Giving Choices: the Invisible Teacher

It doesn’t matter how nice you are, how exciting you are, or how well-meaning you are, if your basic instinct is to reduce choices you shouldn’t be working in a democratic school.

This is a tricky issue. You might be a real believer, for example, convinced that you have the right answer to the democratic school question. So convinced are you that you have the right answer that you decide it would actually be better if people just did what you decide is right. Why would they need any choices if they are already being given the right ones?

“After all, we discuss things, don’t we?” the plaintive totalitarian voice bleats. “Everyone has the option to tell me if there is a flaw in what I say is right. How dare you call me a freedom fascist, just because I always have the right answers?”

I would rather have a teacher who really understood the value of choice than one who put out an exciting curriculum, worked long into the night devising activities for the kids and ended up limiting choices.

The first way you limit choices is simply by giving the impression that you know what is best. It is tough to avoid this because most people have the sense that they are right most of the time unless they are neurotic. Maintaining the openness of mind to listen to what other people are saying and to accept that there are differences of opinion and feeling on basic issues is the first step towards being a democratic teacher.

The second way you limit choices is through failing to be aware of the invisible limitations that guide your behaviour. Let me give a silly example. You know how to get to the supermarket. You always go the same way. But there are many ways of getting to the supermarket, along routes that you have never travelled, even in the town you have been living in for many years. You have closed down the options and the choices because you imagine that you know best. You have accepted invisible limitations.

This is an absurd example, but there are many other ways you can limit your choices: assumptions about the structure of your day, the clothes you wear, what you are allowed to say and do, how people should react in precise situations; they all affect the choices that are available to you. They are impoverishments of your mental map.

The third way you limit your choices is by having an excessive taste for generalisation. When you say, “kids like candy”, for example, you are making a generalisation at both ends of the phrase. All kids like candy? Kids like all candy? Generalisations are strait-jackets that little minds put on because they like the cosy feeling of hugging themselves.

Let’s open things up to choice.

This means that you might be surprised. For example, children with choice might decide that they want to study algebra. You can close off the choice to study algebra by making your classroom so noisy that it is impossible to do anything except shout in there. You can close off the choice to algebra by saying, “Kids don’t like algebra.” You can only open the choice by having a space that values the qualities of quiet, calm concentration you need in order to do algebra.

There is not space in the world for an infinity of choices: you do not have the time to do everything; the world and all its riches is not at the disposition of every child. Yet, if you fail to create situations where there are real choices you should not be working in democratic education.

This is why the teacher has to aspire to be invisible. I don’t mean that the teacher should not teach. I mean that the teacher should not engage the children in activities that she has invented for their benefit. They could be the most wonderful activities in the history of education, but if the child has not overcome the first steps in making free choices they are totally worthless. Furthermore, if the teacher can bear NOT to be the one approving the study, behaviour and academic achievements of her children that is even better. Let the buggers make up their own minds whether what they have done is any good. Let them tell you what they want to do next, and only then offer to help with it.

It might seem like a pointless pantomime but if we can get people around us to say clearly what they want, we will have made a big step towards freedom of choice. Just don’t imagine that because you are working in a democratic school you are winning the battle: if you have a loud mouth it is probably quite the reverse.