Continuing our theme of An Unexpected Visitor, Karen Richards reviews the book Changing our Minds, by Naomi Fisher.
My unexpected guest is a book; a very unexpected one!
When we review a book on Dew on the Grass, at its heart there is usually a spiritual teaching. Although this book is scientific ( in that it looks at the psychology of learning) and secular (in the sense that there is no mention of the religious life, in the conventional sense) it has turned around a fixed view of mine, facilitating a change of heart as well as a change of mind.
Two months ago, my eldest daughter decided to de-register her youngest child from school. My granddaughter has always found the environment of school challenging, despite achieving well academically. Likewise, my youngest daughter also made the decision to withdraw her son from state education, for similar reasons. Both children appeared quite traumatised by the system. Home education eventually became inevitable.
As a retired teacher, who taught in the state system, in some capacity or other, for over thirty years, I was eager to help, especially as both daughters have to work. But educating at home is not the same as educating in school, which I soon found out. Sitting at a desk, trying to follow a lesson and complete written tasks, for large parts of the day, is a challenge, even for the most compliant and engaged child but, as a classroom teacher, I had taken it for granted that the learning environment that I had created in my classroom, was the best that was possible for the young people in front of me.
Enter Changing Our Minds, by Naomi Fisher. Fisher is a clinical psychologist who specialises in autism and also works with children who have suffered trauma. She also home-educated her own children. Along with others, she has completed extensive research into how children learn and she makes a very compelling argument that for many, school is not ‘IT’.
In her opening chapter, she writes:
Most of us cannot imagine how a child can become educated if they don’t go to school, we don’t really consider the alternatives. We try different schools or more support at school. We take the child to be assessed for disorders and pay for therapists, all in the hope that we can get the help they need to get them through school. Leaving the school system altogether is usually portrayed as a disaster, it’s called ‘dropping out’ and nothing good comes of that.
Fisher then goes on to explain, in clinical detail, how school can create trauma for the child who does not fit the mould; for whom the social model of school, which is a top-down, ‘you must learn this’ one, can actually stultify learning and leave the student demotivated and disengaged. She argues for a more self-directed, autonomous design of education, either in a *Free school or in the home, where children can learn in their own way, at their own pace, following their own interests, if not passions.
267 pages later and I get it. I reflect upon my teaching career and remember those young people for whom school was not the right way for them but was actually a source of great trauma and suffering. Of course, not every parent has the wherewithal to home-educate, or to pay someone else to do this for them. It is important not to swing into setting up an ideal, which cannot be obtained. For many, school is the best fit, for others, it is the only option.
But I have found it useful, not only to reflect upon my own professional practice but on how we can get stuck in ways of thinking about all sorts of things, without questioning or reviewing from time to time, by asking two important questions. “Is this really the best that I can do?” and if not, “What needs to change?”
*A Free School is a democratically run school where the students have a high degree of autonomy and self-direction in their own learning, such as the Sudbury School https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sudbury_school
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