Thursday 6 November 2014

Don't apologise

Several things came together recently and left me with the need to articulate a sense of frustration that I often experience when people talk about their schooling experience. Listening to Kate Tempest the other week she was talking about hating school as a teenager, knowing that it was such a waste, but then she *felt the need to apologise* to teachers in the audience, because of course she didn't mean them, they are bound to be good teachers, who love children and helping them learn stuff and making their time in school joyful and meaningful. What a load of tosh. Why do people do this? A young woman (after admitting to being a teacher) asked a question at the end about how she might encourage her students to engage with and find enthusiasm for 'the classics' (Kate's main piece was inspired by ancient greek myth). One might rephrase the question like this: "I am enthusiastic about 'such-and-such random thing' (or it is on the curriculum and I must include it in this term's lessons), I want my students to be enthusiastic and engage with my lessons in a satisfactory way, how can I force them to do this?" Teachers don't seem to get that their enthusiasms are freely chosen. Children in school don't freely choose any of the things they learn there, why do the teachers keep expecting enthusiasm. Kate also commented, and this is something you hear regularly, that she had an english teacher who inspired her. Many people who hated school had one lesson or teacher who did give them something important; that's great for them, but does it make school a worthwhile exercise? What about the 29 other kids in the class who did not care about that lesson. What school does for 99% of the time for 99% of the pupils is to prevent them from learning stuff that matters to them.

Every time I read things in the news about this or that subject that should be made compulsory on the curriculum, because children needs know it, I just get more frustrated. Yes, lots of things out there are important, but everyone has their own little pet subject that they think is more important and deserves special attention. One of the most recent ones was teaching coding to primary school kids. What jumped out at me here was the comment 'get children interested in computing'. It is not about allowing children who are interested in computing to learn more about their enthusiasm but about obliging everyone, no matter what they might be interested in, to spend time learning to programme a computer. I use a computer all the time but have only the most rudimentary of knowledge on how it operates. But then the same is true of a car engine. The same is also true of the postal system in which I am a small cog. But *if I was interested it would not be hard for me to find out*. In this overwhelming 'information age' I have come to think that making anything compulsory has become even more meaningless. When someone finds they need to know something it is not difficult to learn, because their own purpose gives the impetus. My son Lewis manages a reptile shop. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the animals that he cares for and sells. He did not get this knowledge because someone told him it would be useful for when he grew up and worked in a reptile shop, he has it because of his own passion and enthusiasm. 

My good friend Jill, who has written a book entitled 'So what's wrong with school', led a discussion at Hesfes about what education is for. There were plenty of people in the audience even there who spoke up and claimed an important place for whatever it was that they loved doing or knowing about. But mostly the talk was about much more abstract ideas and qualities: self-confidence and self-reliance, resilience, how to learn, how to communicate, how to find and value what you want to know, being open to new ideas and experiences and not confined by other's and society's expectations. To quote (paraphrase) the much missed John Holt, education should be about finding a life worth living and work worth doing. 

And then I watched that lovely Ted talk posted at the top, and all the people clapped at the end when the man tells them they should stop fucking with children's lives and just let them get on with the important stuff of playing, and it's almost as if they don't realise quite how subversive this idea is. Play is the way that children make sense of the word and learn the skills they need to know to function within their society. He talks about how damaging it is that the 'schoolish view' of childhood has come to predominate. People think that time they spend in self-directed play is wasted. The government in this country is pushing for younger and younger children to have their lives and activities dictated by the needs of institutions (and by extension the long term needs of the economy), school hours extend and 'after school activities' that are structured and controlled by adults dominate much of their free time. It becomes really difficult to speak up against these pervasive ideas. On the blog 'I'm unschooled, yes I can write' Idzie posted this week about how even someone committed to alternative models of learning can't escape the pressures to prove herself. She talks about how she apologises for what she has not done or not achieved, the things that conventional education values (like bits of paper to prove her knowledge), and she has to remind herself of all the important intangible things that have made up, and continue to make up, her education. 
At the other end of the spectrum you get these lovely people in America who want to rip out the bits of the textbook that they don't approve of. It's all the same really, it's about controlling what children learn, either by dictating or preventing. 

I am in NaNo avoidance mode here so the initial ideas I had have, as usual, become muddied. The gist of the post is, school is crap, don't apologise for saying so. And just in case you're not sure:

(Rant over, and I'm not apologising.)

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