• Suzanne Axelsson

The intention of school

Uppdaterad: 2 jan 2020

As a mother of three children, and as an educator, as a sister of another educator... this is a question I have wondered about a great deal.

At the moment my youngest is coming to the end of compulsory schooling here in Stockholm, and we are looking at the next step... 3 years of "gymnasium" (sixth form equivalent in the UK) - which involves visiting the schools that have courses that interest him...  game design and programming being his main focus.

Compulsory school has not been a place where he has thrived, and like many children with autism/ADHD he has barely survived. So when we saw a school that offered game design for youths with ASD we thought this would be a good option, a school designed to meet the needs of those that learn differently.

We visited that school (as well as others that do not specialise in ASD) and both my son and I were able to decode the furnishings, markings and signs of the rooms to see that this was not a space for him... this was a space for children that school had failed. It felt so disheartening to see a space that had tried to make it look cosy and non threatening in order to not overwhelm, but was still filled with a school like order, black and yellow tape on the floor screaming out where you were allowed to walk, names on desks showing where you could sit and where you could not (even as late as December)... it was a space that said to me that these 16-19 year olds had not learned self-regulation, did not feel safe and as my son said "I might be special needs, but not that special needs".

The atmosphere of the rom felt neither safe nor inviting.

What saddens me the most as an educator of young children... is that I spend all my time scaffolding the children to self-regulate, to learn to listen to others, to value others, to appreciate diversity and embrace and celebrate our different ways of learning, expressing ourselves and experiencing the world...  and then I send these children to school, and these skills are no longer a part of the soul of the school, but lessons given every once in a while, usually as a plaster to soothe conflicts or problems that arise. There is a focus on getting answers right, of learning for a test, then learning for the next, of getting grades... of being told to behave but never given the skills needed to "behave the way the school wants"... if you want children to listen and value each other, then there needs to be time spent giving children the time to learn and practice these skills...

what I have sen in my own children's education (between them they have attended  five different schools) is that the older they get the less in touch they are with listening and valuing each other, and the more sexism, racism, homophobia etc has been a part of the daily language - and that there would be a few days at the start of the year to talk about being respectful... and then "when needed"...

What I think is that this does not provide safe places for learning... this is going to consume energy from many of the children attending school dealing with harassment, careless talk etc instead of learning. It is going to suck the joy out of school. It will be a place of facts and grades and not a place of learning.

As I look at my son's schooling... he started formal school too soon... even at the age of 7 he was not ready. It is like his diagnosis made him socially younger than his peers and he needed more years to play and develop his social skills before he could start attending to academic skills... Sadly the focus is no longer on the social skills... that is supposed to be all done, and the academics swallowed his self-esteem whole. He has been in a constant state of survival. And this is a smart child. I think that if he had been able to learn through play until he was about 10 he would have been ready to learn... and everything would have gone quickly and smoothly, and he would probably have enjoyed it... BUT forcing him to sit in class an be "academic" at age 7 sucked the joy out of learning...

My daughters both started school a year early at age 6 (as we had plans to return to UK) but this was a decision that worked well for them.. they were ready to read, and reading became their form of play, amongst many other play languages... Each year I would ask their teacher (and my daughters) about whether they were thriving and whether or not they should repeat a year... but they were always in the top of their class... and, in the last 3 years of compulsory school they did not want to stay in a system that was filled with so much sexism and other isms of a negative nature than they needed to... they both left school to continue at the school of their first choice... They are now both attending Stockholm University, still one year earlier than most others... and also PROOF to all those climate trolls that striking one day a week is going to be detrimental to their education...

in the future we do not know what knowledge or skills are going to be the most in demand... but we are always going to be in need of our social and emotional skills - maybe even more so if the world is become more digitalised and robotised...

Andreas Schleicher (Division Head and coordinator of the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment and the OECD Indicators of Education Systems programme) describes a good future school is a place that gives a lots of space to the students to do things and not just absorb knowledge. The social and relationships are given priority and learning is transdisciplinary, preferably in the form of projects or theme based...

Alejandro Paniagua has written and OECD report "Teachers as designers of learning environments"  (it can be read for free online) - and that being innovative as a teacher means that one is open to test what is new for yourself and for the learners and that many of the ideas go back to theories on alternative pedagogy that can be 80 years old!! 

Alejandro likes the example of storytelling - and I am looking forward to participating in a one day professional development in February 2020 in Toronto about storytelling, documentation and indigenous people/traditions.

I think we need to ask ourselves what is the intention of school... if it is preparation for their adult life, when there already seems to be a consensus that we do not know exactly what future knowledge will be needed, then why are we knowledge based schools? Although the more I write about Original Learning the more I feel schools are not knowledge based but facts based... as time, play and exploration is need by children to process facts into knowledge... and this is seldom every given to learners...

I think we need to start thinking more about questions... rather than finding "right answers"... because these answers are starting to feel like a one size fits all... but with the right questions we can start finding out what it is it we want for our children, what it is schools are supposed to be providing, what the purpose of teachers are, how we can best prepare teachers for that role, what kind of spaces we need to design that allows interactions... interactions between the learners, between the educators and learners, between educators, between the space and the people in it, between the school and society, between materials and the children etc etc... layers and layers of interactions are required to create a school... but seldom do we consider it from this complex viewpoint...

I think if schools spent more time supporting children in the art of listening - to truly listen, not to just answer, but to understand. That listening is about respect and value even when we do not agree, this can help reduce some of that careless talk that seems to evolve in schools, the sexism, the racism etc that is based on a lack of understanding, a failure to listen and value others - then the lessons that are left for transdisiciplinary learning (the subjects interwoven) will be more efective and meaningful for all the students, and not just those that can thive in the school system. ALL children should thrive

Creating listening schools enables children of all abilities to be valued and to be respected for learning at their own pace and in their own way. Listening schools will enable community of learners... which will result in adults better equipped to problem solve together, to collaborate, to inspire each other (rather than being afraid of others stealing ideas) and maybe even a better and more peaceful future. Social equity, climate equity. 

But schools where children compete against each other, where they do not feel safe, where they learn to talk and debate rather than listen and dialogue feels like we will end up with more leaders to feel ashamed of and disgusted by as they choose short term profit making options over well-being and forward thinking strategies that will take us into the future and beyond...

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© 2017 Suzanne Axelsson. Interaction Imagination. Stockholm, Sweden.

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