I have been reading about A. S. Neill recently (he of Summerhill School, more of which later). This is largely independent to my last post (consciously, at least), which was kick-started by a chance conversation about the possibility of playing being taught out of children. However, chance has a habit of bringing strands together and recent newspaper articles have been brought to my attention because of that kick-start. I feed in Neill to the thinking, though I haven’t yet read enough to form a full opinion on his work and philosophy.
This post will largely be an exercise in copying and pasting with a few editorial comments to glue it all together. It will be lengthy, but you’ll read it all if you want to. What needs to be said has already been said, you see. Why reinvent the wheel? Uncomfortable as I often am in the murky world of Politics [sic: deliberate capital P], what I would like to do is to develop a route from last week’s post, through the whole Govian national curriculum debate (via UK teachers’ current Trade Union activity and lack of confidence in Gove), add in a large dash of Alexander Sutherland Neill, and with a small leap land at the feet of play. Ta da.
So, last week I somewhat focused on my own education to highlight some good teachers, some frankly uninspiring (forgotten) teachers, and some teachers who had left an entirely distasteful mark. It was a means of trying to emphasise that play balanced me out. Maybe I came across as too ‘teacher bashing’. I say this because, of course, a major fault lies in whoever’s dictating the national curriculum. As I type, the education secretary is Michael Gove MP. I write this because I’m a playworker, and this playworker has found some common ground here with plenty of teachers — for a change.
Gove’s education plans are fixed squarely on the attainment of knowledge rather than the ability to learn to learn, as I read it. It’s his way of redressing the balance of a lack of ‘rigour’, core learning, no doubt afflicted on the children of today by the previous government. When the Tories are ousted, the see-saw of education policy will dip the other way again. Don’t the children ever get a say? That’s another story.
Michael Rosen, poet and former Children’s Laureate, recently wrote an article (which has been doing the rounds on social media) entitled Dear Mr Gove: Michael Rosen’s letter from a curious parent. Rosen refers to Gove’s apparent appearance on a recent BBC Question Time programme, and writes, addressing Gove:
You posed a dichotomy between knowledge and creativity, and made the assertion that you can’t be creative unless you have knowledge. If you watch a baby playing with a ball, say, you can see something going on that is quite different from your description: the baby is acquiring knowledge through creativity. The baby thinks up things to do with the ball, does them, and learns about what a ball does.
Rosen might well be jumping on the Gove-bashing wagon (and why not?), but from an educational/developmental point of view he has a point about play. He adds:
Once again, you repeated the word ‘rigour’ on the programme . . . I’m totally in favour of rigour when it comes to the work I do in schools: helping the children listen to poetry, recite it, write it and perform it, but whenever you talk about it, you seem to be referring to some of the worst kinds of education I had in the 1950s: learning without understanding, learning motivated by test-scores, learning lists of facts that the minister of education approves of, rather than learning how to ask questions, how to find things out, how to interpret and evaluate, how to be a learner.
Learning lists or play? I know what most children would prefer, and many parents too — if they’re truly reflecting on the power of play. However, this is all still couched in the whole argument that play is ‘for’ some purpose, i.e. playing creates learning. Sure, children get a lot out of their play, but the playwork thinking isn’t here necessarily: play for play’s sake; play for now; play is the very process of being.
Teachers’ trade union activity recently resulted in the Association of Teachers and Lecturers issuing a motion of no confidence in Michael Gove. Not having been party to the debates I can only speculate as to the reasons for the motion: they may range from fear of targets needing to be met, performance related pay, being over-worked and, I would hope, a genuine anxiety about the children. This playworker also has a genuine anxiety about children. The fear isn’t for their formal education, necessarily; rather, it is for their play lives (their spiritual, or maybe, immanent health, perhaps?): it is for their process of being.
Whilst appreciating that I’m reducing Gove’s national curriculum to a simple phrase unrepresentative of the whole, ‘list building, information absorption, and information retention’ isn’t becoming of the process of being. (It’s ironic, thinking about it, that I can reduce my understanding of Gove’s curriculum ideas to a mere list!) In another recent article, In Michael Gove’s world who needs teachers?, Peter Wilby writes:
Gove demands painstaking attention to spelling, handwriting and grammar, and lists the grammatical terms, such as ‘modal verbs’, that children must learn. He expects five- to seven-year-olds to grasp concepts such as civilisation, monarchy, parliament or democracy. If children are presented with material that runs ahead of their mental development, only one teaching method is possible: learning by rote.
In my experience, children of this age get more out of spinning around till they feel sick, throwing themselves off things, sticking themselves to things or things to themselves, poking at things, climbing things, taking things apart, using things in odd ways, creating things from only a room full of thin air, a reel of cellotape, a cardboard box and a plastic thing that used to be something else but nobody really knows quite what: yes, play.
So we come to A. S. Neill. Summerhill School was set up in 1921 as a new way forward for education. It’s still going. As I understand it, children are treated with respect, given the opportunity to vote on school matters (on a par with the teachers’ votes), and the children don’t have to attend lessons if they don’t want to. There were cries of ‘anarchy’ and an upsetting of the conventional wisdom of adult-child relationships, i.e. power dynamics. The school was threatened with closure in 2000, but it came through this to receive a favourable Ofsted report in 2007. Neill was not against children learning, but he put a huge emphasis on play and children’s own direction. In Summerhill – a radical approach to child rearing (A. S. Neill), 1960 (extracted on A. S. Neill’s Summerhill, General Policy Statements), he wrote:
All that any child needs is the three Rs: the rest should be tools and clay and sports and theatre and paint and freedom.
It’s always been a small annoyance of mine that — ironically — ‘reading, writing and arithmetic’ are collectively known as the Three Rs, but that’s a small aside. I wonder if this Neill quote unwittingly plays into Gove’s hands: on the face of it, it does; yet, in reality, Neill’s thinking appears to have been far richer.
I will write more on Neill, no doubt, when I’ve finished the biography of him that I’m currently reading. Until then, I’d like to share some quotes from the extract cited above:
[Questions] so often asked by teachers are the unimportant ones, the ones about French or ancient history or what not when these subjects don’t matter a jot compared to the larger questions of life’s fulfilment – of man’s inner happiness.
Even the Montessori system, well known as a system of directed play, is an artificial way of making the child learn by doing. It has nothing creative about it.
Children, like adults, learn what they want to learn.
Most of the school work that adolescents do is simply a waste of time, of energy, of patience. It robs youth of its right to play and play and play . . .
When I lecture to students at teacher training colleges and universities, I am often shocked at the ungrownupness of these lads and lasses stuffed with useless knowledge . . . For they have been taught to know, but have not been allowed to feel.
I am not decrying learning. But learning should come after play.
I have seen a girl weep nightly over her geometry. Her mother wanted her to go to university, but the girl’s whole soul was artistic.
The notion that unless a child is learning something the child is wasting his time is nothing less than [a] curse . . .
In all countries, capitalist, socialist or communist, elaborate schools are built to educate the young. But all the wonderful labs and workshops do nothing to help Jane or Peter or Ivan surmount the emotional damage and the social evils bred by the pressure on him from his parents, his schoolteachers and the pressure of the coercive quality of our civilisation.
The function of the child is to live his own life, not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, nor a life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows best. All this interference and guidance on the part of adults only produces a generation of robots.
We set out to make a school in which we should allow children freedom to be themselves. In order to do this we had to renounce all discipline, all direction, all suggestion, all moral training, all religious instruction. We have been called brave, but it did not require courage. All it required was what we had – a complete belief in the child as a good, not an evil, being. Since 1921 this belief in the goodness of the child has never wavered: it rather has become a final faith.
In 2007, Jessica Shepherd wrote an article based on the above mentioned Ofsted acceptance of Summerhill — So, kids, anyone for double physics? (But no worries if you don’t fancy it). In that article, Ofsted are quoted as reporting:
‘The democratic process used to manage the running of the school provides pupils with outstanding opportunities for personal development.’
Shepherd goes on to quote the head teacher, Zoe Redhead, Neill’s daughter:
‘There is a growing movement towards child-participatory types of education. [Ofsted’s] words pave the way for others to copy our model. It’s a recognition that it works. On the other hand, just as you think education is getting more humanised, a government minister will say it’s all about ‘performance, performance, performance’. I’ll always view them with deep suspicion.’
The head teacher’s suspicions have proved correct: Gove’s curriculum is a dark cloud looming (although, as Peter Wilby also reports, ‘academies and free schools . . . bizarrely, are exempt from the national curriculum’).
So, to conclude, and to repeat Neill:
. . . we had to renounce all discipline, all direction, all suggestion, all moral training, all religious instruction. We have been called brave, but it did not require courage. All it required was what we had — a complete belief in the child as a good, not an evil, being.
Perhaps we can also see some playwork thinking here. In play children have their being and their becoming, not in Gove’s world of list building, information absorption, and information retention.