Monday, 7 May 2018

Democratic Education as Saviour of Schooling? Christian Schooling & Child-Centred Approaches

In Australia, the Federal government has just received the report of a major review of Australian school education. The report titled 'Through Growth to Achievement: Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools' was conducted by a panel of significant Australians and was chaired by Mr David Gonski AC, who is a leading businessman and Chancellor of the University of New South Wales Australia. 

It concludes:
"While Australia has a fine educational heritage, its academic performance has declined since 2000 as measured by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test. In 2000, only a few countries materially ranked higher; in 2015 Australia’s ranking dropped to the middle of the pack. Moreover, Australian student achievement has stagnated in the last decade, measured by the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), and has declined relative to its past performance in PISA."

The first of the report's 23 key recommendations is that Australia's school education should:

Embed a focus on individual student achievement through continuous learning progress in the policies and practices of all schools and systems, with the expectation that each student should achieve at least one year’s growth throughout each year of schooling.

Without wanting to comment too much on the report and its specific findings here, I have been interested in the varied responses to this first recommendation. The recommendation is not that surprising. Why wouldn't we want our children to have their teachers take special note of their individual achievement levels, and to ensure that they are making progress at a minimum of one year's growth for one year of life. My sense, is that this is what teachers would already aspire to do. 

While some teachers might shudder at the prospect that they might need to teach less to the class and ability groups, and more to the specific learning needs of 'each' child, this isn't that spectacular a recommendation. Although, it would be helpful to know how a year of progress will be defined, and how we would measure this, but... I will leave these many questions to one side.

However, the thing that caught my attention was that some people have come out and begun to argue (once again) that an appropriate response to this recommendation, would be to embrace a discussion that has been bubbling along for some time as an appropriate model (see 'Democratic Schooling: teachers leave them kids alone') . In fact, one commentator even suggested that we might revisit one of the classic democratic schools, Summerhill! 

Above: A.S. Neill's school Summerhill
The oldest contemporary example of Democratic Education in action is in fact Summerhill. The school was established in 1921 in Suffolk England and is still in operation today. The British boarding school was founded by A.S. Neill who argued that school should be crafted to match the child, rather than the school shaping them. At Summerhill staff and students can attend school meetings, and make decisions about how it is run and what it teaches (with equal votes). Students decide what subjects they will study and whether they will attend classes at all.

Neill’s model of education (and that of Democratic education) places at its centre democracy as both a goal and a 'method' of instruction, or the foundation of one's pedagogy. It assumes that democratic processes and ideas should be the focus of education, and that self-determination should be a core part of school communities, with its embedded core values of justice, respect and trust. As well, 'Democratic Education' is seen as emancipatory, with the student's opinions and ideas being seen as equal to the teacher's.

As its website indicates, this is a child-centred school in the most extreme form. A.S. Neill suggested:

"I am only just realising the absolute freedom of my scheme of Education. I see that all outside compulsion is wrong, that inner compulsion is the only value. And if Mary or David wants to laze about, lazing about is the one thing necessary for their personalities at the moment. Every moment of a healthy child's life is a working moment. A child has no time to sit down and laze. Lazing is abnormal, it is a recovery, and therefore it is necessary when it exists."

While I'm not suggesting that the Gonski report in any way is suggesting such radical reforms, it does indicate how far the notion of a Christian education - with formation at the core as proposed in my book - is from the most extreme secular views on education and how they would see schools, curriculum, learning and behaviour being shaped.

Notions of Democratic Education have their historic roots in a number of places, but philosophers like John Locke had an influence on the development of such liberal forms of pedagogy. In 1690 in an essay titled Essay Concerning Human Understanding he suggested that "None of the things they are to learn, should ever be made a burden to them, or imposed on them as a task. Whatever is so proposed, presently becomes irksome; the mind takes an aversion to it, though before it were a thing of delight or indifferency."

Locke in effect claimed that the young mind was like a blank slate, or 'tabula rasa' a concept first attributed to Aristotle. Later, Plato was to refer to the mind being like a 'wax tablet'. The child's mind was assumed to be empty and needing to be filled or 'written upon', though Locke seem to accept that we are born with some innate talents. The concept is often linked to debates about 'nature' versus 'nurture' and learning. But essentially, experience, perception and opportunities to learn are all that advocates believe is necessary to develop young minds. Education was to make the 'man' (sic), and good would come from being educated well. Furthermore, humans are seen as generally good and capable of living in the world somewhat independently and able to make sound choices. The idea of 'original sin' and redemption from it had no place in educational thinking, contrary to Christian teaching and its roots in Augustinian teaching.

Needless to say, Locke and others who are at the foundation of progressive humanistic education, assume (to use Locke's words) "that of all the men we meet with, nine parts of ten are what they are, good or evil, useful or not, by their education".

The significance of these somewhat random references to Democratic Education in response to the Gonski Report while ill-informed, indicate just how little debate there is concerning the nature of pedagogy, a word that has been misappropriated for varied purposes. Nor do many educators today seem to place any value on teleological views of educational reforms. Rarely, does anyone seriously ask questions about the merits of such proposals with reference to end goals or purposes other than measurable outcomes on tests. 

Paul Ricoeur, in 'Figuring the Sacred' contended that a fulfilled person takes seriously their teleology—that is, their apparent purpose, directions, and goals in life. Our teleology both reflects and helps shape our hopes and dreams, as we live our lives in all of its fullness.

As we seek to build schools that are genuinely, Christian (or Christ centred), we must be concerned with the whole of life of the community. To quote my definition of education, a school that seeks to develop a Christian pedagogy takes into consideration:

"The whole of life of a community, and the experience of its members learning to live this life, from the standpoint of a specific end goal."

None of my comments in this post are meant as a criticism of the Gonski report, nor am I suggesting that Christian education should not embrace approaches like discovery learning, creativity, independent learning, open plan classrooms and so on. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

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