Aldous Huxley wrote: "Children are remarkable for intelligence, curiosity, intolerance of shams, ruthlessness of vision". And yet with all that potential how many parents have lamented the fact that they cannot get through to their teenager? How many teachers have been frustrated by an unruly group of students who don't seem to want to learn? How many teachers are frustrated because they see their real roles as over-qualified child minders?
Disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and teenage suicide all seem to have arisen as a result of our affluent society yet there seems to be very little being done about their root causes. In the adult population there is substantial evidence of social malfunction in the need for neighbourhood watch, the lack of community, the lack of job satisfaction, the trend to put aged citizens in retirement villages. All these things have a foundation in the role models we had during our formative years. The pressures of peer groups and relationships within them form one of the most powerful influences on teenagers in their most impressionable years. This influence is probably stronger than any other in Western cultures. Does it not seem strange then that little serious attention has been given to how, where and why this influence is developed and its consequences for our society? Fiona Stanley said recently that it takes a whole village to bring up a child. In our affluent societies we have excluded that opportunity from our children largely by the way in which our schools operate.
Societal role models are excluded from schools because the schools are not part of the community, although in small country schools this is less true. In single teacher schools it is of necessity probably never true. The community remnant within most schools is limited to groups of children of similar ages stratified into classes of increasing ages. This largely removes the opportunity for role models from older students, from male and female community members, other than the teachers, and from cross-cultural influences other than at the same age level. This situation is divorced from the reality of community and as such imposes an unnatural societal model on students. As a result students are often completely in their own world and alienated from the community, as most parents will readily agree. Bullying, vandalism and drug use are just three results of this alienation from community. It is as if we are forcing students into a street gang mentality within the school precinct. I submit that the whole school concept needs rethinking because of this unnatural community that is generated. I suggest that schools and teaching should be done in a completely different way.
Placing students in single age groups at schools eliminates a whole series of beneficial influences. The single age peer group is faced with developing a pecking order based on perceived toughness in an environment synonymous with the jungle. The meekest must therefore be reduced to the lowest rank in the pecking order by this association. Teenagers in particular from this environment have very little respect for their parents who find it difficult to communicate with them. However, it is a very much more dangerous situation for meek individuals and who also excel at schoolwork are at more risk of being bullied or victimised in this environment. They may become suicidal, anorexic or bulimic as a result of this pressure. Exacerbation of ADHD is another probable consequence of this environment. Schoolyard aggression, while often physical in boys can be in the form of bitchiness in girls and can be very destructive to individual self-esteem, particularly in girls who are not mentally able to counter this aggression. This can result in anorexia and other disturbed behaviours.
Failure means the system is failing
All children are born innately inquisitive and only those with inborn defects cannot learn. Children without the drive to learn in later adolescence have learned this response due to peer group pressure or parental or other environmental factors and even the most hardened of these cases can be drawn out by a system that seeks to understand them or treat their case individually. Those who "fail" receive the message that they are ‘no good' when in fact it is the system that has failed to educate them properly because it is an inherently flawed system geared only to those who behave and conform to the ideal student model. Those who do not fit this ideal are given subtle and not so subtle messages throughout their schooling that they are no good and are going to fail. This predetermines that only the model students will succeed and that others stand a good chance of failing and in fact are pre-programmed to fail by the system that does not respect their individuality. The system also increases this dichotomy as it rewards those who do best within the system by giving prizes to top students and schools put their names on honour rolls etc. Honour rolls give the message to all students who are not named on them that they do not measure up.
Education is it's own reward. Students are often so stressed by not performing in this system that they can become depressed and can even suicide. This is particularly prevalent in Japan. School is NOT a competition. It is about educating your child as an individual. In fact it is only parents who make school a competition by wanting to know how their child is doing relative to others in the class.
I recommend two not completely new but fairly radical approaches, which I believe the situation is serious enough to merit, and which in combination would remedy this situation. There may be those who will say if it is not broken don't fix it but I submit that the current system does not adequately serve a significant proportion of our young people. Two of my close relatives were deemed failures at secondary school but both have gone on to achieve worthwhile careers, one having obtained a PhD . I ask the question; would Albert Einstein do any better in today's education system than he did in the 1890's in Germany when he was deemed a below average student by that system?
Part I: the social structure - Vertically grouped classes
Why do we need vertical grouping? Because we need real role models in our schools.
A vertical grouping structure in schools, that is all ages in together, would reduce the effects of bullying and similar problems by allowing age to be the basis for the pecking order rather than mental or physical toughness. Regular involvement of members of the community in class activities would also reduce this effect.
Teachers are not the right role models within the current system. Most of the teachers of our primary and secondary school students have, through no fault of their own, no direct experience of the non-academic world, the commercial or industrial worlds. They have spent their entire lives in school. They can rarely use examples from their own experience of the world because it is limited to teaching. Teachers that have come into the system from another occupation are likely to be more interesting to students and more motivating to them. Schools and how they are structured, the teachers who run them and the principles of governing the school, could be a role model for how the real world should run. Instead what we have is a model for a ‘top down' system in which what the boss says goes. We are missing a golden opportunity to model some really useful social principles in schools. The experience students have in schools should be a model for them of how society could and should work. In fact modelling ideal social structures in schools would be a very good way of bringing about social reforms.
An example is finding ways to reduce the competitive nature of schools. Competition within the education process is not productive and is indeed harmful as Alfie Kohn (see references) points out. It leads to many of the adult social ills I have alluded to above. We need common sense and individuality to return. We need more resources so that schools can be more innovative.
Primary schools have tried vertical grouping of classes, some highly successfully. The social structures that this represents are more closely allied to real society than any other system but because it is inherently difficult to organise and requires specialised dedicated teachers it is almost never done in secondary schools. Some schools have also more readily accepted the idea that children are individuals who work at different rates and that this must be allowed for in the classroom. Working in lock-step, whether appropriate or not, is a pressure that single age classes also imposes on children. Schools in general have an overall philosophy approach within which vertical grouping would be hard to implement because they are not using a holistic approach. Vertical grouping and other innovative approaches work well when there are individuals dedicated to making them work. A major obstacle to their success is lack of support by parents who are often suspicious of anything that does not look like the three R's. This merely means that once on board the Education department needs to do some PR work to promote the value of these innovations.
Part II the curriculum
The curriculum requires students to choose subjects based on a perceived career direction of which many students do not have a clear idea, nor do they have good advice about the possibilities available. No wonder we have the majority of adults in careers that they do not enjoy or to which they are in some way unsuited. The curriculum also requires students to perform at a certain level in lock step with others and actually plans for a percentage to not meet these requirements. A slow learner student may never recover from early damage done to their self-esteem by getting a poor grade. Some well-known examples like Albert Einstein found that schools do not provide the necessary stimulus or motivation for their intelligent brains.
Problem based learning has become a newly adopted approach in the teaching of medicine. This is so successful in Adelaide that students from all over Australia are applying to get into the programme here. I am one of a panel of assessors for these applicants and find their enthusiasm for problem based learning refreshing. Why then has it not filtered down to our school system that some of these elements would work in our schools?
Secondary school subjects are divided into disciplines or ‘subjects' like science, English, history or mathematics unnecessarily. This creates several bad effects. Students lose a sense of how each subject relates to the others and to the whole world and therefore have no sense of the big picture. They do not get a chance to find out how the subject is relevant to them in the short or long term and this is very demotivating. Having a sense of how a subject relates to the real world and therefore why it is important to the student is more crucial as a first step than wading in to the finer points of Shakespeare or calculus. Concentrating on specific subjects is usually done before most students come to the realization as to the need for these skills. In order to make the learning of any subject relevant to the student and more importantly to allow the student to evaluate for themselves its relevance and importance, that subject should come as part of a project. This works eminently well with problem based learning in medicine. Project based learning is schools is the equivalent.
The class would take a particular project on board and to make this attractive the project should itself be a socially useful one, the outcome of which would have some community driven or socially relevant basis. I think it worth relating this to the way PhD students operate. They are conducting research into a subject in incredible depth and in order to do so must gain certain skills along the way, as they are needed. Basically producing results required by the community, while learning and gaining valuable skills.
Students would work in teams consisting of a range of age groups, to bounce ideas and to expose younger students to the cooperative team concept from the outset. Each individual would get marks but could only get a top mark if the whole group turns in a good performance. This would promote cooperation and cause the more advanced students to assist the less advanced while learning themselves in the process. Successful outcomes would be by a range of criteria one of which would include report writing. The project in its concept would be designed by the teacher for its educational value in order to encompass a number of skills many of which the students do not yet have. As the project proceeds to those areas in which the skills are needed the students will appreciate for themselves the need for those skills and be keen to learn them in order to complete the task. There would often then be a need for those skills to be taught in a conventional class type situation and students would then break into small work groups but only when the students themselves call for it. This is very much more motivating than the present system.
Selection of projects could take advantage of the resource of young uncluttered minds applied to a problem. The potential is to tap a new source of creative energy and innovation in the community. I think that education department could design a raft of projects that would cover a range of curriculum areas over the period of the course. Selection of the projects by the teacher in consultation with the students would be based on the educational value while also being socially or perhaps economically valuable. The teacher will have to become an expert at mentoring the students through the projects. We want our teachers to be the best mentors. The raft of projects would allow the students to work on projects that "interest them" and hence provide the motivation. Each project will need to have a degree of complexity and a large variety of potential subject content.
Ardtornish primary school is an excellent example of motivation; where a school environment project had the children monitoring the school's energy consumption, tabulating results in maths lesson and working out a plan to implement change in another session. Motivation by including the subjects to be taught as part of a project should be the norm not the exception.
An important aspect of the proposed system is that there should be an element of community involvement. This would remove the students from the exclusive association with peer groups. Some projects should therefore be chosen which have some value to the local community and even directly to the student's own extended family. Some projects will be aligned directly with jobs but others not. Environmental projects are ideal starting points for this kind of approach although there would be many others, limited only by the imagination of the students and teachers.
It has been said that a good educator is someone who guides the student to the point where she realises that her education is in her own hands and at that point she will work independently of the teachers. Project based learning is a good way to achieve this. The current didactic approach is actually a turn off for most students and tends to turn potentially exciting and interesting material into drudge work since it has to be learnt to pass the exam. The type of motivating mentor I think we need could be selected by the same aptitude test applied to medical students. Good mentors are not specifically selected for by the current teacher education system although many teachers obviously self-select their career based on an internal feeling that they would be good at it. However, teachers, like doctors, can be academically good but totally lack the people skills required when dealing with students. There needs to be more deliberate selection for people who have innate teaching and/or motivational talent before they are let in to the teacher training courses.
Several North American educational institutions have experimented with project based learning usually with very impressive results. A quick search of the web for the words ‘project based learning' will find them. The positive results they have obtained should give any educators who also have an interest in bettering our society some motivation to try these ideas and perhaps one day we will see a change in society for the better as a result.
1. Holt, John (198?) "How children learn" and "How children fail"
2. Neill AS, "Summerhill"
3. Kohn, Alfie, "No contest"
4. Kohn Alfie, "Punishment by rewards"
5. Jean Piaget : many books and research papers into the basis of the learning process
Peter R Clements PhD, FHGSA
Clinical Senior lecturer
Dept of Paediatrics. University of Adelaide
And visiting research fellow
Food plus University of Adelaide
Last Updated on Wednesday, 02 May 2012 08:57