I’ve been doing some research lately on the topic of education. I am not a big fan of mainstream education systems, and the whole culture of school, although from what I see, there are kids who are fine and can thrive wherever you put them. They are able to maintain their own inate intelligence and self-worth. However I think these kids are the minority.
The whole idea of education needs to be looked at and questioned as we move forward into a more intelligent way of living on the planet. It needs to reflect new priorities, to treat children as intelligent human beings, and listen to what they have to say about their own education and about the world they inhabit.
Most of the education systems in the world are based on a very old paradigm, that has gone more or less unquestioned by most people. In fact public education has changed little ever since it was introduced about 200 years ago.
It is based on certain assumptions, such as:
These assumptions date from the “Age of Enlightenment” in the 18th century in Europe, when public education was first introduced. This coincided with the industrial revolution, and the roots of education are closely tied to this transformation from a predominantly agrarian/craftsman apprenticeship based education for the masses, to the requirement for a large workforce with a basic education to work in factories.
This period was also marked by the elevation of reason, intellect and academic learning as being superior compared to all other forms of intelligence and creativity.
No wonder that schools became so similar to factories, with the teachers having the authority of bosses, uniforms, many rules, strict discipline, punishment for non-attendance, and an emphasis on conformity rather than individuality. Success became measured in figures which demonstrate how well you can memorise data, and regurgitate formulaic reasoned arguments. A system which supports the control of the ruling classes – the religious leaders, academics, and governments, and the corporate bosses.
Even though we are living in a very different world now, mainstream education seems to mostly cling to this old model, and there seems to be an increase in the standardisation of curriculums, more testing at ever younger ages, and the more fun outdoor, creative and artistic activities relegated to after school clubs etc. Kids are often stressed by exams and deadened by conformity at school. Their natural curiosity and creative energy, youthful boisterousness and cheekiness is often suppressed, knocked out of them completely, or they are medicated into zombies.
Sir Ken Robinson takes a look at this history, in this fun animated talk on the state of education today:
As I researched this topic further, I realised that I still had a certain unquestioned beliefs around school being a good thing for kids in developing countries. We are so often given the message that kids in these countries need ‘proper’ schooling in order to give them a chance of a happy and prosperous life. A new documentary called “Schooling the World” challenges this assumption, and you can view the trailer here.
There may well be many instances when kids have benefitted enormously from their education and it has enabled them to realise their potential and pursue their dreams. However, the imposition of this western model of education onto other cultures is also another way to turn them into cogs in the global economy machine, whilst alienating them from local indigenous wisdom, word of mouth learning, and the hands-on learning of skills through apprenticeship. Not all “child labour” is a bad thing, a child can enjoy learning through helping out the family or someone in the local community.
It is forced labour, like forced education that is problematic, and based on the presumption that children can’t make decisions for themselves, and that their opinions are invalid. There is also a fear of children and their freedom, a fear of the chaos that might ensue if they are not under tight control. So many of these education systems are focused on manipulating kids to be more convenient for the adults. In most schools this results in a marked lack of respect between teachers and children.
I like this quote from a book called “Deschooling Our Lives”, by M.Hern –
“It is ironic that education, carried out by well-meaning people hoping to produce or enhance learning, ends up attacking learning. But this is precisely what happens, despite all the good intentions. In the climate of education, learning is cut off and disembedded from active life. It is divorced from personal curiosity and is thus profoundly denatured. Learning shrivels as it becomes the result of a process controlled, manipulated and governed by others. It deteriorates into empty actions done under the pressure of bribe and threat, greed and fear. We all know this to be true from our own “educational” experiences.
When I speak of education, I am not referring only to that which goes on in schools. Today “education” takes place in many guises and settings: through the mass media, in the workplace and in the home. We adopt the educative stance when we feel it is our right and duty to manipulate others for their own good.
Let me be clear: I am not against all forms of teaching. It is a privilege and a joy to help someone do something he or she has freely chosen to do, provided that we are invited to help. I am against unasked-for, I’m-doing-this-for-your-own-good teaching.” (Aaron Falbel “Learning? Yes, of course. Education? No, thanks.” Excerpted from Hern, M. 1996. Deschooling Our Lives. Stony Creek, CT: New Society Publishers. (from http://www.swaraj.org/shikshantar/resources_falbel.html).
So what are the alternatives?
There are many; ranging from the more long-established Steiner-Waldorf and Montessori school systems, to Democratic schools, home schooling, ‘unschooling’, apprenticeship, to a combination of some of these. Amongst these alternatives, there are varying degrees of freedom for the kids to make decisions and choose what and how they wish to learn, and varying degrees of integration of learning with the rest of life.
At the more radical end of the alternative schooling spectrum is the Democratic school movement, also known as ‘Free schools’. In these schools, kids and teachers participate in all decision making together, and the kids make up and agree on their own rules.
I watched some eye-opening videos showing these schools, such as this one – http://www.educationrevolution.org/freetolearn.html, which also includes interviews with kids who have attended the school. At first it seems pretty edgy and radical to allow this much freedom and such a random chaotic environment. But continued watching shows how there is an underlying organised system in operation, mainly focused around group meetings, where kids can bring to the table any problems they have, discuss and create rules, and resolve conflicts with other kids or teachers. I found watching this process very moving, for the respect and space given to all to find their truth, and express themselves openly.
The downside of these schools is that can be hard to ‘fit back in’ to the mainstream, particularly if they then attend a mainstream school for further study. (But who really wants to fit in to a disfunctional society anyway?). The focus in these more radically alternative schools is on the development of balanced human beings who have respect for themselves and others, rather than ‘high achievers’. It is often children that have found regular schools difficult, or have been labelled as disruptive or slow-learning, that can thrive in these environments, and can then have the space to find out what engages and interests them.
This leads us to question the whole purpose of education. What is it for?
Is it a data-programming tool for human-robots?
Or is it about supporting an ongoing learning process and encouraging children to be curious, to think for themselves, discover their voice, learn how to interact with others, and be responsible for their lives and their actions. Is it about questioning and discovering the mystery of what it is to be a human being in all its richness? Do we want a system that values competition or co-operation?
Here are some more points to consider around the limitations of the current mainstream model of education:
1. It is often stated that inventions and scientific breakthroughs usually come as sudden intuitive insights, not from rational thinking or from book knowledge. Here are a few quotes from Albert Einstein, who had a lot to say on this topic:
on being a scientist:
“The state of mind which enables a man to do work of this kind is akin to that of the religious worshiper or the lover; the daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart.”
“I believe in intuition and inspiration. Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.”
“I believe, indeed, that overemphasis on the purely intellectual attitude, often directed solely to the practical and factual, in our education, has led directly to the impairment of ethical values. I am not thinking so much of the dangers with which technical progress has directly confronted mankind, as of the stifling of mutual human considerations by a “matter-of-fact” habit of thought which has come to lie like a killing frost upon human relations. … The frightful dilemma of the political world situation has much to do with this sin of omission on the part of our civilization. Without “ethical culture,” there is no salvation for humanity.”
(see more quotes at http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Albert_Einstein)
Small children are naturally very intuitive, imaginative and deeply connected to nature and the natural flow of things. But these qualities are often devalued or even mocked by ‘grown-ups’, and the schooling system. Kids usually undergo a process of ‘forgetting’, – dismissing and shutting down the parts of themselves that are open to the kinds of connection and communication that are beyond our mental understanding and control.
This closing down of our intuitive capabilities limits our natural facility to tap into a vast amount of knowledge and wisdom, that can be gleaned from direct observation of the world and the wider universe, or that can be perceived purely intuitively or psychically. Perhaps many other very useful capacities are lost – such as healing abilities, psychic abilities such as remote viewing and clairvoyance, as well as the deep recognition of our interconnectedness. It is possible that all the information and knowledge that we need is available for us to access directly if we open up to it, and believe it possible.
2. Expertise in the cutting edge high-tech professions such as computer software or mechanics, is not available in educational institutions, because of the volume and complexity of the highly-specialised information. In these fields, an apprenticeship-type learning model is already the best way to learn skills such as how to write the latest software.
3. Another important point to remember is that especially in this age, we do not need teachers to be the holders and transmitters of knowledge (the knowledge priests). If kids need information, they can find it on the internet. And there are an increasing number of interesting and useful projects that are using computer technology for education.
In the TED talk below, Sugata Mitra talks about a computer based learning project, in which computers were installed in poor Indian villages, and just left there without giving the children instructions on what to do with them. The results of the experiment surprised many. Not only did the kids teach themselves how to use the computer, they also co-operated in helping each other learn. Further experiments with computer-based learning for children, showed that they learnt best in small groups, so they would discuss amongst themselves whatever they were learning, and in the process retain much of the information. Sugata Mitra has developed the concept of Minimally Invasive Education based on these studies. Find out more here: http://www.hole-in-the-wall.com/MIE.html
Here is the video:
4. This and other studies have shown that children, (and adults) often learn quickest, and have a better chance of retaining that knowledge, when they are relaxed and having fun, fully engaged and enjoying whatever they are doing. Even if regular schools shifted their focus towards acknowledging this, rather than being obsessed with tests and league-tables, it would make schools more uplifting environments for both children and teachers.
I envisage a learning model for the future that is much more loose and fluid than the current uptight, restrictive and repressive model. One based on ideas such as these:
- Kids can choose when and if they go to school, and what they wish to study.
- Schools are fun and enticing places to spend time in, places where individual creativity and experimentation is encouraged, ideas are shared, and there is plenty of space for play.
- Teachers take more of a mentoring role, and are available for guidance and help when required.
- Children learn how to take responsibility for their lives, and for their own physical and emotional wellbeing. Instruction in physical and energetic practises such as yoga, martial arts, or tai chi is available. Sitting quietly, breathing and meditating are offered as ways of taking care of oneself when life offers challenges.
- Kids (and parents) learn how to communicate and respect others, and how to reconcile different perspectives and ideas about things.
- Each community has home-schooling networks that provide a wealth of resources and support.
- Teachers, kids and parents are all regarded as equals, and all have a valid say in decision-making.
“The true alternative to conventional education is not any wonderful new method dreamed up by adults. It is simply the opportunity for children to follow their own interests with the support of adults who respect them as equals.” David Gribble
“It is easier to run a school of conformists than a school of individuals, but conformists, by definition, can never be themselves.” David Gribble
Some great links and resources:
http://www.davidgribble.co.uk (great articles and writings on schooling and education from this pioneer of alternative schooling, plus links and recommended books)
http://www.idenetwork.org/index.htm (International Democratic Education Network)
Education Revolution (website of the Alternative Education Resource Organisation)
http://www.democraticeducation.com/ (great videos and resources)
http://www.hse.org.uk/Index.html (Human Scale Education – UK based education reform organisation)
http://www.summerhillschool.co.uk/ (website of the the first alternative ‘free school’, founded in 1921 in England)
http://www.holtgws.com/index.html (about the work if John Holt, who coined the term ‘unschooling’ and wrote books including “Growing Without Schooling).
http://www.hole-in-the-wall.com/ (Sugata Mitra’s computer project)
http://www.ted.com/talks/kiran_bir_sethi_teaches_kids_to_take_charge.html (lovely presentation about an inspiring project in India empowering school children).
http://www.futurelab.org.uk (innovation in education / technology and games in education)
http://www.kaospilot.dk/Default.aspx (Danish alternative university)
http://swarajuniversity.org/default.aspx (very cool alternative college in India)
http://www.zeri.org/initiative/concept.htm (creative educational initiative)