While visiting friends in Glasgow, Scotland, during these past school holidays, I was invited to present Kairos’s model of education to students studying a module on alternative school systems, as part of their Masters in Education Studies at the University of Strathclyde. I enjoyed a rich and engaging discussion over a couple of hours with students from Nigeria, Bangladesh, Turkey, Pakistan and elsewhere.
It was a refreshing experience to share the joys and struggles of our Kairos journey. The lecturers offered a range of examples of schools, from the Indian subcontinent, Western Europe and the UK, but they were very glad to enjoy a real live example of a school from Africa.
We considered the idea of “school” itself, and I painted a picture of the vast range of school systems, locating the conventional globalised one in that context, as well as where we locate Kairos therein. We considered the degree of control schools place on their teachers and pupils, ranging from tightly controlled rigidity and obedience on the one end to the child-led “unschoolers” on the other.
In the USA there are the “No excuses” schools, directed especially towards low-income families whose parents aspire to empower their children to escape the vicious cycles of poverty, and in China and South Korea many families tend to prefer this ethos. Pupils of these schools are pushed with extreme pressure and military-style discipline to succeed in tightly moderated exams.
In contrast, Sudbury Schools and Democratic Schools are examples of institutions that use a child-led teaching philosophy, believing an intentional curriculum and adult-imposed discipline to be oppressive. These approaches trust children to direct their own learning, encouraging a self-directed path of education.
We explored the many variations in between Krishnamurti schools, Montessori schools, Dalton schools, Reggio-Emilia-inspired schools, forest schools, project-based learning, Sri Aurobindo schools, United World Colleges and schools employing the International Baccalaureate curriculum, including specific examples around the world.
Conventional, globalised systems of schooling clearly lean towards the rigidity and obedience side of the spectrum. South African government schools and private schools are part of that model, serving a society that is relatively conservative compared to many in Europe. Our schools are modelled on those of our former colonial authority, Britain. While those systems have evolved somewhat, our schools in South Africa have not, save for minor tweaks: one will find interesting insertions into the timetable of an upmarket South African school.
Unconsciously, I think South African parents expect a school to be modelled on an old-fashioned British public school (i.e. the upmarket private schools like Eton, Gordonstoun and Harrow). This colonial aspiration, combined with the general acceptance of a tightly controlled assessment system that regularly measures a child’s performance, constructs a schooling system that is fraught with problems.
I learned from the students from Nigeria that there are more independent schools than state schools in their country, and we enjoyed a rich discussion with regard to how much freedom they have to innovate. While Nigerian schools are free in terms of the law like most places parents are fearful of innovations if it means their children’s performance in the nationalised National Common Entrance Examination for 11-year-olds is threatened.
We explored together the degree to which schools can innovate despite these nationalised curricular structures. I offered examples from around the world, including Kairos, of schools pressing against the norms (in terms of practices and systems) while still achieving competitive exam results.
I described our own inquiry at Kairos — what would a truly South African pedagogy look like? How enable children to achieve knowledge and skills relevant to a globalised world, but go about doing that in a way that is relevant to their own particular context?
One key element in achieving this goal, I argued, is by being a small school. Being small enables flexibility which in itself encourages innovation. This aligns with research, thanks to an investigation into the worldwide Small School Movement.
Amidst the many varied intersecting crises threatening South African schools today, possibly the most tragic problem is that we lost the brilliant conception of the original post-Apartheid school curriculum — envisioned to empower teachers to teach their pupils to genuinely think and question. Perhaps the implementation was problematic, perhaps political interference crushed it, perhaps it needed to be introduced more gradually, or perhaps the legacy of Bantu Education made it unrealistic — but the underlying philosophy of that curriculum was quite visionary and so unfortunate that it proved unworkable. In its place, we are stuck with a tightly controlled curriculum that disempowers both teacher and pupil.
And yet South Africa did enable us to create Kairos. The state school system in Nigeria seems highly problematic. Schools in the UK start formal primary school too young. South Korean children, who perform best in international comparisons, are effectively oppressed by a culture of after-school lessons (including after supper!). There are problems everywhere.
There seems generally a shared goal to find a good fit between a school’s conception of its services and the parents’ conception of the same. We touched on the multiple functions of a school, portrayed eloquently by Everett Reimer in his 1971 polemic School is Dead: in addition to education, schools also offer society childcare, socialisation and division of families into economic classes. We touched on various distortions in education because of these multiple functions, and the conversation left us stimulated and inspired to take selfies.
Perhaps a student might feel inspired to reach out to connect with us in the future if they are ever able to start an innovative school of their own one day.
How wonderful that will be!