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Education for life

27 February 2014, 20:04

The social decision to allocate educational resources preferably to those citizens who have outgrown the extraordinary learning capacity of their first four years and have not arrived at the height of their self-motivated learning will, in retrospect, probably appear as bizarre.

Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society

In my previous blog Understanding Life I quoted Maria Montessori: “The education of our day is rich in methods, aims and social ends, but one must still say that it takes no account of life itself.” She lived a century ago, but her words may be even more relevant today than they were then.

In a future blog I hope to relate some of the experiences I had teaching at a school that was effectively out of control, and where the power struggle that education has become was anything but covert. The end result in the case of one class was that I taught a term’s work in one hour, and the pupils scored better than they ever had before. That was when the power struggle had ceased and they truly wanted to learn. There is hope for the worldwide crisis in education, but it requires a radical change of mind (and heart).

I read that western education was originally based on a Prussian military model, and its main function was to produce workers clever enough to work in the factories during the Industrial Revolution, but not clever enough to ask why they should be working in the factories.

Things have changed, and yet they haven’t. In Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich wrote, “Everywhere the hidden curriculum of schooling initiates the citizen to the myth that bureaucracies guided by scientific knowledge are efficient and benevolent. Everywhere this same curriculum instils in the pupil the myth that increased production will provide a better life. And everywhere it develops the habit of self-defeating consumption of services and alienating production, the tolerance for institutional dependence, and the recognition of institutional rankings. The hidden curriculum of school does all this in spite of contrary efforts undertaken by teachers and no matter what ideology prevails.”

It took Maria Montessori and a few others to point it out and formalise it, but anybody can see that our capacity for learning is by far the greatest during our first five or six years. That is before the rational-analytical part of the mind has even developed. I once started a preschool where the Tswana children (3-5) could not speak a word of English. After learning a few basic phrases through trial and error (“Ke batla metsi” did not mean “I want to go to the toilet”!) I spoke English and they spoke Tswana. No problem. This continued for four months, and then, one by one, they started speaking almost perfect English. Four months. Preschool teachers see this happening all the time.

In a society where the mastery of English has become critical for daily survival as well as for learning other skills, why has nobody seriously considered changing the way we approach education?

We seem very reluctant to change the status quo. I read an interesting piece once about the size of the solid rocket boosters of space shuttles. According to the author engineers would have preferred them bigger than they were, but their size was limited by the size of a tunnel they had to pass through on the way to the launching pad. “The SRBs had to ?t through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the rail­road track, and the railroad track is about as wide as two horses’ behinds [to pull the carts that preceded the railroads]. So, a major Space Shuttle design feature of what is arguably the world’s most ad­vanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse’s ass.”

Dr James Prescott was fired from the Institutes of Health in America. He found a direct correlation between lack of breastfeeding, touch and affection in early childhood and/or repression of sexuality during puberty, and violence as adults. These results were published in an article called ‘Body Pleasure and the Origins of Violence’. He put it quite bluntly: “I interpret rape as man’s revenge against woman for the early loss of physical a?ection.” Since then many scientific studies have confirmed the gist of his findings.

The per capita allocation of resources is much higher for tertiary education than it is for preschool education. Perhaps just as well, because a lot of what goes through as preschool education is scary. It does, however, point at our priorities, which make no sense at all.

The Alliance for Childhood is still fighting an uphill battle in the USA and the UK to convince the authorities that both play and contact with nature are critical in early childhood, and that decreasing the amount of time available for play is NOT going to improve scores.

Does it not make much more sense to follow the ‘dictates of nature’, as Montessori put it, and develop early childhood facilities that cater for regular touch, affection and play (preferably in semi-natural areas)? There are thousands of overseas (and local) volunteers who would be willing to be involved. All they would need to do is to speak English, express their passions (children relate much better to people who are enthusiastic about whatever they enjoy) and interact with the children in a loving way . . .

It can be done right here and now in any community, would cost less and is likely to be way more effective than many traditional preschools.

Having this kind of experience at home would be so much better, of course, but the fact of the matter is that very few children today do. Thousands of children are sent to crèches from as early as six months. Some of these crèches are outstanding, and some absolutely horrific. And yet we regard this as normal.

Is the reason so few people really want to explore this way that it is far too difficult to leave the railway track? It may not be obvious, but with our persistent need to always do something, work hard at achieving results, “no pain no gain”, etc. a method that simply relies on the dictates of nature may actually seem far too scary …? It would require a major shift of mind and heart.

I used to be a ‘playmate’ at the Hatfield Montessori Preschool in Pretoria, where all I did once a week was play with the children (‘original’ or ‘authentic’ play). (There are some videos on YouTube.) We saw the tremendous effects it had in things such as decreased conflict and improved concentration. The principal (Shan Ellis) let the children play more and more in the yard, which still has natural features such as trees, shrubs and a vegetable garden. Today no children have to ‘work’ inside unless they want to. If they want to play outside the whole day, that’s fine.

Of course, they still have all the Montessori equipment and stimulation, and by the time they leave the school, they speak perfect English.

Shan decided to follow the dictates of nature, and found that the quality of the children’s ‘work’ and the efficiency of their learning improved significantly as a result.

“Horme belongs to life in general, to what might be called the divine urge, the source of all evolution. This vital force for his growth stimulated the child to perform many actions and, if he is permitted to grow normally, without being hindered, it shows itself in what we call the ‘joy of life’. The child is always enthusiastic, always happy.” (Montessori)

If we can achieve happiness in addition to effective learning, what do we have to lose?

Only our need to be right. We’d rather stay on the existing railroad tracks, even if they are beginning to crack all over the world and the possibility of derailing completely becomes ever greater.

(Please note that this is not meant as evangelization for the Montessori movement, and I certainly cannot speak on behalf of the Movement. I merely relate well to Maria Montessori’s insights.)

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