Habitat is what you inhabit. If nature and environment are what makes us who we are, and we know there is not much we can do about the genes, then we should pay a lot of attention to habitat. Small changes can have huge influences on behaviour. If you make your school like a prison the children will act like prisoners. In a noisy environment quiet kids will turn inwards. In a quiet environment noisy kids will be bursting at the seams to make noise.
In the past two posts I have talked about Leonard’s way of managing Class 2. I take no credit for the use of the word habitat to describe what he was doing there. It is a term that he uses himself. One of his aspirations was to create an environment that worked so well that he could disappear as a teacher. Some people say that kind of thing and you smell the bullshit, but with Leonard it really was the case: he really did want to get out of the way and be as invisible as possible to give the kids themselves freedom; he really was able to go away for a couple of days and leave the kids with the keys.
Looking at Habitat
I recently wrote about the school opposite Carmen’s flat- the Colegio Quirinal in Avilés- complaining that the trees had been cut down. Removing the trees destroyed an important part of the habitat for those children. What was left has been made more ghastly by other attacks on the habitat. For example, at the end of break there is a siren that calls them back to class. I am a Brit. For me sirens mean running for shelter from bombs, not going eagerly to class, and I cannot see the children going into class with that sound and not think of the Morlocks in H.G. Wells’s Time Machine. The administration is evidently half deaf, however. They pump absurdly loud trashy music out of enormous speakers whenever there is a fiesta. The kids shuffle out into regiments like prisoners-of-war and one of the teachers makes an arse of himself in public to try and make it more agreeable.
This is a depressing habitat. It is one where the expectation is that you are going to do what you are told. Everyone has to get together for celebrations of course. Loud noises are used to control you. Meanwhile, in the classroom you are confined behind a desk and expected to work in something approaching silence. The fluorescent strip lighting flickers and makes you feel vaguely ill. Your teachers are embattled and pressured from above. They feel they have to justify themselves and one of the ways they do that is by insisting on their qualification to judge you so you are measured and tested continuously.
You have to control yourself, if not you will be controlled by the system. Control, whether self-control or institutional control, means that if you act out you are punished and if you don’t you feel complicit in the oppression. A child might even feel a little scared when he sees what happens to children who have low levels of self-control.
How Do You Change The Habitat?
One of the mistakes that teachers can make is thinking that if they put nicer stuff out then the habitat will improve. This is true up to a point. Everyone is seduced by a bit of money being spent on them. People do not tend to feel valued when they go into a room where the floor tiles are lifting and the paper is peeling from the walls. However, if you read over what I wrote above about habitat, you should get the idea that it is not the mere facts of fluorescent light or loud music that bug me. What is depressing about the habitat is the regimentation and the lack of choice. This is why children can be happier in a less expensive environment so long as they are not being deprived of all freedom.
The first step you need to take in changing the habitat is to change your mentality. You could do worse than take Leonard’s lead and try to design a space you can be absent from. It is fairly self-evident that if you suddenly take the teacher out of a conventional classroom the end result is going to be disastrous. This means that you have to approach the project by stages giving the children choices about what they do and for how long, letting them decide on the colour of the walls and what goes on them, for example, and allowing them to sort out, within the limits of your own particular situation, what is going to happen when. They will then start to help you create the environment they want to be in.
The format of Class 2 at Summerhill is not one that can be transplanted to other situations and be guaranteed to work. It has changed over time at Summerhill. Each generation of kids needs to feel that they have appropriated their space and is making a contribution to its functioning.
Key Features of a Habitat You Can Try
Having said that you cannot take the model of a classroom off the shelf and expect it to work without doing some serious work on your own attitudes previously, I am now going to suggest a few things that you might like to try at home. Leonard might like to chip in with his own ideas:
- Give priority to activities. Have a big table kids can sit around and start collecting books and resources that they can access by themselves.
- Let them vote. Lower your standards about what “matters”. Do you really have to decide everything? Give them a voice.
- Let them set rules about behaviour in the space. You have to remove shoes here, you have to hang coats there, for example, or the amount of time you can spend on a computer. Again, why do you need to decide this stuff?
- Have a sofa or an armchair and let the kids use it.
- Have lots of real books- not just text books. Try to get over yourself: your job is not to “give the kids culture”; let them read whatever they like and make sure they have what they like available.
- If you have enough space, try to have spaces that are quiet and others that are not so quiet: let them set the limits on noise.
- Put your teaching area, whiteboard and stuff in a corner. Let kids teach each others if they want to.
- It’s OK to have classes, but make sure there are things that kids can do on their own initiative as well.
- Plant a garden. If you do not have a dirt patch, use barrels or bricks to make something.
- Let children choose their own activities for fiestas and give them the option not to go if they do not want to.
- If you have a siren sell it to the military.
- Plant some trees.
Have fun with habitat. It is a big issue so I shall be coming back to it.