Headmonsterly Hmmm 25 August 2021
“What if we prepared schools for children, instead of preparing children for schools? What would that look like?” I resonated with this question popping up on my social media feed the other day — many others did too. Who wouldn’t, right? Yes, why don’t we redesign our schools around the needs of our children?
Consider some of the intrinsic needs a child may experience during school: physical and emotional safety, time to play, physical movement, creative expression, agency, inspiration, meaningful conversations, respect from adults and classmates, authentic human connection, empathy — indeed, how about simply a pervading celebration of life?
Imagine a schooling system designed to meet such needs. Human beings are social animals: what we learn happens in community — by engaging with each other. With classmates, with teachers: internal shifts of a student’s understanding are stimulated through exploring and sharing ideas and thoughts (and feelings about them).
Imagine an educational ethos that conceives of learning as collaborative inquiry being normal in our society. Instead of conceptualising education around the individualised acquisition of facts and concepts, imagine purposefully acknowledging the broader reality that learning occurs across a multiplicity of “intelligences” or “literacies”. Even if we don’t intend learning to happen that way, it always will. We are holistic beings, and learning is a whole-body, whole-brain experience. And this means learning will be most effective when multiple literacies are valued and celebrated.
Multimodal learning is more enjoyable, helping achieve genuine understanding (rather than simply getting the correct answers), self-motivation (instead of the external motivation of tests) and self-initiative (instead of passive reproduction of facts). When education is done well, a child excels across multiple literacies — both where he/she is customarily strong as well as weak.
The issues that hit the press — like high school initiations, intense exam stress, a pervasiveness of bullying, incidents of racism or sexism, and so on — are mere sirens of a deeper problem. At its core, there is a covert violence within the mass schooling system, as we know it. How can it not be so when “the child is being prepared for school” and not the other way around? Imagine a network of schooling communities that commit themselves to exploring ways of infusing empathy into our schools.
Marshall Rosenberg, founder of the Centre for Non-Violent Communication, alerted his students to the covert violence that lies concealed in the way we relate to each other, including the way we have been accustomed to being educated. Rosenberg alerted us to various examples of covert violence in the way we communicate. Hiding or suppressing our true feelings and needs, neglecting to genuinely listen to the feelings and needs of others, making demands instead of requests, imposing rules and punishments instead of making agreements with others ….
Most of us have been schooled in this sort of communication culture: much unlearning is needed for a school community to acquire an ethos of empathy and non-violence. The democratic ethos of mutual respect between adults and children can be an adjustment for many teachers. But imagine a movement across schools where this is the case. Where we agree to remember the importance of listening to each other — properly. To hear everyone’s feelings and needs, and for everyone to be invited to express their own. An ethos where everyone remains open to what is alive in each other and themselves, from moment to moment.
So let’s change the system, yes?
Not so easy! Unfortunately, there is invariably a profound resistance to changing the system. Established schools struggle to meet these needs as it would require escaping the established conceptions of a “good school” within those communities . The communities of these schools are accustomed to ideas of a good school that go back generations. Established schools need their traditions.
While I understand the inertia of well-established schools, I find it tragic how brand new schools fail to leapfrog over the intrinsic problems in the system. In South Africa, the public companies which have created an abundance of new, for-profit schools that are invariably reproductions of the conventional system. Clearly our society colludes in the problem. We want what we know.
We know the system is dated. The World Economic Forum (WEF) has alerted us to the new requirements for employability in the 21st Century — “character qualities” of curiosity, initiative, persistence, adaptability, social & cultural awareness and leadership, as well as “competencies” like critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration. This constitutes a new curriculum. Parents are beginning to recognise the need to create opportunities for their children to achieve these requirements outside school if the school doesn’t teach them, or to seek out a school that does.
So much about the conventional school system emerges from a mindless obedience to traditional school rituals. Frequent testing with punitive consequences; a competitive win-lose ethos in both the classroom and the sports field; isolated archipelagoes of classrooms; rigid silos of schooling grades; disconnected school subjects that discourage cross-context learning: none of these are necessary to achieve the academic outcomes needed for a child’s future. None of them are intrinsically educational. None of them serve the WEF’s character qualities and competencies for the twenty first century. None of them serve to satisfy a child’s intrinsic needs mentioned above. And all of them are integral to the conventional schooling system.
In Ancient Greece, people had three conceptions of time, and each represents a different sort of schooling system. We have Kronos (the time of the clock), Aeon (the time of eternity) and Kairos (the time of the moment). The conventional school orients itself firmly around Kronos: the timetable, the school calendar, the lesson plan. Then there are the deschoolers — the dispersed community of parents homeschooling (and “unschooling”) their kids. They orient themselves around Aeon time.
And then there are those schools that endeavour to achieve the seemingly impossible, (and Madiba reminds us it always “seems impossible until it’s done”) and orient themselves around Kairos. That is: remain constantly adaptable to the moment: play the Kronos game unless it doesn’t suit the moment. Remain open to what is alive in teachers and students, from moment to moment. Achieve the normative academic results — indeed excel in international benchmark assessments — but do more: help children learn to be empathic. To be inquisitive, and to inquire collaboratively. To take initiative. To be artistic. To persist. To understand. To listen to others’ feelings and needs and to express one’s own. To connect authentically with teachers and classmates. To celebrate life.
In other words, to prepare the school around the children, not the other way round.