RECENTLY, Ivor Tiefenbrun wrote a very interesting article on this website about the need to teach engineering in our schools.
To make his case, he points to the fact that, in many schools today, teachers of different subjects often have very little knowledge, or indeed understanding, of the importance of other subjects on the school curriculum. He says that this creates a “disconnect” for the pupils – so that they too have little knowledge or understanding of how subjects interrelate. If this is the case, their educational development is constrained by the fact that they are taught to think inside little boxes rather than with a wider appreciation of the intellectual whole. He argues that, by making engineering a compulsory part of the school curriculum, we can address this problem.
I have a great deal of sympathy for what he says. There is undoubtedly a need to make school subjects “hang together” although I would also argue that this is more about appreciating the different skills that are required when studying the different disciplines of science, arts and social science, rather than just about studying the knowledge content of discrete subjects themselves (something the International Baccalaureate does much better compared with the existing exam system in Scotland).
This is why it is correct to say that engineering has a vital role to play since it is in the business of applying scientific, economic and social knowledge in order to design and build structures or machines which work efficiently and which can promote successful innovation and mechanical invention. To be a successful engineer you need to understand not only the component parts but how they work together. The Latin word ingenium meaning engine in its most literal sense, also, in its more extended definition, means clever invention. That is something we want to inspire in all our young people whatever their field of interest.
The Curriculum for Excellence is designed to do just that, but it hasn’t had much chance so far since there have been so many problems plaguing its implementation. For a start, it was not well explained to parents and pupils about why we need the Curriculum for Excellence. Indeed, its very name is a problem. It should never have been called curriculum for anything since it is much more about teaching methodology than it is about wholesale change to which subjects appear on the school timetable. Then there was the incomprehensible jargon which accompanied the official documentation making it very hard to sell the Curriculum for Excellence to parents, pupils and teachers in the positive light which it deserves. Add to all that, the issues about whether pupils’ subject choices are being compromised and whether local authorities should have the right to delay for a year, and you have a real mess; a very large part of which lies very firmly at the door of the Scottish Government. All this, is a very great pity and it just means we have to work doubly hard to restore public confidence.
To pursue Tiefenbrun’s engineering theme once again, the Curriculum for Excellence has to be seen not only as the effective basis to school education, but also as one of the major components which will interrelate with further and higher education and with the world of work. If there is one, hugely important requirement for Scottish education just now - in an ever increasingly competitive international environment - it is that we provide young people with more relevant skills; skills which can be profoundly different from the skills we, or our parents or grandparents, needed at college or university or in their first job. For decades, Scottish education has been compromised by a lack of radical thinking and by the tendency to look at reform by individual educational sector rather than by a holistic strategy. We might not have been very good at understanding what we are learning, but we have been even worse at understanding why and how we are learning.
As readers will know, I have, in recent months, been publicly very critical of the Scottish Government’s desire to make “Scottish Studies” compulsory in our schools. I do not believe the subject is necessary for the simple reason that there is already (rightly) a Scottish dimension to much of what is taught in other subjects such as History, or English literature or music. However, if we really want to fulfil the desire to insist on another compulsory subject in our schools then the government should look no further than engineering.