I recently read something which hugely affected my view of education both now and in the future. It was not part of the contemporary movement towards creativity and innovation embodied by such thinkers as Ken Robinson and Stephen Heppell, and expounded across educational blogs such as this one. It was, in fact, a book I found in my Mother’s garage, published in the 60s and about the founding of a school in the 1920s.
The book was ‘Summerhill’, in which A.S. Neill writes of the philosophy of the controversial school he founded based on the values of self governance and genuine freedom. In this school lessons took place, but attendance was (and still is as far as I can ascertain) totally optional. Decisions in all matters of school life, including discipline, are undertaken by a truly democratic council of the entire school community, in which the head teacher’s vote has equal value to that of a four year old. However, this was not some experiment, but a long established school which still exists under this philosophy today.
This, of course, sounds hugely radical, but what really interested me was the justification and explanations provided in this book. From common sense, to thought provoking analogies, this is a book I will be ruminating on for some time and, despite some of the Freudian explanations appearing a little dated, I would recommend to anyone involved in education.
One of the things I found fascinating was the parallels to issues and ideas I have been engaging with as part of the work I have done on ‘negotiated learning’ and ‘learning agreement time’ in my current post. Something I have been mulling over around the recent discussions we have been having on this work is the issue of making sure children are engaged in meaningful activities during open ended, child centered learning time.
Writing of rewards and punishments, Neil writes:
“Rewards and punishment tend to pressure a child into interest. But true interest is the lifeforce of the whole personality, and such interest is completely spontaneous. It is possible to compel attention, for attention is an act of consciousness. It is possible to be attentive to an outline on the black board and at the same time be interested in pirates. Though one can compel attention, one cannot compel interest.”
This distinction between attention and interest clarified for me something I have been grappling with for some time. One of the criticisms I come across most often when discussing negotiated learning, or even more mainstream early years practice, is that when given freedom some children will choose to not engage with the prescribed learning. The idea of children being left free to not engage with the ‘meaningful’ tasks going on in the classroom is reprehensible to many key stage two teachers, used as we are to compelling the attention of the whole class. However, compelling their attention could actually mask whether the learning is matched to their interests. If they are sat giving the physical appearance of listening, or going through the motions of completing tasks, It is very easy to think the are engaging in learning when in fact they could very well be actually engaging with the ‘pirates’ Neil writes of.
In a freer environment, such as the hour of ‘Learning agreement time’ we run each morning, any disengagement is sorely obvious. To the casual observer this can look really bad, however, to the teacher with the children’s interests in mind a brief spell of disengagement can be a useful opportunity for assessing and adapting the learning opportunities.
To my mind, the answer is not that disengaged children need to be structured or compelled to attention. There seems little likelihood of significant learning happening when someone is compelled to attend to it with no real interest. Instead the opportunities provided for learning need to be better matched to their interests and level of development. Whether this is achieved by allowing children to disengage from aspects of education until they are developmentally ready to take them on of their own accord, as Neil suggests, is a hugely difficult notion in our standards driven school culture. However, I think the importance of engaging with children’s interests, and not merely forcing the engagement of their attention, is something all teachers should have at the forefront of their minds.