He looked like the toddler offspring of Paul Simon and Crazy Frog: all exuberant curls and a rubber-band mouth stretched across his small face. It was at breaking point when I saw him, eyes clamped shut, Jagger lips flopped open in an unceasing howl. His tiny body, taut as a tug-of-war rope, pulled against his grandma’s hand.
My class, older by a few years moved into the classroom and settled into worksheets. The image of the tiny frog-face and its owner’s belly-roar of anguish distracted me from the grammar presentation.
What good is there in forcing a tiny, hysterical child into an ESL class, or any class? His brave, futile resistance was engendered by a dangerous notion: the tone-deaf, compassion-free insistence “education” was more important than his distress.
The little boy was experiencing education as an affront to his agency and personhood. He won’t understand those words for another decade or so but children, like all animals (human and otherwise) understand the difference between agency and imposition.
“So what?” you might ask. “Kids never want to go to school. You have to make them.”
If that is the case, instead of accepting it as a fact, we need to ask, why?
Children are curious to the point of being maddening, not to mention fearsome mimics. They will dog your steps demanding to know how things work, how to do things, imitating your words and actions until you’re half-afraid to move. They don’t hate learning. If they hate school it is a sign that education, as it is currently conceived, doesn’t serve them.
Coercion versus consent
Despite his protests, this little boy had “education” imposed on him by force majeure.
Nobody, but nobody, likes to be coerced. Not even if the activity is ultimately something they would have chosen any way. We adults hate being pressured, bullied and ordered around. Children are no different (if anything, I suspect, more sensitive to it, because they haven’t yet had their spirit deaden by years of “education”).
Coercion leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Activities that we might have sought out and enjoyed of our free will become tainted, unpalatable.
When education becomes an object of coercion, we create an ugly frequency that distorts the interaction of teachers and students; parents and children. Curiosity atrophies into suspicion as the act of learning is irredeemably conflated with authoritarianism — with long-term repercussions.
One of my close friends is an intelligent, organised, motivated, assured woman whose self-perception is that she is not a good student. Why? Because as a child and teenager, she was obliged to endure rote, deadening conventional education. Unable and unwilling to conform, she adopted the label they imposed: poor student.
As an adult, she went back to school and performed astonishingly well, earning high marks and taking on leadership roles. Now, she returns to her university every year to give a talk to incoming students.
Freedom to learn
Children, like adults, need to be active participants in their learning. The first duty of an educator is to inspire them with the possibilities and delights of learning, not drag them screaming into classrooms and force them to fill out worksheets.
Once learning has been established in kids’ minds as a positive, rewarding experience, in which they have agency and the freedom to express themselves, they will be willing and able to cope with the inevitable patches of boredom and incomprehension.
Seeking consent in education doesn’t mean we have to entertain children, or pander to their every whim, but it does mean giving them a fair say.