School Without Tears
This is the title of a book I was given about 7 years ago (at the very start of our home education journey) by my Aunt, who is herself a teacher. For a reason I can't explain, it remained on my "to read" shelf (along with many other titles I have to say - I do have a "to read" shelf after all!) until recently.
To precis, Mollie Jenkins (herself a teacher) wrote about a small school she formed called the Pickley Wizard during the 1960's. This was a direct response to wanting to give "my own children and a handful of others, a happier and more worthwhile start to their school life than I believed could have got at any other school I knew of." She talks of her school experience in childhood, her teaching experience in mainstream schools, the story and evolution of Pickley Wizard and reflects on all that she learned along the way.
An easy, flowing read, it did not take me long to devour it, and I am so glad that I did. On finishing, it left me with an odd mix of emotions. On one hand, I was excited and exhilarated that there was another voice and professional advocating for a radically different approach to education, one that was essentially totally child and real life centred. On the other hand, I felt utterly demoralised and despairing that since she had written this book, schooling has moved ever increasingly in the opposite direction.
Whilst the principles of education at Pickley Wizard are not labelled as Self Directed Education (SDE), there are very significant overlaps. Self Determination Theory (SDT) outlines 3 core psychological needs for humans: autonomy, competence and relatedness. These form the core of self directed education and also the principles of education at Pickley Wizard. We'll reflect on a few of the themes below:
Purpose of education.
Mollie Jenkins purports that she believes the purpose of true education should be "fitting people happily and usefully in society" and to develop the skill of people "thinking for themselves". She explicitly draws a distinction between this and "jobs training". The focus for education she advocates, is the development of the skills for learning (reading, reflecting, evaluating, discussion, creation of opinions) and application into life, for the benefit of society/the community. At Pickley Wizard this took priority over any obligation to cover imposed, fixed, factual content that was then tested for retention.
Priorities of education.
Mollie puts the happiness of children as the first priority of education. She suggests that happy children go on to be stable, mature, engaged adult members of community/society. She noted that the children who had been through her school were happy, confident, articulate, unafraid of other people or personal failure. They actively engaged with the world, their learning and were capable of thinking for themselves.
Community was a core principle in her philosophy, and this took many facets. The school itself aimed to be an extended family where each child was valued, loved and equally important. Each child was encouraged to be their unique selves, whilst at the same time promoting the thriving of, and meeting the needs of, all members of the school community. A sense of belonging within the community was seen as important. Whilst the school had a physical location, this was more of a base, and much of the children's learning was done directly in, and by, members of the community, and in the local and wider area of the country.
At Pickley Wizard, the child's interests, passions, aptitudes, skills etc were considered central to driving learning. There was no adult imposed, forced curriculum. Mollie responded swiftly to the interests that were currently emerging and she supported, extended them and offered resources and opportunities aligned with them. Children chose their own activities and engaged with them as long as they needed to without the interruption of bells and constraints of a teacher imposed timetable. Children were allowed to participate as much as they wanted and whilst it seems they were encouraged, they were not forced or coerced to participate. There did appear to be a rhythm/structure to the day/week but this was flexible and readily changed to respond to what was happening in the moment.
Education was seen in its most holistic sense and aligns with Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Allowing children to direct their own learning through passions and interests allows them to gain competences, and set themselves "just right" challenges to extend those skills and knowledge. Within this framework intrinsic motivation is fostered. With all areas of humanity embraced those children that excelled in music, interpersonal skills, linguistic skills etc were as valued as those strong in logics and mathematics. The development of important life skills such as cooperation, problem solving, independence, self discipline, self motivation, curiosity, discussion etc were fostered and prioritised.
At Pickley Wizard, children's "work" was not graded, evaluated or compared to peers or external standards. Fear of performance, comparison etc was seen as antithetical to learning. Whatever each child did was judged solely on its own merit and praise, encouragement, feedback given based on the individual preferences/need of the individual child.
It appears a very small amount of time each day was set aside to complete more formal academics; limited to mainly the mechanics of reading and writing. This was in the context of acquiring the core skills that would enable the children to more easily and readily follow their passions and interests. Each child had workbooks to complete at their own pace. It is unclear how "mandatory" this was, but it is clear that this more formal work was only offered when the child was developmentally ready and was not required in of itself but as a way to gain skills to enable other areas of learning.
Self discipline was fostered and this appears to be developed through empathy and natural consequences. Mollie relates that children learned to put things away where they belonged as they soon learned the frustration of not being able to find things when they weren't. Similarly, they learned to clean brushes after painting as they learned dried, crusted brushes were not good tools. She was ardent that fear had no place in a learning environment. There were no punitive punishments and any behaviour that disrupted was seen as a signal that something was amiss for that child and was investigated and learned from, as opposed to punished. It seems kindness was an important quality that infused all areas of education and interactions.
The other aspects of interest I noted as regards the educational philosophy at Pickley Wizard, were the following. Respect and trust was important, and that this was in 360 degrees: from teacher to child, between children and child to teacher. Respect and trust were earned and fostered, and not confused with compliance to authority born from fear. Learning was concrete, was in response to real questions posed, and situations faced by, the children through their lives. This meant that learning was driven because something was useful, needed, interesting or relevant; the most powerful learning drivers. The final element I want to draw out is the importance placed on both continuity and stability of both the group. Whilst some children came and went, and some adults providing support came and went, there was a core stable foundation of Mollie as main "teacher" and a core of children. This allowed them to learn about each other, trust each other, respect each other in a way that she felt was important to their learning and overall development.
When reviewed, there is much in the above that resonates with Self Directed Education/Unschooling/Life Learning. Whilst in the 1960's Mollie identified reading and writing as the key enablers to learning, the landscape today may look somewhat different. Technology has opened up information sources and formats, typing more widely used, the ability to find and evaluate sources of information increasingly important. I might also add digital literacy and numerical literacy (as distinct from the study of Mathematics per se) as enablers to learning about and understanding the world around us.
In the final chapter, Mollie comments on schooling in the future. She proposes a very different model for schools that is more akin to community learning hubs than schools as we know them today. Here children would be educated in the heart of community alongside adults. Where school is actually a facility from which the whole community can operate around and benefit from be it: resources, pool, community garden etc. She postulates that children educated in and growing up in such an environment would be "immeasurably happier" and become more stable, mature and engaged adults who are invested in their community.
It is this last point that really captures my interest. I am increasingly convinced that the way we parent, educate and treat our children directly influences the society we develop to live within. For generations now we have exerted more and more control over children, stripped them of autonomy, distanced them from their communities, removed them from real life and their true authentic selves. We have controlled and manipulated them through fear, threats, punishment, shame, competition and anxiety. The evidence that something is deeply amiss is seen in soaring rates of mental health disorders, anxiety disorders, burnouts, depression, physical illness, antisocial behaviour, addiction, disengagement with society/community - and not just from our children. There is an epidemic of people constantly feeling they are "not enough" and disconnected from their true selves.
But, how different could society look if every person was valued for them themselves? How different could society look if we allowed people to grow and develop at their own pace, celebrating their own unique skills and talents within the heart of their community? What if children were respected, given autonomy and allowed to become become competent in the way that was perfect for them? How could society look if we placed authenticity and happiness at the heart of childhood, rather than purely focusing on their performances of standardised tests at a set age? How could society look if we prioritised cooperation, mutual aid, respect, connection, acceptance and authenticity over competition, division, segregation, blind compliance? People say that this can't be done, that it is unrealistic; but a small but growing group of people are doing just this.
There seems to be a growing and gnawing sense of disquiet and discontent within people that the way we are living is not healthy, sustainable or desirable for individuals, communities or the planet, on just about every front. It would appear that what we have been doing is not leading to people, communities or the planet thriving. Something needs to change. As Mollie Jenkins notes, change has to come from the grass roots, from the people in communities to create what they wish to see in the world. It needs to come from outside the current systems. She notes "people with power never give it up if they can help it, and education authorities are no exception". The change starts with ourselves, and surely one important place to start is with how we interact with, treat, educate and enable our young people.
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