Taking on our industrial-scale human systems

07/10/2013 § 1 Comment

There were tears and tantrums on the way to school the other day. Lucas wasn’t too happy either… We had left home a bit late and I was intent on getting to school quickly whilst Lucas couldn’t conceive of passing the large horse chestnut tree near our house without stopping to pick up conkers. The inevitable clash of wills and priorities happened. We did get to school, we were late and it was messy.

Who was right? Well, I don’t want to take sides but have to say there was something incredibly endearing about Lucas’ sheer delight in the bounty of the natural world. And what at school could possibly be more important than that? School, like many of our large-scale human systems, has its own drivers, which rarely seemed to coincide with what feels natural and right for a child to do. Lucas wants to play, to run around outside, to climb trees to potter around with his Star Wars figures, to giggle with his playmates. He enjoys things like maths, reading and painting but at his own pace and a lot of his joy is taken away when he is crammed into a room and forced to sit down with 29 other children and learn together.

Like him, I want to rebel against our education system, even though I respect many of the teachers. It is a Procrustean system.  In Greek mythology, Procrustes was a rogue blacksmith, a bandit who forced people to fit the size of his iron bed by either stretching them or cutting off their legs. Isn’t this what our education system seeks to do with our children? They enter the system as wildly different individuals and, like sausage meat, are fed through the system to come out all the same shape and size, all thinking the same. Those who are particularly interesting, thoughtful, lively or artistic tend to suffer the most from this process.  Schools are packed with systems designed to persuade, encourage or compel our children to fit in, to conform. Bells to tell them when to work, when to eat, when to play. They get a gold star if they eat all their lunch (hungry or not – no wonder our children have so many food disorders).  Their parents get warnings if they arrive late too often.

All this is understandable from the system point of view. If you sit in Whitehall and worry about value for money, then you want to maximise output (teaching time) and minimise input (teachers pay, and other costs like food).  You want to minimise “waste”, like children not going to school, or classrooms not being full, or food not being eaten. So you issue directives designed to achieve these goals.

Having a centrally controlled and funded system has other effects. You need information at the centre in order to “manage” the system and so you compel teachers to spend inordinate amounts of time filling in forms. One school has an issue with a teacher abusing a pupil, and as a consequence all teachers are banned from touching a child,  and barriers are set up to prevent other adults coming on school grounds. This is an unbalanced response to a valid concern, and  It is one example of a case where issues that can be dealt with locally are over-regulated from on high.

This is industrial-scale education, and similar dysfunctionalities can be found in other centrally-controlled human systems such as the health service, police, highways departments and multinational corporations.

So what, I hear you ask?  What do you want to do about it exactly?  It seems to me there’s four basic stances you can take (they not necessarily self-excluding), shown in this matrix.

quadrant chartOne is to effectively shrug your shoulders and say “What can I do?”  This might be accompanied by a bit of denial “It is not that bad really” or avoidance – simply distracting yourself until time has passed. Or you passively resist (I have tried a bit of this) where you refuse to co-operate with the system but don’t actively engage with the challenge.

The second way is to try to fight the system,  Write strong letters to your MP, to the teachers, you try to rally others to your cause.  Or you blame individuals. I think of these first two options as negative, unconstructive.

A third way is to simply escape.  Seek another school, another system (Steiner, Montessori), another country (Denmark, say). You don’t threaten the system but seek to minimise its impact on you.

The fourth way is to get creative. You seek to dance with the system, to hold onto what you know to be true while refusing to blame others.  This may stretch to setting up a new school or an entirely new system.

It is clear where my preference is – to actively engage with the challenge. That’s where the life is – beyond denial or blame. It requires an honest  look at both the system, with all its merits and defects (including acknowledging that what we have represents a significant step forward compared to the old system it replaced) and at ourselves. Do we have the qualities to take on this challenge and what is the best way for us as individuals to go about it? Should we leave it to others to creating new system and work at making the best of the current one.

I will let you know how I get on.

And do let me know what’s your way. How do you engage with this dance?


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