Thing 3: Let students own their education – A.S. Neill, and Ivan Illich in the 21st Century

Note: The opinion expressed below is meant to provoke discussion and is not necessarily (or at least not entirely) one I espouse.

As a sort of personal challenge,  ask your students the following question: is education something you do or is it something done to you? I doubt you’ll be shocked but you’ll probably be saddened by the answer. I’ve been asking students that question for 20 years and the almost universal response is the latter option: education is something done to students! No wonder retention rates are problematic. Students don’t own the process and so feel disempowered, disenfranchised by formal education. For a formal state institution that is supposed to instill an understanding of democracy our praxis leaves something to be desired.

One of the things you hear a lot about these days is the need to make education “relevant” to students. It’s one of the mainstay recommendations of reformers who would solve the retention problem. Article after article, study after study advocates “relevance” as a key determinant of student retention during the high school years. Now, I don’t have a problem with “relevance” per se. What I do have a problem with is: who determines what’s relevant?

Relevance it seems to me is best determined by the students themselves. I mean, one student’s cup of tea is another one’s poison. Student A loves history whilst Student B would rather have dental surgery. So how to be relevant?

Interest-Based Learning (IBL) is an idea that’s been around for a very, very, very long time. Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote about basing education upon the interests of students back during the Enlightenment. Froebel, Dewey, others have put their two cents in over the decades. The Waldorf schools and “constructivism” both attempt to incorporate IBL into their project. Indeed, the Project Based Learning (PBL) so popular in educational blogs and magazines in recent times seems to owe much to the basic tenets of IBL. So far so good, but as long as teachers decide what is “relevant” and students have no control over their educational process, IBL really isn’t on the table.

Going back to the 1960s more than of few critics and reformers identified some of the basic internal contradictions of formal education. I think here of John Holt’s How Children Fail, Everett Reimer’s School is Dead, Neil Postman’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity, and in particular Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society (one might extend this to include Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed as well). All these critics identify integral and irremedial problems with a formal educational system that disenfranchises the student. All correctly identify the fact that in some sense disenfranchisement leads to a sense of learned helplessness on the part of students. Indeed, while they may not be able to articulate it, most students know this on a visceral level.

Consider the following statment:

Everywhere the hidden curriculum of schooling initiates the citizen to the myth that bureaucracies guided by scientific knowledge are efficient and benevolent. Everywhere this same curriculum instills in the pupil the myth that increased production will provide a better life. And everywhere it develops the habit of self-defeating consumption of services and alienating production, the tolerance for institutional dependence, and the recognition of institutional rankings. The hidden curriculum of school does all this in spite of contrary efforts undertaken by teachers and no matter what ideology prevails. (Illich, 74) [italics mine]

I know it sounds a little strident, and more than a little Marxian but if you cut away the political jargon, essentially this is a true statement. The message we deliver (in large part because of the way we deliver it and the context in which its delivered) to students is: “Think for yourself but not too much, and within the boundaries of what we tell you is acceptable.”

Now listen to Illich for a moment which respect to educational reform:

The planning of new educational institutions ought not to begin with the administrative goals of a principal or president, or with the teaching goals of a professional educator, or with the learning goals of any hypothetical class of people. It must not start with the question, “What should someone learn?” but with the question, “What kinds of things and people might learners want to be in contact with in order to learn?” (Illich, 77-78) [italics mine]

Sounds a little less radical now, eh? Rather IBLish? Welcome to 21st century skills! Indeed, Illich was practically prescient when he coined the term “learning web” in 1969. With the advent of the internet and social media, “learning webs” are becoming a staple of the 21st educator. Many, many teachers are turning toward blogging, twitter, Google+, and other social media in an attempt to connect with other teachers, to take their own professional development into their own hands, to create Personal Learning Networks (PLN). Well then, why not students too?

Coming at this long ago and from a different perspective, A.S. Neill, the Scottish psychologist and educator, created Summerhill School in 1921 with the express belief that students must be in control of their education in order to become happy, successful, self-reliant adults. And so, at Summerhill students determine what classes will be offered, class attendance is optional, and students have an equal say with the teachers and administration as to the decisions which affect their daily lives at the school. (Wait, I can hear the end of the world arguments starting already!) Summerhill students regularly score above average on their GCSE exams. Moreover, students graduate with higher self-esteem, a greater internal locus of control, and their curiosity still intact.

Contrast that with the “my way or the highway” enforced compliance of the public system. I’ve actually heard teachers and admin alike comment that not handing in an assignment is an act of oppositional defiance and should be dealt with via progressive discipline. Yikes! Talk about disenfranchising students! Holy Hidden Curriculum Batman! It’s an interesting side note that Summerhill will not admit any new student older than the age of 12: eight years in the formal system has done too much damage to a child to repair in four years of high school.

But I digress, let’s get back to the issue at hand. Let’s get relevant! Let’s give students – ALL students – the ability to follow their interests. Give them a say –  a FULL say – in what school should be for them. Place the onus for learning where it belongs: on the student. But give them the power and authority that goes with that responsibility. And you know what, I betcha you’ll see a couple of things. Higher retention, and a lot of learning.


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