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The Time And the Place?

Should a teacher bring his or her politics and religion into the classroom?

Goldfish swimming round and round
Goldfish swimming up and down
Goldfish in my bowl
Goldfish in my bowl

There's a question I must ask
Why don't you bump your head against the glass?
Goldfish in my bowl
Goldfish in my bowl

Young children are very good at watching, listening and absorbing. Grown ups have tremendous power and influence over children simply because we are bigger and stronger and have more experience. It follows that we need to be even more mindful and more respectful when in the presence of children than we might be with adults. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow remarked, “A torn jacket is soon mended, but hard words bruise the heart of a child”. And not just hard words - politics and religion as well.

The idea of dousing children in a torrent of politics and religion seems abhorrent. But what exactly are politics and religion. For example, how about compulsory education? To me this seems to be something of both.

An article in the latest Education Revolution magazine points out that because school is so ubiquitous we had better be absolutely certain that the theories it is based on are correct. Theories or assumptions?

Recently I moved half way across the country and began a new job at a kindergarten. At least I thought it was a kindergarten. In my mind, and in my experience, kindergartens have playgrounds. But not this one. It occupies several floors of an office building. Children play in their classrooms when they are allowed to. The rest of the time they are supposed to sit upright in their chairs and listen to the teacher. After all, that is how they will learn, isn’t it?

What kind of a belief is that?

The circumstances in which we teach also reflect particular beliefs. What do we do when those circumstances conflict with our own beliefs? Do we accept the circumstances and work from the inside or do we do what we can from the outside? I think it depends upon the depth of our beliefs and also on our integrity. It also depends upon our understanding.

I was interested in the kindergarten position because I thought the program was progressive. Every day I was to work with one class and stay with them for the whole day. We would have a lesson, we would have lunch, we would play together and then have another shorter lesson before finishing.

It wasn’t until I had virtually decided to come that I was told that I would need to grade the children. The school used an A-D ranking. The idea that a kindergarten could require grading had never occurred to me. It was beyond my understanding.

I wondered what to do. For a while I thought about trying to deconstruct the system from within by making up ridiculous criteria – I had been told that the criteria used were up to the teacher. Thoughts of grading on being Japanese and being a child flitted through my mind. But finally I decided simply to refuse.

I don’t know if my refusal had anything to do with it but suddenly it was decided that English would be treated differently from other subjects. For several years one teacher had pushed to get English fully integrated into the Kindergarten program. The previous year this had happened. But now it is separated again. Perhaps this served as the excuse to change the way the English program is dealt with. Grading remains for other subjects but for English reports will be written instead. How this works in practise remains to be seen.

Having been there for less than a month I’m still finding my way, but already wonder whether finding my way is actually possible. I seem to be confirming my belief in unschooling.

I think the idea of spending a whole day with the children is a good one but the strict division of time, the lack of choice, the control exercised over the children and the daily rituals that take place (such as the lining up to go to the toilet) give me more than pause for thought. Maybe I need more faith. It seems to me that unless school is voluntary what it is really teaching is passivity.

In a soldier's stance, I aimed my hand
At the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not I'd become my enemy
In the instant that I preach
My experience led by confusion boats
Mutiny from stern to bow.
Ah, but I was so much older then,
I'm younger than that now.

My Back Pages by Bob Dylan

Curtis warns us against recreating the teacher centred paradigm. He writes about being learning centred and holding to the idea that the learners’ inner worlds are more precious than our own. But I wonder how this is possible and why it should be so.

What is wrong with the teacher centred paradigm? Is it wrong because it isn’t efficient for learning or because it encourages passivity and dependence?

Curtis told us that the teacher should not impose topics on the students but conversely, should the students be able to impose topics on teachers? Shouldn’t there be some way of reaching a consensus? Don’t the experience and the perceptions of the teacher count for anything? Should I limit myself to the likes of Toy Story, Ultraman, Deka-Ranger and so on simply because the inner world’s of many children have been contaminated, compromised, commercialised, colonised (OK, supply your own adjective if you don’t like mine).

I agree that real learning starts with the experience of the learner. Surely one of the roles of the teacher is to introduce learners to new experiences and to new ways of experiencing. If we remain totally with the inner worlds of the students aren’t we limiting both the students and ourselves?

One professor I know gives college students free choice in deciding what topics to cover but then insists that critical social analysis is used to look at those topics. I wonder what critical social analysis would make of most text books? There’s quite an interesting discussion of sexism in ESL?EFL textbooks here. I hadn’t heard of PARSNIPS before. I’m curious that economics isn’t included in the list. And I wonder what Israel has done to be the only country so included?

The censorship of the PARSNIPS list is unsurprising and also disagreeable as is the teacher dominated classroom. I think that choice and respect are very important. Bu what would need to happen for learner and learning centred paradigms to truly exist? My guess is that at the very least the situation would need to be voluntary and democratic. But would that be enough? Even A. S. Neill, the founder of Summerhill, the longest running “free” school in the World, thought that given the relationship between teacher and student that religion and politics should remain outside the classroom.

I think the more the classroom is a classroom the more problematic issues like religion and politics become. But perhaps the real problem is the notion of the classroom itself? To the extent that the notion of classroom is broken down and a community is created with the power to make choices equalised perhaps there is no need for any taboos?

Don’t say you are right too often, teacher.
Let the students realise it,
Don’t push the truth:
It’s not good for it
Listen while you speak!

Listen While You Speak by Bertolt Brecht

April 2005
(Think Tank Column for ELT News )

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