Justin Bieber could teach kids a thing or two about history (Independent)

When it comes to the thorny question of education, there are plenty of points of view around, with Michael Gove urging more rigour and the teaching unions staunchly opposing his plans.

But left or right-wing, one thing we’d expect everyone to be united on is that a teenage pop star probably doesn’t make the best history teacher.

Yet thanks to Justin Bieber’s arguably inappropriate guestbook comment, this week some of Britain’s youngsters may have had their first exposure to the Holocaust and to teenage diarist Anne Frank.

His fans certainly think that’s the case. “Reading tweets I saw that other teens my age and some who were even older had no clue who Anne was, which really surprised me,” says Leah, 15, whose Twitter handle even has “Bieber” in it. “If he and other celebrities begin to mention more icons like Anne then it will help.”

“Justin is someone people look up to, so they may want to find out more,” adds avowed Belieber Emily, 16.

Given that Justin is unlikely to follow his tour of The Anne Frank House with a trip to the Somme – “where did they plug their ipods in?” – or start quoting Shakespeare on Twitter, we can leave the rights and wrongs of his tribute to one side. But the incident raises the question of role models, and whether it is worrying that many teenagers would rather look up to Jessie J or Harry Styles than Anne Frank.

“On the whole their role models are celebrities or sports stars,” says secondary school religious studies teacher Simon. “Most of them have a few who they see as somebody to look up to – who they are rather obsessed with and drool over.”

But other teachers point out that pupils often consciously choose not to follow the crowd, and say we should give them more credit. “In my college it’s more about Beyonce, Nicki Minaj and Kendrick Lamar,” says history A Level teacher Andrew. “Some idolise them uncritically, others just appreciate their films or music but recognise their fallibility.”

“My pupils talk about celebrities a lot, often expressing admiration,” says Josh, a secondary school science teacher. “However, do not underestimate their ability to decide make their own opinion of what is worth following. With boys and footballers – they are just as likely to view them negatively as positively.”

Simon used Bieber’s gaffe to start a discussion about the surrounding issues in a Monday lesson. As a football fan, he finds it can be useful for pupils to “know that you are interested in things they are interested – teachers who can’t sometimes struggle relating to the kids.”

Although he wouldn’t generally cite a specific celebrity, he would introduce a topic with “an analogy with something in their cultural realm.”

“Some of them were talking about football violence today [after clashes at the FA Cup semi finals],” he adds. “If something in the media tickles their interest they are much more likely to talk about it than If I say ‘let’s discuss racism.”

“If in my case Justin was to tweet about an issue, I know that the next morning my friends and I would be discussing it,” says Leah. “If Justin and other celebrities did mention Anne and other icons from history then they would definitely get people’s attention.”

“I find the use of ‘celebrity’ in the classroom extremely powerful. It can introduce young people to topics in a manner that parents and teachers are simply unable to,” explains Josh, “But for some students, if used as anything more than simply a ‘hook’ it can blind them to the real lesson. And there is certainly a danger when the celebrity does not know much of the world they are stumbling into, such as Bieber and the Holocaust.”

Of course, it is tricky territory; one pupil’s idol is another’s laughing stock. More than that, there’s the worry that a onetime mention will be interpreted as an endorsement of everything that celebrity does. Simon refers to one pupil, who changes her hair in response to her favourite star’s prerogative. “What if that celebrity started to self harm?” he asks.

And teen idols, from Lindsay Lohan to Miley Cyrus, are known for falling from grace – in different ways of course. Bieber might be reminding his fans about the Nazis this week, but what if he gets into a brawl tomorrow? “It can lead to certain difficult questions down the road,” says Simon.

According to Jonathan Freeman, national director of mentoring network Mosaic, the real problem is when they lack additional role models within their own lives.

“The young people with whom we work recognise very clearly that media stars rarely offer them a realistic goal to which to aspire,” he says. “Sadly, too few have examples of individuals who have achieved significant success in their careers from within their own social and family networks.”

It’s not always an option to brush a celebrity’s behaviour under the carpet, especially when pupils see that person as a role model. Teachers have to proceed with caution, but they also have to engage with what their pupils are talking about. “A good teacher will always find a way to help students relate to any subject,” says Josh. “A celebrity is simply one tool.”

And those complaining of the dumbing down of a generation would do well to remember that Anne herself had posters of her idols on her walls, as many teenagers do today.

“Is it worrying at 14?” asks Simon. “For the most part they grow out of it and realise it’s immature to see that person as a role model. I can’t imagine too many of them being obsessed with Jessie J at university.”

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Josh Lyman, School Choices and Scoring Points (Huff Post UK)

Rahm Emanuel with his children

Rahm Emanuel, the former White House staffer, and the inspiration behind West Wing’s Josh Lyman, has had a bad news week. Politicians on this side of the Atlantic will sympathise. Just a few months into his first term as Chicago mayor – a position he had to fight darn hard for – he’s being accused of betraying his city’s public school system.

The reason? This avowed Democrat, a guy who pledged to champion the cause of education, decided to send his kids to private school.

For the Examiner, it was a “snub” and an insult to the Chicago school system, most other papers emphasised just how private and prestigious the school he’d chosen was.

A blogger for NBC Chicago noted snarkily that Rahm was rich enough to go to Thailand, while the rest of his neighbourhood could barely afford Thai meals.

“Decisions he makes in that private life may have public ramifications,” wrote Edward McClelland. “If the mayor doesn’t send his kids to public school, he’ll send a message that Chicago is not a city for the middle class, but a city for well-to-do families who can afford private school tuition.”

Time and again, this issue flares up, for politicians in different countries and of all stripes. Tony Blair dealt with it over the selective Oratory school, Nick Clegg too. It even came up in an episode of spoof series The Thick of It.

How can a politician not practice what he preaches, shriek the critics, as if they can solve problems only when their children are put at a disadvantage.

Hypocrisy? Maybe? But too often it’s beside the point.

This post first appeared on Huffington Post UK. Read the rest here.

Cooking Up A New Curriculum (Huff Post UK)

How do you boil an egg?

It’s not a ridiculous question. In fact, it’s one some of the most well-educated and intellectual people out there would struggle with.

They might be clued up on Chaucer and know Tolstoy to a T, but ask them about baking, boiling or frying and, quite often, they will be stumped for an answer.

I’m generalising of course. It’s not just the straight-A students who lack life skills, it’s everyone.

By the time the national curriculum was introduced in 1988, home economics was “food technology” and regarded as akin to design and technology. Politicians have occasionally brought up a return to practical cooking in schools – Ed Balls prompted much debate with such a pledge in 2008 – but the reality is, too many school-leavers have never been near a saucepan or an oven glove.

It’s not just cooking. It’s everything from changing a light-bulb to cleaning a loo.

As a rent-paying adult in a full-time job, I’ll freely admit that I’m still blurry on the nuances of mortgages, tax bands and interest rates. I’ve spent more hours than Jimmy Wales intended on Wikipedia, familiarising myself with everyday concepts like ISAs or credit ratings. Better that than to admit I’m clueless.

It’s time to address just how clueless we are.

We’re taught “No to drink and drugs” or “Don’t have unprotected sex”, but less time is dedicated to life skills like basic finances, reading the electricity meter or following the instruction manual for IKEA flat pack furniture.

This post first appeared on Huffington Post UK. Read the rest here.