Saturday, March 07, 2009


It's a Saturday afternoon. My husband has gone to the office to do something or other to a server - as IT types are inclined to do every now and then. My elder son is washing and vacuuming his Dad's car in keeping with a Christmas commitment. My younger son is playing World of Warcraft (he can now wield two-handed axes for those in the know). So I am pottering around online.

One of the things I did was to check out the updates on my Facebook groups. In the process, I visited the group: People for Replacing the Public Education Model, and I came across a link to this post from Stephen Downes. I'm puzzled as to how I missed it when it first appeared.

It was a reproduction of a magazine article and as such a break from the normally concise blogging style of OLDaily. It captured my interest because of its first person narrative style. I love stories.

Anyhoo, in the article, Stephen's key point in respect of education can be wrapped up in one word: 'choice'. My own choices of subject in high school were severely limited because I attended a school that prided itself on its standing as an academic institution. Drama (my great passion at the time) was unavailable as a subject. It was purely an extracurricular pursuit. Music was available only on a peripatetic basis, although I seem to remember that an exception was made just once for a phenomenally talented student through whom the school stood to gain kudos. Likewise art was not officially on the menu beyond grade 8.

My cousin, in an entirely different part of the country, had to apply for special permission to break the strict zoning policy in order to attend a school that offered the subjects she wanted. And permission was only granted because she was a straight A student.

There is a private school in the UK which boasts a body of students drawn from all over the world. These students are affored the opportunity to take their home language as a subject for their final exams... whatever it may be. A teacher will be sourced for that child. I learned this from a friend who worked at the school. In fact, it was through the school that I sourced a Swedish tutor for my family. I'm willing to bet that none of the state schools offer the myriad non-native English speaking immigrants that luxury.

A common thread here is that of high achievement and/or money. Rules were bent for those who are likely to produce top marks or those with means. Mediocre students need not apply. Students from average income families or less need not apply.

What message does this convey to our students and, by extension, to their families? Why should an average student be denied opportunities? Why should money be a deciding factor as to what a child may and may not study at school?

My husband and I have made it a policy to expose our children to as wide a range of hobbies and activities as possible. After all, how are they ever to know they have a talent for abseiling or a love of ice hockey (for example), if they never get to give it a go? The wider we cast our net, the greater the chance that each of our sons will find the thing(s) that light the spark in their eyes. Children whose lives are small and narrow, may wind up living out their days in desultory ritual, and we see altogether too many such people in our daily dealings.

Sadly, the education model has a way to go before it is able to accommodate this broad approach. I look forward to the day when education offers divergence rather than convergence: an ever increasing breadth of experience, rather than a whittling down process. There's plenty of time for whittling down once you know for certain what it is you want to focus on. I maintain that the teen years are too early to make that choice.

Did someone say 'Dream on'?



V Yonkers said...

Interesting that this echoes my daughter's comments to me this morning. "I think high school (secondary school) should allow you to find out about the different subjects that you can study in college (university)." She feels very strongly that science should be optional (with the exception of Biology) as "what will you ever it use it for?" In addition, she does not really see the importance of any subject except for Math and English in her life as an adult.

I have told her that she has this opinion because her teachers have not made the connection between what she is learning and how she will use it in her life (with the exception of her Math and English teachers). For the most part, they have also not engaged her as a learner. She now HATES school and she is only 13.

My sister, who is a speech therapist for pre-schoolers mentioned to me the other day that for the first time in her life, the majority of her students tell her how much they hate school. There is no more fun and play in pre-school, only forcing "learning" down the children's throat (often before they are developmentally ready). We are having fewer and fewer options for school as budgets are being cut and private schools are being closed. I was just told that the alternative school my daughter applied to may not be supported by our school district this year (of course, we have not been informed by the school district that they were even considering this).

It makes me consider homeschooling her if for no other reason that she be engaged in learning again! (No, it won't happen, but the thought has crossed my mind). So this is a universal problem, around the world.

The upsycho said...

@V_yonkers Ah, Virginia, I hear your heartache! I also seriously considered homeschooling my kids - particularly the younger son - for a while, but I realised I am not suited to the job. I posted about this ages ago, and now can't find the post. My younger son has hated school from the get-go because of the early onset of sit-in-your-desk formal education in the UK. Not having been born here, he was dumped into the system in a rather peremptory fashion, without any build up, at an age when, in South Africa, he would still have had a year of freedom to go.

There are now achievement targets for 3 year olds in nurseries in the UK.

Everything is so results-focused that the oh-so-important 'fun' aspect of learning has been elbowed aside for more (ahem) important considerations.