Parents searching frantically for places in a decent school for their children – one that gets good results and values a happy atmosphere, say – are failing to spot that even the best schools fail to offer an appropriate education for their pupils at all.
Why? First, because of the future our children face. Remember, modern society is founded on an abundance of fossil fuels (mainly oil), which has produced an economic and social web of such complexity that for many of us life is very far removed from its underlying connections with the natural world. This era is coming to an end, compounded by unfolding planetary crises that are taking us into a transition that will affect how we live, eat, travel and work and the skills we will need to do these things.
Currently most of us could not function without modern materials, communications, industrial food production and paid income from indoor work; we are reduced to infant-like dependency on the systems of modern life. Mainstream education is producing young adults with these same specializations and limitations, physically and psychologically. Yet the adults of tomorrow will need the know-how, confidence and imagination to survive (and shape) the transition to a post-carbon world. This will demand practical skills as much as analytical ones, to say nothing of adaptability, flexibility and resilience. Eco-building and design, sustainable agriculture, permaculture, and bioregional economics will surely count for more in this world than qualifications in media, management studies, or gaming software.
Consider, too how modern education – by reaffirming the separation from nature and training us in ever more inventive ways to dominate, exploit and domesticate our natural world – has led us into our current environmental predicament. If we continue with this programming, it is hard to see how tomorrow’s young adults will find the capacity to form the deep respect for and connection with our living planet that will be needed to ensure true sustainability.
These are sweeping statements. But irrespective of the assumptions we make about society’s trajectory from here there is another compelling set of reasons that schools are failing our children. This has to do with how they are taught as well as what they are taught. The fact is that some common educational methods are precipitating a decline in certain aspects of child development that are crucial to their health and well-being as individuals, regardless of their future requirements for survival.
Sir Ken Robinson (advisor to the UK government’s 1998 committee on creative and cultural education, leading voice on education and creativity, and author of ‘Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative’) makes the astonishingly bold statement (and he does so repeatedly) that schools kill creativity.
Speaking at the TED conference in 2006, he spelled out with passion and wit how we squander our children’s talents, educate them out of their creative capacities, and follow a system of education designed after the industrial revolution to create workers for industry. “There isn’t an education system on the planet that teaches dance every day to children the way we teach them mathematics. Why not?” he asked.
This observation is more important than it might first seem. (Although interestingly, not entirely accurate, for there are of course societies where educating children predominantly entails song, dance, story-telling, myth and mystery, art and crafts: the ones we call primitive. But that’s another issue, to which this article returns below.)
If we are processing our children to be analytical and dispassionate more than imaginative and impulsive, we are not only doing them out of the opportunity to develop as they are entitled to, but also denying them the very activities that motivate, inspire and energize them.
Sir Ken concludes: “Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth, for a particular commodity; and for the future, it won’t serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children.”
In doing so, we might want to start with the little ones. It’s not long since the newspapers failed to cover much at all of the controversy about the UK government’s Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) curriculum. This came into effect this September 2008, and prompted cries of alarm from education experts. Their concern was not about the entire curriculum – much of it is valuable and well-thought through – but on the part of EYFS that stipulates compulsory targets and assessments in literacy, numeracy and computer use. Note: this applies to all children in childcare settings from the age of 22 months. By the time today’s two year olds are four or five and arriving in the reception class, desk-based, screen-based activity will be established practice.
Screens slow development
The reasons to be worried are outlined well by Open EYE, a public campaign against these aspects of the EYFS run by a group of academics, teachers and educational experts. Open EYE commissioned psychologist Dr Aric Sigman to research the effects of ICT use in early childhood. His report comes up with some extremely disquieting findings, summarized in an article in the Summer 2008 issue of Green World. They include that ‘Exposure to screen technology during key stages of child development may have counterproductive effects on cognitive processes and learning’; ‘Learning through watching screens neither rivals nor exceeds early years learning through more traditional ‘non-virtual’ means; and ‘Even moderate levels of screen viewing are increasingly associated with a wide range of health risks’. Dr Sigman concludes that ‘education authorities should reconsider the role of screen technologies in schools’.
Sigman expands on this in an article in the Times Educational Supplement where he explains exactly why regular screen-based activity during key stages of child development can adversely affect cognitive processes and learning. He points to an extensive study of 10,000 British children that has thrown up an ‘intellectual deficit,’ whereby an 11-year old today performs at the level of an eight- or nine-year old 30 years ago. Researchers attribute this shift to the increasing amount of time spent in front of computers and television, and there are clear neurological reasons why this is the case. The lack is already showing up in the workplace; employers are reporting a noticeable decline in the ability of junior engineers and apprentice mechanics to cope with and solve straightforward mechanical problems.
Huge though they are, the exchange of practical skills for virtual ones and the crushing of creativity are not the only issues. The trickle of middle class parents pulling their children out of school to home-educate is often down to the desire to free their offspring from the culture of schools: the routines, the pressure, the testing and grading, the labelling and streaming, the large classes, and the approaches to discipline. More drawbacks are outlined in ‘The Deschooling Convivium,’ written by author and philosopher Charles Eisenstein to help undo ‘the habits of the classroom.’ These habits, he says, include ‘looking to authority for answers and instructions, following a program determined by someone else, needing to be right, addiction to meaningless praise, [and] conditioning to dull, trivial work to obtain external rewards.’ These all ‘affect our adult lives and cripple our effectiveness and power,’ says Eisenstein.
Home education might appear to be the obvious alternative, and it is certainly a choice to be admired for the courage and commitment of its practitioners. It can also offer more space for hands-on and outdoor activities and help overcome some of the issues associated with competitive learning in large groups. However, home education is not a full solution. For one thing, it is only available to those privileged enough to afford one parent not earning. But more importantly, it cannot correct the cultural myopia that determines how and what children are taught – and the effect of this on their perception of their place in nature. Its fundamental underpinning is still Western, post-industrial, mind-focused learning, because that is our culture.
For a real alternative, we should look again to those diminishing groups of people who do indeed educate their children in a way outside our own cultural norms. Anyone who has seen the film Kanyini cannot fail to have been moved by the heart-achingly beautiful black-and-white scenes of Aboriginal children learning and playing freely in the Australian outback.
The narrator and star of the film Bob Randall – a Yankunytjatjara tribal elder and one of the traditional owners of Uluru – explained to VIVID: “In our traditional ways, we were all learning from the moment we could listen. There were four lines of teaching for everything: song, story, dance and painting. Everything we learned, every topic, was taught using each of those four lines. It was always aural and action, and so it stays with you for life.”
For Aboriginal children in Bob Randall’s time (and for a tiny minority today as well as other indigenous peoples elsewhere) the content of their education was mainly focused on survival, of course, but implicit in that education and essential to it was a deep appreciation of life and the planet, which was at once emotional, musical, artistic and spiritual. “Everything is family, to us,” explained Randall. “The understanding comes from our totemic, Earth-based connections. You feel a sense of responsibility for every living thing on Earth. Everything in your totemic line is related to you. And you don’t hurt family, do you?”
In giving its children such a profound understanding and love of life through song, dance, stories and painting, this aboriginal tribe manages to provide exactly the aspects (in terms of both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’) that are missing from our own education. It’s time to find an approach that blends these elements with the skills needed by upcoming generations.
This challenge surely merits urgent attention from governments, schools and families. It demands the foresight, insight and bravery to confront reality and take a courageous about-turn, guided by wise input from other cultures and coordinated help from organizations already leading the way.
Such organizations include Human Scale Education, Forest Schools, Sands School, The Small School, Education Otherwise, the International Democratic Education Network, the Steiner Waldorf Fellowship, Leapnow and The Center for Ecoliteracy.