Monday, 9 August 2010

The curse of romanticism

To hear some home educators talking, one would imagine that maintained schools in this country are like Mr M'Choakumchild's school in Hard Times. They evidently think that a government inspector in the mould of Thomas Gradgrind is overseeing all the schools, saying: 'Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else'. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. Schools in this country are, more's the pity, riddled with the romantic view of childhood which Rousseau did so much to spread in the late eighteenth century. Our schools are still full of primary teachers who view fooling around with a lump of plasticine as an adequate and acceptable substitute to learning to read and write and perform the four basic arithmetical operations.

Rousseau has much to answer for. Until the eighteenth century, schools were places where children went to learn. Culture and knowledge were transmitted vertically from one generation to the next in the most efficient way that could be devised. These were the halcyon days before the muddle-headed notion of child-centred education had been devised. In those days, books were seen as being the most valuable educational tool and it was from them that most knowledge was expected to be acquired. Reading and the study of books was thought to be virtually synonymous with the very word 'education'.


Rousseau expounded his educational philosophy in Emile. This set out a blueprint for what we would today call a child centred education based upon play and self discovery. Among the most important ideas was that knowledge was to be acquired by experience rather than teaching. Children were to learn without being taught. Books are to be avoided, they are 'the curse of childhood'. This gave birth to an educational movement which had a very ambivalent attitude to books and the facts learned from them; a suspicion and distrust which lives on to this day among those who believe in 'child-centred' education. They hoped that nature would herself be the teacher and that real life would be the classroom. As Shakespeare said, 'there are books in running brooks, sermons in stones'.

Two of Rousseau's most enthusiastic followers will be familiar to teachers; Pestalozzi and Froebel. Together, these two fleshed out the ideas sketched by Rousseau and crafted from them an educational philosophy which still has great influence today. An example of the sort of thing which these two pioneers tried to foist off on us is Pestalozzi's belief that children's personalities are sacred and are what give them their inner dignity. Of course the problem arises if a child has a personality which makes him into a little thief or liar. Or perhaps if she is vicious or idle. In that case, we might not treat the child's personality as being sacrosanct and try to change it. This is called education and although such a view is no longer fashionable, there are still many who feel that a large part of education consists of getting children to drop their natural impulses and conform to the mores of an ethical system. In the romantic view of childhood which people like Rousseau encouraged though and which many teachers and parents today embrace; children are basically innocent and good. This view of the inherent goodness of children and the holy worth of their personalities was a reaction to the Christian doctrine of original sin, which regarded all children as young limbs of Satan.

When the Romantic Movement took off in a literary and artistic way, the ideas of Rousseau about childhood and education were adopted and soon became entrenched. 'Nature' was seen as being sacred and the best education was thought to be one which was 'natural', gained through the real world and not in some musty schoolroom. It is to this strand of pedagogy which many modern home educators adhere. However, it is not only home educators who feel this way. As I said earlier, most teachers in this country have the same idea at the back of their minds, despite the countless government initiatives designed to force them to teach the children in their care more effectively.

It is a curious irony that while many home educators refuse to send their children to school because they are afraid that the little darlings will be pressured and taught too intensively, there are others like the present writer who eschew conventional education for precisely the opposite reason. I regard modern schools as hotbeds of the most virulent and damaging form of romanticism; others see them as Dickensian places where the spirits of the innocent are crushed beneath the weight of facts which they are forced to absorb.

23 comments:

  1. I've seen no trace of Romanticism in any of the seven schools and two nurseries the children in our family have attended over the last 20 years.

    Quite the opposite. All the early years settings exercised a fair bit of commendable professionalism in the way they approached the children's education, but the rest have been focussed, whether they liked it or not, on the attainment of specific educational targets. Plasticine was notable by its absence, although my son developed an aversion to play-dough because of its repeated use in the development of his handwriting.

    One school went in for detentions and extra homework in a big way; children were also publicly humiliated, screamed at, manhandled and made to stand in freezing rain because one child in a class had lost her lunch box. And those were just the were incidents I witnessed. Apart from rehearsing for a Christmas play, my daughter spent the first two terms of year 6 revising for KS2 SATS and the last term recovering from them.

    Looked pretty Dickensian to me.

    Could you provide some examples of Romanticism in action in modern schools, Simon?

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  2. One example which immediately springs to mind is Broadwater Farm primary school in Tottenham. Three years ago, the following exchange was overheard, from a teacher talking to a parent collecting her child; 'Mary couldn't decide what she wanted to do today, so she didn't really do anything much'. The child was five. I'm not sure that swapping anecdotes will resolve this though. I can see that I shall have to come up with a few references, but I am going to be out most of the day. Be patient, suzyg!

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  3. new complaint to Hampshire council by Peter LOL sent yesterday LOL

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  4. 'It is a curious irony that while many home educators refuse to send their children to school because they are afraid that the little darlings will be pressured and taught too intensively...'

    Really? After 15 years HEing, several HE groups, being moderator or 4 yahoo groups about HE, and friendship with 100's of HE'ers, I can honestly say I have never met ONE whose reason for home educating was fear their children would be 'taught too intensively'.

    Yet you say there are 'many' of these people?

    Reasons for HE which I've encountered:

    Wish to foster a religious or philosophical view.
    Believe school starting age is far too early.
    Wish their child to learn autonomously.
    Child has an SEN or medical condition which will not be catered for satisfactorily.
    Child has been bullied at school.
    Desire to accelerate learning.
    Family wishes to travel abroad.
    No place in good school available. etc etc etc

    but never a fear that their child might be taught too intensively.

    Mrs Anon

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  5. Webb web site is rubbish LOL

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  6. "Our schools are still full of primary teachers who view fooling around with a lump of plasticine as an adequate and acceptable substitute to learning to read and write and perform the four basic arithmetical operations."

    What on earth is wrong with that for five year olds ?

    The one bit of the Italian system which works is in the early years. (bar welfare issues with psychotic and/or “previously convicted of violent offences” employees)

    It's when they enter formal schooling at 6 and the concept that they haven’t transmogrified into miniature adults over the summer holidays gets overlooked that it all goes bent.

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  7. Well Mrs Anon, it is generally assumed that only about half the children educated at home are known to their local authorities. This means that probably half have never been to school. The two reasons you give for this, Believe school starting age is far too early.
    Wish their child to learn autonomously, tie in with what I said. Cetainly some educate for religious reasons; we have quite a few Witnesses nad Brethren in this county who choose HE because of this. Most of those who don't send their kids though, do so because they feel that school is to structured and that too much teaching goes on there. the research by Rothermel and also EO seems to bear this out.

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  8. "What on earth is wrong with that for five year olds ? "

    Nothing wrong for five year olds, but can be a problem with eleven year olds and older. At our only decent secondary school, Davenant Foundation in Loughton, a year 8 class of twelve and thirteen-year olds spent four English lessons watching a DVD of Pirates of the Caribbean. They then spent another lesson drawing a treasure map and colouring it in. This is the best school in the area, the place where people attend church for ten years to get a place for their children. The spirit of Rousseau lives!

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  9. "a year 8 class of twelve and thirteen-year olds spent four English lessons watching a DVD of Pirates of the Caribbean. They then spent another lesson drawing a treasure map and colouring it in. "

    Was it at the end of term ? I had a beef with our school where they pushed the kids like mad all year and then flopped around doing nothing with them for the last three weeks. I wanted my kid back so I finally have some time to work on his English if they had nothing better to do than show Disney films all day.

    Wouldn't have minded if they had organized some fun and games (educational or otherwise), but the "slip in yet another DVD so you can pick up your mobile phone for a good gossip and flick through the Italian equivalent of "HEAT !" day long laziness pissed me off no end. Especially since he was still coming home with a tonne of homework.

    Nothing wrong with the vids or the map in of themselves, it's the exploitation of them that makes or breaks it. First thing that comes to mind with the scenario you mentioned is organize a treasure hunt based on solving clues that use proverbs/idioms(for example) in a pirate context and having co-ordinates and directions as a sub aim. It's a lot of work the first time you do it, but lessons like that can and used again year after year or speedily reworked for other age groups, so the time investment is worth it. One lesson to show the film as “downtime” after a stressful run up to EOT exams and then springboard off into a fun, related, extended and educational activity.

    I thought you were talking about five year olds because of "Mary", sorry if I got the wrong end of the stick.

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  10. "Was it at the end of term?"

    No, although wasting four lessons like this would have been bad enough even then. Sticking on DVDs has become something of a default setting in some schools. For example in Coleraine Park primary school in Haringey, a particularly lazy teacher decided to run the PE lesson by sticking on a video of Mr Motivator and getting the kids to do the exercises while she caught up with some paperwork!

    "I thought you were talking about five year olds because of "Mary", sorry if I got the wrong end of the stick."

    Sorry Sarah, I hope I didn't sound snappish! No, this was just the first example that sprung to mind of Rousseau's ideas in action in British schools. I was thinking generally though. Sorry if I misled you. I know nothing at all about Italian schools, although I gather that you did not think that they suited you?

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  11. "This gave birth to an educational movement which had a very ambivalent attitude to books and the facts learned from them; a suspicion and distrust which lives on to this day among those who believe in 'child-centred' education."

    Wrong again, and yet another sweeping brush-stroke conflation. Child-centred home educator here: house full of books. We can't get enough of them. More to the point: every single similar-ethos family known to us also has hundreds of books and seems to love them.

    What's to dislike about books? Most of my own voluntary learning has come from them and the reading and studying of them is, I understand, quite a common method of information gathering. To try to suggest that people who are interested in child-led learning also dislike books is a bizarre, weird and totally unfounded thing to do.

    I think you've taken a dislike to various terms that are often associated with home education, like autonomous, child-centred, natural learning and so on, and decided (consciously or otherwise) to add on a set of erroneous assumptions to try to discredit the general ideas involved.

    It's noticeable that when commenters challenge you head on about the effectiveness of such theories, often with personal anecdotes about their children, you completely ignore them and blithely continue on your original trajectory.

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  12. "I gather that you did not think that they suited you? "

    __


    Going by their PISA rating they don't suit many.

    Offically it’s called it The Italian Paradox, one of the highest levels of investment per child and one of the lowest teacher to student ratios, yet abject failure is the net result.

    It is not impossible to find good teachers here, but it is an absolute lottery with roughly the same sort of levels of probability when it comes to winning a prize. Son of Thor had a good(ish) set of teachers in year two after I changed schools. Come summer one had died, one retired unexpectedly and the replacements turned the new school into a frying pan to fire scenario.

    The heart of the matter lies in spending the bulk of the money on huge staff of poorly paid and badly trained teachers who are awarded "jobs for life" based on a point system which has nothing to do with merit.

    We also have the small issue of convicted criminals keeping/getting jobs in schools, just shuffled to another unsuspecting school when it all goes bent (again). The eye watering welfare issues not being dealt with means that the more common, but less horrific, pastoral concerns never see the light of day.

    It’s a mess. There are reforms underway, but although the stated aims are along the lines of introducing meritocracy and accountability with the long term view of improving standards, they can easily be hijacked for the sake of a hidden agenda of cost cutting…which is what I think will be the final outcome.

    So I’m not holding my breath for any improvements anytime soon.

    What sucks about HE here (among other things) is that the local school manages (in the loosest possible sense of the word) the whole process. Permission, accepting or rejecting curriculum, testing etc.. I can’t get away from them and just forget about the ed system here by opting both my kid and myself out of it. Which I’d like to do cos I can’t change a damn thing and every time I come up against another example of their failings my blood pressure goes through the roof.

    We don’t have that many children here, would it really kill people to value the few we have enough to at least TRY to give them an effective, age appropriate education and insist that their welfare takes priority over a (psychotic/semi-psycotic/doing-a-good-impression-of-being-pscycotic/lazy git/power crazed/clueless/previously convicted) cleaner’s or teacher’s right to a “job for life” that they have clearly demonstrated that they aren’t emotionally, intellectually or professionally equipped to do?

    And breatheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee …

    Don’t get me started on where they shuffle the maddest, baddest employees to when they run out of mainstream schools to ruin with their presence. Only to the educational provision for the handicapped. FFS, from the vulnerable and voiceless to the even more vulnerable and voiceless in the hope that less fuss will be kicked up.

    And this is the system working as normal, not anomalies.

    (takes pulse, lies down quickly, tries not to have a stroke)

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  13. 'Most of those who don't send their kids though, do so because they feel that school is to structured and that too much teaching goes on there.'

    Ah, yes, but the two are slightly separate issues, aren't they? I wasn't keen on the structure for my kids, having been an insider for many years, but 'too much teaching' wouldn't have occurred to me as a problem.

    Structure at school would be, for me, all the rubbish stuff like uniforms, petty rules about not being alowed to take a chocolate biscuit in as part of your lunch, authoritarian, shouty teachers, lack of flexibility or individualisation, daft health and safety rules (no conker matches or nature tables), the way that classes are grouped, kids made to line up in a queue at the teacher's desk for 25 minutes to ask if they can go to the loo etc etc. That's the 'stucture' I didn't fancy for my kids.

    My home education of them involved plenty of teaching, however.

    'the research by Rothermel and also EO seems to bear this out.'

    Simon...that's so funny...LOL! My Deluxe Patented Irony Meter just broke. You owe me a new one.

    Mrs Anon

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  14. Mrs A: Wish to foster a religious or philosophical view.

    I don't send my children to school because I DON'T want the religious and philosophical views of the state forced upon them.

    Also, I do not send my children to school because I do not want them to be subjected to the state social engineering programme. I do not want them to be finger printed so they can borrow a (state approved) library book. I do not want them to mix with children who think everything is 'boring' or who are binge drinking, smoking and having sex at 13 etc etc

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  15. "I do not want them to mix with children who think everything is 'boring' or who are binge drinking, smoking and having sex at 13 etc etc"

    Amen to that!

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  16. "queue at the teacher's desk for 25 minutes to ask if they can go to the loo"

    When my daughter started at college she was bemused to find that the single most exciting feature of higher education for the other girls was the freedom to void their bladders without waiting for permission!

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  17. "It is a curious irony that while many home educators refuse to send their children to school because they are afraid that the little darlings will be pressured and taught too intensively, there are others like the present writer who eschew conventional education for precisely the opposite reason."

    Hardly ironic, just an indication that people are different and have different aims in life. The one size fits all approach is just not appropriate, either for you or more relaxed home educators.

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  18. "At our only decent secondary school, Davenant Foundation in Loughton, a year 8 class of twelve and thirteen-year olds spent four English lessons watching a DVD of Pirates of the Caribbean. They then spent another lesson drawing a treasure map and colouring it in. This is the best school in the area, the place where people attend church for ten years to get a place for their children. The spirit of Rousseau lives! "

    This is nothing to do with Rousseau, this is called 'making it interesting'. I challenged my daughter's Y 6 class teacher over this point, when my daughter was bored to tears (literally) with the repeated rehearsals for SATs. The teacher said "But we do our best to make it interesting." I pointed out that 'it' (ie the world and everything in it) already was interesting; her job was to introduce the children to it and allow them to be interested, not to get them to maximise their results in a test that only brought glory to the school. I don't think she got my point at all.

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  19. "This gave birth to an educational movement which had a very ambivalent attitude to books and the facts learned from them; a suspicion and distrust which lives on to this day among those who believe in 'child-centred' education."

    I've noticed two main reasons why an ambivalent attitude to books has arisen in the past. One is that educational books have often been stultifyingly dull. No accident that Comenius' Latin by pictures - was it "Orbis Sensuali¤ům Pictus"? - was in print for something like 300 years.

    The other reason is that many people thought that having their heads stuck in a book was bad for children - it damaged their eyesight, stopped them getting exercise, distracted them from chores and gave them ideas. All true of course.

    I haven't ever come across an ambivalent attitude to books per se from anyone embracing a child-centred approach to education in the last century or so. Quite the opposite in fact.

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  20. "This is nothing to do with Rousseau,"

    Well it is part of the aversion which many teachers feel to teaching. They would prefer the children to 'discover'. Things are set up all the time so that the children might stumble over the truth without actually being told it in so many words. This philosophy of education, learning by discovery, has quite a lot to do with Rousseau's view of the world. this includes the horror of books. Everything is done eitehr by DVDs or on the Internet. No textbooks at all.

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  21. "Well it is part of the aversion which many teachers feel to teaching. They would prefer the children to 'discover'. Things are set up all the time so that the children might stumble over the truth without actually being told it in so many words. This philosophy of education, learning by discovery, has quite a lot to do with Rousseau's view of the world. this includes the horror of books. Everything is done eitehr by DVDs or on the Internet. No textbooks at all."

    Ok, textbooks are a thing of the past, but that's largely because of cost.

    I'd love to know where these schools are that want children to 'discover' the truth. The schools my family has experienced, Teacher's TV and the TES website all seem to be populated by teachers armed to the teeth with learning objectives, lesson plans and the appropriate terminology, intent on 'delivering the curriculum'. Woe betide any individual who doesn't want to take delivery or accidentally meets another learning objective instead.

    So far, the only evidence you have cited to support your assertion that the spirit of Rousseau is alive and well in English education is an overheard conversation in the playground of one school and the strategy adopted by one teacher for four lessons in another. I'm not yet bowled over by the convincing nature of your argument.

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  22. For an alternative view, this article suggests that lack of control over their own life and a move from intrinsic towards extrinsic motivation has resulted in increased rates of depression and anxiety in today's children.

    The Dramatic Rise of Anxiety and Depression in Children and Adolescents: Is It Connected to the Decline in Play and Rise in Schooling?

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    ReplyDelete