Turning it all around #1: Child-centredness

…the first of several short posts questioning supposedly universal truths in education but which are, as several other writers have discussed recently, nothing of the sort – simply acts of faith which have no more grounding than the alternative practices which they have been used to discredit. In at least some cases, it is not difficult to suspect they may even lead to poorer outcomes.

I am indebted to Quirky Teacher for a recent post about child-centeredness, which set a train of thought in motion. She suggested that child-centeredness has the unexpected outcome of stifling children’s development – by making children the centre of adults’ attention and descending to their level, we are depriving them of models of how adults think and behave, and thereby mature standards to aspire to.

And yet this has become so embedded in educational (and wider societal) consciousness that it is barely questioned these days. To fail to come down to the level of the child is supposedly to demonstrate one’s lack of empathy, and unsuitability for a role like teaching. To maintain some adult distance from the immature behaviours of children is to manifest one’s remoteness – and yet to treat them like proto-adults, who are capable of sensible consideration of thoughtful ideas without the need to dress material up as games, or to talk down to them,  is to expect too much.

We in the U.K. have a strangely ambivalent attitude towards children. On the one hand, we neglect them (see the UN report some years ago) while we are busy building our careers and social lives – and then we indulge and smother them to assuage our guilt. We have a romantic, backward-looking view of childhood that we expect children to fulfil, then we flip again, using them as the vicarious matter for our own competitive parenting – and for an encore we try to shield them from every conceivable contretemps in a way that more reflects our own paranoia than any accurate perception of either the real risks, or their ability to cope. Just look at the average school trip risk-assessment. And yet that indulgence is a means of avoiding having to treat young people in a more considered way, of ensuring they continue to dance to our tune.

This problem has big repercussions. If children are never led to understand that the world does not revolve around them, they risk never learning to cope with the demands made on them by the unsympathetic world at large. They may never develop an understanding of the need to modify their behaviours or defer their gratification when in situations where other people require consideration. They may never develop a measured understanding of respect or reasonable authority.

If adults immediately stop what they are doing and pay instant attention every time a child pipes up, the young will never understand that they need to wait their due turn– and if their every demand is instantly met, they will never realise the value of  longer time-frames – and the fact that one cannot normally have everything one wants in this world simply for the stamp of a foot.

The seems to me to be a very plausible reason why many otherwise normal children have difficulty operating in communal situations such as the classroom, why they frequently expect instant attention, and why they feel they can, for example, question instructions that they do not like. In many cases I encounter, there does not seem to be a wish to disobey; some of these children genuinely do not understand that they cannot have everything their own way. In the olden days, we called it ‘spoiled’. It also suggests why many of the same children have at best a tenuous work ethic, despite coming from comfortably-off working homes.

Yet the constant emphasis on overt ‘discipline’ in British schools and homes equally suggests a lack of confidence in young people’s ability to get things right – hardly surprising when they don’t often get the chance. There was dumbstruck silence in my current G.C.S.E. class when I asked them why they expected me to start from the assumption they were lazy, untrustworthy and disobedient, rather than the opposite.

The plague of child-centredness is just another manifestation of the hidden problem of ‘success’ – an increasingly self-indulgent complacency created within society, which breeds a culture of entitlement that significantly shifts the balance within a pupil’s relationship with his or her school and teachers. It seems to be seen most strongly in newly-affluent areas where entitlement is all and responsibility seemingly ignored.

Anecdote suggests a different approach is often taken on the continent. Children are neither idealised nor patronised. They seem less likely to be supervised every moment of the day (they do not even need to be in school all day in some countries). There are far fewer restaurants that offer kids’ menus (i.e. beans and chips) – and it is far more normal to see children eating ‘adult’ food, without the pickiness that many British children exhibit. They are expected – and trusted – to confirm to general expectations of table manners and so on. There are other similar signs of greater self-reliance in young people – but also a relationship with adults that seems simultaneously less formal and yet more respectful. I suppose it is simply part of the way people in general treat each other.

Poor parenting is an easy target for blame – but here I think it really does have a case to answer. It comes not from deprived areas from where we condescendingly expect no better – rather from those, often educated, who might indeed be expected to know better. But on second thoughts, when one remembers the media and commerce-induced phenomenon of kidult-hood  we might begin to see a repeating pattern. Childishness is the new adulthood, it seems. The children of such people will never have the opportunity to see how thoughtful, mature adults behave at home, either.

In this case, school needs to become even more the place where children are shown how to grow into adults, not how to remain children indefinitely.


11 thoughts on “Turning it all around #1: Child-centredness

  1. Thanks for the link! Sometimes I think children are actually being encouraged to be buffoons by this whole child-centred education and parenthood thing.

    Too much fawning. It’s got to stop. When are the sensible people going to take over? Can we just stop this madness please?

    • My pleasure – thanks for the prompt! That’s the point I didn’t squeeze in – such behaviours can become self-fulfilling prophesies.

      • All this also runs contrary to my own understanding of neurology: that human brains have high ‘plasticity’, with children having the highest. This means the ability to prune and lay down new neural connections on the massive circuit board that is the brain (this is not my field of expertise, ecology is). Adults have to guide the process, otherwise we wouldn’t have evolved with such a long physical childhood. It doesn’t happen by chance. I did not accidentally become a musician for example. Yet, all these teachers with child psychology degrees keep telling me that children’s development is entirely natural and happens through only playing with each other. Neurology says that if you are having ‘how to flick a bogey’ modelled to you, you will probably try flicking a bogey, and you will definitely not mysteriously learn how to write.

      • Thanks QT – that’s a powerful corollary to this… I feel a scarily audacious post building in me out of this – I wish I had time to be writing it!

      • Here’s another scary thought: could it be that, by diverting the attentions of our youngest generation with ‘play’ and personalised support, these young people will have no knowledge of the past, no context or culture and will also be highly vulnerable to suggestion. How perfect for some kind of control by a higher authority?
        Additionally, some of us adults (mainly women) have bought into the whole child-centred message through guilt, one-upmanship, matyrdom so that we too are diverted to attend to children with unrelenting, cult-like devotion.

        I wonder too how many marriages would survive if parents (and mothers in particular) weren’t exausted by society’s demands to always attend to children to the detriment of one’s own relationship, whilst also letting children have free play/run of the house to the detriment of their own maturity and of society in general.

        It’s like children have been co-opted to become some kind of societal nuclear weapon and we’ve been programmed like drones to operate it.

      • I think one of the things we are seeing in society more generally is a growing ‘cult of the self’. People are becoming more and more self-obsessed and less and less reliant interdependent – the atomisation of society. The cult of celebrity, instant fame, excess personal wealth, emphasis on individual lifestyle choices etc. is all part of this; I would argue that even the rise of the selfie reflects it. Not that individual freedom is inherently bad, but it can have bad effects depending on the choices people make.

        I can’t remember who I read recently, who was arguing that the rise of the self-obsessed society risks increased vulnerability to manipulation by vested interests as there is no outward-looking perspective either to see what is happening – or to know/appreciate the lessons of history.

        I also think this is worst in Anglo-centric cultures – as I mentioned previously, other European countries often have different psycho-social topography in ways that many in Britain remain in ignorance of. But to return to the start, maybe this is being reinforced by the increasingly ego-centric messages being pedalled in education and the fact that we don’t challenge self-obsession early enough.

        Oliver James had a lot to say on related topics in ‘Affluenza’.

  2. There is something very potent in the way you describe your observation of certain continental children – “simultaneously less formal yet more respectful”. This seeming contradiction would not compute for many people, but I get what you are driving at: There is something more naturally in tune in them with what is expected of young humans growing up. I think this goes hand in hand very well with my own recent concerns regarding personalisation.

    • I’ve watched it over a good number of years with the pupils (and their parents) in our partner school in Switzerland – and indeed the interaction between my own friends in Switzerland and Germany and their own children. It may not be universal – but it does exist.

  3. Interesting how those of us whose views seem to overlap here also seem to have other experiences in common… that makes at least three of us who are musicians. I’m increasingly of the view that playing music is a massively significant cognitive activity.

  4. Perhaps because, in learning to perform in an orchestra, we were forced to cooperate in a way that non-musicians would never understand. A musician must completely hone his attentions to the music, the conductor and those around him 100% without even glancing out the window at a random bird. It is a monk-like exercise in devotion and concentration.

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