Educating in Nature
Ch 7 Of mind and the classroom
Through the Beat generation and following, many more ideas were opened up criticising the establishment and at the time I fully supported what I knew of them. There was such a great sense of discovery and learning as people such as Pirsig began to unravel the implications of this rigidity. The Love generation embraced these radical changes completely and education was no exception. Education rejected corporal punishment and many established procedures such as rote learning. Strict formal discipline was not encouraged, and discovery learning was considered a good way of learning. The practical implications of all these positive steps forward can be seen in the way our schools have become hellholes of ill-discipline and limited education. A phrase I have often used of these times is that educationalists "threw the baby out with the bath water". 60s educationalists appeared so angry at the restrictions of their personal education histories that they went overboard in seeking intellectual freedom in learning, and in doing so forgot a basic in education - to learn something a mind must be focussed on learning - a mind must concentrate. In education today where there is so much ill-discipline even the best students find it hard to concentrate.
I want to talk here of rejection of corporal punishment. I have worked in schools where corporal punishment is accepted, this was in a state school in Africa. As part of the whole school system it worked fine. Corporal punishment was accepted at home, children knew that if they misbehaved they might get corporal punishment, and in general the school I worked in had the best relationship between student and teacher I have seen. Because corporal punishment was not an issue - except for some UK teachers, it did not cause a problem. At one stage in the school I worked on discipline, and introduced detentions. These helped with discipline, the students were hardened to the corporal punishment so losing an hour of the time especially when it cut into their sporting activities helped them control their behaviour.
I am not here advocating corporal punishment merely stating that in a caring system it does not produce the psychological scarring that many claim it does. In fact I have worked in schools where I have seen some teachers scream so loudly in the face of children that I am surprised that does not scar the kids. But I am not asking for that to be rejected as well. What I am advocating is that there does need to be a practical method of punishment. I remember in one school my HOD ran a detention system whereby he used to take the children home after the detention. Parents had complained that their poor little dears were going home too late. The fact that these poor little dears were disrupting their classes and so stopping other children from learning did not matter to these parents, they could not provide the control - perhaps understandably, but they did not provide the support either. This HOD's system worked as it improved the discipline but what a ludicrous situation.
Whatever its misuses corporal punishment did improve classroom discipline, and with all the tinkering it has not been replaced. Imagine the scenario 50 years ago. A child disrupts the lesson, the teacher tells the child to stop, the child does not, gets a whack and stops. Not perhaps 100% humane but education is not disrupted and the teacher can continue. What happens nowadays? An equivalent child disrupts. The teacher tells them to stop, they do not, the teacher asks them again the child does not stop, others join in the fun and the lesson is disrupted. Teachers develop strategies for dealing with this but with the emphasis being on the counselling of the individual and there being 20-30 individuals needing counselling by one person how can there possibly be discipline?
What can replace the short sharp shock of classroom discipline? Hard work. But not only the hard work of the teacher but that of the parents as well. If a child refuses a teacher's instruction then that child needs punishment, typically a detention. But that is not enough, that child needs chastising at home. But what happens at home? At best the child has been punished at school, the parents are tired from work so they are listened to sympathetically. There are many cases I have met where children behave well at home but come to school and cause trouble. The parents are not happy with this but see it as a school problem. This is not the case. The child is not learning so it is the parents' problem as well. But what happens when the parents are not supportive? The child comes home and complains. Maybe the child started it and the teacher punished them, but the discipline issue escalated, as often happens, as a result of this child starting the problem. Another child does something worse and perhaps gets away with it. The child runs home and tells the parents the teacher is picking on them. The parents come in and take their child's side, they take up the teacher's time, the teacher has less time to do their marking and preparation, and their discipline has been worsened because the child has been able to cause a division between parent and teacher. All of this could have been avoided with an inhumane whack. If you are not going to do that then the teachers and parents have to work together, and the parents must trust the teachers - even if the teachers make a mistake. My own recollection is that my father had little time for the school but I never complained to him about the school because he would have backed them up. I can remember a particular example of nasty victimisation by one teacher - in my view completely unnecessary although I deserved punishment. I ended up being comforted by another teacher but I never asked for my parents to go against the school. It was significant in school terms as it was in English and I didn't do well in the exams, yet I am a writer.
The issue I want you to consider about these recollections is that corporal punishment has not been replaced. There have been a host of liberal campaigns to eschew corporal punishment, and because they have not been replaced these campaigns have effectively reduced the discipline in schools. Students cannot learn without concentrating, and because of classroom ill-discipline students cannot concentrate. This baby of concentration was thrown out with the bath water of rigid learning styles, and we then ask why our children are not learning.
Despite not advocating a return to corporal punishment I would suspect that it would be impossible to reintroduce it because of the permissive nature of western society. In schools and in society in general western children are significantly out of control. Their moral behaviour is generally unacceptable, and there are far too many busy-bodies who would advocate punishing parents who use corporal punishment - whether the parents love their children or not. Such misguided interference is very damaging, the home needs support by the community and not liberal interference. But more especially our society needs community and government support to bring discipline back into the schools, so that students can concentrate and learn. However this is very difficult as there is a significant social function of schools that is a necessity of the corporate paradigm. A school is a place to contain children whilst their parents go to work. This means that in one classroom teachers have children who want to learn and children who are forced to be there. These "forced" children are not interested in learning, and disrupt the other children's learning. The parents are not interested in whether this student studies, they are going to work. They were one of the many who did not succeed in their own learning, and are therefore limited to gain satisfaction from their own income and what it can buy for them. School does not matter, school was designed to fail for them, and it is designed to fail their own children. But it does provide the function of a containment centre whilst they go to work.
What does this mean for education? For the same class in the same classroom you set homework. You go round the class to check the homework and you discover that your best student has not made their best attempt, it is poor quality by their standards. Next to them is a "forced" student and they have done no work. You start to criticise the "forced" student who tells you "I am not doing your f-ing homework". How do you then speak to the better student whose attempt was below par? The environment with learning and forced students together does not work, this compromise placed on teachers by the corporations does not work. One tool that might have helped - corporal punishment - was deemed inhumane. Teachers have been encouraged to counsel students but that is not practical with the class sizes and the level of alienation and disruption. Counselling can work sometimes to bring the student back on track, but for most students there are no tracks - they are just going to fail. In truth it is amazing that any students survives, and in truth the very few children who come through such a school situation are indeed the arrogant superior student who is then easily slotted into the corporate mould.
One might try to offer solutions to this discipline issue but none fit the paradigm. The first is to reduce the class size so that counselling is manageable, but this might mean a 1:5 teacher-student ratio. Another solution would be to separate the learners from those who don't want to learn. But as the majority don't want to learn it is not clear what you would do with them. Labour? Fundamentally you cannot tinker with the current paradigm to deal with this discipline issue and educate at the same time. Because the paradigm is only interested in the few that make it through, the establishment is satisfied with the system. Parents, students and teachers in general are not, but it requires a complete paradigm-shift to even begin to address their concerns. Such a shift can only begin to happen when parents teachers and students begin to work together to actually look at what is happening in education.
Let us look historically at education - at schools. Initially the rich educated by tutors but when more people wanted education schools started. At those schools in one classroom a teacher delivered a curriculum to students who were there to accept what was delivered. The students were sent to school to work, and that is what they did. Over time this model has changed significantly. The classroom substantively remains the same, the teacher is much better educated, but the attitude of the students is radically difficult. The attitude of the students is far more individualised and demanding. Rather than the uniform presence of the first students accepting the teacher's delivery, students and their parents make demands on the education system. Whilst these demands are legitimate, parents wanting the best for their kids, their demands ignore a significant factors:- the classroom environment was not designed for such an individualised approach. It never has been, can it ever be?
What is the same now? The teacher and the classroom. But everything else has changed. In the West what has to be delivered has changed, as well the demands of the students and their parents have increased. What the students and parents want cannot be delivered within those original parameters of the teacher and the classroom. And where you have all the parameters the same you have some form of education. One image that is popular amongst teachers is the image of African teacher under a tree with a blackboard delivering a lesson. Those students are grateful for what they can be taught, and the lesson is successful. If you place a western child in that environment they would not learn. Because the environment is not appropriate.
And that is true of schools today as well, the environment has changed. Whilst the classroom has remained the same, the demands of the students and parents have greatly increased yet they are making those demands of one person - the teacher. That teacher does not have students ready to receive what s/he is delivering. No matter how much the teacher changes, is better educated, and improves teaching materials, this basic fact is unalterable the students are not ready for a situation in which the material is delivered.
This is such an obvious point one has to ask why education has not attempted to answer it, and here again we return to the paradigm. Let us consider again historically the birth of schools. More and more rich people wanted their children educated. There might well not have been enough tutors to go round, and it was cheaper to attend a school. But the schools were not for all children they were for the children of the rich. It was required of these rich children that they behave and learn, it was part of their class upbringing.
As this is not an historical analysis there is no need to consider proper historical development, suffice it to say, the schools became expected to deliver to all children. And when this started to happen the inadequacies of the pedagogical model began to show up ie schools and their classrooms were not appropriate places for this education. It worked for a while. Rigid discipline in schools was maintained up until the end of the second world war, but people were not satisfied. Whilst their children attended these schools their education did not give them the jobs and wealth that the rich continued to have. Why? They were never meant to. The state schools were only meant to deliver a level of education that would enable them to function in a more educated workforce. The rich were still meant to stay rich but the workers were still needed to maintain their wealth. With machinisation the workers were needed to be more educated and that became the function of the state schools.
At some stage this situation also did not suffice needs. The class structure had been replaced by corporate structures. The rich and powerful could not just inherit wealth, they had to fulfil roles within industry. The rich changed nature into the corporate businessman, and whilst the wealth to build the plants might have come from the wealthy their roles became combined. In order to do that the children of the wealthy needed to be educated to fulfil their corporate position. In a world of increasing technology the workforce needed greater education, but despite what was purportedly offered in careers the roles of these members of the workforce were not extended to that of the corporate exec - except occasionally.
But the corporate positions were offered up as ambition, but when many people who worked hard failed to fulfil these ambitions they became dissatisfied and the effects began to be seen in education. And for the last 50 years classroom discipline has worsened to such an extent that many parents see the only solution as homeschooling.
The only way that schools can work is complete dedication by the student to this method of delivery in the classroom because that is how it was designed, how many parents and students have that level of dedication? And why have schools continued? Because of corporate paradigm. The schools continue to deliver enough well-moulded corporate execs and sufficient members to make up the workforce to enable the profits to keep on rolling. Why would you expect business and the powers they control to want to change the education model?
It is only because of dedication of some teachers and the hard work of some students that this failed model continues to have some success. But to expect it to have success for all students and parents is ridiculous. But few people can say this as most people are invested in the status quo. Business people are satisfied with the status quo, they are getting their execs and their workforce. Business work with the politicians so the politicians say the system is OK. So they need a scapegoat - the teachers. Some teachers speak out about how bad the system is, but they have to be careful how they speak out or they will lose their jobs; at best they will have no career. Parents and students complain understandably yet most often they blame the teachers. The teachers cannot blame the system or in private schools, the owner, so they keep quiet - they are whipped.
Unless there is a paradigm-shift in education parents will not get what they want for their children. And how can this shift occur? Education and society are inextricably linked, to paraphrase a saying "which comes first education or society?" This is why I have talked about the emphasis on the home in the nature paradigm.
Sadly concerned parents do not always help. They become conscious how the system is hurting their children, and they convey this hurt to their children who then go to school already alienated from their teachers. Breaking this parent-teacher-student relationship is the first step to failure. Many parents have desires for their children's future which quite naturally revolve around education. Who is their contact with education? Placing individual demands on the teacher cannot work, the classroom was not designed for catering to individual demands. But in this day and age individual specialism is more and more needed.
At the same time western society is moving more and more to catering for individual needs, children are brought up in a more individual way trying to develop individual creativity. Then these children bring individual demands to a system that was created for classroom conformity, and for teachers who were delivering to a uniform group taught by the parents that they must behave.
For this current classroom pedagogy to have any chance of success parents must recognise the origins of the school system, recognise how the school system was designed to work, and work within that frame of reference. This is why the parent-teacher alliance is so important for success in the classroom. Parents have to sacrifice some of their individual demands and working with the teacher present a united front so that the teacher can deliver. Otherwise the system will succeed and your child will fail. This is a reality that parents need to be aware of, and not the current practice of blaming the teacher. Recognising the failing reality of the paradigm, some parents decide that homeschooling is the best approach. If they are prepared to put in the time to develop the individual needs of the student then this is obviously the best way as schools are not designed for an individual approach.
Unfortunately the authorities and most of the teachers, including myself for a long time, recognised that the system does not cope, schemes were developed that attempted to work on an individual level. Whilst these individualised compromises helped they could never possibly be successful in a classroom environment. Such systems were designed to minimise teacher contact. When a class functions as one unit, a class, then one teacher can teach one unit; uniformity is essential for this to work. When the class functions as individuals how does a teacher cope? In a lesson of 40 minutes with a class of 20 a teacher has an average of 2 minutes per child. And that is if the class is behaving, usually the class doesn't behave and the teacher only had on average one minute to help the students. Throughout my teaching I was involved with individualised teaching, although in later life I realised it couldn't work, and changed my teaching to class-teaching with some individualisation. These individualised lessons broke down because the students were always having to wait for me. Even though the work was designed for individuals to progress on their own, at some stage they must ask for teacher's help; quite often this was assuaged with students working in groups but there was always the need for teacher contact. As the students waited so there was an increase in bad behaviour, and it regularly became necessary to stop the class to control the behaviour - even stopping students who were working - if they were excepted then they became an excuse for further disruption, troublemakers would say he is working I want to.
With the best will in the world of the teacher, a classroom environment cannot work if the student has individual expectations that are beyond listening and learning as one of the class. Yet education needs to be individualised so there needs to be a paradigm shift. As the powers-that-be have no such desires the classroom increases as a place of conflict, sometimes becoming a place of violence.
We have recognised that the current classroom environment cannot provide education on an individual basis. Not only are the social factors of the paradigm militating against the learning, it should also be recognised that there are personal factors as well. In a classroom it is difficult to concentrate, and this is such an important factor as to why an individual cannot gain from existing education. What is the connection between concentration and learning? How do we learn?
Let's use the historical basis again, and for this the model of learning is limited. The teacher stands at the front of the class, delivers the lesson, and the students learn. What is this as a model of learning? It is certainly teacher-focused, and it is significant in understanding the teacher focus of the classroom. Once you move beyond the teacher then the next step is to know whether the student has learned. This is why there is so much emphasis on assessment at the moment. It is a wrong assumption that if the material has been delivered then it has been learned - the original classroom model. The success of this original model was superseded early on by testing that then became exams. But then rather than these exams being seen as an assessment of student learning to improve that learning, they became measures of social competition - qualifications. But there has been a recent move back to assessment on a daily basis to find out whether the student has learnt. Once done by marking, especially homework, this has been obviated by the students cheating or more politely colluding, and it is difficult to assess whether they have actually learned. If there is a desire to learn copying doesn't happen. Seeking advice from friends is for the purpose of learning, not for the purpose of completing the task; learning has not occurred just because the task has been completed. Again we have to look at the motivation for learning. This is not there if the concern is for success, completion of the task, passing the exam, these are not learning motivations but social motivations.
This again brings the teacher back to an individual approach. Because the student is not properly motivated the teacher has to determine whether an individual has actually learned, and we have increasing individualisation in an environment that was designed for a uniform approach to education. Because of the designed imperfection of our existing system it is essential for parents and students to alter their perspectives, and to see that the teacher is an ally in a system that is designed to hurt their children by failing them.
And with this motivation will come the essential attitude of mind for learning - concentration. Just because the teacher has delivered to the student, just because the student has written the correct answer in the book, does not mean learning has occurred; concentration is required. Concentration is so important. I liken it to this process. We receive so much information generally and as students, and this information resides on the surface of our brains and we access it at the time if we need it. But once we have accessed it or when we move on that surface residence ends. It is as if the surface is wiped and new surface information is added as required. But learning is not this surface information, it is something deeper. This raises two questions:-
How do we make information we receive deeper?
And what information do we want deeper?
These are significant questions for our curricula. The answer to the first is fairly straightforward - concentration. We need to concentrate to register the information, and the more we concentrate the more we internalise. However there is a limit to the amount we can internalise. Our memories are powerful but we fill them full of so many pointless facts especially in schools. We need to develop our powers of concentration but we also need to be more discerning in what we ask our students to learn.
Why in this day and age with machines that have powerful memories do we persist in requiring students to function as machines? Well the answer to this is very clear, our educational purpose is something other than self-realisation, but that has been well established. So the question is to ask what do we want our students to learn? As facts are the domain of computers that is not necessary, what we want to educate is process. Not what but how? We want to internalise processes that will enable our educated to approach new situations, adapt themselves, and deal with the situation. Internalised processes.
How we approach educating for internalising process is a difficult question. I once asked an unschooler how successful unschooling was with teenagers, and she gave me this answer "My kids are still small. However, I do know a few Unschooled and home schooled teens. One of them baby sits for us. I find these kids to be very independent and very together. Unlike a lot of "schooled" teens, I find unschooled and homeschooled teens to be more mature. Much more willing to take responsibility. .... For instance, our sitter , was interested in taking a computer graphics class at the local jr. college. Her parents told us, how her daughter did all the leg work to find about classes and went so much as to pay for the class herself." This is process. She has not been taught what to do, but has learnt how to do it. This comment lists three desirable processes:- Independence
Willing to take responsibility
Determination (by implication)
Would that we could educate our students with these qualities?
Can the classroom possibly supply these processes? Maybe, but not the way they are at the moment. Traditionally I would say that they might well have. In the traditional setting the teacher was there with attentive and committed students. One could argue that to some extent they could learn to be independent. That sounds stupid, doesn't it? Uniform students sent to school by their parents to learn exactly what the teacher tells them. But at the same time they were involved in their learning, they wanted to learn. Because of their agreement with the situation they were independent. I want to learn about writing so I go to a creative writing class. This is independent. As a student if one is committed to the situation there is independence in it.
There is an element of teacher sophistry in this argument, and that is pointless. However there is value depending on how this is used. Can schools become places of independent learning? The answer is a limited yes. What a school offers has to be clearly defined, fundamentally a classroom with a group of uniform students accepting the direction of the teacher and the parents supporting this mode of pedagogy. Within this context the student can possibly develop independence because they are committed to the process. This assumes that the teacher is also committed to the process. In my experience many are but the realities of existing classroom environment prevent that from happening.
In my subject there was coursework for some exams. In truth this never worked, primarily because of the environment. Firstly the only reason the students did the coursework was because they had to in order to pass the exam, this was for IB. On the part of the students there was not a commitment to the type of discovery learning the coursework hoped to elicit. In fact that class wanted to learn IB by my doing one example on the board, and then they do 50. They were very willing to work but not independently. The management supported them as they were unhappy with independent learning and I was sacrificed; it was a private school. They definitely had the ability but had been taught in this comfortable rote learning. Because of their commitment to the exam they did produce some good coursework and might have gained some independent process but with their attitude and management support it was unlikely to have been internalised.
I was also asked to teach coursework to GCSE exams. This was disastrous. The commitment to the exam process was much less as some of the groups were already designated by the system as failures. They too were happy with rote learning. Teach the example on the board, keep it simple, and tell them to do 10. This satisfied them because they were learning a little, not stressing themselves out with difficult problems, and could manage to chat at the same time. One senior teacher told me about his 6-line whip. With such classes if they could manage to write 6 lines in their book then it was a good lesson. He was not jaded but caring, he was a realist. I remember these classes as typical middle-of-the-road non-achieving classes. The kids were a bit disruptive, talked too much, were too rude, did enough work to get by and not to get in trouble. They were classes that UK teachers have to teach daily, and just get through them. In the end the kids came out with a little education, some hated school others didn't. But no-one felt any sense of fulfilment.
In this atmosphere I was supposed to teach independent learning. No chance. At every stage I was asked to explain what to do next. The exam regulations said that if I unduly helped them I was to report that I gave them guidance, and their grade was then lowered. This is typical of the traps teachers are in, constricted at every turn, and then they get it in the neck. The teacher wants to help, the students in the classroom are not interested, and external regulation bind from all sides often creating conflict. In this case if I offered guidance then the other students would complain so I cannot unless I did all the coursework. No independence here.
At the time I worked on the periphery of a team of teachers who wanted to develop this independent work. Their work was within a self-realisation paradigm, in other words they focussed on developing quality work for self-realisation without necessarily encompassing the intended unworkability of the classroom in the actual corporate paradigm. This conflict of paradigms led to the kind of classroom situation I have just described where with the best intentions of the educational developers little was gained because of classroom reality.
This sounds like teacher bleeting, the annoying students. But the significant point of all of this is that the parents and students and teachers are all victims in this situation, except of course the teachers get paid. At the time my frustration might turn to anger at the students, their frustration would also turn to disinterest and increased chatter, and anger to me if I confronted them. I have been feeling a growing professional anger at reading some of the unschooling comments concerning teachers. I understand where they come from. These parents want their children to do well. They go to school and fail, and who is the cause of the failure? The teacher. Whilst in some cases this might be true, the real cause of the failure is the paradigm, not the teacher. The teachers are victims too.
If they are victims, why do they do it? Obviously money. But the money is not usually good. My own teaching started with vocation, and at times became just money. Fortunately those times were few, and as I had no family commitments I was able to move away from those awful institutions. In the end that was why I taught overseas, in many ways better but in some ways far worse - namely the school managements. Recognising the common purpose of these three classes of victim, the teacher, the parent and the student, is a good start to setting up an alliance which might actually get the child through the school system with an education.
In the US there have been a number of movies made about superteachers, I call them Michelle Pfeiffers after her role in Dangerous Liaisons. These movies whilst depicting the qualities of dedicated teachers, many of whom exist, do not help the teacher. I can remember one student telling me that she expected her teachers to be Michelle Pfeiffer, I said she doesn't have my looks. But what student expectation is this? But more importantly what happens to the students after these Michelle Pfeiffers. Was one of the Dangerous Liaisons ever going to be Barack Obama? Far from it. The students might remember a quality teacher but they were never successes. In fact because they never became successes their self-esteem was worse because they could only blame themselves after having been taught by Michelle Pfeiffer. Yet there are many teachers who work hard in this Pfeiffer mould, and to what avail? They become victims and are often slated by the students and parents. Having said this there are teachers who are there for the money and do not warrant the title "teacher". But I understand this, after all that is the paradigm they are in. Taking the money and run is an easy way through, and to some extents the most sensible?
In summary this section became too much about negative aspects of education - recognising the reality of classroom life, but within is an important recognition of how the classroom was designed, and how it could work for some. At the same time I developed the notion of teacher as victim with a salary. For some this might produce crocodile tears but the intention is to recognise that common interest lies in working together, as I said in the beginning. And most importantly I came to concentration, how it was needed, and developing more notions of what education needs to produce - the internalising processes of independence, responsibility and determination.