Friday, March 18, 2011

Control and Choice in Education

In education there exists a continuum of how much control is exerted over students or, to put it another way, how much choice is given to them. The scale ranges from the total control and minimal choice of state-run traditional education to the considerable freedom to choose given to students of such alternative schools as Summerhill and Sudbury Valley. With their cleverly designed didactic materials and the choice of which materials to work on, Montessori schools probably fall somewhere in between.

Teachers in all schools vary according to how much control they will exert in the implementation of their school’s ideology and how much choice they will give the students. So even an American public school classroom can enjoy freedom of choice and a Montessori classroom can be tightly controlled. The question is, how much control and choice should there be in education?

One answer for the public school is given by psychiatrist William Glasser: 

We are pushing for drug-free schools. We need to push even harder for coercion-free and failure-free quality schools because it is the alienation caused by coercion and punishment that leads young people to turn seriously to drugs (Choice Theory, p. 255).

Quality school” is Glasser’s term for a B or above mastery learning, failure-free environment for all students. Replacing coercive external control psychology (1, 2), says Glasser, with kind and attentive teacher-student relationships will enable students to develop success identities. Glasser’s approach includes getting rid of the rewards-and-punishment system of grading and punitive detention and principal’s office “solutions” to disruption. Students will then become motivated through the friendly relationships with their teachers to achieve educational goals.

Glasser demonstrates in detail how his coercion-free, failure-free approach to schooling was accomplished with so-called learning disabled students in a Cincinnati middle school (Choice Theory, pp. 259-69; also described here). Smothered with kindness and attention, one hundred forty-eight overaged, “left behind,” probably destined-for-jail middle school students transformed themselves and learned what was required to move on to high school. Removing structural control over the students, adjusting to their pace of learning, and giving them choice in their education led to this success. Removing coercion removed failure.

The ultimate in coercion-free, failure-free schooling is that of Summerhill and Sudbury Valley, where nearly everything is optional—especially courses and class attendance—and the students are given wide control of the schools through the democratic process. The question remains, though, how much control and choice should be left to the students.* This question cannot be answered without understanding that the main structural control in education today is the state’s monopoly over schooling, achieved through compulsory attendance laws, expropriation of funds to pay for the system, and curricular and methodological dictates through the state’s regulatory power. The framework of education is that control and choice are denied to both parents and students.

In the absence of state involvement, that is, in a free market in education, the issue of control and choice becomes a little less clear. If by “control” one means a prescribed curriculum that all students must study, and the parents agree to send their children to such a school, then it is the parents’ legal right to do so. Psychologically, however, one can still argue that greater control and choice be given to the child. Adjusting to pace of learning and catering to interests are two of the most important methodological requirements of a good school. Responding to students as human beings by building Glasserian friendships helps them acquire the confidence to flourish.

Traditional public education denies the legitimacy of control and choice in the classroom and through its coercive bureaucratic framework makes both impossible to maintain for any length of time. It is this context of coercion that makes the likes of Summerhill and Sudbury Valley appealing and probably has contributed to their success. (Indeed, in 1969 or so, when I read the first Summerhill book, I longed to be a student there. I would have thrived.)

As parenting requires guiding in the process of becoming a mature adult, formal education also probably requires at least some guiding in the acquisition of knowledge, values, and skills to achieve independence. Learning to think conceptually, for example, is not automatic and may require direction from an adult. But does this learning have to take place on the adult’s schedule? In the Summerhill/Sudbury model the instructor waits until lessons are requested by the students. Guidance, yes, but not coercion. As responsible parents quickly discover, they cannot force anything into their child’s brain. Children must be won over by persuasion. So, too, with students in education.

*My question presupposes the principle of rights, namely that the students should not be given control or choice to harm others or their property.


David said...

"The key element to any significant educational reform movement will be measured in terms of the amount of freedom given to students. Freedom to choose, freedom to self initiate, freedom to experience failure, freedom as the cornerstone of human dignity; these are the elements that define the foundation of a cutting edge school"

The Freedom Continuum
Raymond H. Hartjen

David said...

Unschooling Leads to Self-Motivated Learning
by Alison McKee

David said...

"...Ethics begins from the proposition that a human being is responsible for his or her acts. This is a given. Schools cannot change this, or diminish it. Schools can, however, either acknowledge it or deny it.

Unfortunately, virtually all schools today choose in fact to deny that students are personally responsible for their acts, even while the leaders of these schools pay lip service to the concept. The denial is threefold: schools do not permit students to choose their course of action fully; they do not permit students to embark on the course, once chosen; and they do not permit students to suffer the consequences of the course, once taken. Freedom of choice, freedom of action, freedom to bear the results of action -- these are the three great freedoms that constitute personal responsibility.

It is no news that schools restrict, as a matter of fundamental policy, the freedoms of choice and action. But does it surprise you that schools restrict freedom to bear the consequences of one's actions? It shouldn't. It has become a tenet of modern education that the psyche of a student suffers harm to the extent that it is buffeted by the twin evils of adversity and failure. "Success breeds success" is the password today; encouragement, letting a person down easy, avoiding disappointing setbacks, the list goes on.

Small wonder that our schools are not noted for their ethical training. They excuse their failure by saying that moral education belongs in the home. To be sure, it does. But does that exclude it from school?

Back to basics. At Sudbury Valley, the three freedoms flourish. The buck stops with each person. Responsibility is universal, ever present, real. If you have any doubts, come and look at the school. Watch the students in action. Study the judicial system. Attend a graduation, where a student must convince an assemblage of peers that s/he is ready to be responsible for himself or herself in the community at large, just as the person has been at school.

Does Sudbury Valley produce good people? I think it does. And bad people too. But the good and the bad have exercised personal responsibility for their actions at all times, and they realize that they are fully accountable for their deeds. That's what sets Sudbury Valley apart."

[Excerpt, Back to Basics - Moral basics, Daniel Greenberg, The Sudbury Valley School Experience.]