject areas, and I can vouch for that. However, all young people should leave school with a keen sense of the value of different subjects and a sense of awe about them.
We have a duty to foster that and it is a tragedy that at GCSE, the last opportunity for most students to experience a range of subjects, we force them through an exam curriculum that can completely suck the fun and joy out of what are incredible subjects.

One of the best heads of sixth form I ever worked with never saw a difference between the pastoral and the academic. He loved learning and believed in its capacity to nourish the mind and soul. When students came to him with pastoral issues, as well as providing incredible direct support, he found opportunities to broaden their minds and enrich their learning. He would often prescribe a scholarly article or a book and then go back through it with the pupil the next week.

Together they would learn, discover and explore; it brought back a sense of perspective, a sense of wonder, of connection, self-confidence and happiness in a way that the average school counselling appointment seldom can.
We were born to ask questions and explore, it is what humans do, and young children derive such incredible joy from discovery. Why should that change as we age?

Ignoring the predictable benefits of good grades and transferable skills etc., a passion for learning, an interest in and a commitment to continue learning is a treasure for life.

On a personal note, history continues to give me so much, it is an infinite pool of ideas, stories and wisdom. Whether I have the opportunity to teach it or not, it is something I will be able to enjoy for the rest of my life, an innate pleasure and a perfect hinterland.

I would hope any teacher would say the same about their own subject and, when we do it well, we pass on that incredibly inspiring gift to all our students.

  • Gus Lock is head of The Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School in Hertfordshire.


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