08 October, 2012

Constructive Conformity

Been thinking lately about schools' insistence on conformity.

We constantly measure each other and compare each other to a norm. Having grown up in Australia, it's something we evolve into as we progress through schooling... there are no exams in the beginning (or at least we are unaware we're being tested) but as we get to high school they are the benchmark for whether we are a success as a student. And the pressure to conform is even greater in places such as the USA and Japan.

I used to have a preconception that standardised tests were a necessary evil. How else can you measure whether a child is achieving what they ought to achieve? What I hadn't considered was that it just isn't necessary for a small child to "achieve" any set standard in the first place! As soon as you remove a time-sensitive goal and replace it with "in progress" learning, then every child is succeeding, each and every day. You see, children are always learning, whether we try to teach them or not. They are observing and modelling themselves based on the world they see.

Finland's approach to compulsory schooling for children: every child can learn. No ifs, ands or buts, no exceptions, children learn. They can and they will. There is no question of not succeeding. The teachers know they children will succeed. Wherever they need to get to, the teachers know they'll get there.

This is not about putting pressure on a child and telling them that they must achieve. This is about displaying trust that the child can do it. When you cannot even conceive that something might go wrong, think about how much easier the task becomes! What would you do right now, if you knew you could not fail? The answer: Anything you want. What can a child learn, if they know they cannot fail? Anything.

Most of the grading system used with school children here (peruskoulu / compulsory years) is about the personal effort they put in. Yes, even if you're naturally capable of learning, it's still possible to try and achieve better. Some kids do try harder, and they get the better results. Thus the grades become about effort and not about brains or ability, and still they're only a vague measure. This, imo, is a far better focus for school success than whether or not you are a "failure" - understanding that effort brings success. It equips children for the competitive nature of high school, of university, of life in general. Effort = Reward. Not Brain = Award, a huge failing on the part of test-based schooling, which leaves the bright middle school students utterly unable to motivate themselves to study - why bother studying when you're accustomed to getting your results handed to you? What happens to those kids when the work becomes more difficult? Sink or swim... hardly a pleasant life experience at the age of 11 or 12.

Teachers in Finland are very well trained (probably among the best-trained teachers in the world). Their overriding goal is to support a child into achieving success - a concept very different from "ensuring all kids meet a benchmark". The reality of life is that we have benchmarks. Doctors measure our weight and compare it to a healthy norm. Professors measure our university work. Bosses measure whether we've done our job to a certain standard. In an adult world we know about benchmarks and we expect them. But for a child, they hinder healthy growth and the love of learning.

This is not to say that you need to move to Finland if you want a healthy learning environment for your child. (Although it might be the simplest way.) There are very similar aims in Steiner schooling, and other independent schools embrace the same concepts. Many might consider these child-centric methods to be "hocus pocus" - yes, they do seem strange and "not serious" when you are used to traditional test-based schooling in rigid setups. The thing to understand is that there is still very real learning going on despite the lack of school desks, or the lack of times tables. The learning is just not according to the timing you might expect. These children frequently out-perform their peers when they reach high school age as they have learned to teach themselves. Their teachers do not have "no goals" for the kids - just no pressure to meet a timetable with them, no pressure to get there in a certain predictable way. The kids will get there anyway.

When you think about it, what do you really need to start high school? The ability to read and write. The ability to do basic arithmetic. The ability to get along with your peers; to tell the time; to respect the teachers. Despite what you might assume, you don't actually need much else - even the kids that can't do complicated mathematics are still accepted into high school! Think about the endless hours and tests and homework and practice and stress and useless knowledge that school kids pick up along the way. Traditional schooling seems as if it's a relic which has been untouched for decades; nobody has pulled it apart completely and questioned what's useful and what's not.

But you can still nurture a love of learning, even if your child attends a strict traditional school. It's about investigating things because you can. Of reading for the fun of it. Of collecting rocks and leaves, of playing with berries and learning that they stain your fingers. It's genuine enjoyment of learning. It's about praise for effort rather than for success. It's about trusting in your child to learn despite what benchmarks say. Every child learns.