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Humanistic Teaching

An approach to learning English

March 24, 2011

Turning Fifty

I am fifty today. So allow me some indulgence. I want to write about saving the world. About connections observed, experienced and imagined. I want to write about teaching children and why I think we should stop. And I want to write about life, about how tenuous and how tenacious it is. This will be a mess.

Just before I started bashing away at my keyboard I performed my current ritual of checking the headlines on the TV. People in Libya are being bombed in order to save them. Regime change is not planned. The war is humanitarian and not about oil. Water in Tokyo is safe to drink. Babies, children and pregnant women should not drink it. There is no danger. A bomb has gone off in Jerusalem. There was no mention of my birthday.

When we talk about the world we invariably focus on ourselves. If we think at all about the environment we think about how to manipulate it to serve the interests of humanity. We are sentient and somehow this seems to make us egotistical. As the old "Tears For Fears" lyric has it, "Everybody wants to rule the world". But what does it actually mean to rule the world? Perhaps it means having the power to turn back the waves as King Canute is famed to have commanded. Or perhaps it means having the power to split the atom and control the power unleashed. Or perhaps having the power to control the flow of information and so shape what people believe and how they act.

There are around 22,000 nuclear warheads in the world. 8000 are active. There are 442 nuclear power plants.

In 1887 Lord Acton wrote to Bishop Mandell Creighton,

 "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

If this is true then it is in our own egotistical interests to destroy or severely limit power. Life is, perhaps another matter. James Lovelock, who first suggested the Gaia hypothesis, that Earth acts as a kind of single living organism, argues that Nuclear power is our only practical defence against global warming. He is unconcerned about radiation:

"One of the striking things about places heavily contaminated by radioactive nuclides is the richness of their wildlife. This is true of the land around Chernobyl, the bomb test sites of the Pacific, and areas near the United States' Savannah River nuclear weapons plant of the Second World War. Wild plants and animals do not perceive radiation as dangerous, and any slight reduction it may cause in their lifespans is far less a hazard than is the presence of people and their pets"

We are conscious. We know we think and feel. We can choose what we want our role in the world to be. We can act as hedonists, despots, guardians, servants or caretakers. Perhaps our greatest evolutionary gift is our ability to imagine. We can imagine how we want the world to be and we can act on that imagination to actualise our visions. That is of course, much more difficult than it sounds. We are confronted and confounded by difficulties. Some are immediately solvable. Some are intractable. It is important to understand the difference. For example, if we want to build a bridge or tower with our current knowledge the problems are inherently understandable, testable and foreseeable. The solution is linear. But if we want to build an equitable, fair and sustainable society the problems are, as Roy Madron and John Jopling describe in Gaian Democracies (Schumacher Briefings, Number 9), "wicked". This is not intended to suggest they are morally evil but rather something complex that evolves through time and effects different people in different ways. A problem that has stakeholders.

Recently, I was told that my approach is too black and white, too either or, too extreme. I wonder if this is because I place too much value on principles. Perhaps I agree too much with Stephen R. Covey's "true north" thesis in The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People. Perhaps I am too literal. For example, I think Gaddafi is a ruthless dictator. I think dictatorship is wrong (and so called democratic governments shouldn't supply dictators with weapons). It follows that I think teachers should not be dictators. There should be no dictators in the classroom! I think being able to control one's own learning situation should be a universal human right. To my mind compulsory education without any form of democracy in reality teaches children to accept the notion that might makes right. You must stay in the classroom and do what the teacher says! It is good for you!

I think schooling squanders the deep potential of children. I'll return to this theme in future columns. What I want to emphasis right now  is the importance of democracy. Currently there are various uprisings across the world against the established order. I see, or perhaps I hope I see, this as a rejection against hierarchical government. I see democracy as the best defence against the tyranny of absolute power, but not the shallow, vapid, tweedle-dee tweedle-dumb representational kind that exists today. We need to develop genuinely transparent interactive forms of government across all levels of society.

In the back of my mind an idea for a teacher's charter is forming. Something a bit like the Hippocratic Oath that modern commercialised medicine apparently rejects. The first principle would be:

I will not teach unless the child asks me to do so.

Here are some more:

I will use non-violent communication.
I will allow children to follow their passions.
I will do nothing to dampen a child's natural enthusiasm.
I will not give homework unless the child requests it.
I will put the interests of the child before those of the parents.

The one that causes me the most trouble is homework. Certainly my experience of regular school leads me to think such a stipulation is essential, but what about private language schools where it can be argued that the child has chosen to attend the school? We all know that attending a class once a week is not sufficient to gain any real skill in a language and moreover, spending any degree of time at something without gaining some skill is disheartening and demotivating in itself. In other words, homework can be considered a necessity when it comes to learning language. But at the same time I think that children should be able to control their own time and that in Japan adults impinge on their time too much.  So, I'm wondering if there is a way to get a class to agree on how fast they want to learn English. It would need to be at the class level as having children in the same class doing different amounts of homework would be to store up trouble unnecessarily. I think for any method to work it would require some kind of easy to comprehend symbol. One such could be different forms of transport. A class could chose to travel at the speed of say, a bicycle, a car, a train, a plane or a rocket. The faster the vehicle the faster the pace in class and the more homework the group would get. Of course, if such a system were adopted one would need to figure out how often a vehicle could be changed. One possibility would be to link it to the theme for the month. It would be difficult to offer children a completely free choice within the context of a language school. But perhaps a choice of themes could be offered and a quantity of homework created in advance.

What I am saying is that I think that democracy is important for the future of humanity. The best way to learn about it is to do it. Rather than have it as a subject that is occasionally studied have it as something that is real. I know that democratic schools work. They exist in many countries throughout the world. The question, the experiment, is whether it is possible to have democratic lessons within a once-a-week language school. When Mary Leue was contemplating what was to become the Albany Free school, she asked A. S, Neill, the founder of Summerhill, what he thought of the idea of trying to establish a Summerhill type school for the children of inner-city poor. He replied, "I would think myself daft to try". The Albany Free School is now over 40 years old. Daft or not, I think the idea of democratic lessons is worth a try. What say you?

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Your post is as thought provoking as ever and I'm a great fan of blog posts in which the poster is thinking aloud, but there seem to be several leaps of logic here which you haven't really explained.

I'll put aside the starting basis of your arguments, not least because I generally agree with them. My first problem is the leap from "democracy is good" to "children need to learn about democracy by doing it at school". That may well be the case, but can only be proved by a long term study that traces the attitudes to democracy of people who went to, for example, Summerhill and more traditional schools like I and no doubt you went to. While we are waiting for such a study, the fact that you, I and millions of people in autocratic regimes and autocratic classrooms are quite capable of crying out for democracy seems to suggest that the case for a clear link between the two is far from proven. Also, from my own reading about Free Schools I believe even many proponents believe they don't suit everyone (although traditional schools probably suit many of their students even less).

The other slight connundrum here is the idea of imposing democracy on your students. As many people believe about political democracy, isn't it better to let them come up with the idea of democracy and give them just as much as, and no more than,they demand? Isn't that, in fact, a real and lasting democracy? That is my own personal approach - democracy in the classroom is always there as an option, one I will use with the right classes at the right time in the right way. Any other approach to it would seem to go against the flexibility I have slowly been developing while I recover from the CELTA/ DELTA way.

Hi Chris,
Saw your post on AERO. I think your blog here has a good spirit about it, and is very well written, in an easy going mental-narrative sort of way, but I was very turned off by your demand that kids learn democracy, how ironic! Clearly you haven't thought out your main issue, democracy for kids, nor do I think you know much about political and social systems. The democracy you speak of is a simpleton's version right out of CNN and Dale Carnegie. I read a lot from pop journalism to arcane ancient philosophy and have taught all grades for years and I have found the world to be more subtle, sophisticated and more complicated than you seem to think. Are you are an absolutist? Which is how every Sudbury person I've met is, so I further ask are you a Sudburian?

If you want to teach kids democracy then study it a bit more yourself. For example study consensus, study Jefferson and the Iriquois, study Athenian democracy. And keep reading Lord Acton, one of the most knowledgeable men who ever lived. I don't know how old the kids are which makes it hard to comment much more but in my experience younger kids are more interested in play than anything else. I hope you know how to really play!

One other thing, you are way off base (IMHO) when you list your first "demand" that you will not teach unless asked to. Way too simple Chris, kids don't work like that. The most succinct thing I can say about that is kids always want to learn, always, except when they are either afraid or angry or sad, you never have to "ask" them, your challenge is to connect with them on deep levels. Kids crave connection, connection, love, trust, faith, nature, mystery, adventure, hilarity. Sorry for being grumpy, I have little patience these days, anyway, good criticism is not always nice. Todd Pratum

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