It was nearly Easter, and my class and I were taking a sideways look at Holy Week with a lesson on free will versus determinism. While I love discussing philosophical issues with primary children, “free will” is not without its perils; as an idea, it holds a certain appeal for children in a classroom setting.
“It isn’t determined that you will complete all the maths work we are doing next lesson,” I told them. “I can teach you how to do the work and help you if you find it difficult, but you need to exercise your free will and work hard to complete it.”
“Awesome!” exclaimed Alfie triumphantly. “I’ll exercise my free will to do no work.”
“That’s fine, Alfie,” I told him. “But if you do that, I’ll have to exercise my free will to keep you in at break to do the work then.”
Alfie’s face dropped and the rest of the class giggled at this real-time example of freedom and responsibility in action.
The more we discussed it, the more I realised that free will and determinism are quite slippery concepts. While I know it’s not predetermined that I will find Hollie’s lunchbox left on the shelf at the end of the day or that Morgan’s shirt will be hanging out as he walks into assembly, it certainly seems that way.
But how much free will do children actually have and how do we deal with those who make too free with it?
“You are responsible for your behaviour,” is a very commonly heard phrase in primary schools. Like many teachers, it’s something I say a lot and it’s true – so long as we remember that children are not adults. They are a work in progress, and so much of their behaviour is linked to their environment and the adults around them. There’s also a grim determinism in the fact that children with SEND are seven times more likely to be excluded from school as their peers and only 1 per cent of permanently excluded children go on to achieve 5 GCSE passes.
Last week, I rang a parent to discuss her child’s behaviour. It had been a long day and I found it hard to keep a certain tone out of my voice, as I detailed her child’s many behavioural transgressions that day.
“What can I do about it?” she asked with a heavy sigh. “I’m doing everything I can to make her behave herself in school.” I was pulled up short. This wasn’t supposed to be a blame phone call but it had turned into one.
I had more time to dwell on this when I was on the receiving end of a similar phone call from my younger child’s school. The school was lovely (much nicer than I’d been), but my initial reaction was still one of guilt.
Sometimes, it’s difficult to get the balance right. Giving children less freedom and more structure can be the best route to making them feel happy and secure, but the fact that a teacher’s professional free will is so often curtailed these days doesn’t always help. Getting parents on board without putting them on the defensive is vital.
Jo Brighouse is a pseudonym of a primary school teacher in the West Midlands. She tweets @jo_brighouse