Democracy has to be lived to be learned

20th October 2000 at 01:00
BEFORE I began home-educating my children, I was quite an ordinary person. I was rarely to be found on Fridays shouting "rubbish!" or muttering away to a copy of The TES. At that time, an announcement in these pages that citizenship learning should be an entitlement for all 16 to 19-year-olds would have left me cold, or at most mildly in favour.

Nowadays, I'm much more radical. I think in terms of experiential learning and wonder how pupils are expected to grasp the ideas of democracy and citizenship when they have been trapped in a totalitarian educational system which does not recognise their right to choose what they learn or how they learn it. Isn't the whole of their schooling a lesson in living under a dictatorship?

Teachers of my acquaintance all seem to have their own "chaos theory" to explain why children aren't given more control. This runs thus: if we gave children the choice none of them would want to do maths, read, or write; discipline would break down, and there would be chaos.

This is not borne out by my experience of the alternatives. The opposite is the case - the more freedom you give children over their learning, the easier they are to live with, and the less control needs to be exercised. In fact, exercise no control over their learning, and they actually seem to like education.

My teacher friends assume that I don't know what I am talking about, because I only have three children, while they have 30 plus to deal with. But those who have looked at what happens when you give children real choices - at schools like Summerhill or Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts - know that giving children choices doesn't lead to anarchy.

Just look at the lessons we have learned from the world outside school. Don't we believe them? Do people in democratic countries, run fairly, generally foment revolution? Where does revolution and disruption occur ... isn't it in countries where totalitarian rule or injustice is in force?

We think that children need protection, and they do, but not from themselves. As Professor Frank Smith says, in The Book of Learning and Forgetting, when students are learning information which adds to their personal store and fits in with what they already know, learning is not hard work, and there's no forgetting.

I have told mybemused local education authority time after time, that my approach to education is all about learning, where theirs seems to be all about teaching. I am not planning to put teachers out of work, but if I was in charge, I would remove all responsibility for curriculum planning, monitoring and assessment. I believe that children need adults in their lives, but I have learned that I am much more effective as a facilitator than I am as a teacher. Forcing children to learn is anti-educational, and along the way they learn all sorts of lessons you don't want them to learn, such as their inability to concentrate, or that they are "bad" at maths.

Waiting until a child is interested enough to ask "why?" is the most natural way of discovering for oneself - and children tend to unlearn it at school, because they have an unerring habit of asking why trees lose their leaves just when long division comes up. At school, answering the question might be seen as a failure of discipline - that isn't what we are studying, Clarke, pay attention! At home, I can go wherever my children take me.

Learning with a child's eye requires adults to step back and wait to be invited to contribute. It means letting them make sense of their world, not forcing your sense upon them. Learning this way is easy - and no forgetting.

If children are going to make sense of their lives, then their education must make sense to them. This is true on a small scale, where the information they study must make sense, and on a large scale, where the rules and regulations that they live by must make sense. These rules could be teaching them a bigger truth, by reflecting the real world around them, and giving them real choices about what to learn and when, who to be with and where to go.

If children are removed into a world where they have no choices, society cannot be very surprised if they make bad ones when they receive autonomy at 16 or 18. Teenage pregnancy? Don't get me started! Give them responsibility and, surprisingly enough they often learn to behave responsibly.

Anyway, if we all believe democracy is such a great system, how come it doesn't get used in our schools?

Fiona Clarke is a journalist. She is the Middlesex contact for the home education network FREd:

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