"Education should not be a waiting room for life", by David Edwards.

“It is often argued that the purpose of early childhood education is to prepare children for school, so that schools, in turn, can prepare children for adulthood and for the work force. This approach reduces childhood to a waiting room.” -- Steffen Handal, President, Education Union of Norway (UEN).

The growth of the brain of young children is so rapid and their capacity for learning so vast that it boggles the mind. According to one study, by the sixth prenatal month, nearly all of the billions of neurons (nerve cells) that populate the mature brain have been created , with new neurons generated at an average rate of more than 250,000 per minute. By the age of five, a child has reached 90 per cent of total brain capacity.

Even without scientific evidence, those who have children or have spent any time around them cannot help but be astonished by their ability to learn, to remember, to question, and to process and combine information. Their voracious appetites for learning make existence a great, all-consuming adventure.

Education should serve the natural and normal development of children. It should respond to their drive, even compulsion, to learn.

Education “Reform”

Children are human beings who learn. Adults are human beings who learn. They are not commodities. If one forgets that which is human, learning loses its magic and becomes an afterthought or by-product or an accident. If our world strives to become like robots, learning can become a reaction to a modern “1984”, where thought and learning become acts of rebellion.

Nobody, even the most fervent, market-inspired reformer, would set out to transform education to block learning, but the effect of reverse engineering from the “final product” to the child may do just that. It may produce widgets rather than wisdom.

England is very “advanced” in education reform. Along with the United States, they have embraced the most radical reforms. Last year, one of EI’s member organisations in the UK, the National Education Union (NEU) did a survey of teachers about student stress. It shows that being forced to be widgets produces very human reactions.

The NEU gathered information from 730 participating education staff working in early years, primary, secondary, sixth-form colleges and further education colleges and found an alarming increase in signs of mental health problems as compared to five years or even a year earlier. Overall, 49 per cent of students were reported suicidal, 56 per cent were engaging in self-harm (81 per cent in secondary schools), 45 per cent had eating disorders, and 49 per cent of educators reported that students were experiencing panic attacks.

Schools should be a healthy and safe environment where learning is not forced but is stimulated and encouraged. In other words, where it remains, as with the youngest of children, part of the needs and the regular flow of life. It should, yes, even be fun. That learning process is blocked by such intense, omnipresent stress.

School as a Community

A subsequent NEU survey about teacher stress also reported very high stress, with 81 per cent having considered quitting the profession in the previous year. Much of it was related to excessive workloads and too little control over work. For teachers as well as learners, a school should be entered with a smile on the face rather than a pain in the stomach.

The school is a community. It is woven from relationships. Those relationships are between students and students, teachers and teachers, and students and teachers. As a community, it functions best if it is stable, healthy, and safe. Safe means physically secure, without danger and harassment. But it also means a safe setting to be what you are, to think freely, to discuss, to be creative, and to draw outside of the lines.

School should not be a hustle where everybody looks out for “old number one” and “succeeds” by cheating or profiting from others or even by acing a test. It is, rather, a collaborative environment where the individual becomes strong and independent by being nourished by the group rather than being pitted against it. It is a village where one learns from others and not just from books or screens, where the values, cultures, and practices of freedom and democracy thrive and develop.

Learning environments for children and for former children.

Just as education should not be the waiting room for work, work should not be the graveyard for learning. School may end, but learning should not.

The future of learning is intimately connected with the future of work. Perhaps, the reason that so many young people are poorly prepared for work is that their education has been preparing them for work rather than for life.

For most people, work is no longer a series of repetitive tasks. They increasingly must adapt to changes in the nature and organisation of their labour. That depends on mastering specific tasks, greater understanding of how jobs connect with others, and the capacity to discover problems and find and propose solutions.

Life-long learning is contingent, to a large extent, on how well workers have learned how to learn. Much of education has been compartmentalised, but at its best, it does not fit into neat little boxes. It simultaneously prepares one for life, including active citizenship, and for employment.

The key to the future of education is teachers. If they have been dummied-down to perform repetitive tasks, deprived of the opportunity to reflect upon and shape their work, and given a status that is inappropriate and  disrespectful, if not insulting, they will not be able to help shape the present or the future of  students.

Future generations should be able to look back and remember teachers who helped guide their lives as did the French writer, Albert Camus. In a letter to Monsieur Germaine, after being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, he wrote,

“After I learned the news, my first thought, after my mother, was for you. Without you, without that affectionate hand that you gave to the poor, small child that I was, without your teaching and your example, none of that would have happened…This is an opportunity to tell you what you were, and always will be for me and to assure you that your efforts, your work, and the devotion you put into it are still alive in one of your little schoolchildren who, although older, has never ceased to be your grateful pupil.” 


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David Edwards

David Edwards is the General Secretary of Education International.

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