An historical perspective on alternative education

We can think of ourselves not as teachers but as gardeners. A gardener does not grow flowers; he tries to give them what he thinks they need and they grow by themselves. ~ Holt

Educationalists have a bad name.  These days, economic advancement is the key driver in determining educational theory, despite the generations of educationalists who have developed, shared, tested and studied the effects of different ideas on the development of children.  Phrases like ‘self-directed’ ‘holistic’ and ‘open-ended’ have become synonymous with being ‘wishy-washy’ and having ‘low standards’.  ‘Academic rigour’ is demanded in order to improve ‘economic productivity’ without any real evidence to suggest how the acquisition of the knowledge of 38 different Latin verb conjugations is going to sell more tumble dryers.  Education of the ‘whole person’ has become a one-hour a week PE lesson with its own set of outcomes and expectations.  The idea of allowing children to explore their own learning potential has turned into letting the children choose the theme (circus? dinosaurs? Egypt?) under which the same core curriculum is delivered.

Generations of educationalists did not get it wrong.  We need to really listen to what they have to say.

More than 200 years ago, Freidrich Frobel first developed the concept of the Kindergarten and outlined what he believed was a very specific stage of development in children – as well as the clear needs of children in having access to play and games.  Frobel placed a strong emphasis on the importance of activity in children’s learning as well as the importance of song, movement, gardening and self-directed play.  Frobel developed a unique system of ‘gifts’ designed to assist children’s free and natural development through an exploration of concrete materials.  Ultimately Froebel was silenced by a government unwilling to accept this challenge to established pedagogy, but clearly his early ideas influenced the thinking of educationalists over 100 years later.  Frobel knew that education was a natural process and that children develop their creative selves according to natural laws.  He held to the view that all men are smaller parts of the whole universe and that the interconnectedness of man and the natural world must be the main consideration in developing the education of children.

Play is the highest level of child development… It gives joy, freedom, contentment, inner and outer rest, peace with the world… The plays of childhood are the germinal leaves of all later life.  – Frobel

At the beginning of the 20th century, a quiet revolution in early childhood education was taking place in Italy.  There, Maria Montessori impacted upon the lives of hundreds of children who would otherwise have been given up as hopeless.  Through careful observation and engagement with children’s natural preferences in the learning environment, Montessori developed a philosophy of education which centred on the creation of enabling environments and the engagement of children in meaningful and practical activities.  Montessori observed that children could develop autonomy and self-directed learning when given access to educational resources which were provided with no expectations of engagement, no time scales for achievement and no restrictions on movement within the environment.

If an educational act is to be efficacious, it will be only that one which tends to help toward the complete unfolding of life. To be thus helpful it is necessary rigorously to avoid the arrest of spontaneous movements and the imposition of arbitrary tasks.

We discovered that education is not something which the teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. – Montessori

Meanwhile in Austria, Rudolf Steiner was developing an alternative view of education which saw education as an holistic task of developing the mind, soul and spirit of the child focussed entirely on the specific developmental needs of childhood.  The ultimate aim of education, according to Steiner, was the development of complete freedom – freedom of thought and belief.

Our highest endeavor must be to develop free human beings who are able of themselves to impart purpose and direction to their lives. The need for imagination, a sense of truth, and a feeling of responsibility—these three forces are the very nerve of education. –Steiner

Later on in that century, but back in Italy, Loris Malaguzzi was developing the Reggio Emilia philosophy of education.  Like Montessori, the Reggio Emilia approach puts children’s self-directed learning at the heart of its philosophy.  It is based on the beliefs that children must have control over the direction of their learning, that children must learn through the experiences of moving, observing and interacting with their environment, that children will learn best when allowed to work in consort with other children and that learning must be allowed to be expressed through various means relevant to time and place.

Creativity seems to emerge from multiple experiences, coupled with a well-supported development of personal resources, including a sense of freedom to venture beyond the known. -Malaguzzi

It is said that World War II did more damage to the development of alternative educational pedagogy than all other world events, and perhaps this is true.  Following the unrest of the war years, industry and society were focussed solely on getting back on track.  The post-war boom of industrialised manufacturing, the flooding of the workplace with women, the need for early childhood care and the general perception that ‘if it ain’t broke, it don’t need fixin’ meant that it was far easier to implement mass programmes of early childhood education based on the status quo rather than these new and radical voices from varying parts of the globe.

Fortunately, not all innovation was drowned out by the war, and several radical thinkers emerged from that time.  Perhaps the most notorious of these was John Holt.   Holt believed that much that was wrong with education was caused by fear – fear of not knowing the ‘right’ answer and fear of not being ‘good enough’.  Further, he believed that it was the established system of forcing children to learn things in which they had no interest, or at developmentally inappropriate times, that caused them to disengage with school.  Holt is infamous amongst homeschoolers and unschoolers for his ‘radical’ approach to education which lays at the feet of all children the ultimate in trust.  Trust that children will seek out what inspires them, trust that children will negotiate shared goals with other children and trust that children will easily and happily learn the skills and knowledge that they need to progress through every stage of their development, simply by being given the freedom to learn on their own terms.

Children do not need to be made to learn to be better, told what to do or shown how.  If they are given access to enough of the world, they will see clearly enough what things are truly important to themselves… and they will make for themselves a better path into that world than anyone else could make for them.  –Holt

Other radical thinkers also have made significant impacts on education in small pockets of society but never really grabbing hold of the common structures in education as dictated by government:

  • John Dewey formulated an approach to education that had at its core the belief that democracy and community were essential factors in developing society.  
  • Jean Piaget, a psychologist who spent his later career studying childhood and education, determined that children’s maturation is the single most fundamental factor in their learning.  He believed that children could not undertake particular tasks until they were physically and emotionally mature enough to do so.  Unfortunately, this understanding has been used as justification for creating a ‘schedule’ of expected developments for children rather than a basis for understanding that what children need, more than anything else in their education, is a system that acknowledges that they will all develop maturity and interest in different areas at different rates, and that it is counterproductive to attempt to move children through these stages before they become ready.
  • In the 1970s Postman and Weingartner developed the concept of inquiry education, in which children are encouraged to ask questions which are meaningful and relevant and to understand that these questions may not have answers.  Further, teachers are encouraged to avoid giving answers, rather they ought to encourage further understanding through asking additional questions.

In the UK, the advent of the Conservative government’s national curriculum in the late 80s had a major impact on these new movements and education generally. The right-wing emphasis on traditional subjects and the importance of English, Maths and Science, meant that cross- curricular concerns all but disappeared for a number of years. From 1997, under New Labour, the climate changed somewhat, and there again we saw a recognition of the importance of issues such as race, environment and citizenship – although this was watered down to an aside by the end of Labour’s government.  Today, the dominant ideology in education is still one of teachers as technicians in a market-led economy with SATs and league tables used to measure performance of pupils, teachers and schools, the very antithesis of radical ideas.

This system isn’t working.  The answers are there – we just need to use them.