How to speak truthfully about what it means to be human: a user’s handbook.

The purpose of schools is not chiefly or mainly to prepare children for exams or jobs. Rather, as Ruth Ashbee eloquently explains, it is to teach our children about meaning – about what it means to be human.[1] Through their curriculums, schools are custodians, curators and critics  of the magnificent legacy of human meaning-making. By engaging with humankind’s intellectual and cultural heritage, our children are enabled to join in with the great conversation about what things mean that has been taking place since the dawn of time.

This conversation discusses and disputes if there are reasons why things happen. Life isn’t a completely random and unpredictable series of chaotic events, it isn’t just one damn thing after another; there are, it appears, at least some patterns. Just exactly what is and isn’t a pattern is one of the main subjects of this conversation. Does the sun return after the winter because we have pleased the gods? Is that the pattern? Or is it caused by some other means?  Or is it completely random and unpredictable? Why do people do bad things? Can that be explained? What are the different answers that have been given to that question? Is it the stain of original sin, economic self-interest, demonic possession, psychological disposition, bad blood?

This conversation also expresses these patterns – or frustrating lack of pattern – in various symbolic forms. Sometimes visually, sometimes through story, music or dance. Humans want there to be patterns. We want there to be reason, meaning, coherence, sense. But sometimes things are, despite our deepest wishes, apparently random or meaningless.  One meta-pattern that weaves its way through the conversation is the idea of truth; the idea that our craving for patterns, for reasons, does not give us carte blanche to impose our desires about how we want reality to be, regardless. Pattern making by its very nature has rules that need sticking to, or it ceases to be a pattern. But different patterns have different rules and different vocabulary. So we need to learn how the rules differ depending on how we are looking at things, depending on the kinds of patterns we are looking for. Learning the rules and vocabulary and when they do and do not apply is an important part of learning to participate within the conversation. ‘Truth’ is shaped differently depending on which part of the conversation we are presently involved within. If we are looking for explanations about how flowers reproduce, we will use one type of pattern. If we are trying to make sense of our feelings by painting flowers – we will use others.

This is where different disciplines come in. Disciplines are different ways of making meaning. They are different because they seek to answer different types of questions and therefore do so in different ways. In various talks I’ve given using Neil Almond’s metaphor of the curriculum as boxset,  I’ve talked about renewable conflict. This is, as far as I have been able to find out, an idea from screenwriting. The idea is that if you want to write a successful long running series, you need to make sure it has a conflict at its heart that will never be ultimately resolved. So Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series do not have a renewable conflict at their heart as eventually evil is defeated but Game of Thrones does because the conflict at its heart is about who should rule the realm and how to cope with the woes of nature. Characters can come and go, live and die – and frequently do – but this central conflict endures potentially forever. Now I appreciate that Game of Thrones did eventually come to an end and I am not enough of a fan to know whether potentially that same conflict could fuel a future series, spin off, prequel or whatever. But I think the idea of a renewable conflict is interesting applied to the idea of different disciplines.

For example – and I am not saying that my attempts at formulating the renewable conflicts at the heart of various subjects is in any way definitive – I suggest that these questions could be seen as renewable conflicts for different subjects. See if you can match which question goes with which subject?[2]

  1. Natural phenomena vs evidenced explanation
  2. The past vs evidenced explanation
  3. Human desire to thrive vs physical processes
  4. What is the meaning and purpose of life vs conflicting answers vs impossibility of knowing for sure
  5. Physical competence vs sloth
  6. Creation of meaning/beauty vs taste vs technical competence
  7. Power vs people who want or need something
  8. Creation of something useful vs technical competence


Because education is about meaning, this can lead some people to believe it needs to feel meaningful and fulfilling at every moment along the way. But learning to participate within the great conversation requires learning conventions, becoming familiar with narratives, honing skills and acquiring vocabulary that will all take effort. If we are to understand complex ideas in meaningful, joined up ways, there will be points where components will need to be learnt in isolation. This isolation is but a step on the way to later integration[3], but this step may be perceived as less purposeful or meaningful by the learner. At these points, teachers should frame the meaning for their students.

This framing can be done more or less well. Framing something as ‘this is meaningful because it will help you pass the exam’ may not be entirely false but sells a cheapened, instrumentalist view of education, where proof of knowledge is but a bargaining chip, shorn from its moorings within the discourse of meaning making.  What is more, it can lead to risibly impoverished practices where learning various short cuts and tricks to pass an exam is more important than letting the subject change you, develop you. If I just study GCSE assessment objectives via various extracts of literature rather than by reading lots of different books, I don’t experience the power of literature to change how I see the world. I might be able to describe the effect a text has on the reader but have not been afforded the opportunity for the text to have an effect on me. [4] If I only learn mathematical tricks and tips, I might never experience maths as a powerfully predictive identifier of patterns and relationships but as a series of arcane and meaningless school based rituals. If I can recall historical facts and causes for the periods on the syllabus but don’t know much beyond this, I may never understand how historical argument actually works. Nor will I understand the shades of meaning of such loaded terms as ‘empire’ or ‘democracy’ unless I have at least some familiarity with the diverse historical narratives within which these terms are central.

But none of this means that I should never be taught tips, short cuts or definitions and that every instance of my education must be deeply imbued with ‘Meaning.’  The justified horror of the short-cut, exam-driven education is exchanged for an equally mistaken desire to short cut straight to understanding the big ideas all at once, without slowly, slowly building the necessary foundations. This may at times require patient practice of skills and facts learnt for a time in isolation from the bigger picture within which they can then be put to work to do their transformative work of meaning making.

Teachers can frame the meaning for their students during these times in different ways. A simple disposition of encouragement is fundamental. The enthusiastic celebration of incremental successes is important. So is the acknowledgement of the sense of frustration and powerlessness when things are hard and the reassurance that given time and practice (and possibly better explanation on our part), the fog will clear and success will come.

It is a mistake to try to frame meaning by coming up with far-fetched and outlandish potential future ‘useful’ practical applications of what we are teaching in some desperate attempt to try and persuade our students it is meaningful. Ben Newmark describes the silliness of this well:

‘What often follows is teachers parroting learned consequentialist justifications. In my subject, history, this might be a teacher saying “if you understand that people in the past had different views, then you’ll understand that people today have too and this will mean you get on with people better when you get a job.”  But trying to justify the content of our curriculum by its capacity for practical application is flawed. Beyond basic literacy and numeracy most of what is learned in school is not obviously useful in the wider world without making absurd leaps. This is something many of the pupils I have taught have been acutely aware of. While it can be amusing to try and construct contrived situations that justify the teaching of something pupils regard as obscure, for example, “if you become a baker and your till breaks and you have to work out how much Mrs Jones owes you and you don’t have a calculator, or a phone, and there’s no way you’ll be able to get one then this algebra is going to come in really handy. If you remember it. Which given you only learned it to pass an exam, you almost certainly won’t.”

Worse, by indulging this argument we suggest the only subjects which are important are those with a clear and direct link to practical tasks pupils might do in the future. While some might argue this is actually quite right, curriculum developed on this principle would be radically different to most of those we deliver in schools today. In with using Excel and developing a good phone voice! Out with Homer, Angelou and the irrelevant Renaissance artists!

Do we really want our young people to learn only what is practically useful?’[5]

Meaningfulness is not the same as usefulness.

If education is to be meaningful it needs to result in something deep and durable that lasts beyond the moment. There is nothing wrong with fleeting pleasures or momentary joys but these are not what learning is. To learn something is to be changed in some way that that lasts beyond the immediate. If we encounter momentary joy or fleeting pleasure along the way, so much the better. But it is the lasting change that makes learning purposeful. Learning enables us to see the world in a new way. Whereas before we only saw trees, now we see elms, oaks and sycamores. Whereas before we only saw rocks, we now see granite, limestone and sandstone.  Whereas before we only saw shopping, we now see profit, loss and externalities.  Whereas once we saw ‘one bad apple’, now we see the historical roots of deeply institutionalised patterns of injustice.

As we learn to ‘see’ in new ways, our very selves are changed. Our minds are changed, physically. Some view this power that education has to change an individual with deep unease. The words ‘brainwashing’ and indoctrination’ are mentioned. [6] However deeply we feel this, surely leaving people ignorant is far, far worse. But Lessing’s warning remains. The classic purported antidote to ‘indoctrination’ is to let students exercise some choice over what they learn. But to do this is itself an ideological imposition. It is not a neutral stance.  Children cannot know much of what they don’t yet know so the idea of choice here is somewhat meaningless. An uneducated choice is not an informed choice.

Some knowledge is more powerful, more empowering than others. As Michael Young describes[7], there is a kind of powerful knowledge that enables people to predict, to explain, to envisage alternatives, to think in new ways. There is a strange irony in using our power as teachers to deliberately withhold this kind of powerful knowledge because we believe we know best what is good for children.

What is more, there is something rather sinister in the idea of the learner as consumer, endlessly exercising ‘choice’ over what they wish to engage with, rather than engaging with a tradition that seeks to educate rather than placate them.

As Gert Biesta writes

We go to school, not to get what we already know that we want, but because we want to receive an education. Here, we would expect teachers not just to give students what they know they want or say they want or are able to identify as what they want, but to move them beyond what they already know that they want. We want teachers to open up new vistas, new opportunities, and help children and young people to interrogate whether what they say they want or desire is actually what they should desire. To turn the student into a customer, and just  work on the assumption that education should do what the customer wants is therefore a distortion of what education is about, a distortion that significantly undermines the ability of teachers to be teachers and of schools, colleges and universities to be educational institutions rather than shops.[8]

Education is not always comfortable. Education can confront us with realities we would rather remain ignorant of. Education should provoke, jar, push up against what we want to be true. It is easy enough to think of possible scenarios: the child who has been brought up to think that their country is superior and a bastion of justice and fair play encountering for the first time the evidence of its complicity in slavery and colonialism, the child who believes that their religion believes x or y to be terrible sins, only to learn in school that others within the same religion believe both x and y to be perfectly acceptable, the child who has been led to believe that their freedom of expression is the ultimate good, the child who has only ever viewed the world through the lens of their Guardian reading parents.

For Biesta, the power of education lies in introducing children to things that offer resistance to their desires, ideas and assumptions. Education is the process through which children work through that  which resists them and come to terms with it.

‘From the perspective of the student teaching thus brings something that is strange, something that is not a projection of the student’s own mind, but something that is radically and fundamentally other. The encounter with something that is other and strange—that is not of one’s own making—is an encounter with something that offers resistance.’[9]

If education is an induction into meaning making, then it is right and proper that questions of ‘whose meaning’ are held up to scrutiny and argued over. Schools may be custodians and curators of what they see as the best, the most powerful articulations of meaning from within humanity’s great conversation, but they also need to be both self-critical and open to critique. The curriculum must include the necessary tools to enable this. We need to borrow the idea from the Protestant theology of semper reformandum – always in need of reform.  Any curriculum can only ever share the tiniest fragment of the wealth of human thought so questions about why X has been chosen rather than Y or Z need to be reflected upon and held up for scrutiny. This includes inducting students themselves into the conflicts and assumptions within subjects and drawing their attention to the fact that the curriculum itself is but a partial selection that could have been otherwise. In curating a curriculum, we need to be sure to include those aspects that that give students some power over their own knowledge.[10] We need to draw attention to the parameters of truth telling within each discipline. Without these, students are powerless in knowing if these parameters have been breached. In other words, part of what we curate must include disciplinary knowledge as well as substantive knowledge.

Disciplinary knowledge is knowledge about how knowledge ‘earns its stripes’ and gets to be regarded as knowledge. It is about the rules within a subject that enable truth claims to be upheld, challenged, contested, refuted, superseded or rendered obsolete. Each discipline has its own rules of engagement which govern the kind of questions it is and isn’t possible to ask within a given subject. We need to teach children what those rules are so that children, over time, can join in the conversation about the significance of the content we are teaching them. As Christine Counsell explains:

Disciplinary knowledge… is a curricular term for what pupils learn about how that knowledge was established, its degree of certainty and how it continues to be revised by scholars, artists or professional practice. It is that part of the subject where pupils understand each discipline as a tradition of enquiry with its own distinctive pursuit of truth. For each subject is just that: a product and an account of an ongoing truth quest, whether through empirical testing in science, argumentation in philosophy/history, logic in mathematics or beauty in the arts. It describes that part of the curriculum where pupils learn about the conditions under which valid claims can be made, and associated conventions such as what constitutes evidence or argument in that subject.[11]

If we want children to appreciate that there are such things as truth claims rather than just a myriad of conflicting opinions, if we want them to see truth-seeking as an ethical endeavour that lies at the heart of human meaning-making, then we need to share with them how ‘truth’ works. This is particularly important when children encounter ideas in school that offer resistance to cherished assumptions.  As Michael Fordham outlines here (in the context of teaching issues such as racism and colonialism):

‘When we teach pupils things that can be uncomfortable for them to hear, it is normal in the classroom to get some pushback. Sometimes this even comes from parents. Questions such as “how do you know?” or “isn’t this just your opinion?” mightjustifiably be asked; more worrying still are those who think this but do not say it. When it comes down to it, what are our answers to these questions? To my mind, these answers must be based on truth, evidence and reason.’[12]

Different subjects have different ways of looking, of explaining which is why trying to teach generic skills of ‘observation’ or ‘explanation’ are misplaced. How we look in art is very different from how we look in science. Explanations in history are different from explanations in maths which are again different from those in geography or music. We need to be able to look at the world in all these different ways and know what we are doing, what assumptions we are making, when we do so.

If we want to nurture critical thinkers who have the requisite powerful knowledge, then we have to respect these subject boundaries, even when it is inconvenient. If we want to induct children into the various truth quests that each subject embodies, then we need to resist the temptation to marshal truth claims in one discipline to bolster cherished beliefs in another. Totalitarian regimes are infamous for violating this essential pre-condition for truth telling, for example, warping science to fit with religious convictions or history to fit with political ones.

While it is easy to cast aspersions on the ‘false news’ of Totalitarians, it is harder to keep away from doing so ourselves when it involves matters we care passionately about. For example, plastic pollution is an obvious scourge of our time and learning about how and why plastic ends up in our oceans and on our beaches, why this is problematic and how communities have responded are all appropriate subject matter for a geography curriculum. Campaigning against plastic pollution is appropriate subject matter for citizenship.  But not for geography. History, geography, science, are disciplines for establishing truth; disciplines don’t prescribe the ‘ought’, i.e. what we do about them, only the ethical ‘ought’ of truth-seeking itself.  PSHE, assemblies, citizenship, and school councils are places where schools engage with the products of those disciplines and build moral sensibility for individual and collective action.[13]

As I write, a statue of the 18th century slaver trader Edward Colston has just been toppled by protestors in Bristol. It is entirely appropriate within the context of history lessons to seek to answer enquiry questions such as ‘What was the legacy of the slave trade on the city of Bristol?’  Discussing arguments for and against direct action against contested monuments is completely appropriate within a citizenship lesson, but not within a history lesson. (Should the question be asked during a history lesson, the teacher might think it really important to engage with this question in the moment but should clearly signal that history as a discipline does not have the right tools for engaging with moral questions and that they are taking off the ‘glasses’ of historical discourse and donning the glasses of moral philosophy in order to discuss the issue.) What is important to note here is that in order to debate the moral issue in an informed way, the requisite historical knowledge is necessary. A decolonised curriculum is of necessity a knowledge-led curriculum (though a knowledge-led curriculum is not necessarily a decolonised curriculum). Any UK secondary school history curriculum that does not include detailed enquiry into both empire and slavery is an airbrushed curriculum. The establishment of truth in history depends on scrupulous efforts of avoiding ‘presentism’, the ahistorical and anachronistic judging of the past by contemporary standards. There are plenty of 18th century figures who stand in judgment over the pernicious and morally repugnant practice of slavery. These are the voices that should be heard in history lessons.

If the purpose of schools is to teach children about how to speak truthfully what it means to be human, then the conversation must encompass the breadth of humanity, especially those voices it is more convenient to ignore or suppress. It must tell the truth about shameful failings, obfuscations, denials, vested interests and inconvenient facts. And do so in ways that respect each tradition of enquiry and the distinctive way in which it pursues the truth.


[1] Ashby Ruth (2020) Why it’s important to understand school subjects – and how to begin to do so in Sealy Clare (ed.) the ResearchED Guide to the Curriculum.  Woodbridge: John Catt. . p41

[2] science, history, geography, RE, PE, the arts, politics, technology.

[3] Christine Counsell’s highlights the tension between isolation and integration in her chapter Better conversations with subject leaders in Sealy Clare (ed.) the ResearchED Guide to the Curriculum.  Woodbridge: John Catt.  p104

‘All curricular thinking amounts to either isolation or integration of components. Observing any moment of teaching, this is what we see – the (temporary, artificial isolation and/or integration which makes components functional in a larger set of journeys.’

[4] I have paraphrased and stolen this sentence from Christine Counsell’s chapter p108




[7]  Young M and Lambert D (eds) Knowledge and the Future School. London: Bloomsbury

[8] Gert Bietsa. European Journal of Education, Vol. 50, No. 1, 2015

[9]   Gert Biesta in Phenomenology & Practice, Volume 6 (2012), No. 2, pp. 35-49. Giving Teaching Back to Education: Responding to the Disappearance of the Teacher  file:///C:/Users/pc/Downloads/19860-Article%20Text-48221-1-10-20130620.pdf

[10] David Lambert ttps://




[13] I am indebted to Christine Counsell for these last two sentences which she shared with me in a Twitter exchange as I sought to understand the role of disciplinary knowledge.

How to speak truthfully about what it means to be human: a user’s handbook.

2 thoughts on “How to speak truthfully about what it means to be human: a user’s handbook.

  1. Nicola Coupe says:

    A great read for all. Thank you.
    Bringing together current thinking on curriculum and challenging what teaching can and should bring into young people’s lives Is inspiring. It should encourage a brave stepping out, and enriched approach. I hope DfE reads it and thinks about the limits of exam boards.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s