A Return to Humanism [October 2023]
This posting begins with an apology to the parents and educators who have been actively following this blog series; it is my sincere hope that its delay will be worth the wait. For most of September I embarked on a magnificent journey throughout five different regions of India and was blessed to engage in amazing interactions with students, educators and colleagues. All friends, those who I’ve known and many who I met for the first time. The focus of this blog may be a surprise, and indeed it marks a shift in my own realization for I hadn’t ever considered I may be harboring limited beliefs regarding education.
There are so many wonderful benefits of education in the form that we have become familiar with. School represents a microcosm of community within which learners can experiment, test their limits, acquire valuable knowledge and skills, establish relationships, communicate, problem solve, gain independence and grow.
That said, perhaps I have been too quick in blindly accepting the present system of mass education delivery as optimal without sufficient reflection.
Please stay with me, I promise this has a good ending…
The emergence of mass education as a public good
Mass or state sponsored public education, as is presently perpetuated around the world, began to gain momentum as a global phenomenon in the 19th century (note, reference is made in regard to a Western/European perspective) as an unlikely outcome of the industrial revolution. It became evident that individuals who were able to communicate, abide by rules, manage time, listen to instructions and had rudimentary literacy and numeracy skills were more productive in the workforce. Hence the idea of education as a means to prepare citizens capable of contributing (to the work force) and maintaining societal standards snowballed into the concept of education as a public good. Eventually, education was understood as a key to one’s success and more recently identified an inherent human right for all. Please don’t regard this condensation of >200 years as flippant, for I am not in any way suggesting this period was without continuous focus on improvement and refinement. There is no educator today who is not grateful for the educational developments that have resulted from research, reflection and refinement over the years.
That said, taking into consideration all the positive attributes of education – it’s system of delivery, as any system, is contrived to yield positive outcomes and in this regard rather ‘assembly-line-like’ in its intent to produce graduates endowed with observable/measurable characteristics. Especially characteristics that can compete in meeting the challenges of the present geo-political environment.
For the sake of efficiency…
- We group children based on their age and determine the boundaries of what they learn based on this chronological attribute
- set curricular requirements that systematically build in complexity over time (content focused)
- determine observable outcomes that should be acquired by strategic points in the educational journey
- nurture behavior that is deemed appropriate by society’s standard
- guarantee a graduate be capable of demonstrating a prescribed degree of competence in specified areas
In short, the system is controlling by design and focused heavily on knowledge transfer, or rather the convergence of knowledge from those who know to those needing to know . Over the last few decades, educators have argued for reform in a variety of areas…
- class size
- pedagogic delivery
- what constitutes a dynamic/successful learning environment
- educational resources
- content and behavioral management
- language of instruction
- inclusive policies
- ongoing professional development training
All of which can be considered tweaks in the system without questioning the system’s overall validity and effectiveness. The system has become a mammoth, so entrenched and unwieldy we just maintain it, making superficial adjustments over time to keep it looking shiny and new (smart boards, laptops, multi-media, modern content, teaching assistants..).
Regardless of culture, ethnicity, nationality, belief system or gender, the one aspect that unites all of us is our intolerance for being controlled. In fact, I’m guessing that among the parents here we’ve all had moments that we resented our respective educational experiences – not necessarily because they didn’t serve us, but more because we had no choice. And because our (humanity’s) ‘belief’ in education has such a powerful collective momentum we follow generations before us and require our children to walk the same path.
What if we thought about the SYSTEM differently?
In the early part of the 1900’s Abraham Maslow and colleagues pioneered a theoretical perspective for education entitled ‘Humanism’ (HERE), which operates on the assumption that learners are inherently good, will make good decisions for themselves and strive for autonomy provided their needs for survival are met. Based on what we now know of cognitive neuroplasticity (Davidson, & McEwen, 2012), Maslow was suggesting that when the learner is operating from the frontal cortex he/she is capable of accessing from the pool of unlimited potential (e.g. anything that can be focused on, can be learned). Under stress, the more primitive aspects of the brain (amygdala) become the operating system; thus overriding the frontal cortex and one’s accessibility to learn new things. His work was the basis for the development of Montessori education (Lillard, 2017), which is held in high regard even today. Despite its obvious effectiveness, the fact that the Montessori approach is student led and self paced to ensure an enriched learning experience in which teachers serve as the guide, does not translate well into the present system.
In my youth I had the wonderful experience of working at a summer camp – a unique learning environment which was founded in 1926 and directly inspired by Humanism. It was (is) a residential summer camp for girls between the ages of 9-15 located in Vermont (HERE), and truly exemplifies the power in enabling learner choice (HERE). Campers could choose to participate in the seven activity areas as often as they wanted, for as long as they wanted while activities were open each day – there were no scheduled classes, all activities areas were open to anyone who desired to attend.
How did it work?
- the absolute freedom to choose meant that when a camper arrived at an activity, she was intrinsically interested in engaging
- the open learning structure ensured that learners of different maturity were present to model competence for each other
- when a camper first arrived, her engagement in the activity was guided by a list of competencies she would complete in order to attain a ‘BASIC’ level of achievement in the activity. She could do this in the order she preferred and take as much time as she desired
- If she wanted to experience more, she could then work on attaining an INTERMEDIATE or VANGUARD level of achievement respectively (though these higher levels were more complex and therefore more difficult to attain).
- As campers became more competent in the activity, they were required to guide others in achieving lower levels of attainment (so even popular activities were ensured plenty of peer coaches as time went on)
- The camp director would walk around the camp facilities each morning engaging with campers and staff alike. If a camper seemed to be isolated and perhaps experiencing ‘homesickness’ – during the afternoon staff briefing, all staff were asked who may be able to reach out to this young camper and personally invite her to their activity. By the end of the first week, there were no such cases remaining
- When a child is focused on doing something she loves, it is not possible to simultaneously be experiencing a negative emotion, so discipline problems seldom occurred
Most pre-service teacher education training programs will include guidance on how to facilitate and maintain a learner-centered classroom environment. The learner-centric concept is also an aspect of Humanism; however, in practice most schools still encourage a predominately didactic or teacher-centered approach to education, and despite being introduced to the concept, even new teachers revert to modelling how they were taught, which was likely teacher-centric
The key to success of the humanistic approach lies in nurturing skills and capacity for greater autonomy. Once a learner is autonomous, content no longer needs to be the main focus. Independent literacy is essential for autonomous learning, in that the independent reader is not bound by direct instruction from another, nor reliant on what or how others think. Collaboration, numeric proficiency, interdisciplinary investigation, inter-class engagement and advanced thinking strategies are also valuable.
In our 21st Century environment, access to knowledge is available to all, so perhaps it is time for education to move in a more humanistic direction to truly tap into the creative potentials of our next generation. I look forward to hearing your thoughts in this regard.
Any comments or reflections based on your experiences and observations are most welcome!
The next update will be published in November 2023!
Aung, Y. M. (2020). Humanism and education. International Journal of Advanced Research in Science, Engineering and Technology, 7(5), 13555-13561.
Bruner, J. (1997). The culture of education. In The Culture of Education. Harvard University Press.
Davidson, R., McEwen, B. (2012). Social influences on neuroplasticity: stress and interventions to promote well-being. Nature Neuroscience, (15), 689–695. https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.3093
Lillard, A. S. (2017). Montessori: The science behind the genius. Oxford University Press.