What do we believe in? It seems obvious: free speech, equal access to education and health care, a society in which the rule of law transcends the natural and careless cruelty of dictators and lunatics, and a mutual respect for the rights of all no matter how young or old, whatever gender, colour or race they are, or however they choose to lives their lives, always provided, of course, that this does not imperil the lives of others. Uncontroversial, surely.
But then, as so often, I find my views questioned and have to work out how and if I should reassert them, change them, jettison them or go into therapy! And the person who made me start another internal dialogue was Alan Maley, a man whose longevity in our field is matched only by the enormous contributions he has made in so many areas, not least his editorship of the Oxford teachers’ resource books series, but also as an article writer, prizewinning author of readers, inspired teacher and inveterate conference goer.
Eight days ago (as I write this) Alan gave a plenary at the FAAPI conference in Argentina. It was a very successful plenary – that is to say it got people talking, questioning and arguing which is exactly one of the functions of a good event! His argument, though, was a familiar one; that school is not a good place to learn anything, that testing is mechanised and wrong (he quoted a list of good and bad by Luke Prodromou in which tests were aligned with everything that is bad); and that most education impedes rather than promotes learning. Along the way he quoted a familiar list of 1970s polemicists such as Paolo Freire (The Pedgagogy of the `Oppressed) and Ivan Illich (De-schooling Society). He contrasted the apallingness of school systems with the openness of unplanned learning destinations and championed the need for activities that promote creativity which, he claimed, schools militate against. Along the way he let slip the idea (with which I am completely in agreement) that the sonnet form, with all its restrictions actually provokes poetic creativity precisely because of those restrictions. In conversation afterwards he said that he could not remember anything he learned at school – a place he clearly had no fond memories of.
You agree with him, right? Except, well there were about 1200 teachers in the audience, many of whom worked in the kind of school systems that he was criticising. Were their efforts in vain? Could the absurd push for outcomes and targets which many of them have to live by actually destroy the learning potential of countless thousands of students? Are they, therefore, complicit in the undermining of the Argentinean soul? ‘Hey teacher, leave them kids alone!’ REALLY?
Universal access to education is only possible, isn’t it, if systems are put in place? Systems are sometimes, by their nature, not noted for their creativity. Schools do need to regulate themselves, don’t they? And as for tests, ARE they always evil, or do they, at their best, actually celebrate achievement and success? We all know how bad it feels to fail a test, but how good does it feel to pass one? And if school is restrictive maybe the rule of the sonnet applies? That the very restrictions which are imposed actually provoke creativity and ingenuity. You see my dilemma. Every creative urge in my body wants to agree with Alan; yet I cannot conclude that schools are, by their nature, bad places for learning, or that teachers, in general, stifle creativity.
I come from a country where a right-wing government wants to re-introduce the divisions that the left (with the glorious and largely successful ideal of comprehensive education) rejected for more than 60 years. Anyone can set up a school now and it seems the government wants to destroy the organisations that seek to make the system work, so that we can all be ‘free’. Alan would approve, I think. Except that this move will bring back the divisions and educational sectarianism which successive progressive governments in the UK have sought to take out of them.
And if schools are so bad, how come so many of us learnt stuff? By accident? Despite the schools? Or maybe we didn’t.
Is ‘system’ a natural enemy of growth and creativity? That’s my question for this post.
(And, for the record, I went to a fancy private boarding school – not my choice, and not the choice we made for my children; it was a mix of good and bad like most schools but it represented a system I have been dead against ever since)