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How We Learn In Brief

What should education be like?  

What should education be like?

There is little agreement as to what the answer to this question is, or should be. There has been a movement towards personalised education and self-directed learning on the one hand, and a mainstream system which currently maintains that this approach is totally misguided and that being taught facts via direct instruction is the most effective model of education. Within these polar opposites are an array of different methods and pedagogical approaches. At the heart of it though are fundamental questions about how we learn, what the skills and knowledge needed are, and even fundamentally, our view of what it means to be human and the kind of society we want to live in.

 “Education is the lighting of a fire, not the filling of a pail.”
For some of us, this quote sums up what education should be. Those who believe this want their children to be able to follow their interests, to be intrinsically motivated and excited by learning. Interest and curiosity are powerful drivers for effective learning. Babies and young children, far from being born blank slates, explore the world in a creative and scientific way through play.

We see creativity and problem solving as vital skills, believe that the world is full of so many exciting things to learn about that it is okay to let our children choose, that they do not need to be limited to what is in the curriculum. That perhaps society might be better off embracing divergence and multiplicity, where different people bring different abilities and skills to the table. Many of us believe, as do substantial numbers of educational experts, organisations as well as parents of children in school, that the insistence on testable knowledge as synonymous with education is crushing the creativity out of children.

Don’t run before you can walk
But there are those, many who are currently in control of our schools, who view education not as ‘the lighting of a fire’ but indeed as ‘the filling of a pail’. Those who argue that it is important for small children to learn about the mechanics and the ‘facts’ of language – fronted adverbials and the correct placing of commas – before they can write. Rather than believing that we are innately curious, hungry to learn and stimulated by the novel and the exciting they insist that thinking about new things is really, really hard work, that the brain is lazy and must be externally motivated and that we need teachers to tell us things in order to learn. 

There are those, like Tom Bennet the government behaviour czar, who are deeply scathing at the idea that children should decide what to learn, or about the idea that “we should make lessons as entertaining as possible”. Who ridicule the idea that “we should allow children to find their heart song and never mind all that beastly sums and Norman Conquest rubbish” Instead he claims: “It is the entitlement of every child to the legacy of their culture’s heritage, whether they bloody like it or not.” There are people such as Nick Gibb, currently minister for schools’ standards, who think the problem around testing and exam stress is that we don’t have enough. And there are those who see no difficulty in the idea that respecting and fulfilling a child’s ‘right’ to education might include a disciplinary system which includes the use of isolation or not being allowed to go to the toilet except at set times.

What do you choose?
These are views so different it feels unlikely that agreement can ever be reached on the matter.

There are many, whose children are in school, who are fighting to change some of the ways schools operate currently. Rescue our Schools campaign on the many issues facing schools, which are covered on this site. They have a comprehensive manifesto and state that “21st Century education policy-making must be evidence-based, not dominated by the ideology or school experiences of government ministers.” Too Much Too Soon seeks to push back against the relentless insistence of ever more formal education at younger and younger ages. More Than A Score  fights the relentless increase in testing. Parents Want a Say campaigns against the term time holiday rules which criminalise normal people. The Parents Union warns of a ‘perfect storm’ in the school system with increased pressure on “attainment”, attendance targets, a narrowing of curriculum, growth in academics along with funding cuts, pressure on mental health services, high teacher workloads at the same time as a lack of parental voice in schools or national policymaking. Not Fine In School is one of the many support groups for parents of children who are desperately struggling with attending school.

For many home educators the evidence is overwhelming. We see how our children thrive and grow when able to learn in a way that suits them. Or for some, home education was forced upon them by a child so desperately unhappy there was little choice. For many they start off doing ‘school at home’ but gradually see how their child learns effectively through informal learning.

Ultimately – currently – parent who decides how to fulfil their duty to educate their child. If you do not want your child to undertake schooling as provided by the state you are free to educate them ‘otherwise’. This freedom to know your child, to choose the model of education you believe is best is fundamental and a vital escape valve for those who cannot fit within the current model of school.

There is also substantial evidence, as shared here in the How We Learn section, to support this approach.

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