I am the mother of two children aged 5 & 6, the older one is diagnosed with autism the other is ‘normal’.
The autistic boy does not show the more typical social difficulties associated with the condition but has a fair degree of learning delay (according to the academic expectations of the education system currently in place) and has some behavioural problems when put into certain environments which are usually caused by specific triggers. The younger one frequently starts her own mini campaigns about things such as waste, re-cycling, abuse of trees and animals and decided of her own volition to become a vegetarian about 6 months ago, however, she is already showing signs of ‘system fatigue’ and the subsequent behaviours that this brings about will probably result at some point in a pointless diagnosis or the involvement of the questioning eye of the social services because much of her ‘rebellion’ centres around non-compliance.
The examples of my two children have made me seriously question the schooling system and their experiences within both their school life and their personal or home life life have made me wonder what it is all about. Here’s why:
John, who is my eldest, the autistic child is falling behind at school. I can see why. Recently the school have started sending some of his work home for me to help him complete because of this difficulty. The work that the school enclose bares no resemblance to my sons ‘real’ life. John is a practical child, he likes to help out around the house with practical tasks, washing, cleaning, cooking the family meal, recycling, tidying etc. During these activities we learn, not with specific intent but we learn, all of the above, practical tasks involve mathematics and language they include identifying, sorting, measuring, using language that involves words such as ‘more’, ‘less’, ‘bigger’, ‘smaller’ etc. The recycling which is one of his favourite activities involves identifying objects made from different materials, which is one of John’s current projects at school, yet John is incapable of transferring any of this knowledge, skill or language in to the classroom.
For a highly practical child all these lessons are obvious when put into a working context but when taken out of that context and applied more abstractly they make no sense. When trying to get John to apply the same skills using simply a pen and piece of paper Johns eyes begin to roll up to the ceiling, he refuses to make eye contact with either myself or the work, he starts to talk about the dragon that lives under the sofa, he may even up his protest by physically removing himself from the room and starting some other project that interests him more. It is obvious that the child I am used to seeing at home becomes a different child when he is taught in a more traditional way. No wonder the school often phone to tell me that by the end of the day John is hysterical, exhibiting uncontrollable behaviour and stripping off to his pants in class running around screaming – I would be too!
The problem is, they say, is that John MUST learn to take is abilities out of the practical world and apply them more abstractly. The question is, I ask, is: “WHY, WHY, WHY?!”, why do we have to insist in educating our children in this way when they are actually supposed to be going to school to gear up for work?! Is not work the PRACTICAL application of these same skills? If a child is already learning to live and indeed work effectively in a setting outside of the school system does it not make more sense to use the skills and interests that already exist within the child and create further opportunities for learning within that environment? If assessment is such an integral part of the schooling system can we not test the child within the environment that suits him or her best and by observation of work or play within the context that that particular child feels most comfortable? No. it would seem evidently not. Part of the problem for the education system and for the rare individuals within the schooling system who can identify the difficulty is that the national curriculum must be taught according to…the national curriculum and that the assessment system is so constrained by the governing bodies it is accountable to that alternatives are out of the question. The only exception to this being ‘alternative’ schooling systems, some of which have only been set up because the children who attend them have gone all the way through the current system fighting and have finally had their collective voices heard in exile from the same system that both lets them down and on which they will have to rely for the rest of their lives.
What is the solution? I’m not against formal education as such, I can’t be, I’ve spent far too many years of my life being in the system as a student of one kind or another. For me, for my daughter and for many others the halls of education hold a special smell, the smell of opportunities, the smell of possibilities and the smell of continuous congratulation and reward because we are ‘clever’ in the more traditional sense of the word. However, there is a certain kind of addiction to reward that puts even the most institution worthy student on rocky ground. Many academics find it almost impossible to leave the system, they, like stubborn mental health patients and persistent offenders have become institutionalised and is it any wonder? The womb like warmth of the congratulatory educational system can be a form of escapism from the harsh reality of the thankless world of ‘real’ work. Perhaps this amongst others is one of the reasons Maria Montessori (educational revolutionist) pointed out that any kind of reward and punishment system is futile, it creates addiction, need, expectation and serves to alienate one from the true state of being, which is to gain satisfaction from the work we produce – not the response it creates.
In a perfect world, I wouldn’t send my children to school at all. In a perfect world, the world would be school. The children would live on the same farm as myself and a community of other people who all contributed to each others lives, existence and continuing education. Communication systems would be something people and children learned through need and choice, not requirement and ‘lessons’ like science, math, geography would just evolve as part of the working environment. History would be something people told around a camp fire and used as a lesson for the future or a cautionary tale that they could relate to some specific difficulty that arouse within the community. The educational emphasis would be on things such as tolerance, humility, respect, community living and centre around practical work. Under these conditions the minds of those currently called ‘academics’ would thrive, the unusual insights of those now called ‘autistics’ would be listened to and the extraordinary experiences of those currently considered ‘schizophrenic’ would be Incorporated in to a community that allowed the skills, gifts and limitations of each individual to be respected.
But this is not that world, this is a world where because we ourselves are so ground down by the system we have become stunted. A woman like myself is now so dependant on the system which she wants to fight against. Worn out, jaded and apathetic I watch, write and wish as I realise that If I do not effect change myself that change will never be realised and my children will eventually like other children either become mentally unchallenged and philosophically compliant or burdened with the weight of the many labels and tags that the system needs to use to alienate those who are just ‘too cool for school’.
You can find more posts from Lorraine at: http://http://iwawoman.blogspot.com/2009/04/education-system-too-cool-for-school.html