another old essay i’ve dug up. i recall this being one of the few essays i ever enjoyed, and having lots of inspiring ideas in it, but i hardly dared read it again. i had to though, as i only had a hard copy. on reading every word so that i could type it out, i found it hard to restrain myself from tweaking grammar, explaining and elaborating, smoothing over the dogmatism and idealism, and adding whole chapters on exciting thoughts i’ve discovered in the last six years. still, not bad for a 1200 word essay, and it looks like i didn’t even get an extension; how unusual! i dug it up because i’m about to start thinking about educational philosophy again in my MEd, and besides, i’ve recently agreed to put starting a school onto the agenda at Sydney Atheists. it is, after all, my biggest life goal. so here goes…
The various perspectives relating to education and which were outlined in the first four weeks of the unit provide a benchmark against which to position our views about schooling and teaching. In truth, these views are likely to be eclectic, drawing on aspects of all four perspectives. Outlining your own philosophy of education (an aspect of your identity as a teacher) indicate, through reference to the relevant and related literature, the ways in which it reflects aspects of these various perspectives.
The current system of education in Australia swings between Liberalism and Instrumentalism, neither of which recognise the needs for societal change or individual difference. This does not mean there are no other options. This proposal is heavily influenced by the Libertarian Free Schools, tempered with Critical Pedagogy. Drawn particularly from the works of Paolo Friere, Ivan Illich and A. S. Neill, it is radically different from prevailing systems. To be adopted would require changes in societal attitudes, but the ability to critique is something it attempts to foster.
The nature of our society is largely determined by three interlinking institutions, family, church and school. In Illich’s distinction between manipulative and convivial institutions, (McLaren & Leonard, 1993) all three tend to be manipulative. The influence of family and especially church are fading, but it is both possible and incredibly important to work towards a convivial system of education.
Friere’s Critical Pedagogy (Shor, 1980) draws generative themes from the students’ lives to introduce critical perspectives on power relations in their lives, and to teach literacy as a means of empowerment. It was used teaching adult literacy in South America, but such characteristics as dialogic communication, problematisation, praxis and shared choice of content can be adapted to Australian school life. It is not enough, however, to merely apply the methods of Critical Pedagogy to traditional structures and subjects.
Once the concept is accepted that schools are not, or should not be knowledge factories, there is so much that can be done. The first step is to integrate the school into the community. At present schools tend to take advantage of the community in a very limited fashion, stylised and primarily to do with work – from work experience in high school down to excursions to the local vet and police station in kindy, the way the outside world is presented to students creates and enforces the distinction between school and the child on one side, and the professional and the workplace on the other. When people leave school they carry this view with them, and many never continue with education because of it. This is all despite the very public knowledge that this does not happen, that children cannot always be protected from life and they will be pushed through to adulthood regardless of whether they can read or any other of the multitude of skills supposed to be necessary to existence.
If we are serious about freedom, we must break down some of the distinctions between the child at school and the adult world. Some Libertarians (Spring, 1975) advocate the abolition of school altogether, but it does not need to be taken that far. To make the school a community centre where anyone can study would integrate the two worlds, to their mutual advantage.
A University or Community College style arrangement would facilitate this integration. Instead of either age grading or streaming, courses would be organised by subject, with various levels being provided as required. A wide variety of courses should be offered, not restricted to those preferred by a particular perspective. Practical, Critical Instrumentalist subjects are important, but so are Liberal subjects, the stipulation being that they must also be taught critically, instead of pretending they are value-free. If accreditation is by competency on individual units and workload is negotiated with one’s counselor, then compulsory courses become unnecessary, though some courses will naturally be strongly recommended, especially at lower levels.
This arrangement surmounts the perennial problem of streaming by allowing students to make choices – having a range of valid and acceptable choices for every student. It however requires considerable support: students are being presented with possibly frightening choice and freedom, and even in Summerhill (Neill, 1926) one can never ensure every student is equipped to make the choice. Individual care is required, in the form of counsellors, charged with the ongoing care of a small number of students. This not only ensures students have somebody to make sure they are getting the most out of their school, give advice and help with a strong knowledge of both student and school, but this kind of attention to each student and their choices also works to overcome somewhat the structural disadvantages of family (Matthews, 1980).
Another Libertarian system which could benefit the proposal is the Learning Web (Illich, 1970). Illich’s model consists of a sytem of registers, where students can find four things: peers to learn with, teachers, informants or mentors to learn from, resources to learn with and professional educators to help out when required. It was designed for a similar environment to Friere’s work, but would also be valuable adapted to the situation at hand. A school is perfectly placed to keep such registers, and access to them fills out the range of subjects and learning styles that cannot be accommodated by the regular classes, ensuring that tailoring to a student’s needs is not subordinated to the bureaucracy. Running parallel to other classes, a web would be easily accommodated within the given framework. It would be maintained by the counselors, who would interview all parties, rather than review qualifications, for suitability and readiness. The regular teaching staff would superviese and run teacher training within the school. A school is also perfectly situated to both connect students of similar needs and arrange access to resources.
Naturally each and every element requires more funding, yet considering this country has one of the lowest public expenditures on education in the OECD (Martin, 2001), a significant increase in funding is actually quite a reasonable request. In fact, it is a necessary one if even the current education system is to fulfill what is expected of it for a period longer than is being considered by those in control, who are elected every three or four years.
That brings us to another aspect of Neill’s brand of libertarianism: participatory democracy (Neill, 1926). The only way this proposal can remain authentic is if it remains responsive to the actual needs and desires of those involved. Giving students and staff members equal voices and opportunities to change important aspects of the running of the school fulfils this requirement. It also empowers students to takie responsibility, feel ownership over both the school and their lives, and learn to speak, work and organise cooperatively. This need not be a system which can necessarily be transferred to national government to be a valid way to teach people to work, nor need it imply absolute power over all aspects of the school. To accommodate all that is being asked here, the school will probably be too large to meet comfortably as one body, but the system, like much of this proposal, has been well tested and found to work (Apple & Beane, 1999; Shotton, 1993; Chamberlin, 1989), they are not reasons to opt out and elect token representatives to sit on a powerless school council.
A school with freedom, individual care, participatory democracy, learning webs and critical pedagogy would not only give each student the best possible chance to meet their individual needs, but may also prepare society to finally begin to consider its future.
Apple, M. W., & Beane, J.A., (Eds.). (1999). Democratic schools: Lessons from the chalk face. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Chamberlin, R., (1989). Free children and democratic schools: A philosophical study of liberty and education. London: The falmer Press.
Illich, I. D., (1970). Deschooling society. London: Calder & Boyars.
Matthews, M. R., (1980). The Marxist theory of schooling: A study of epistemology and education. Sussex: Harvester Press.
Martin, R., (2001). The OECD education at a glance report 2001. Report for Australian Education Union.
McLaren, P., & Leonard, P., (1993). Paolo Friere: A critical encounter. London: Routledge.
Neill, A. S., (1926). Summerhill. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin Books.
Shor, I., (1980). Critical teaching and everyday life. Montreal: Black Rose Books.
Shotton, J., (1993). No master high or low: Libertarian education and schooling 1890 – 1990. Bristol: Libertarian Education.
Spring, J., (1975). A primer of libertarian education. New York: Free Life Editions.