I was talking to a retired biology professor from the United States on the Camino de Santiago. Brian grew up in New Jersey as a scavenger kid hunting muskrats on the mudflats. He’d take them across the bridge into Manhattan and sell the pelts to the Jewish furriers, making money for himself even as a child. He hated school. He hated the busy-ness of it. He hated the constant activity and would play truant to escape to the wide open places. He only got into college because the Dean took a gamble he would turn out once his poor academic scores had been rectified. He did, working through the humanities and into science to end up as a biologist. He had clear ideas about what you needed to be a scientist.
“You know, I listen to that prize-winning teacher and none of it makes any sense to me,” he said.
“You mean Diane?” I asked. Diane was also walking the Camino with us. She was a prize-winning High School teacher who felt that science should not just take place in the classroom and regularly took kids out to work on environmental projects in collaboration with various different government agencies.
“Yes. Well, you know it’s a load of bullshit, don’t you?”
“What do you mean? I thought there was something inspirational in it.”
“Sure, sure. It sounds good, doesn’t it? Take a bunch of kids out and get them some experience of the world. Get them out there measuring and grading and counting. The trouble is, it is a nice experience but it just isn’t science.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have kids in my classes and I have to continually ream them over the importance of knowledge. You just have to learn stuff. If you don’t learn it you haven’t got anything to work with. There is no way kids that age have enough knowledge to be doing real scientific investigation. The reality is that they need to learn a whole lot before they start doing experiments. Otherwise it’s just a load of fluff.”
“Like asking kids their opinions on the causes of the World Wars?”
“Well, yes. You see there is a certain base of knowledge that enables you to think scientifically. I have to continually nag and cajole my students to do this work because if they don’t they are playing at science not really doing it. In fact, they don’t really get around to doing science until they are well into their degree courses and some never get there.”
I find the consequences of these perceptions fascinating. In part they justify the writings of Daniel Willingham, the conservative scientist who has had such an appalling effect on the US government’s education policy-makers. In his book Why Students Don’t Like School, Willingham insists that it is entirely natural for human beings not to like learning. Learning is difficult he says and we have a tendency to avoid work unless it is necessary. However reasonable this tendency is, it will not result in good quality academic work in the long run. He tells us that memory plays a much larger part in good thinking than fancy liberal educators like to pretend and that learning by doing really does not make sense for the vast majority of subjects. He dismisses practical experimental science for young people, for example, and asserts that what students are really doing in their early attempts at setting up experiments is not science at all but a duplication of something that has already been done: it is perfectly OK for them to disregard their own results and return to the textbook for the right answer because it is quite certain that they have made the mistake and not the academy. It is better for them to knuckle down, accept the authority of the academy, learn what needs to be learnt and only later start to work towards real science.
You can look at this in two ways. On the one hand you could use it as a justification for a back to basics policy that gives a renewed priority to rote learning and dismisses anything that involves student involvement as window dressing. Why try and make your subjects relevant to your students? It will inevitably lead to dumbing down as you cannot expect children to have any worthwhile thoughts about Shakespeare, Geography, Science or World History. On the other hand you can say that, if this is the case, you can happily decide not to waste their time with a pointless charade of pretend learning when they are going to have to buckle down and do the real thing at some time in the future. Why fill children’s lives with rote learning when they could be out hunting muskrats and learn all they have to learn later anyway?
I had a discussion about this same subject with the science teacher at Summerhill whilst I was there. I have to admit that I found his attitude irritating. He held that it was pointless to do science with little kids. He said there were a few entertaining tricks you can do with scientific materials but there was nothing of any substance that could be achieved until they were older. I thought he was trying to wiggle his way out of teaching the little kids and focus on the thing that he enjoyed most, and on the kids who were most responsive to his teaching. It seemed to me that, if the school was paying for a science teacher, there was a strong argument for giving science lessons to all of the children who showed an interest and not only a select few at the top end of the school. Perhaps he was right after all.
Neill’s idea was that interest was what produced the real motivation to learn. Without interest you can rant on about what is in the official curriculum all you like but the learning will be superficial. You might be able to pass a few exams with what you cram the few weeks before but you will not make any life-changing commitment to learning. Willingham would reply to this that it is certainly the case that motivation is a factor in effective learning but that there are different kinds of motivation and there is nothing wrong with a bit of standard obligation. You won’t learn algebra to any great degree of competence by relying on interest as there are times when it will be boring and repetitive. Even intrinsically rewarding subjects such as practical art require patience and commitment to make progress. You cannot wait for someone to be interested in learning the basics. You go through the learning of the scales because that will give you eventual mastery.
There is a third possibility on the agenda and it is growing in popularity in the educational world: make the subject interesting and relevant to the children. This requires you to think about who your learner is, what his position is, and then modify your material to appeal to his level and to his interests. If you look at the George Lukas sponsored website Edutopia you will find a huge variety of teachers that engage in this way of teaching. I watched one video of an “inspirational” science teacher who has the kids bopping around the classroom like bouncing beans. She sounded a siren and they all had to get under their desks and write their projects from there. I don’t have a high opinion of people who use noise to control children and I am pretty sure I would have hated this class as a kid, but I can see that for some children it would be entertaining and a break from their experiences in the vast majority of the classes they are compelled to sit through in their school lives.
To summarise, there are three positions I can see here. One is a position where you say that real learning is essentially boring so you do not need to dress it up: kids just have to go through the boring stuff before they get to anything interesting. Another is to say interest is a prerequisite to successful learning and that true interest comes from the learner: when the student has decided what they want to do they will have the motivation to go through the boring stuff. The third position is to say that teachers can modify the presentation of their material to make it more interesting to their students: they can stimulate interest. With interested and motivated students more can be achieved.
Why not make things interesting?
I touched on this a little in my blog post Edutainment. If you turn your education into a competition to gain the interest of the children you can easily fall into patronising attitudes and leeched out content. When I was teaching English literature I had a standard response to kids who thought it was boring: “This has been around a long time and a lot of smart people have found it interesting. Shakespeare does not have to prove himself to you. You have to prove that you can understand Shakespeare.” It is quite possible that people will have no interest in finding out what the interest in Shakespeare, algebra, physics or art history is. I am quite happy with that. But I was not about to dance around finding things to study that were relevant. In some ways it is better for your teachers to be old farts and not down-there-with-the-kids homey types, because once you start developing a serious interest in the subject you want to see where it goes; you do not want to be hanging around while people are talking about their feelings or doing silly activities that have nothing to do with the essentials. On the other hand, if you have a teacher who successfully stimulates your interest, you are not in much better of a situation as you can end up feeling like you are giving birth to someone else’s baby: Christopher Isherwood had this experience when he discovered he had gone to university to study history on the basis of the interest inspired in him by his history teacher at school; it really was not that interesting to him on consideration. Leonard had a similar experience.
What are the implications for democratic education? As we saw in the last post about the gangster phase, Neill had a fairly clear idea that children need to grow up in freedom because through play and freedom they were able to work out the ”hate” and “complexes” they might have within them. Even if they do not have these problems the freedom of a Summerhill allows them the precious gift of boredom so that they can go ahead and find their true interest. Zoe Readhead, talking about her own life after Summerhill, has two telling anecdotes. In the first she says that she went to art college and thought that the exercises the teachers were getting the students to do were meaningless: she knew that she wanted to paint and wanted someone who would show her how; she did not want to do something nebulous like Art; and she wanted it to be taught in a structured way. She did not want free-form nonsense. When she eventually settled on learning to be a riding instructor she was furious when people suggested that she gave herself so whole-heartedly to the structure and demands of the course because it was a contrast to what she had experienced at Summerhill. “Quite the reverse,” she thought, “I can give myself wholly to this because I have found my interest.”
Returning to Brian I wonder whether he would have turned out to be a university professor of biology if he hadn’t had the freedom to hunt muskrats. I wonder whether filling his time at high school with classes and homework and structure would have given him anything at all that he does not already have. This calls into question what we are doing in schools. It calls into question the whole purpose of teaching and education as we know it. And I do not have an answer, because it seems that on the world stage the triumph of school and testing has led to an urge to introduce more learning at a younger age. And, if you say that you want less school, it seems that you are asking for a decline in standards, a return to the dark days before free compulsory education was introduced. Even if in these examples it is plainly the case that you can miss out on school and be perfectly OK.
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