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Restructuring Education
so it works for kids & society
By Roland Meighan

Restructuring Education so it Works for Kids and SocietyOur education system is in disarray. Parents, teachers and pupils are in a state of confusion about the random changes that have been imposed on them over the years. Teachers are leaving in droves and in disgust. Most of our time, effort and money spent on educating the young is wasted by forcing them to learn things they do not want to know or need to know, in places they have not chosen to be, and in the unchosen company of fellow conscripts.

Bertrand Russell observed in 1935 that, “We are faced with the paradoxical fact that education has become one of the chief obstacles to intelligence and freedom of thought.” But he could easily have been writing today. In this situation there is an urgent need to try to establish some principles of reconstruction.

Principle One: Schooling and education are not the same thing.

We can go back to Winston Churchill’s advice to his Minister for Education, Mr. R.A. Butler in 1944: “Schools have not necessarily much to do with education...they are mainly institutions of control where certain basic habits must be inculcated in the young. Education is quite different and has little place in school.” The American writer Mark Twain agreed when he wrote, “I never allowed schooling to interfere with my education.”

Schools often claim to work with children. In truth, they end up working on children. Why are we so easily fooled? What deceives us is indicated by Everett Reimer who worked with Ivan Illich at the Center for Intercultural Studies in Mexico in the early 1970s. Reimer wrote that, “Some true educational experiences are bound to occur in schools: they occur despite school and not because of it.” In other words, there is some overlap of schooling with education in some situations. This is because lots of teachers try their best to rescue bits from the wreck of the mass, custodial school.

Schooling could become more educational but it needs a new fundamental vision. Until schooling becomes a voluntary part of a flexible education system for everyone, it is always only a bigot’s move away from totalitarianism at the best of times. As John Gatto has observed: “When you take the free will out of education, that turns it into schooling.”

Making learning an invitational activity, is not a romantic notion – after all, the public library system works on just such a principle. And there is nothing to say you can’t use encouragement, incentives and persuasion to support voluntary action.

“Most of our time, effort and money spent on educating the young is wasted by forcing them to learn things they do not want to know or need to know, in places they have not chosen to be, and in the unchosen company of fellow conscripts.”

Principle Two: What we want to see is the learner in pursuit of knowledge and not knowledge in pursuit of the learner.

This is a quotation from the Irish writer George Bernard Shaw. It identifies the basic flaw in official thinking about education as something to be done to learners rather than something the learners are encouraged and coached to do better for themselves. This is not a pious hope. This is exactly how parents assist their children in learning to talk and walk, and to begin to make sense of the world around them. Thus, the most successful piece of learning we can find operates on this principle. How stupid of us to forget it, ignore it or lose confidence in it.

Seymour Papert, in his book Mindstorms, Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas, sees computers as another reason why we should remember the success of early childhood learning:

“I believe that the computer presence will enable us to so modify the learning environment outside the classroom, that much, if not all of the knowledge schools presently try to teach with such pains and expense and such limited success will be learned, as the child learns to talk, painlessly, successfully and without organized instruction. This obviously implies that schools, as we know them today, will have no place in the future. But it is an open question whether they will adapt by transforming themselves into something new or wither away and be replaced.”

Principle Three: An iron-clad law of education is that rigid systems produce rigid people and flexible systems produce flexible people.

The key question as regards education is about the kind of people a society is trying to encourage and develop. This basic question is often ignored in favor of mere technical issues. Instead, we need to begin by asking, What are we educating for? What sort of people are we expecting to produce? What kind of society do we envisage?


In a complex and changing society, I propose that flexible people are necessary rather than rigid people. The day prison model of schooling and the uniform models of curriculum are not noted for their success in achieving this. They are most successful at producing the miserable rule-follower mentality. Instead, we need opportunities to change direction, to have second chances, to have diversity that allows real choice rather than pseudo choice, to have rest and reflection periods away from systematic study, in a more flexible system of learning opportunities. Real choice is a rarity. For example, those parents, teachers or pupils who can exercise choice through their purchasing power usually choose small, human scale units; the rest have largeness thrust upon them whatever their wishes.

Principle Four: An information-rich society allows a variety of learning locations.

Given an information-rich and media-rich society, the day prison model of schooling devised in an earlier phase of our history is now educationally defunct because knowledge is now widely available and not limited to the one place called a school, as once was the case. The Custodial School may be thought to be socially functional by providing a mass child-minding and teenager-control service at public expense. But in reality, it just provides a site for the operation of the tyranny of the peer group and the induction into drink, drugs, bullying, and pressure to spend on fashion goods.

“Nobody grew taller by being measured.”

Teachers do not need much reflective training to perform the function of custody. Hence government’s main policy of producing teachers, which is to more or less do away with reflection and replace it with mechanistic training. John Holt made the point rather bluntly when he said that schools can be in the jail business or the education business, and the extent they are in the one eradicates the possibility of being in the other.

There does not have to be a single location for learning. There can be a variety of locations, including homes, workplaces, museums, libraries and schools. Resources available at home can be increasingly utilized in educational programs including television, radio, video recorders, CD players, computers, interactive video, special interest magazines, newspapers, and books. There is also the know-how and experience of adults with time to spare as the demands of our working lives change and shorten. (About half the adult population is now unemployed because of retirement or the collapse of work, or child-care duties.) At the university level, the example and experience of the Open University has made this idea of variety in learning locations and resources commonplace.

Principle Five: With information doubling in quantity about every ten years we need a different kind of learning.

As regards knowledge, we need to avoid approaches that imply that everyone needs to know the same bank of information or that learners of the same age need to know identical things. Subjects, the staple diet of schools, are only a minor part of the tool kit of knowledge and declining in importance, and in any case, learning the tool kit does not constitute an education. We do, however, need another kind of knowledge to be effective in the modern world – to know how to find out, to learn, relearn, and unlearn, and how to manage our own learning. In other words to become competent, capable, and confident researchers.

The concept of teacher as walking encyclopedia of one or more subjects is now obsolete. As psychologist Carl Rogers suggested, “When we put together in one scheme such elements as a prescribed curriculum, similar assignments for all students, lecturing as almost the only mode of instruction, standard texts by which all students are externally evaluated and instructor-chosen grades as the measure of learning, then we can almost guarantee that meaningful learning will be at an absolute minimum.”

Principle Six: The Custodial School model needs to be replaced by the Invitational Learning Center model.

At the Human Scale Education conference in London on education and the environment, Joanna Macy explained that in 1993, California crossed a watershed. For the first time, the state spent more money on locking up young people than on the education budget. In addition, schools were now in the process of “reform” to become more like day prisons than ever before.

“Various critics of the current model of schooling, me included, hold the view that we can regenerate schools, especially if we redefine them and retitle them as all-age community learning centers, so that they cease to be anti-educational and ageist.”

Chris Shute notes in his book Compulsory Schooling Disease that whatever their intentions and claims, schools end up training most young people to be habitually subservient. And there are seductive arguments for keeping children under a sole regime of authoritarian control. It makes them easier to handle and it pleases their parents – whilst society in general feels comfortable, for it appears to make the whole task of taking responsibility for children safer and more predictable. The democratic and autonomous forms of discipline are more demanding to work with and they are often outside the experience of the teachers and other adults, in any case. The process looks satisfactory in the short term but the long term outcomes are often a disaster, as it produces large cohorts of subservient and inflexible young people and smaller groups of alienated, philistine, or aggressive young people.

Various critics of the current model of schooling, me included, hold the view that we can regenerate schools, especially if we redefine them and retitle them as all-age community learning centers, so that they cease to be anti-educational and ageist. Our model is not that of the factory or the day prison, but that of the public library or the user-friendly type of museum. Doing away with compulsion, schools – perhaps renamed Learning Resources Centers – will be used as places where anyone, of any age, who happened to need help with their learning at any time in their lives could go to receive it. The curriculum will be a personalized one and not a standardized one. This is the vision of the next learning system and I propose that the longer we delay in establishing it, the worse for all of us.

Principle Seven: How you learn is as important, if not more important, than what you learn.

As an example, let us take literacy. It is assumed that literacy is automatically a good thing. But learning literacy in a bully institution makes you a literate bully. Richard J. Prystowsky, in [the now defunct] Paths of Learning magazine, Autumn 1999, reminds us that at the Wannsee conference, January 20th 1942, high-ranking Nazis met to plan the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”, that is, for the destruction of European Jewry. Over half of the conference participants had PhDs – a cohort of highly literate bullies.

When someone proposes that literacy is the aim of the learning system, we need to ask, “what kind of literacy?” Are we to produce literate fascists or literate totalitarians? Do we want literate democrats or a literate minority composed of the greedy and super greedy? If we want literate male chauvinists, we need single sex institutions.

If some of the highly literate are responsible for many of the major problems that now face the world, perhaps we need less education and more wisdom. We are producing the wrong kind of person! If we want to produce people with democratic habits, discipline, and understanding, or self-directing and self-managing people, then we will need to adopt a learning system that will do this.

Principle Eight: The modern world requires behavior flexibility and competence in all the three forms of discipline: authoritarian, autonomous, and democratic.

Schools work almost exclusively to an authoritarian model of behavior. Being comfortable with the logistics of authoritarian behavior is necessary because there are situations in which this is the relevant pattern, so the authoritarian form of discipline has a modest part to play in the scheme of things, but only a modest part. Other types of discipline are in play at other times. Autonomous behavior and discipline are more appropriate much of the time. Indeed, we live in a world that increasingly expects people to manage their own lives in an autonomous way. In other situations, co-operative or democratic patterns of behavior and discipline are appropriate. Until schools become more flexible in providing the variety of behavior patterns necessary, they are doing their pupils a disservice.

The absence of democratic experience is a serious weakness of the majority of present-day schools. Far more than at present, schools, homes, and the community should be enabling pupils/students to learn the democratic arts of co-operatively planning, doing, and reviewing all aspects of their education. This implies that they should learn to speak their minds responsibly, but nonetheless fearlessly, and listen attentively to others. These skills are not merely optional or desirable, but absolutely essential to the education of people who are to be engaged citizens and creative members of a participant workforce, both now and in the future.

This participation cannot happen successfully unless members of the next generation, from their earliest years, become accustomed to it, and acquire by experience the inner strength which can empower them to negotiate responsibly and, ultimately, on equal terms with adults and fellow students, with the assurance that their voices will be heard. Learners need real, honest respect. It is not enough to talk in abstract terms about how we value the individuality of our young people, if we only show our esteem in token ways, such as letting them have a school council, but only letting it discuss non-controversial subjects. This breeds cynicism and alienation in many young people. Participation must be real and involve the actual experience of sharing power and responsibility for decision-making, otherwise it will be rejected as mere adult manipulation.

Principle Nine: Uniform approaches to all are intellectual death to some.

Next, given the fact that we are able to locate over 30 differences in individual learning styles, any uniform approach to the curriculum or to learning is intellectual death to some, and often most, of the learners and is therefore suspect. These learning differences fall into three broad categories: cognitive, affective, and physiological.

“Learning literacy in a bully institution makes you a literate bully.”

For example, some learners have a style that is typically deductive, in contrast to those whose style is usually inductive. Others learn best from material which is predominantly visual as against others who respond best to auditory experiences. There are contrasts between impulsive learners and reflective learners. Some learn better with some background noise, others learn better in conditions of quiet. Some are early-day learners for their peak learning time is in the morning, whereas others are afternoon learners and still others late-day learners.

In The Age of Unreason, Charles Handy notes that another way in which individuals differ is in types of intelligence. He says that seven types of intelligence (analytical, pattern, musical, physical, practical, intra-personal, and inter-personal) are identifiable. He notes, “All the seven intelligences, and there may be more, will be needed even more in the portfolio world towards which we are inching our way. It is crazy, therefore, to use only the first of the intelligences as the criterion for further investment in any individual by society.”

Principle Ten: Deep learning is needed more than shallow learning.

Ference Marton, of Gothenberg University, established a crucial difference between shallow learning and deep learning. In the former, learners learned a wide range of facts and attitudes without any effective conceptual map as to how they were related. Their knowledge was fragmented and shallow because they had no understanding of the deeper level principles that underpinned their studies. Schools are better at shallow learning than deep learning because of the limited range and inflexibility of their curriculum, teaching methods, and assessment approaches. (This is only the start of the analysis of learning: Robert Gagne in the classic book The Conditions of Learning identifies eight varieties of learning with the conditions for effectiveness varying in each case.) One consequence of this kind of analysis is that we are probably wasting our time and money training many more subject teachers. Not only do they teach the least effective kind of learning for the modern world, but all they know can now easily be made available through a variety of interesting resources. The teacher as a subject “living database” is now becoming obsolete.

Principle Eleven: Effective teaching requires much more than being an instructor: Welcome the “learning coach.”

John Holt proposes that what we can learn best from good teachers is how to teach ourselves better. The roles of teachers need to be extended, the most important role being that of learning coach – supporting learners as they develop the complex skills of learner-managed learning.

But in a situation of an information-rich society, teachers, even when extensively trained, educated, and provided with adequate in-service updates, are only a part of the resource team needed for a flexible education system. The experience of home-based educators has clearly demonstrated this point.

Principle Twelve: Nobody grew taller by being measured.

Philip Gammage made this observation and went on to argue further that imposed testing stultifies. Some people respect tests because they seem to be scientific and seem to be fair. Unfortunately for everybody, these tests do not work. Teachers start to teach to the test and soon very little gets learned apart from the test content. Students forget most of it after the test and gradually lose any desire to learn.

“Test-driven education fails on many grounds. One-size-fits-all standardized exams assume that every child learns in the same way at the same time. But young people have all kinds of minds. Some excel at academic work. Some have vocational or artistic talents that tests do not measure.”

Test-driven education fails on many grounds. One-size-fits-all standardized exams assume that every child learns in the same way at the same time. But young people have all kinds of minds. Some excel at academic work. Some have vocational or artistic talents that tests do not measure.

Next, the companies that set and mark the tests cannot guarantee accuracy. Major errors have been reported. The test items themselves can often be false, telling you more about the limited understandings of the test writers than any real knowledge.

Author Alfie Kohn, on his personal website writes,

“A plague has been sweeping through American schools wiping out the most innovative instruction and beating down some of the best teachers and administrators. Ironically, that plague has been unleashed in the name of improving schools. Invoking such terms as ‘tougher standards’, ‘accountability’ and ‘raising the bar’, people with little understanding of how children learn have imposed a heavy-handed, top-down, test-driven version of school reform that is lowering the quality of education in this country.

“It has taken some educators and parents a while to realize that the rhetoric of ‘standards’ is turning schools into giant test-prep centers, effectively closing off intellectual inquiry and undermining enthusiasm for learning (and teaching). It is taking even longer to realize that this is not a fact of life, like the weather – that is, a reality to be coped with – but rather a political movement that must be opposed.”

Principle Thirteen: We need to identify humanity’s greatest mistakes and admit that Adult Chauvinism is suspect.

We should start being brave and face up to the fact that adult chauvinism has a poor record. Adults in power have, amongst other things,
(i) allowed policies for short-term profit that have resulted in polluted beaches, seas, rivers, water supplies, farm land and atmosphere, in the name of the gods of competition, the market and greed, and resulting in the self-indulgence of the few at the expense of the many, and creating a society where the rich are at war with the poor,
(ii) helped develop enough destructive capability to kill us all several times,
(iii) sold arms to autocratic regimes and then had to go to war with them to limit their activity,
(iv) often proved incapable of organizing their own personal lives to any effective model,
(v) glorified competition rather than co-operation, and then wondered why this mind-set leads inevitably to wars,
(vi) sought revenge before truth and reconciliation.

With such a record, the adults in power are not in a strong position to think they are fit, morally or intellectually, to hijack the learning of the young by imposing upon them a curriculum based on their assorted hang-ups.

Principle Fourteen: Education is an octopus and not a snake.

Many discussions about education follow this kind of pattern:

“What we need to do in education is to...create small groups so that learners can work closely with a teacher and learn more effectively.”

“Yes, yes, that will sort things out.”

Education is a snake, you see, and now we have felt along it, we have discovered its true nature. But somebody notices a branch at the end of the snake.

“But what should they be learning?”

Yes, the curriculum needs to be considered too. There is another branch.

“What method of teaching should the teachers in the small groups use?”

Yes, yes, teaching methods are important too. There is a third branch in the snake.

“Where is the best place to learn?”

Perhaps it is a knot of snakes and not one snake at all. Somebody feels another branch in the snake.

“How can we best motivate the learners to learn?”

No, it is not a knot of snakes for all these branches are joined up. It is an octopus! We have to face up to the fact that education is a complex problem and not a simple problem at all, however inconvenient this may be.

By way of conclusion, I will pose a question. How do you know when someone is educated in our complex and changing society? One indication is that they can fill the gaps. All programs of study leave people with huge gaps in their knowledge. Those who have learned how to be taught must wait on someone else to motivate them and direct their next learning. Those who have learned how to learn, how to research, can go on to fill the gaps at will. They are competent, capable and habitual researchers. And that should be the goal of education.

Roland Meighan, who died in January of 2014, was an “educational heretic” who believes that mass compulsory schooling is an obsolete, counterproductive learning system which abuses human rights and should be phased out as soon as possible. Dr. Meighan believed that schools should be recycled as part of a flexible learning system that is invitational and learner-directed. Author of ten books, he was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Director of Educational Heretics Press, Director/Trustee of the Centre for Personalised Education Trust Ltd., and formerly Special Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham, UK.

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