Thursday, 21 February 2013
On bodies of knowledge
A few days ago, somebody commenting here was getting ticked off with me because I would not readily respond to her hectoring tone. Specifically, she wished me to agree that I believed that there existed a body of knowledge which I had to transmit to my daughter and that this was part of what I meant by ‘education’. I did not answer her then for two reasons. First, because it is never wise to give in to bullying tactics of that sort; it only encourages such behaviour in the future. Secondly of course, the very question was meaningless, because all parents believe that they are in possession of a body of knowledge which they should pass on to their children. Whether they formalise their belief in words, makes no difference at all. They still act as though this was so.
Let us see what I mean by this. I used conversation with my young daughter to pass on knowledge and information that I felt she would find interesting or useful. For example, a walk in the country would give me the opportunity to teach her about photosynthesis, the food web and many other concepts with which I felt she should be familiar. I was talking last year to an extreme autonomous educator who found this quite at variance with her own views. She believed that it was unwise to direct conversation in this way, but that it should be allowed to develop according to the child’s interests and her own observations of what interested her. She told me that what I was doing was really teaching, which was quite true; I make no secret of it. The sequel, which came a few weeks later, was revealing.
The mother to whom I had been talking was, unsurprisingly, a keen organic gardener. She believed passionately in recycling and was also a fanatical composter. It turned out that she felt it a moral imperative to explain to her children why as much as possible should be recycled and to emphasise to them the finite nature of the Earth’s resources. So far, so good; many readers will no doubt agree. She never missed an opportunity to show her children why it made sense to recycle things and had recently explained to the nine year-old why it made more sense to put potato peelings on the compost heap, rather than throw them in the rubbish bin as many children might be tempted to do. Brownie point to mum for raising responsible and eco-aware children!
In the course of her explanations, the mother ended up telling the child, without being asked to do so, how the different nutrients such as nitrogen would then pass from the potato peeling to the soil and then later be used by other living things. It was at this point that I realised that here was a mother who had, albeit very gently, denounced me for using a walk in the wood as a chance for a biology lesson, who had herself been teaching her children, unasked, about the nitrogen cycle. There was not the least difference between my explaining photosynthesis on a family walk and her explaining the nitrogen cycle as an after dinner activity. In each case, we both felt that it would be interesting and useful for our children to learn about some aspect of the IGCSE biology curriculum and, without waiting for our children to ask or show any interest in the subject, we launched into lectures.
All parents do this sort of thing all the time. This is because all parents have a body of knowledge that they think should be shared with their children. If a child notices a bird hovering overhead, most parents, if they know what the bird is, will tell the child, ‘It’s a kestrel.’ They will do this, even if the child has not asked what sort of bird it is. They will similarly tell their children unasked a million other things during a walk in a forest. They might explain the difference between an oak tree and a hornbeam; they might point to a stag beetle and tell the child that it is the biggest English insect; they could tell the child how strange it is to think that the clouds in the sky are nothing but water vapour. In every case, the parent is passing on a body of knowledge to which she has access and her child does not. It is precisely the same as my explaining the formula for photosynthesis to my own ten year-old daughter; it is direct teaching.
All parents teach their children, often completely unasked, those things which the parents think would be nice for their children to know. They teach them. More often than not, this is done by means of purposive conversation, which is a very effective way of imparting knowledge to children. To pretend that just because they are not using blackboards and making the children sit down for a lesson, this makes the activity any less of a teaching session is mad. This teaching takes place whether the parent is a dedicated autonomous educator or a highly structured educator.
To return to and answer the person who was badgering me about this, the day before yesterday, the reason that I did not answer the question, was that the question itself was based upon a false premise. This premise was that some parents attempt to transmit to their children an objective body of knowledge and that others allow their children to discover the wonders of the world for themselves. There are no separate categories of this sort; all parents teach their children from a body of knowledge which they, the parents, wish to impart to their offspring.