“School prepares for the alienating institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught.” – Ivan Illich
There’s an interesting opinion piece by archaeologist April Nowell in a recent ‘New Scientist‘ – ‘All work and no play: Why Neanderthals were no Picasso‘ (In the print version – week of 23 February, 2013 – the title is ‘All work and no play left little time for art‘, pp. 28-29).
Nowell’s ‘Big Idea’- as the opinion piece page is called – is basically that Neanderthals lacked a rich, symbolic experience (art, language, music, etc.) largely because they had short childhoods and, vitally, therefore little in the way of free play:
WATCHING a group of 5-year-olds chasing each other in a park it is easy to forget that child’s play is a serious business. Through play children figure out how to interact socially, practice problem-solving and learn to innovate, skills that will be indispensable to them as adults. But if experiences gained during play are so crucial for cognitive development, what would it mean if a species had a shorter childhood [as Neanderthals appeared to have]?
Play, freedom and the self-organising structure that emerges from that, according to Nowell, is part of what gave our species the creative and innovative advantage over Neanderthals – and this despite the latter’s rapid increase in brain size to the point that it was larger than an average Homo sapiens‘ brain at adulthood.
Basically, our brains evolved – were ‘designed’ – to grasp the cognitive opportunities provided by free exploration. Faculties of curiosity and inquisitive exploration, along with humans’ inherent sociability, combined as the mechanisms by which young humans autonomously – that is, in an almost entirely self-directed way – mastered the complex natural environments and social worlds they were born in to.
There was precious little deliberate instruction available even if it was desired. In fact, what is known of the hunter-gatherer parenting style leads to it often being called ‘indulgent’ or, more positively, ‘trusting’ (e.g., see this extract from Jared Diamond’s latest book ‘The World Until Yesterday‘).
Yet, that was apparently our edge over Neanderthals – the open-ended exploration of life, governed autonomously by each individual’s own curiosity. For humans, that has always been just what it is to learn. And, presumably, it worked well enough.
But then came National Standards …
To be honest, then came the origins of what we now call ‘education’, and it wasn’t a pretty sight right from its very beginnings – at least from the child’s point of view.
Of course, we’ve come a long way – civilisation and all that – since outcompeting Neanderthals with our self-directed, creative ingenuity and symbolic, cognitive acrobatics. In the interim, humans have managed to invent horticulturalism; farming; social stratification and hierarchies; empires; feudal systems; slavery; colonialism; industrialisation; urbanisation; consumerism; hi-tech; low-brow; nation states; mass media; social media – oh, yes, and democracy.
So perhaps there’s little point worrying about how hunter-gatherers learnt how to learn to solve their particular problems?
Things – and problems – are different now. Aren’t they?
The world is now more complex. Isn’t it?
We can’t expect our children to still learn the way hunter-gatherer children did. Can we?
To get to grips with these interesting questions, and to see what National Standards is really all about, this post is in two parts. In Part I (this post) a brief outline of two current approaches to education is first provided. Then, the origins and history of modern education are laid out to find out how we got to these views of education.
Only then will it make sense, in Part II of this post, to inspect the details of National Standards and how they supposedly help to ‘improve achievement’, ‘accelerate learning’ and ensure the ‘educational progress’ of children.
In the end, this analysis highlights a current tension – and dilemma – that’s right at the heart of our education system: ‘How can you ‘educate’ for creativity, independence, flexibility and self-motivated learning given that our education system has always assumed its right to specify not only educational outcomes but also the rate at which they should be achieved?’
Put another way- and using Nowell’s insights – ‘How do you get the best out of Homo sapiens from an education system that is probably more suitable for training Neanderthals?’
And sitting at the centre of this dilemma is perhaps the most disturbing – but often unacknowledged or discussed – fact of all.
It’s what Peter Gray (2013, p. 67) – an evolutionary developmental psychologist and author of the book ‘Free to Learn‘ – describes as “the big fat elephant sitting in the middle of the room, crushing the children.” Simply, “Children don’t like school because to them school is – dare I say it – prison.”
It may not be a point we would like to acknowledge – and perhaps should not say out loud ‘in front of the children’ – but what else could you call the compulsory detainment of children and the daily supervision and monitoring of their activity? It may be ‘minimum security’ but, when push comes to shove, there are serious, state-enforced sanctions against continual absence from school. Not an easy issue to face, especially in modern, liberal democracies.
This dilemma facing the modern education system is interesting in another way – it has distinct similarities with the same tension in our economy (‘how do you get workers to be maximally creative, innovative and to show initiative while, ultimately, they work at others’ behest?’). That similarity is not surprising since, as most informed people are aware, the educational process and the economic process have always been intimately entwined – each reproducing the other.
Seen in this broad context, National Standards are simply the latest means to regulate the conditioning of the next generation to fit the economy. In the great debate between education as work-readiness or education as the development of human potential, National Standards sit squarely on the former side.
Here, for example, is part of the justification for the Mathematics Standards for Years 1-8 (p. 8 – document can be downloaded from this page):
Current data about the numeracy of adults in the workforce gives cause for concern. Significant proportions of New Zealand students in the upper primary years do not currently meet the expectations. Unless this situation is addressed, many of these students will not achieve in mathematics at a level that is adequate to meet the demands of their adult lives [i.e., their work lives].
‘Education’? No, it’s still the economy … stupid.
At the end of it all, we need to decide if we primarily want to teach children what Ivan Illich called “the need to be taught” – and all that follows from that primary lesson?
Or, alternatively, do we want to let them realise that they can teach themselves – with all the sense of potency, competence and self-confidence that provides – and that we’ll help them do that as best we can?
To begin, then: What is education?
‘Educating Rita’ in Today’s World
“I suppose it is because nearly all children go to school nowadays, and have things arranged for them, that they seem so forlornly unable to produce their own ideas.” – Agatha Christie
“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” – William Butler Yeats
It’s often acknowledged that there are at least two broad approaches to education.
The first – ‘directed instruction‘ – is about using various means to fill a child’s mind with the requisite knowledge and skills. In this approach, it is usually assumed that (a) the child doesn’t know what it needs to know (appropriate adults – educationalists and politicians – do); and, (b) the child lacks either the motivation or the skills (or both) to acquire what it needs to know.
Hence, education is a process of transmitting the knowledge or skills from those who have them to those who don’t. Unfortunately for all involved, the recipients of this type of education may not want this knowledge or these skills (right now, at least) so may, in addition, have to be taught to be ‘motivated’ to learn them.
The second approach assumes that learning – and therefore education – is primarily the result of a discovery process – so-called ‘discovery learning‘. As Winne and Nesbit (Annual Review of Psychology, 2010. 61:653–78) explained, discovery learning,
is most strongly associated with science and math education. It has roots in the Piagetian view that “each time one prema- turely teaches a child something he could have discovered for himself, that child is kept from inventing it and consequently from understanding it completely” (Piaget 1970, p. 715). Bruner (1961) theorized that discovery learning fosters intrinsic motivation, leads to an understanding of and inclination toward the heuristics of inquiry, and allows for the active self- organization of new knowledge in a way that fits the specific prior knowledge of the learner.
Discovery learning, to be blunt, is currently ‘sexy’. It has a considerable number of advocates and, increasingly, is seen as a ‘student-centred’ and ‘self-directed’ form of learning. It is also seen as being strong on motivating students and to allow them to ‘own’ their learning.
But, even this educational philosophy only goes so far when it comes to the autonomy of the child over his or her own education. Winne and Nesbit (2010, p. 667), for example, cite a definition of discovery learning provided by another author:
According to Hammer (1997, p. 489), discovery learning usually “refers to a form of curriculum in which students are exposed to particular questions and experiences in such a way that they ‘discover’ [note the scare quotes] for themselves the intended concepts.”
That is, even this most ‘liberal’ of mainstream educational approaches ultimately sets itself the goal of ‘filling the pail’ of the child’s mind with what is needed (or, ‘intended’). Both directed instruction and discovery learning, that is, agree on assumption (a), above: the child doesn’t know what it needs to know (appropriate adults – educationalists and politicians – do).
Significantly, discovery learning – especially when it involves no guidance or minimal guidance – has also been criticised as ineffective, in comparison with directed instruction, at least for its success at realising these ‘intended concepts’.
In a famous review of discovery learning by Mayer (2004) in the journal American Psychologist, he went so far as to describe it as being “like some zombie that keeps returning from its grave” (p. 17). Why? Well, as Winne and Nesbit (2010, p. 668) elaborated,
He [Mayer] maintained that, as a consequence, “active-learning” interventions such as hands-on work with materials and group discussions [typical strategies used in discovery learning contexts] are effective only when they promote cognitive engagement directed toward educational goals.
Once again, discovery learning is here being judged against how effective it is at achieving educational goals imposed on the child by those who know what the child needs to know. Discovery learning, that is, is being judged by how well the child discovers the ‘intended concepts’.
In the minimally (or un-) guided discovery process, it appears there is no guarantee that the child will ‘cognitively engage’ with these “educational goals“. Presumably, there’s a threat that they might either ‘cognitively engage’ with some ‘educational goal’ of their own choosing or – perhaps less worryingly – not ‘cognitively engage’ with the activity at all.
Importantly, advocates of discovery learning – in the final analysis – generally accept this framing of the process of education. Like a teacher who seems to ask an open question but has in mind a quite definite answer, ‘discovery learning’, as an educational approach, reflexively subordinates itself to the assumption that there is required – and known – knowledge with which the bucket of the child’s mind must be filled. That knowledge is called, of course, the ‘curriculum’.
I should add that most parents in our society also understand education and schooling in this way. And it is partly for that reason that modern education remains compulsory. (History, interestingly, is full of parental – and certainly child – resistance to this compulsion, not unlike the resistance by agricultural workers to the ‘offer they couldn’t refuse’ to work in factories. Today, however, it is the air we breathe and its legitimacy is rarely questioned by parents.)
The only question worth asking, then, is how did we come to these views of education? When did it all begin?
Getting ‘here’ from ‘there’
If you want a simplified (not simplistic) and insightful introduction to the origins of our compulsory education system you could do worse than read chapter 3, ‘Why Schools are what they are: A brief history of modern education‘ in Peter Gray’s book ‘Free to Learn‘.
Those origins, as Gray describes them, were at the sudden twist in our species’ evolutionary tale when we moved from the life of hunter-gatherers to an agricultural culture:
It [agriculture] altered the conditions of human life in ways that led to the decline of freedom, equality, sharing, and play.
The hunter-gatherer way of life was knowledge-intensive and skill-intensive, but not labor intensive. … Moreover, the work of hunting and gathering was exciting and joyful, partly because it was so knowledge-intensive and skill-intensive.
Agriculture gradually changed all that. With a steady food supply, people were able to have more children. Agriculture also allowed – or forced – people to live in permanent dwellings near their crops, rather than live as nomads. But these changes came at a great cost to labor. While hunter-gatherers skillfully harvested what nature had grown, farmers had to plow, plant, cultivate, tend their flocks and so on. Successful farming required long hours of relatively unskilled, repetitive labor, much of which could be done by children.
The switch to agriculture, unsurprisingly, led to a general decline in human health (see this interesting excerpt from Professor Mark Cohen’s book ‘Health and the Rise of Civilization‘ or his chapter ‘The emergence of health and social inequalities in the archaeological record‘. Also, here’s Jared Diamond on ‘The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race‘).
Height reduced, bodily wear and tear increased (presumably from repetitive labour) as did the incidence of infections (all evidenced by comparative skeletal remains of neighbouring hunter-gatherers and farmers at the time of the first agricultural settlements). Agriculture generated more people and greater protection from starvation (although only initially) but those people were also less well-nourished (more calories but nutrient deficiencies), had to do long, repetitive and strenuous physical labour and – at a guess – were less happy.
When Thomas Hobbes described the state of humanity prior to formal government he penned a far more accurate description of early agricultural life than hunter-gatherer life:
and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
[You may have heard, from Steven Pinker and others, that the ‘non-violent’ hunter-gatherer life is a myth. In particular, Napoleon Chagnon’s (in)famous study of the Yanomami people in Brazil-Venezuela, which was subtitled ‘The Fierce People’, has been championed as an important piece of evidence of such war-like and violent life in pre-historic hunter-gatherer societies.
It’s not part of this post but, if you’re interested, you could read a broader account of violence in pre-history here, and a summary of the ‘Yanomami scandal‘, written by the eminent anthropologist David Maybury-Lewis. In addition, the Yanomami may be a tribal people but ‘hunter-gatherers’? According to Peter Gray (2013, p. 46) the Yanomami did some hunting and gathering but relied for most of their nutrition on farmed bananas and plantain: “Farming allowed their population density to grow to two or three times what a purely hunter-gatherer way of life could sustain. It also promoted the establishment of relatively permanent villages and the accumulation of property.” – see next paragraph.]
According to Gray, agricultural life sowed the seeds of a social form that was more hierarchical, more unequal and more focused on status. Sedentary ways and investment of so much toil in produce meant that a concern for private property also developed (‘Belongings’ are simply a burden in the hunter-gatherer life.):
Thus, agriculture fostered values that were negative amongst hunter-gatherers: toil, child labor, private ownership, greed, status, and competition.
But in tracing the lineage of modern education, what was important was that it was children who bore the brunt of a childhood without free, autonomous play. Rather than learning the intensive knowledge and skills necessary for hunter-gatherer life through autonomous play, they came to be trained in a small set of skills necessary for agricultural work. More importantly, children, very quickly, had to be trained to obey. As Gray put it,
Children’s lives changed gradually from the free pursuit of their own interests to increasingly more time spent at work that was required to serve the rest of the family.
This is the central phrase in understanding the reasons for modern education – “more time spent at work that was required“.
Externally imposed requirements are not conducive to freedom, let alone the kind of self-directed, autonomous, play-based learning for which humans are ‘designed’ by their evolutionary history. Yet this has been, increasingly, the life of the child in the most recent eye-blink of our species’ time on this planet.
A famous study in the 1950s by Herbert Barry, Irvin Child and Margaret Bacon found a consistent relationship between child rearing practices and the means of subsistence in so-called primitive societies. As Peter Gray (2013, pp. 47-48) summarised the results:
The more a culture depended on agriculture and the less it depended on hunting and gathering, the more likely it was to value obedience, devalue self-assertion, and use harsh means to discipline children.
This tendency is best explained in terms of the ‘ideal’ farmer versus the ‘ideal’ hunter- gatherer. In a very interesting passage, Gray (2013, pp. 48-49) argues that success in farming depends,
on adhering to tried-and-true methods. Creativity is very risky; if a crop fails, a whole year’s food supply may be lost. Farmers, unlike hunter-gatherers, don’t regularly share food, so a family that loses its crop may starve. Moreover, farming societies are generally structured hierarchically, so obedience to those higher in wealth, rank, and power is essential to social and economic success. Thus, the ideal farmer is obedient, rule abiding, and conservative; farmers’ strict discipline of children seems designed to cultivate those traits.
In contrast, success in hunting and gathering requires continuous, creative adaptation to the ever-changing, unpredictable conditions of nature. For hunter-gatherers, each day’s food supply comes from the cumulative efforts of diverse individuals and teams, each foraging in their own chosen way and using their own best judgment. The diversity of methods coupled with the sharing of food among all members of the band creates a hedge against the possibility that anyone will starve. Moreover, social success for the hunter-gatherer depends not upon obedience to anyone higher up, but upon the ability to assert one’s thoughts and wishes effectively in the company of equals, where negotiation and compromise, not threat and submission, pave the way to agreement. Thus, the ideal hunter-gatherer is assertive, wilful, creative, and willing to take risks; hunter-gatherers’ permissive parenting served well to foster those traits.
What is interesting about this passage is the close link between how a society organises its economy and how it raises its children. This is a point well worth considering today – and one I’ll return to.
From the point of view of ‘training’, ‘instruction’ and the ‘education’ of children, things just kept getting worse once agricultural work established the basis for larger populations.
One side-effect of having to work hard at tedious tasks is the realisation that it would be good to get others to do it. Slavery, various forms of indentured servitude, paid labour and the stunningly hierarchical feudal system were all logical consequences of the shift to more and more intensive forms of agricultural production.
Industrial production further increased the pressure to produce obedient adults capable of continuous work at the behest of others. Child labour became formalised and substituted long hours working in the field for even longer hours in factories or down mines.
Meanwhile, Catholic Schools taught, explicitly, obedience to designated authority while Protestant schools emphasised the necessity for children to acquire the virtues of self-discipline – in effect, to internalise the submission to authority.
The latter generalised to the notion that not only the spiritual but also the material salvation of individuals depended upon them being schooled in matters they had little interest in. The imposed discipline from without was aimed at instilling a self-discipline necessary to ‘do what was required‘ to succeed. It required ‘breaking the will’ of children – a goal that was explicitly and enthusiastically advocated.
August Hermann Francke, for example, the founder and leader of the Pietist Schools (remarkably similar in form to today’s schools, with timetabling by the hourglass, teacher certification, and the like) had this to say about the educational priorities of schooling:
“Above all, it is necessary to break the natural willfulness of the child. While the schoolmaster who seeks to make the child more learned is to be commended for cultivating the child’s understanding, he has not done enough. He has forgotten his most important task, namely that of making the will obedient.” (cited in Gray, 2013, p. 59)
It was for this reason that Francke advocated, and followed the policy of, constant supervision of the schoolchild. As Gray (2013, p. 59) comments:
“For this reason it is a rule in this institution that a pupil never be allowed out of the presence of a supervisor. The supervisor’s presence will stifle the pupil’s inclination to sinful behaviour, and slowly weaken his wilfulness.” The words used today may be a little different, but modern educators have expressed the same idea countless times. The belief that young people are incapable of making reasonable decisions is a cornerstone of our system of compulsory, closely monitored education.
Once the state replaced the Church as the executor of education it had a very clear agenda. Despite popular myths, that agenda was not universal literacy to enable successful participation in the workplace. Literacy was already widespread (Gray, 2013, p. 60):
By the early 19th century, roughly three quarters of the population, in the United States, including slaves, were literate, and percentages in most of Europe were comparable. On both sides of the Atlantic, the percentage of literate people was far higher than was the percentage of jobs requiring literacy. The primary educational concern of leaders in government and industry was not to make people literate, but to gain control over what people read, what they thought, and how they behaved. Secular leaders in education promoted the idea that if the state controlled the schools, and if children were required by law to attend those schools, then the state could shape each new generation of citizens into ideal patriots and workers.
Edward Ross, an early founder of sociology in America, presented the argument for compulsory schooling in the honest and plainspoken words that were, then, not in the least controversial (Gray, 2013, p. 63):
Ross advocated for compulsory public schooling as a means of maintaining social order. In his words, the job of the public school is “to collect little plastic lumps of human dough from private households and shape them on the social kneading-board”. Ross understood that children learned from their environment, especially from the people around them, and he wanted to ensure uniformity of that environment. … He wrote, “Copy the child will, and the advantage of giving him his teacher instead of his father to imitate is that the former is a picked person, while the latter is not.” Yes, the teacher was a picked person – picked and certified by the state to teach the correct ideas and not the incorrect ones.
Time to be blunt: Free play, exploration and curiosity are the evolved means by which free, autonomous humans learn; ‘education’, whether informally administered by families in agricultural societies or formally administered by the Church or state, is the socially designed means by which un-free humans learn.
The modern education system has primarily served the purpose of producing adults who would be useful in the religious or economic realms of society. The natural inclinations of children were largely the problem that education systems were designed to solve in pursuit of this over-riding purpose.
Of course, in today’s education system there are no teachers who could (or would) proudly record – as one German teacher in a Pietist School did after 51 years of teaching – the infliction of,
“911,527 blows with a rod, 124,010 blows with a cane, 20,989 taps with a ruler, 136,715 blows with the hand, 10, 235 blows to the mouth, 7,905 boxes on the ear, and 1,118,800 blows on the head” (Gray, 2013, pp. 57-58).
Many, if not most, teachers in New Zealand care intensely about the children they teach and are concerned about the welfare and dignity of their charges. But that isn’t the point – in many ways teachers are as constrained by the educational system as are their students. As one teacher told Gray (2013, p. 83):
“I don’t choose what I teach; the state does. Teachers know wonderful things about how children learn, but we’re not allowed to do anything about it. … My ability to keep my job is based on how many of my students pass the [state mandated] test”
Since then, compulsory schooling has extended, both in terms of the school year and the age range, and has become more standardised. Women have come to play a greater role in formal schooling, softening its image – and reality – considerably. Yet, still, children do not like school.
In a major study of US youths’ everyday levels of happiness, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi and Jeremy Hunter (2003) found that “School activities rate below average scores in happiness, while social, active and passive leisure activities are above average.” There was also a, supposedly, ‘paradoxical’ finding that “youth who spend more time in school and social activities are happier than those who spend less.”
But there is little that is paradoxical in this finding, since they also found that “[b]eing alone rates the lowest levels of happiness, while being with friend [sic] corresponds to the highest.” It’s not the school activities that produce higher levels of happiness, it’s companionship.
Overall, hardly a big tick for the typical educational experience.
And, after this long historical (de)tour, we come to the National Standards policy.
National Standards, as most people are aware, has its critics. These critics have challenged the standards in numerous ways – they are vague; they are not standardised nationally; they are less about children’s learning than they are about monitoring and controlling schools and teachers; they encourage ‘gaming’ of student achievement by teachers and schools (most crudely, ‘teach to the test’); they assume an incorrect view of the learning and developmental processes (e.g., that they are ‘incremental’, ‘gradualist’, ‘progressive’ and linearly cumulative in each of the designated areas of reading, writing and numeracy); they promote the view that ‘acceleration’ of learning is necessarily a desirable goal; etc..
But, irrespective of the validity of any or all of these criticisms, National Standards is educationally retrograde for a much deeper reason: It is a continuation and a further cementing of the assumption that education involves, and should involve, somehow getting children to do something they are either unwilling and/or unable to do for themselves.
It is the latest in a long line of attempts to ensure that children are progressing, in an orderly way, toward a desired result over which they have little say.
That is, National Standards assumes that education is – and must be – an externally imposed and managed process of embedding pre-determined, necessary knowledge and skills into children.
For that reason alone, National Standards represent a backward step in education because it marks a step back from a freer mode of learning.
[To be continued …]