I had my eyes opened by a seven year old during my first week working in a school as a student teacher. Infants (K-2) students were doing various primary school dances in the hall (Chicken Dance, Hokey Pokey etc), after assembly had finished. While the other teachers were doing the moves on the stage I was watching the kids mimic their movements, relieved that I could be reasonably excused from joining in as I was new (really, I just don’t like dancing). I noticed one of the boys (from the class I was assigned), doing the moves half-heartedly before he stopped and walked over to me, clearly upset though not crying. He asked me if he could stop dancing because “It’s just not who I am…”. I asked him what he meant by that, partly out of interest (given my similar feelings towards dancing), and part astonishment that he articulated it in terms of his identity. That is rather striking and rare for a seven year old. He said “it’s just weird…I don’t like it – it makes me uncomfortable”. I told him that I felt the exact same way about it, covered for him when a teacher came over to ask what the problem was but unfortunately could not do anything about it long term.
In the same class, there was a girl who was spoken poorly of (while she was in earshot) by her teacher. The teacher made it clear that she had low expectations of her as she had a low reading level (because if all the little automatons aren’t perfectly in sync we’ve got a problem!), and was placed into the Reading Recovery program (government boondoggle with little to no benefit). I don’t know if she was naturally shy or became withdrawn in the school setting but she was very quiet and only really spoke to her closest friend. I spoke with her a few times (mostly about video games and school work), and she started speaking more. One afternoon when the class had computer time I spent over an hour talking with her about the implications and possibilities of pistons which were coming to Minecraft in the next update. I guarantee the RR teacher and her regular teacher had never heard that kind of vocabulary and intricacies of what she was planning – and she communicated it perfectly. It wasn’t that she was dull or incapable but that school simply didn’t value, test or care about what she was interested in. Anything that cannot be measured, tested, ranked or used to generate data (the holy grail of modern schooling), is of little to no value.
The above events occurred in the first two or three weeks I spent in schools. During my short time as a casual teacher, aide and volunteer (and student teacher), I saw an endless stream of children’s wills being entirely disregarded, overridden, dominated by and ultimately replaced with the will of authority figures (teachers). Some of these include children being denied the ability to get a drink or go to the toilet, yelled at and humiliated for the menacing act of speaking out of turn (not submitting to the will of their betters), kids forced to participate in activities they did not wish to, others punished and their time wasted for committing insignificant transgressions, kids denied the freedom to choose who to associate with, recess and lunch times shortened as a punishment for poor behaviour, a shift away from play towards academic teaching – even in the younger years, and special needs students yelled at and locked out of the classroom for not completing their worksheets.
It is not all a problem of obedience either – there is also bullying, learned helplessness, the enormous opportunity cost of wasted time, emotional factors and the idea that this is what constitutes ‘learning’. I have seen far too many frustrated faces and tears shed as a result of children being placed in these artificial environments, segregated by age, controlled and coerced to the point where they must surrender self-ownership, all while kept isolated from the real world.
It was during that initial practicum experience when compulsory school attendance and mandatory participation in school activities began to bother me. Being able to empathise with their frustration at feeling coerced and controlled to do things they did not want to helped me build a strong rapport with many of the kids I worked with. Where possible I took measures to provide options or allow non participation and refused to ever yell, use intimidation or threats to illicit compliance. After reading Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn, I expanded that to do away completely with rewards (bribes), which only undermines intrinsic motivation. This was particularly difficult considering the overwhelming prevalence and expectation they be used in schools – sticker charts, good behaviour tokens and prizes dominate the environment. In light of what I have seen first hand, I not only see no value in the institution of school – I believe it is incredibly destructive and harmful to kids. Traditional schooling is irreconcilable not only with how children (and adults) learn most effectively, but also the kinds of environments which enable them to thrive. Because of this view I have accepted that reform or change is futile, the system was designed this way and I want nothing more to do with it.