Accessibility links

Which is the odd one out?

1) "Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition!"

2) "He's not dead, he's sleeping!"

3) "It's not really very silly, is it?"

4) Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural education.

If the question seems too easy, it is worth reflecting on that ways in which number 4 might be considered Pythonesque.

This is not a polemic. Humour can be a serious business. Before challenging any educational idea or policy one needs to accept that educational disagreements are all about value judgments, conceptual caveats and political compromises. It's also difficult to know how valid a policy is without wider awareness -preferably international and historical- of what has been tried before. And if you manage all that, many would say you really have to have 'been there' with your own classroom experience.

On Friday I took part in an expert seminar/workshop on Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Education, abbreviated to SMSC; part of a fresh RSA Investigate-Ed approach to making sense of complex educational issues, organised by Joe Hallgarten. It was a relief to be asked to be speak about SMSC on the understanding that I didn't have to pretend to be an expert, in the hope that my naivety would be constructive.

I was impressed by the depth and range of expertise in the room. There was a mixture of School Heads, frontline SMSC teachers e.g. RE, Citizenship, Ofsted inspectors and various kinds of researchers and education consultants. For most of these professionals SMSC is a given, a reality of their working lives, and the first thing I noticed was the language forms reflected this. Many spoke in terms of "How do we do SMSC?"

For an outsider this sounds really odd. As I said in my response, there is something Pythonesque about a situation where leading education experts assemble in an opulent room at the Royal Society for the Arts and discuss how to 'do' what sounds like a single discrete task (e.g. shall we do lunch?) but actually comprises four pillars of human civilisation - spiritual, moral, social and cultural - that presumably are what education is all about, rather than a single issue to be 'done'.

Moreover, the idea that each of them can - in theory or practice - be disembedded from wider processes and taught explicitly also sounds slightly absurd.  Surely there are SMSC dimensions in every walk of life, in every family, every city, every classroom? Aren't the tacit and implicit aspects of SMSC learning always going to trump, shape or subsume the explicit classroom-based instruction?

Aren't the tacit and implicit aspects of SMSC learning always going to trump, shape or subsume the explicit classroom-based instruction?

But such questions are the luxury of the outsider. I don't have to go to work and be obliged to 'do' SMSC, nor think of how to measure it, or link it to other educational outcomes.

Nonetheless I did find myself asking my table: How did it come to this? What's the history, the genealogy of SMSC?

That's a research question in itself, but the quick answer appears to be tied to education acts in 1944 and 1988 - I will leave experts to flesh out the details, but from what I heard (and this should be checked) it sounds like S,M,S & C were originally alongside 'physical and mental' as six overarching domains/themes/goals of education, and then somewhere along the way there was a philosophical oversight, or ontological slippage whereby each of these dimensions ceased to be holistic goals of education as a whole, and instead became individual items, which could be separated out and taught.

The creation of 'SMSC' appears to have been a way of dealing with that evolution, but of course this is not merely a technocratic oversight that can be patched up, but rather a deep loss of perspective about what education is for, and for what teaching and learning should be about.

In case I sound like I think we should 'call the whole thing off', I really don't. Each of these dimensions is hugely important, and we always have to play the hand we are given. I believe that doing/conceiving/reconceiving SMSC better might be a way to transform education 'from the inside' more broadly. In this respect, here are a few shorter points that might be relevant to this goal:

Rather than ask how do we do SMSC, in most cases it makes more sense to me to ask what it would look like for a student to be doing S, or M or S or C?

  • Throughout the discussion I kept thinking of Iain Mcgilchrist's work on the difference 'ways of being' of the two hemispheres. The drive to measure outcomes of explicit instruction rather than judge the significance of implicit learning; and the focus on parts of the learning experience rather than the integrated whole- I felt all of that was there as a kind of background music to the discussion; and, for those who sense that too, Iain's work helps make sense of why that might be so. 

  • I also felt there is an philosophical difference between 'social' and the other three dimensions. For me, with Social Brain hat on, I now see the social as constitutive of the other perspectives. We are so fundamentally, physiologically and psychologically 'social' that this grounds and shapes how we construct morality, culture and spirituality. If this subtle point sounds interesting to you, check out pages 10-15 of Transforming Behaviour change: What does it mean to say the Brain is 'Social'?

  • There is much to say about the spiritual. My impression is that current framings and measures could be improved in various ways. There is a real danger that in a drive to be non-denominational all the rich content of the spiritual is thrown out. The main thing I would want to impart to children about the spiritual is a deeper appreciation for experience as such, and their own role in shaping their experience. You can't do that with a textbook, but from a relatively early stage you can learn practices related to meditation that will teach them more about, for instance, their own minds and their own breathing. Personally, I believe that's a necessary, but not sufficient condition for 'doing' spirituality well.

More generally, I was struck by the impression, perhaps mistaken, that teachers and schools sounded like they were in danger of doing SMSC to students rather than making it possible for them to acquire such understanding/appreciation/experience themselves.

Rather than ask how do we do SMSC, in most cases it makes more sense to me to ask what it would look like for a student to be doing S, or M or S or C? It would be helpful to have more examples of the kinds of activities that would allow students to grasp such things for themselves through their own thoughts or action. In this respect, I was reminded of the following quote by Matthew Lipman (Philosophy in the Classroom, 1980, p13) which seems a good place to end this personal reflection:

"Meanings cannot be dispensed. They cannot be given or handed out (to children). Meanings must be acquired; they are capta, not data. We have to learn how to establish the conditions and opportunities that will enable (children), with their natural curiosity and appetite for meaning, to seize upon the appropriate clues and make sense of things for themselves… Something must be done to enable (children) to acquire meaning for themselves. They will not acquire such meaning merely by learning the contents of (adult) knowledge. They must be taught to think and, in particular, to think for themselves."


Be the first to write a comment

Please login to post a comment or reply.

Don't have an account? Click here to register.