Let the children speak

photo credit: Perpetua Kirby

As many children in the UK come to the end of their first few weeks of schooling after the first Covid-19 lockdown, we are reminded of a very different time a year ago. Children and young people in Sussex, and across the world, were marching out of school and making their voices heard for action on climate change, inspired by 15-year-old Greta Thunberg. The dominant public narratives and concerns are now very different, reinforcing conforming ways of doing things that – quite literally – mask what children have to say.  

With Covid, children must once again sit in rows, facing the teacher, a mode of teaching celebrated as ensuring ‘the best way to learn’ in that infallible source of educational advice, the Daily Mail.  Such strictures may be temporarily necessary as a public health measure to manage the spread of Covid-19, but the everyday school environment for many children within state schools and academies is that of daily disciplinary commands, where their movements around the school are tightly monitored.  

Such monitoring, epitomised by Michaela Community School (dubbed Britain’s strictest school), can include: CCTV cameras, the requirement to maintain ‘silent’ corridors, the metering out of ‘behaviour points’ logged digitally, fingerprinting and use of ‘isolation’ units for those who transgress the dominant requirement for conforming behaviour. Children are monitored so acutely that the academic, Andrew Hope, suggests schools have become laboratories for ‘surveillance futures’.

The recent GCSE, A-Level and BTech exam debacle in England also highlights how a reliance on statistical algorithms alone cannot address the lived experiences and needs of those living through unusual precarity and change. The current exam regime, which relies on quantification, has become a Dickens ‘Gradgrind’ system of measuring ‘little vessels’ with ‘gallons of facts,’ suggests Simon Jenkins, writing in The Guardian.  Such an algorithmic diet of individual fact proficiency, says Toby Seth, head teacher at the Pocklington School Foundation, is not what 21st century employers are looking for: ‘[they] want new and different skills, such as team working’.  Such teamwork demands thoughtful collective judgement.

The obsession with conformity reflects a bigger challenge in education. Sixty years ago, the philosopher Hanna Arendt, identified that modern science, and in particular its reliance on mathematics, has the effect of producing disengaged and depoliticised citizens. Her concern lay with the dominance of technical problems that require a right/wrong answer, denuding deep consideration about their relationship to public life.

There is evidence of such concerns within current educational studies, suggests Margaret Canovan in the introduction to Arendt’s work, including the finding that high verbal scores correlate with increased likelihoods of political participation, whereas high maths scores align to decreased engagement.

Arendt very much stressed the importance of scientific knowledge, but to inform everyday dialogue and action about the sort of world in which we wish to live. The value of science is made clear now during this Covid-19 pandemic, as politicians and public health officials grapple with the most recent epistemological modelling and medical findings to serve the wider public good. Thoughtful judgement is essential for public governance, says Arendt, and fundamental to uniting science with politics.

… it would require that children and their teachers have some time and space to speak and to listen to each other …

Michael Gove recently laid out a vision for the reform of UK governance, and in particular of its civil service, to focus on the recruitment of more mathematicians, including statisticians, and fewer social scientists, in order to evaluate ‘what works’. In response, political scientist Abby Innes, warned of the ‘fatal’ reliance on only a technical deployment of mathematics, data analysts and cyberneticians in post-Stalinist Soviet Russia, which had dire human and environmental consequences. Where it failed, she explains, is on the strategies and actions that involved taking seriously uncertainty and complexity, ‘precisely the qualities of most of the tasks uploaded to the modern democratic state’. We might think about the types of worldwide challenges we face today associated with Covid-19, climate change and biodiverse ecological degradation. What they clearly demonstrate, is that up-to-date scientific knowledge is hugely necessary to address them all, whilst being insufficient in directing us as to what we must do: this is the stuff of thoughtful human deliberation and action.

Writing in the Financial Times, Yuval Noah Harari acknowledges the huge potential of new technology to fight coronavirus, but warns that the pandemic may ‘normalise the deployment of mass surveillance’. He concludes that ‘we should definitely make use of new technologies … but these technologies should empower citizens,’ describing this as a ‘major test of citizenship’.  If we translate this test to the democratic project of schools, it would require that children and their teachers have some time and space to speak and to listen to each other; to consider what scientific knowledge means for their own context and lives, and to re-imagine school practices that allow for greater contingency and uncertainty about what is the ‘best’ way to educate for the 21st century.

This would mean recognising the rights of children and young people, under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to participate in decisions, including the pandemic and climate change, as well as the everyday challenges for many of discrimination, food poverty, poor mental health, etc.

Such ways of teachers and students being together differently, offers some joy and hope that are beyond the computational capabilities of any mathematician or algorithm. They are, crucially, important for children and young people, to be equipped to sustain and evolve democratic institutions for their (and our) uncertain futures.

In deference to the memory of the inspirational late Sir Ken Robinson, writing in support of curiosity and creative education in schools for uncertain futures, we end with his voice:

“I can’t imagine that many children wake up in the morning wondering what they can do to raise their state’s reading standards. But countless children do want to read and write and calculate for their own purposes and to sing and dance and explore and experiment. Countless teachers and parents want to support them.

“There is not a simple line from vision to change. It is a constant process of action, improvisation, evaluation, and reorientation in light of experience and circumstances.”

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