What is Education For?
A pedagogy of wholeness part two
Welcome to part two of three in the series on a pedagogy of wholeness. Last time we looked at work and how didactic teaching was at odds with cross-cultural and evolutionary perspectives on how children learn best. Providing children time and access to a teacher, an expert giver of facts, is an anomaly. Children need access to productive adults who they can observe and imitate.
Our last essay on work looked at this from the societal level. Schooling is not preparation for life, in the broad sense of all it could entail, but for life within capitalism. Now I want to turn to the individual level and talk about the gifts that we are all born with, and look at how forcing children to spend so much time with expert givers of facts is not beneficial for gifts that we are given that can be related to work and the gifts that relate to who we are. And it is to those latter gifts that I want to turn to first.
At school mathematics was one of my favourite subjects. But when I was at school, despite that passion and interest, I spent a decent amount of time outside of my maths classroom working through a textbook on my own. Well, not strictly on my own. For outside in the corridor I would often sit with the same old characters from the bottom set who were also temporarily relieved of the boredom of the classroom due to “bad behaviour”.
When I got to sixth form college it was a mathematics classroom again that I couldn’t manage to stay in. And despite there being numerous other reasonsit was my behaviour in that maths classroom that was the catalyst for my unravelling that year that concluded with me being expelled and asked to finish my A Levels somewhere else.
That experience of being expelled is what led me to reflect on the education system years later when having children and thinking about what I wanted their life to look like. Often it was to that secondary school corridor which I shared with numerous friends that I kept returning to. And as I reflected I came to realise that that place typified for me everything that has gone wrong with education.
See every time there is a failure, a rupture from your expectation of normative behaviour, you can find it in the child or trust that the child is telling you something of value. And that corridor was full of children who had been speaking in classrooms in the only way they felt they could. And the answer was given time and again, we can’t hear you, by saying, you’re being too loud, go outside in the corridor so we really can’t hear you.
What is education for?
A few years ago I decided that I wanted work with teenagers who had similarly been expelled and so I enrolled on a teacher training course. That question was our first assignment. Our first introduction into teaching. The system right now thinks it is about the head. The emphasis on league tables tell you this. Their measurement of success is stuffing you up with knowledge, filled, like a Viking on a mission to get drunk, right up to the brim of the skull and shove them out the door with GCSE’s, good A Levels, on their way to a degree.
But I think the heart. Education should be about people. About the good life. And you can only know the good life if you know yourself. Facts won’t ever help you be happy. Unless that fact is I know who I am.
There was some balance to that first discussion, however, three months later when we had all come back from twelve week placements in schools it became clear that we could contemplate that question all we wanted in the guilded halls of the University but in the harsh realities of the classroom that debate had long been settled, and most of my colleagues grabbed themselves a punch bowl of facts and settled into the knowledge that they were now fillers of minds, drunk on the power of expertise.
Throughout most of my schooling I excelled at the head. I got good grades, I still had good grades in that year I got booted. Sure the heart came into play every now and then. Mine was a heart that needed attention, but school is so head focused that I never got much of any guidance with my personality, with my arrogance, my stubbornness, my ultra-competitiveness. My unwavering self-confidence was celebrated when it manifested itself as a symptom of the head, but not when it worked its way out of my heart.
It’s my opinion that everyone is born with gifts of the head, hands and heart and these are double edged swords. The more you understand each gift the more it is a strength and what you don’t grasp of it is your weakness.
My gifts, the language my heart spoke, was a constant thorn in my side at school. It’s probably meant to be that way. A thorn in the side of youth I mean - that is the point of childhood to wrap your head around the gifts you have been given. The institution of school should assist you in that endeavour not hinder your progress. At our learning community that is what we do, for that is what we believe education is for.
But my gift was at odds with school. I often was kicked out of class, I tried to run home in primary school, regularly got into arguments, fights and cried playing football on the playground nearly everyday for around six or seven years, got a season ticket to the detention centre,got excluded multiple times and after all that started at the sixth form college attached to the school.
College is an interesting psychological space for teenagers. After a school system that generally is very bounded in the freedoms that are permitted college opens up the door to more and more freedoms. Here the freedom of expressing your individuality in lots of domains is finally allowed. Freedom to choose what to study without constraint, freedom to choose how many subjects to study, freedom to have free periods that you can do what you wish with, freedom to wear what you want as the uniform is ditched, freedom to go in to town when you want, freedom to explore responsibility.
The year I was getting kicked out of college I was the first teenager in five years to be picked to play for my local football team. No mean feat, I was playing alongside people coming to the end of their career and getting paid hundreds of pounds a game. I got paid £10 that season, but I didn’t care. I was in it for the glory of playing at that level and the feeling of responsibility afforded to me by the manager who picked me. Responsibility sought; responsibility given.
College had also started pretty well. We were given the big talk at the start of the year about responsibility, how we were now able to have more of it. How we must be needing, must be seeking more responsibility. Responsibility finally given; responsibility sought, or so they thought.
But the problem with giving responsibility arbitrarily is that it gets it back to front. Responsibility is always being sought and needs to be met halfway at all times. Children are always being and becoming, and they need to be autonomous if you want to them to become autonomous, they need to be (allowed to be) responsible if you want them to become responsible.
But if you withhold responsibility for so long, as schools do, and then randomly pick a point in the road to give it and an amount that you deem allowable to give, you are going to run into problems, problems such as people like me.
I started that year with my head screwed on. But the reason that I got expelled could be summarised as follows: in September I walked into my maths class, completed all the work in half an hour, asked for more work (responsibility sought), was told there was none, I remembered that we were in college and able to leave site for free periods (responsibility given) and so felt it reasonable that I could leave the classroom early, however I was told No, you must stay till the end.
This didn’t stack up, and I was further frustrated when my head of sixth form backed up my math teacher and told me I had to stay in class, despite not having anything to do. This was not a one time thing. For weeks I constantly completed the work early and was made to wait doing nothing.
I could have listened to my head, and just sat there quietly for half an hour. Gently accepting my fate of tedium; a deal for accepting future A Levels. But that seemed, at the time, like a Faustian bargain, my heart was tugging me in a different direction and my heart spoke to me so strongly, it always has and that is one of its gifts, and so I listened and together one cold October evening we formulated a plan together.
Cowboy boots on desk, pen wedged between lips that are trying to hide a knowing smirk, Sun newspaper spread across lap, deliberately open on the double spread for the day’s horse racing. What are you doing? says she. Just looking at the horses, says I, checking the form for when I go down to put a bet on later, knowing full well that this middle-aged middle class spinster very likely does not approve of the working class notion of a day’s wagering down in the smoke filled betting shop tucked away in the shadow of the black and white Tudor market house.
She doesn’t. It goes down as expected. Fantastically. A few lessons of this charade and I’m asked to leave, and then treated like I left of my own accord. The head of sixth form concurs that a travesty has occurred. I skip class. I go on report. I stop caring and it all slowly unravels to the point of being sat in a meeting, a lecture on responsibility, and being asked to go study somewhere else.
Responsibility requires community. It is what agency in caring relation to others looks like. Or to put it another way. True responsibility is what autonomy looks like from a community level. To be given actual responsibility is to be given autonomy to act coupled with trust that you will consider relationally your agency.This is why you can’t give young people a large amount of freedom and responsibility at some arbitrary point in time like college and expect it to work out ok for all.
Autonomy is crucial. It is one of the three core principles of self-determination theory. It is essential for self-directed learning. It is essential for true responsibility, and essential for human growth. It is what schools miss, the underlying factor behind all of the mental health and “behavioural problems”. The current education model is based not on trust, but coercion, and until they can untangle themselves from discipline based on punishment, from facts based on “expertise” not interests, from a factory based model of education with a banking model of learning they can never really give responsibility, as they will never give young people autonomy.
If you focus too much on heads and tell some people they are not worthy enough in that department all of them will be negatively impacted and some of them will rebel. Some of their gifts of the heart will pour out of them widely: gifts of control, defiance, demand avoidance, humour, indifference to authority. If you tell all those teenagers in bottom set maths that they are not worthy enough then enough of them will tell you back that that doesn’t feel right inside of them, but sadly into the corridor outside their maths classroom they will go, never truly heard.
If you double down on heads, as the current educational paradigm demands, then you will not be able to take these children on the journey they need to go on to wrap their heads around their gifts. You will leave them to wander around unguided hoping that they make something of their travails. And you will have a mental health epidemic on your hands.
Schools will say: but we do focus on hearts, pastoral care is central to what we do, but the mental health crisis in young people says otherwise, government advice detailing how to cope with GCSE exam pressure stresses says otherwise, bullying being allowed to go unchallenged says otherwise, and thousands of students just not returning to school after lockdown says otherwise.
I’d been missing maths again. I had all intentions of making this second college work but complicating factors such as different exam boards in Chemistry, different music software in Music Tech had made carrying on the same subjects difficult and the year had slowly petered out into a lack of care. This meeting was not a lecture on responsibility however, but a conversation of responsibility.
My father, his father, and his father before him, indeed every male Rutherford in living memory has been born with the same gifts of the heart and brushed up against the authority of teachers near the end of their schooling. My father had sat in a similar office having a similar conversation with a similar teacher of importance when he was my age.
This head of sixth form extended me a great amount of grace and the meeting concluded with an agreement that I could finish my studies if I kept my head down for the remaining few weeks, but interestingly not at the request of my father. As the meeting was drawing to a climax he said one sentence that taught me all I needed to know right then about responsibility, autonomy, agency, honouring your gifts, and deep, deep trust in listening to your gifts of the heart.
I don’t think that he really wants or deserves to be here.
And with that sentence he spoke to my heart and my heart heard the deep trust contained within that exultation and his faith in me. He saw not a failure in me, but a heart speaking something of value and knowing that there are many paths in life and trusting that each of us can find one that fits the gifts we are born with he said to my heart, I trust you are on the path to becoming and he said it by witnessing that I was simply being who I was meant to be in that situation.
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As well as the valid reasons of not turning up to lessons, stealing the money out of the communal pool table by tipping it on its side and shaking it, getting naked in the common room, I was charged with smoking whilst off school property in the alleyway by the back gate. Apparently the school were not impressed with people smoking so close to the school, but there was not really anything that they could do about it. However, they decided to bring it up in my meeting as they were kicking me out. It was utterly pointless. They had me on enough counts. As I lived literally next door to the school I pointed out that I could stand on my own roof and smoke a cigarette and be much more visible than round the corner of an alleyway. However, they struck this reason off my rap sheet as quick as they struck me off their register, but it was nice to go out swinging.
One of my further reflections all those years later was on the amount of time I spent in detention and what detention looks like in schools fifteen years later. And what the escalation process from detention to expulsion looks like. Obviously I can’t predict how I would have behaved in relation to a more punitive system, but it seemed obvious to me that I would have been expelled probably in Year 9 or 10 if I had gone to school now. And my brother who didn’t get expelled would probably have faced the same fate.
I am often reminding my daughter of this in simpler language: that almost every right comes with it a responsibility.