Sunday, 11 January 2015

What is an education for?

What do our schools educate for?

Mainly, to train and certify young people in segregated subjects so that they can be rated and ranked for preferred entry into higher education and training.

Teachers try, insofar as they can, to stimulate a love of their disciplines in their captive charges, and to bend their lessons to entertain those of their students' interests that can be brought vaguely into the ambit of the curriculum.

But what if we could turn this system on its head?

What if instead of channeling children's learning into disciplines deemed valuable by adults in authority, we permitted children to decide for themselves what they wanted to learn?

What if instead of teachers straining to engage and appeal to a captive audience, children were free to ignore what teachers had to offer, until such time as teachers offered material and mentoring that the children themselves deemed valuable?

What if, instead of extra-curricular activities and citizenship values being add-ons, the whole of young people's lives were extra-curricular and engaged in real-world nature and community?

Of course, many young people would never then read an entire Shakespeare play, or learn geometry, or design a fair test.  But if they never had any interest in doing so, then so what?  What does somebody who has no sense of the value or contribution of such knowledge or skills gain from learning about them, anyway?

Do you feel deprived at never being forced to learn, in spite of your lack of calling or interest, which mushrooms to pick at which times of the year?  Or how to keep a double-entry account book?  Or how to home-make a banjo?

You don't miss what you have no feeling for.

If we cannot stimulate young people to want to know how a blast-furnace works, or how to conjugate ĂȘtre and avoir, or how people were treated under slavery, then what business do we have making them learn?  The truth is, they will forget most of it anyway.  It is very hard to retain learning which evokes no feeling or curiosity.

But, if we could help children to learn what they want to learn, letting them lead the way... If they could be taught why there are seasons when they were curious at the onset of winter.  If they needed to learn trigonometry to tell which mountain was higher.  If they wanted to learn Spanish to talk with children in their neighbourhood.  That is learning that will be loved, retained, built on, enjoyed.

Would the children miss out, not having learned enough maths when they were younger to become the chemists they want to be at age 20?  Then let them learn the maths they need.  They'll get it then because they'll want it.  Even if it takes time, they'll get there because they feel the need.

We are doing something badly wrong with education.  The official benchmark for passing out of your compulsory education is 5 C-grades at GCSE, including English and Maths.  In 2014, this was achieved by 52.6% of students.  To speak plainly, only half of young people in England are leaving school having reached a minimally satisfactory academic standard.

In other words, what we are doing does not work for half of the population being educated.

And isn't the biggest problem with schooling the fact that millions of young people hate it?

So let's imagine taking a different tack.

We want students who love to learn.

We want human beings who flourish, who develop skills and knowledge that improve their own lives and the life of society at large.  We want people to be as happy as possible.

We want historians who critically challenge myths that serve powerful elites, we want scientists with the imagination to discover new knowledge about the natural world, we want business people who make a profit by providing something useful rather than by finding new ways to extract revenue without producing anything, we want citizens who can reconcile their differences with tolerance, and stand their ground with principle.

So what if we experimented with an education in which children and young people learned what they wished to learn, from people whom they wanted to listen to?  Imagine an education system where children learnt economics when they asked why there aren't enough jobs in their town, biology when they were fascinated while gutting a chicken, physics when they needed to erect a pulley to hoist the backdrop in their play.

Imagine if we didn't push every child through geometry and algebra... but we damn sure taught the young people who wanted to learn them, and didn't waste millions of man-hours trying to force-feed it to unwilling students who couldn't care less and would never in their lives use them for any personal purpose.

Perhaps this is utopian thinking on a grand social scale.  But it is what Ben Hewitt recounts doing with his family on their farm in Vermont in Home Grown.  His two boys are 'unschooled'.  He at one point describes their lives as an extended vacation, but this isn't really accurate.

The boys have been given the freedom to follow their own inclinations, to learn what they wanted to learn, to be mentored in skills they valued by instructors and friends they admired. They have been integrated into the productive life of their family's land, and learnt initiative, responsibility and team-work by doing real, purposeful, valuable work. They spend most of their time roaming the forest, hunting, trapping, gathering, inventing, using, planning, learning, and have been brought up to have productive responsibilities like their own goats and gardens. And, yes, they have learnt to read and write and do maths, as well as bits of geography and biology, and all sorts, as and when they found a need for them relevant to their own interests and goals. They have been trusted in a way almost no children are in our world.

What comes across most forcefully, is that they are children who explore, produce, do, experiment, fail, learn and do better, all in ways that matter to them.  At times they have learnt creatively and spontaneously in ways that Ben and his wife, Penny, never thought they would be capable of.  They are not perfectly selfless workers, they can be stubborn, they are surely ignorant of some things that we might think an educated person should know.  (Although for what it's worth, studies that have been done have found that un-schooled children as a group do fine in higher education.)

But they love learning.  If there's something truly important that they need to know, then they will know how to learn it.  They must know what it is to invest effort and care in learning, to wrestle with ethical questions, to balance the interests of self and other.  And they have done it all while immersed in the real world.  Or at least, a real world.  A farm in Vermont, not a slum.

I have no idea how a such a truly "child-centered" educational ideal could be embodied in mass institutions.  We don't as a society have the confidence in human nature to give it free reign.  There are schools, like Summerhill, which give children freedom, but I can't imagine a time when we as a society would have the confidence to do this together.  It must needs be experimental at this point.

So although this is not a realistic alternative on a social level right now, what if we took it seriously as an alternative on the level of the family and the community?  Ben Hewitt's book is one that I think is so important as a left-field perspective that it demands to be considered by everybody concerned in the education of young people.

Thank you for reading.