Monday, September 3, 2012

What do Children Need to Learn?

In the end it comes down to this- what do children need to learn and how can they best learn it.

It depends first of all on their parents (yes it does, those who think the state should control the minds of children are wrong). Parents may choose to send them to a school with a particular ethos, philosophy, ideas, whatever, and they are right to do what they think they should for their children and to pay others to do it for them.

Those who can educate their own children will do so. Why should they let ideologues control them? In Spain they are not even allowed to do that, although there are ways, if you are prepared to take risks.

If we start without preconceptions we would never, now, reach the conclusion that they need to be locked into semi-slavery eight hours a day throughout their childhood.

Once you assume they must be together for long periods doing things they don’t want to do you immediately see a need for discipline which means authority, which means rules which means enforcement and punishment and teaching becomes more about force of character and the assumption of authority than the ability to communicate knowledge, or better still, to inspire a thirst for knowledge.

Assume the point of education is to prepare children to take the greatest advantage of the world they will live in as adults. This means economically, psychologically, socially, culturally. It doesn’t mean preparing them to fit into one of a number of pre-ordained niches that our handlers seem to think must exist (most people involved in education would find this rather shocking, but it is my starting point because it seems to be the only legitimate purpose education can have) then certain conclusions can be reached and arguments made.

Reading and writing fluently and naturally are still essential skills and will, I think, continue to be in the future. But this can be achieved comfortably by the age of 6 or 7.

The understanding and manipulation of numbers is also essential to adult life, if only because of money. For this reason, a basic understanding of economics, and of what money is, should be provided at the same time.

IT is essential, but fortunately it’s also quite easy to learn to the basic level most people require, and easy to practice. Because of the speed with which technology is evolving, a very free curriculum is required, and in any case it would be part of a broader area of learning whose aim would be to ‘understand the world and how to function in it, how to obtain and evaluate knowledge’

We are trying to prepare children for the future, to make them useful to themselves and to the rest of us, in some combination, and so far as each is able. We are not trying to make them feel good about themselves.

There is no point studying a foreign language unless it’s done properly. If children aren’t going to become fluent in a useful language before they leave school it’s a waste of time trying to teach it. Half a language is no good to anyone. It is well worth saturating children with a specific foreign language from an early age. All primary schools should be genuinely bilingual, but in which language? For those who already speak the international language, the choice is not clear. The great advantage of knowing a second language is that it makes learning further languages much easier when the need arises, and it also enables the mind to work and think more productively (it provides new analytical tools). But it isn’t obvious that, for native English speakers, it is worth the time involved. Even so, I would, I think, recommend it. Possibly Chinese, just for the hell of it.

It is very important that children understand who they are and their place in the world, by which I mean the history of the world and of their country, the geography of the world in as much detail as is reasonable, the nature of the solar system and indeed the known universe. In short, they need to have the information, sufficiently processed, to have perspective about themselves and the world. It puts wise and stable heads on shoulders and is part of maturity.

They need to be exposed openly to many fields of knowledge and activity. They must find as early as possible what stimulates them, what they enjoy, what they may be good at, what they can themselves add to those fields.

It is a terrible waste of resources to have sport (and to a lesser extent art) taught in schools. It requires dedicated facilities and staff, replicated unnecessarily many times over, and seems to originate, like many of the great failings of state schools, from a misguided or simply lazy desire to imitate public and private schools, which do what they do for entirely different reasons.

Municipal facilities, available to and organised for children, would be far cheaper and much more useful and enjoyable for the children. They could freely choose the activities that interested them, they would not associate such activities with the boredom and authoritarianism of school, and they would have a lot more time to do them. Those children who can, do this anyway, but if there were more facilities and they wasted less time at school more could do it, and much more profitably.

A lot of this comes from a slavish imitation of the practices of the public schools, which have a purpose quite different from that of state education. Such schools take over the formation of most aspects of the child, because the parents want them to. State schools should have no such control.

From here (about 8-10 years, let’s say 10) it becomes largely technical things, and choices have to be made. It may seem very early to make choices about which route to take, about what kind of future to prepare for, what kind of job the child is capable of doing, but the alternative is to waste years learning, or probably not learning, ultimately useless things. A good grounding in the basics, an efficient system for identifying possibilities to work towards, while excluding as little as possible, is what is needed here. Many people are at University learning things they should have learnt years before, or things which will be of no use to them.

All of this assumes that they are there because they want to be. The first and most important thing is to STOP FORCING CHILDREN INTO SCHOOLS. The job of the state, insofar as it has one, is to provide the opportunity for a good education (the fact that the state clearly has no idea what a good education is suggests that it shouldn’t be directly involved in educating at all). Children (or their parents) will decide if, when and how to take advantage of those opportunities. Some of them will make a mess of it, some will realize too late what they have missed. Education is a privilege, one treated with contempt by governments, who are more interested in keeping potentially disruptive young people off the streets than in guaranteeing that potentially successful young people prepare themselves well for the future.

What is the point, I mean really, what the hell is the point, of filling classrooms with people who don’t want to be there, or who can’t benefit from where they are. No form of education, however conceived and structured, is going to work unless each child is somewhere where they can actually learn. Those who don’t want to learn cannot learn. And those who are with them will not be able to. Get rid of them. Those who are not able to learn much or quickly might learn little and slowly. But if they are with those who learn much and quickly one or other group is not going to learn anything like what it could. Once you remove the politics from education this is blindingly obvious.

How many millions of clever children have achieved little because the ideology of education, the ideology of a school or a teacher, or just the stupidity of all of them, was obsessed with trying to get someone else to achieve a little?

There is no need for age groupings, artificial identities or obligations. Offer a large variety of options, open and fluid; choose teachers who understand, communicate and inspire; let children choose where and whether they want to be.

No one will learn less than they otherwise would. Many, most, will learn far more, and will be far better prepared for the world.


Sackerson said...

Can of worms. I can either say too little or too much. Education serves many conflicting purposes, not a few of them unworthy in my opinion.

I think a voucher system might be a good start, though my brother tells me that in the USA private schools do even worse than public ones, academically speaking.

CIngram said...

Very difficult subject indeed. No simple solutions, of course. But a good place to start is to try to identify the major problems. Most of them seem to have to do with politics. God knows education is hard enough without getting that lot involved.
A voucher system seems, as you say, to be worth looking at. Anything to remove a little power from government and the teaching unions.