Will we ever agree on what the best education system for our children should be like?


"Look what I made."

“Look what I made.”

I overheard a conversation between a 10 year old and a 5 year old in my classroom recently. The 10 year old and the 5 year old were ‘playing’ with the geoshape blocks. The older child was admiring the younger child’s creativity and ability to build ‘stuff’. The admiration was genuine. I can assure you of that. It was also expressed with a strong sense of incredulity. Like in, ‘how do you do that’? I know that feeling. I often see myself struggling to be as creative as a 5 year old.

I hear these kinds of interactions and see this kind of creativity frequently. I now use these interactions to provide me with insight to, and as a validation of, my approach to teaching. It reassures me that the ‘provoke, listen and respond’ model of teaching is really appropriate for 5 year olds. I have made it my mission to nurture the creativity that these children bring to the classroom.

I am inspired by the likes of Glen Keane who explains the importance of holding on to your childhood. It was Picasso who said, “when I was young, I could draw and paint like Raphael. It’s taken me a lifetime to learn to draw like a child.” I am now applying this philosophy to my teaching; by putting myself in the shoes of the child – to create a child-centred learning experience. That’s what I can offer the children in my classroom.

But if only it could be that easy. There is resistance. But why? Why would you want to deny children the best education possible? And there lies the problem. We will never get full agreement on what the best education looks like. Although, I would argue that an education system that treats people with dignity and equity should be a non-negotiable. But society does not always treat people fairly, so is it any surprise to see that the education system can miss the mark, too?

That’s why I like to think of my classroom as a microcosm of a society that I would like to live in. It’s not always easy. There are conflicts and inconsistencies all around. The system sometimes suffers from rigidity. Children come through the door with different life experiences. They are people. And people are emotional/social creatures – fallible; with vast quantities of joy as well as complexity.

An opportunity to explore the factional views of education (and dare I say, ‘humanity’) presented itself recently in a ‘Humans of New York’ story about a young woman describing her experience as a preschool teacher. The responses to her story were informative. Some were very positive and understanding. Others, less so. The situation was not helped by the fact that the young woman’s story was a little lacking in context and therefore leaving it open for interpretation. Needless to say, I identified with the story intuitively, and understood what was intended –  a desire to provoke, listen, respond. To give the children the best learning opportunities possible; based on sound research.

The arguments that are dismissive of child-centred learning* can be summarised as follows. That children:-

  • need structure and strict guidelines of how to behave.
  • would just play all day if they were not forced to study academic subjects like maths and literacy.
  • need to learn to do stuff that they don’t like in order to be better prepared for life after school.
  • need to learn that life is tough and exposure to this reality early on in their life, they will learn resilience and gain mental fortitude.
  • are inherently naughty and we need to ensure that they learn to be compliant.

They represent a view of children that defines them in negative and narrow terms. Unfortunately, ‘deficit thinking’ of this kind, is prevalent throughout society and has a strong influence on our education system. I would also argue that it helps to explain the high rate of child homicide in New Zealand.

A learning environment that is genuinely child-centred is physically and culturally distinct. Respect and dignity are cornerstones of such an environment. It acknowledges children as being naturally curious and creative. It is a physical environment that is engaging and allows children to learn through exploration. Such an environment is not synonymous with an absence of structure or discipline, as some would like to have us believe.

Life is complex. We are human. We are social and emotional creatures. We are fallible. But firstly, we need to look beyond the ‘deficit thinking’ model. Children are not intrinsically naughty. They just haven’t learned or been taught the appropriate behaviours yet. And as I have previously noted, most of the inappropriate behaviours that I witness, occur when children are asked to do tasks that are beyond their developmental or interest level. So, the potential to reduce unwanted behaviours is clearly and firmly within the adult’s power to eliminate before they occur.

Secondly, a genuinely child-centred learning experience is a perfect opportunity for children to learn how to engage socially; to learn about rules and boundaries. It’s a perfect opportunity for teachers to teach the essential social skills; just like we teach the skills of literacy and numeracy. And I’m not necessarily talking about prescriptive lessons, but about creating opportunities to learn through experience, over a sustained period of time. Modelling and learning through experience, are always going to be more effective than telling.

In a classroom context, there are clear expectations of how we operate and engage. How we pack up. How we talk to one another. How we move about in the classroom. Respect and kindness are the foundation stones of the classroom culture. So when we witness behaviour that falls outside of that expectation, it is addressed with calmness and consistency. The child is supported to get back on track.

The ultimate goal here is to get to the point where the children are able to self-regulate. This is not always straightforward and may take some time. (Just ask any adults who misplace their phone or get speeding tickets on a regular basis). The existence of motivation to change is essential. It’s important to recognise that the teacher has the ability to provide the child with the rewards that generate the necessary motivation. Dependence on external rewards may be essential initially, but as the rewards for self regulation become increasingly internalised, these external rewards can be removed. (There’s plenty more to say on this topic, but it will have to wait for another day).

*Defining ‘child-centred’ learning is problematic. You may note that I sometimes preface that expression on this site with the word, ‘genuine’. Words and actions don’t always match. But being that you are on this site and are interested in this topic, I assume that you are familiar with what I am describing ,when I use the phrase, ‘child-centred’.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

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One thought on “Will we ever agree on what the best education system for our children should be like?

  1. Pingback: The desire to enjoy teaching | Ease Education

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