Tag Archives: Progressive

Democratic Education is no Utopia

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Don’t say goodbye to Mr Chips!!!

Maybe its because I’ve read Lord of the Flies but I’m not sure putting children in charge of education is the best thing for them, our schools, or, indeed, all of our futures. In her ‘Utopian Thinking’ piece in the Guardian, Rachel Roberts argues:

There are a few things we are teaching our children that will be redundant. First, memorising and regurgitating a lot of information – they have information at their fingertips, quite possibly beamed directly into their brains by the time they become active participants in adult society. Second, being told what to do – if they are going to have to resolve problems that have never been faced before they need to know how to think creatively, not follow. And, finally, they do not need to be subordinates on the bottom rung of an authority structure that prepares them simply to obey regardless of the orders – they need to be regarded as the experts that they are.

I don’t know whether Rachel has children or not. Imagine, however, if children were brought up by their parents following this fashionable approach. No learning to read, it might be beamed into your head in the future. No telling you what to do, no toilet training, shit when and where you feel like it: Reductio Ad Abturdum… No following any adult orders at all, just cross that road, I don’t want you to obey me, be the expert that you are, under the wheels of that car.

I have an inkling this is not what she means. I expect her views are not shaped by the home experience, I expect she has a fondness for a degree of adult authority in the home. Though I don’t know. But it is the school that is the target of most of her ire. Roberts is an education consultant.

So what does an education system that isn’t entrenched in top-down authority structures look like? What does it take to get to the point where children are entering our adult world with the wisdom and intuition required to navigate the abundance of information and ride the waves of unexpected new realities?

Democratic education is needed

The answer: put children in charge of schools. Allow them to decide when, where, what, how and with whom they learn; have them resolving real problems day in, day out…

Such a system would be supported by two pillars. The first is collective decision-making, with children fully participating in governing the school community. This should go far beyond a school council. There should be a school meeting where one person has one vote – regardless of age – and where school rules, behaviour management and legislation are the matters at stake.

The second is “self-directed discovery”, with children following their inherently inquisitive nature. Young people are curious, they want to make sense of the world, that’s why they ask questions: “why, why, why … ” A good education system doesn’t intervene, ask them to stop being this way and tell them what to learn. It puts the trust in the child, thus increasing their motivation and allowing them to learn what they need to.

This means rights and responsibilities. A child of any age. Now, with anything like this, it all sounds lovely if children vote the way you want them to. Roberts asks:

Wish some of our “grown up” political decisions were made like this? I’d say children are equipped to be involved, I’d trust them to take me through the challenging times ahead. Wouldn’t you?

But in a true democracy they might vote in ways that you don’t want them to. Just as well meaning ‘liberal’ types  have taken part in recent democratic processes and have found that sometimes people with opposing views to them can win and have found it to be a bit of a shock, I wonder what shock awaits the well meaning ‘give the kids power’ education consultant when they find that the children choose to exercise power in ways that they wouldn’t choose. Especially when you consider these are intended to be children who have received little to no authority in their young lives. As William Golding asks

“What are we? Humans? Or animals? Or savages?” 

Who will intervene to ensure the behaviour management strategy is not ‘beating up the younger children because they are annoying?’ Where the school rules include sexual favours for certain children or where the right to indoctrinate younger children with terrorist propaganda is flavour of the month with the bigger kids? What if they vote to take away the vote from younger kids?

And why not intervene when a child is exploring online? The self centred discovery of a child lacking control as they are let free in a, so called, ‘adult world’ of depraved images and depictions, arguments and falsities. Roberts is entirely wrong when she states that:

A good education system doesn’t intervene, ask them to stop being this way and tell them what to learn 

Because a good education system DOES intervene, it is there to help children navigate a world of complexity and danger, beauty and joy, immorality and judgement, carefree and careful, an education in these things and more needs authority.

And just like the authority of the parent who teaches her child to read, his child to eat well, her child to go to sleep at a sensible hour, this authority is about love.

Exercising authority is about care. Care for our children is part protective and part empowering. This is not a process of throwing babies into a fully adult world. It is one of nurture. Children need to learn that the human condition is not perfect, they must learn how to cope with that realisation. The most caring way of preparing them for this is to educate them properly by teaching them in a structured and thoughtful way rather than neglecting them.

Roberts’ utopian view is a frightening dystopia in which adults lose any semblance of control they have and give it to those who have no experience about what to do with it. Our world is flawed not because we are adults but because we are human. It won’t be made better by putting children in charge, they are human too and, probably, even more flawed than us. Especially if no one has thought about how to best educate them.

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It Was the Worst of Times; It was the Best of Times: Are Our Schools and Kids Awful?

In yesterday’s Daily Mail they ran the following headline:

The worst behaved pupils in the world? You’d better believe it: As a study says schools are even more anarchic than we thought, the shocking testimony of a once idealistic young teacher.” What followed was an article reflecting on a survey about how our pupils are rated amongst the worst behaved in the developed world. The article was written by Robert Peal, a person who I have a lot of time for and I think has a valuable contribution to make to our current debates. In the article he seems to put the blame on this classroom anarchy on the Sixties and the rise of “progressive education.” Robert quotes an earlier Daily Mail Headline from 1974: “Stop these trendies before they ruin ALL our children,” to which he adds the thought: “But the rot had already set in — and has endured.”

Just to put some cards on the table I was at school in a disastrous comprehensive school in 1974. It wasn’t disastrous because of trendies, in fact it was disastrous because those in charge of the previous Girl’s Grammar school (the fuddy duddys?) remained in charge of the new school and they had no idea how to cope with boys especially those of us who weren’t particularly respectful of authority. They hit us but couldn’t break us…

But that’s by the by… I couldn’t help reflecting on Robert’s article when I looked at headlines in yesterday’s Times that reported another survey, this time from the University of Cardiff’s Violence and Society Research Group, that comes to the conclusion that our young people are “far more sensible than their parents…” and that this, the adjoining article stated, is backed up by a number of other surveys stating that drug use continues to fall, binge drinking is down, incidents of violent crime are going down, and there is a rise in the number of young people who don’t drink alcohol at all. Added to this the Times reports that ‘Generation Zero’ (aged between 16-25) are: “…hard workers, ambitious and less materialistic…” than previous generations.

So who has not ruined the current generation? It can’t be, can it, those blooming progressive trendies that inhabit our schools, could it be that the chance to let off steam in an anarchic classroom does our young people good?

I think perhaps things are more complex than they seem. Somewhere along the line most teachers are probably doing a good job inhabiting a world that is probably far more traditional than some of the more lurid headlines suggest. Saying that, I do think what we teach and how we teach needs to be discussed openly and honestly and it is in this spirit that I welcome Robert’s book Progressively Worse and wish him good luck in his new school. We do need more teachers like Robert in our schools but I do wonder whether the way we introduce some young teachers to our profession, by throwing them into some of our more anarchic institutions is the best way to bring the best out of them.

Our bad schools need to be sorted out through good discipline policies and procedures in order to enable all to staff to develop their teaching (and children their learning) without the turmoil or even low level disruption that too many teachers are expected to tolerate.