Methods of Education
As schools emerge from the effects of the pandemic, and as society starts to pick up the pieces of the long lockdown and its effects on children, I thought it might be timely to revisit this article, written six years ago.
When selecting a school, or a method of education outside the normal school system, parents are becoming increasingly aware of the many different types of education which are around. This can quickly become complicated and a bit daunting for most.
All kinds of things are lumped together today and called ‘alternative education.’ Some directories list over fifteen different kinds of alternative schools as well as various trends in modern education.
Some of these aim to give a great deal of freedom in learning; others provide some kind of ‘child-centred’ structure. Others stem from religious beliefs or cultural ideas, including concepts of justice or ecology. Parents unfamiliar with the landscape might quickly become lost when it comes to trying to figure out the best educational pathway for their children.
What makes one school different from another? In what ways does a tutoring approach work well for some children but not as well for others? How much should a school use an authoritarian approach and when is this not appropriate or necessary?
There are basically four basic approaches to education:
Broadcasting from the Front
This is the classical model which most of us grew up with, where the teacher stands at the front, apparently as the fount of all wisdom, and the children sit in rows and listen, occasionally repeating back what they have been told and being corrected (in the past, harshly) if they get it wrong.
In this approach, knowledge is seen as an objective, authoritative collection of facts established outside the learner’s experiences or personal preferences. The role of the teacher is to broadcast this knowledge, along with accompanying academic skills and ‘the right attitudes’, to the child’s mind. It’s a one-way flow, with the teacher very much in charge and evaluating the progress of the child.
Education is a consumer product under this model, which is delivered and managed. It is measured, graded and packaged into curricula; children are labelled, streamed and categorised. It’s what passes for ‘normal’ in this country and most others. It is narrow, undemocratic and authoritarian by nature and is often criticised as such, and it does have its problems.
But we have to be careful: professional or technical subjects require as a matter of course that a large body of data be passed on, as it is. And what about cultural or religious teachings which need to be transmitted as they are in order to be preserved? The world happens to contain a large amount of objective knowledge which needs to be taken in and understood to ensure any kind of continuance of society or civilisation.
It’s important to define, therefore, which elements of knowledge are like this and what methods best apply to their transmission.
Freedom for All
Popular in the 1960s, this is the idea that the child is the centre of everything and that education is all about permitting a child to choose pretty much what they want to learn and to do with that learning. This naturally gets involved in all kinds of social theorising about the nature of society and so on.
This approach believes that learning always starts with the individual’s needs, goals, and desires, and not with any objective body of knowledge or teacher’s demands. Here, a child is entirely self-motivated to explore whatever the world has to offer that seems relevant to his or her own life.
Many famous figures in history have been proponents of this approach: Leo Tolstoy for one. A. S. Neill built Summerhill School a few years later on the basis of a psychological interest in freedom. His book Summerhill was a best seller in the 1960s when new ideas of education sprang into being.
Developers and advocates of this approach sometimes refer to it as ‘democratic’ education, claiming that the freedom children educated this way enjoy is no different from the concept of liberty as it is understood in a democratic society. They argue that to teach a child any other way is to deny it its basic rights.
This leads into the idea that learning is a social endeavour, requiring interaction between and among children and adults in an environment that encourages meaningful cooperation, inquiry, and problem-solving. Here knowledge is neither entirely objective nor entirely subjective: it is constructed through the relationship between and among people and their environment. It respects abilities as these naturally unfold during a child’s life and engages students more fully in their learning. It is often associated with religious groups or movements.
Again, this leads to the idea of educating children deliberately for increased social responsibility. The main purpose of education evolves into not just transmitting knowledge or preserving social traditions but revolutionising society by helping children to question the world around them, philosophically and politically. Educators who are concerned with changing cultural, economic, and political institutions tend to advocate this approach in the belief that a functioning democracy requires collective action.
When it gets political, this approach tends to raise basic questions about the very purpose of education. Is knowledge and academic skill morally neutral and disengaged in a world suffering from excessive violence, exploitation, racism, class division and so on? As educators, should we stand aside from these basic questions or is it necessary to provoke learning deliberately along particular channels, guiding children to follow clear moral and ethical visions?
Educating the Soul
Some educational models explicitly set out to parallel the human soul through specific stages of development, insisting that there is a spiritual dimension to human existence. Rudolf Steiner (founder of Waldorf education) is perhaps the most famous example.
In practice, what tends to happen here is that the teacher has a very active and authoritative role. It’s not a ‘Freedom for All’ situation -structure is provided to meet the developmental needs of the growing child on a spiritual level. Whereas ‘Broadcasting from the Front’ often assumes an authority for the sake of authority, this approach tries to establish a structure meant to support the unfolding of each child’s latent ‘spirit’. In contrast to freedom-based approaches, this educational model asserts that a teacher can know a child’s true potentials better than the child can.
Which of these approaches best fits your child?
There’s a fourth method of education.
In a world which is interconnected, all things need to be seen in their wholeness rather than in fragmented and detached ways. And the wholeness that most parents want is the final product of someone who knows the material he or she has studied and can apply it.
Working back from that, you can work out that each one of the above approaches has its place at the right time.
The difficulty with the above exclusive models is that they begin with a philosophy and try to fit everyone to that framework regardless, whereas using each method at the right moment helps to produce what is wanted by all.
All approaches have something important to say about the process of learning and nature of the human being, and all of them are useful at some point: the Broadcast method, if properly done, can ensure a vast amount of material is communicated effectively; the Freedom method encourages an appeal to the student’s understanding; while the Spirit approach can place the whole of the learning in a wider context.
Alone, each one of them contains only a partial truth, as life cannot be fully grasped by any one educational ideology. Attempting to balance freedom and structure, individuality and responsibility, wisdom and creativity, means that one must sensibly use all of them at different times if one is to achieve a full and rounded student who can think with what has been learned and who can actually use what has been studied.