Schools play a formative role in everyone’s life and in all communities. Not only are they mandated to teach traditional subjects but they are increasingly expected to engage with an array of society’s social, sexual, cultural and political challenges.

It is now commonplace to question whether formal education is doing enough in areas as diverse as the environment, health, relationships, enterprise, political literacy, anti-racism and hate speech, religion, gender, etc. The list continues to grow as awareness and advocacy increase around such agendas.

To what extent do schools have a duty and responsibility in these matters, as distinct from the responsibility of parents, society or the state? What is it that we expect of educators when society itself is often deeply divided on these issues? What should they seek to instil in their students?

Questions such as these are often raised when subjects like sexual behaviour hit the news – we recently reported on a study that found nearly half of young Maltese do not use contraceptives – but also in relation to hate speech, racism, politics and other thorny issues.

There can be little argument that teachers and the curriculum have a duty to teach (in the broadest sense of that term) critical enquiry around such issues. Not only are they required to impart facts and knowledge but also related attitudes, values and capabilities.

In that context, teachers and learners are expected to engage with agendas that are routinely sensitive and controversial. Schools are often – perhaps unfairly – expected to mould, inform and stimulate discussion on topics that divide families, communities and society.

But without question, learners do have a right to education in many of these areas, a right that is all too often neglected or even obstructed. Our education system does have responsibilities in this regard and those responsibilities need to be taken more seriously.

Ideally, teaching and learning would promote a number of core ‘dispositions’, in particular those of critical self-awareness and appropriate self-confidence, allied to an appreciation of interdependence.

Attitudes and values about oneself, others and society are foundational. So too are the skills and capabilities that help us engage with the world in all its dimensions: critical thinking, analytical and communication skills, interpersonal and social skills, the ability to link knowledge and understanding with action, etc.

Education needs to encourage equal recognition of the needs, rights and responsibilities of others, the ability to recognise and value diversity and the desire to know more about others at a deeper level.

It should nurture a deep sense of belonging, not just to this land but to all lands and to nature and the planet. A sense of personal and collective agency – a sense of involvement and the conviction that we can make a difference – are crucial to well-being in the round.

There are also specific intellectual skills that need to be fostered in schools, such as the ability to find and interpret information and ideas, to organise those thoughts constructively and to extract key concepts from a range of such information.

Above all, what needs to be imparted is an understanding of how what we do has implications and results for others, near or far; an appreciation of the impact of different types of action and of the fact that not all action is positive. Empathy is foundational here.

In debating the role of the formal education system in society we need to recognise its broadest dimensions and avoid reducing it to a list of tickbox exercises. Teaching and learning are far too important.

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