Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Pikler Revolution

This post begins a three-part article based on a piece I wrote for Imminent Rebellion, a New Zealand anarchist journal, which looks at the relationship between anarchism and education – specifically early childhood education and the philosophies of Emmi Pikler. Enjoy!

(References were unfortunately lost in the formatting, just trust me...)

When New Zealand anarchist periodical The State Adversary published Billie Clayton's “Are Anarchists anti-children?” in the mid-90's, it dragged the issue of anarchism's disdain for parenthood briefly into the sunlight. Children sucked up energy, resources, ruined meetings and just generally interfered with the activist-centric anarchism predominant then. Times have thankfully changed, the 'scene' has aged, matured even, and has no desire to exclude it's children. Children are at the core of my anarchism and are the subject of much conversation and activity. What follows grew from one such conversation about early childhood education...

My sister expressed frustration over her daughters unhappiness at her Rudolf Steiner early childhood centre. R--- was bored, did not engage with the activities and was unable to run about as much as she wanted and needed: when she got home each day it was like she had just woken up, it was just 'go go go'. My sister and her partner had chosen Steiner because it was supposed to be an alternative to mainstream education as dictated by government with its focus on a check list of skills that qualify as 'success'. Fair enough; state control of learning - rebranded for the market as 'education' - has created the modern slave-state:

"Education, with it's supporting system of compulsory and competitive schooling, all its carrots and sticks, its grades, diplomas, and credentials, now seems to me perhaps the most authoritarian and dangerous of all the social inventions of mankind." (John Holt).
Here, Holt offers a definition of education that strips away the feel-good rhetoric of opportunity: education is something that some people do to others for their own good, moulding and shaping them, and trying to make them learn what they think they ought to know.
Education has nothing to do with learning. Schooling as we know it today has its roots in early 1800's Prussia and the philosopher Fichte who envisioned creating an artificial national consensus on matters of national importance: obedient workers with a sense of national identity that willingly became cannon fodder when required. School sorts people into winners and losers, perpetuates an elite group to run the world and maintains an under-class to do the shitwork. Yet in the classic liberal double-speak, universities lecture on radical democracy, justice, equality and excellence. 'Education' as a label is currently out of favour, rather we focus on its Latin origin 'educare' with its notions of respectful reciprocal relationships as our mission... while perpetuating a system of controlled failure.

The one message we will never hear? Education cannot be reformed, carried out wisely or humanely. We need to stop kidding ourselves: it just needs to go. A fundamental right of an individual is to control our own minds and thoughts. Educators attack this right and dictate what you will say, hear, read, write, think and dream about...

Early childhood education (ECE) was largely invisible for most of its history – it was women's work born out of philanthropy and the plight of deserted children. Froebel, inventor of the Kindergarten model we all know so well, did not envision a playful 'garden for children', but rather a metaphor of teachers as gardeners and children as the vegetables. Kindergartens broke the influence of mothers over their children.

ECE was finally discovered by neoliberalism in the 1980's and pulled into the education sphere as government recognised the potential of schools and early childhood curricula as an instrument for producing citizens suited to the demands of a globalised economy which needed multi-skilled, flexible workers; 'life-long learners' who were strongly rooted into the national community, but global in their thinking. Earlier welfare state perspectives emphasised educational ideals such as equality of opportunity, child-centred learning and psychological well-being. Now the focus shifted – it was to become meaner and leaner and more effective in producing narrowly defined goals that centred around the notion of economic potential.

'Life long learning' is an essential strategy to counter the problems of an ageing and inflexible workforce – quality early childhood education improves educational outcomes and provides childcare that enables mothers to up-skill or enter the workforce. Thus the increased focus on early childhood education and the commissioning of a unifying curriculum to enforce these goals. Te Whāriki, the national curriculum for early childhood education, came into being in the 1980's as “part of an international trend to strengthen connections between the economic success of a nation and education.”

Aotearoa finds itself in a unique and, from an anarchist perspective, rather unusual position when it comes to seeking out radical alternatives. While early childhood education is not legally compulsory there is essentially an artificial compulsion: for reasons of education, socialisation, or economic needs, the reality is that for most parent(s) some form of childcare is desired and/or required. As all early childhood centres must legally follow Te Whāriki, you could understandably assume that any educational 'alternatives' would only be tokenistic. Yet the structure of this document allows for considerable pedagogical movement and in fact offers opportunities for those who seek to create a true alternative to education as we know it. Te Whāriki recognises that learning is a social process that occurs through reciprocal and responsive relationships. Pedagogically it draws upon many sources, but primarily Te Ao Māori, developmentalism, and constructivism, particularly Vygotsky's socio-cultural theories of learning and development.

Te Whāriki is a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, framework for curriculum building that is guided by philosophical principles that allow for the reflection of local community contexts. It does not tell you what or how to teach. This ability for personal interpretation and construction of curriculum is a powerful tool for educators, but is a double-edged sword as it places the onus on personal discourses held by educators.# That this 'openness' is misinterpreted by many teachers and education centres is widely acknowledged and it is evident that there is a 'default' pedagogical position. This position reflects the myriad of discourses teachers are exposed to: developmentalism with its 'hands off' free-play philosophy, or more contemporary ideas inspired by science and neoliberalism that place teachers firmly in control of children's activity and learning. The result? A huge variety in centre philosophy: the image of the child, how they best learn, their approach to diversity, the role of the teacher etc.
As anarchists, when we think of alternative options to a mainstream early childhood centre, at first glance it would seem that we are limited to Playcentre's or for-profit centres that follow either the Steiner or Montessori philosophies, but this is not so. A closer look at the more traditional 'alternatives' shows that these centres are more authoritarian than state-run Kindergartens or other private mainstream centres. Steiner and Montessori are shrouded in liberal notions of a gentle holistic learning with an emphasis on art and nature, yet both adhere to these curriculum 'extras' in a manner that is tightly controlled by the teacher – freedom to learn through ones own interests and motivation is thus constrained for the good of the chosen philosophy.

So what are we actually looking for that is 'alternative'?
Aaron Falbel writes:

"Learning is like breathing. It is a natural, human activity: it is part of being alive. A person who is active, curious, who explores the world using all his or her senses, who meets life with energy and enthusiasm – as all children do – is learning. Our ability to learn, like our ability to breathe, does not need to be improved or tampered with."

You cannot make a person learn something they do not want to. Self-initiated, directed and controlled activity that reflects ones context builds habits of learning. Falbel further asserts that teachers, despite their well-meaning, attack the process of learning through interfering, manipulating and controlling children: “empty actions done under the pressure of bribe and threat, greed and fear.” This position is evident to a degree in most early childhood centres.

Yet, as an anarchist, I have no problem in believing that we will probably always have centres and schools because it makes sense to have places where we can get together to share knowledge and resources. It's what goes on there that is critical. Many cultures have no word for 'teacher' or the concept of teaching as we know it. Māori refer to 'ako' to describes a relationship of mutual learning that occurs between a novice and an expert. It is a phrase which is becoming increasing popular with educators in Aotearoa.

The arguments for learning that is initiated and controlled by the player cannot be refuted. We grasp, roll, crawl, walk and talk with 'motivation' essentially our only teacher. Traditionally, New Zealand has favoured a free-play approach to learning, a position that drew upon Piaget's 'ages and stages' theories of a naturally occurring, lineal process of development which sees children left alone to learn through their play. This discourse of learning through free-play remains powerful today despite been challenged by Te Whariki and social constructivism.

Theoretical knowledge around learning and development have developed significantly for the better, but there remains plenty of room for critique. Social-constructivism sees cognitive development begin as social rather than individual activities and as children develop, they gradually internalize the processes they use in social contexts and begin to use them independently. Critically, for both teachers and the whole rationale of early childhood centres, children can perform more challenging tasks when assisted by more advanced and competent individuals through both informal and formal interactions. In language, mathematics, music, science... the benefits of working, playing and learning alongside a more knowledgeable peer are obvious. Considering that 90% of the world's people live in collective social environments as opposed to Western individualist ones, this shift in theory is long overdue.

Yet, we might ask, are children not capable of determining what knowledge they seek and how to attain it? Though well intentioned, teachers are guided by curriculum – a framework that is constructed with specific outcomes in mind. Stepping back from instructional teaching to co-construction through respectful reciprocal relationships is awesome, but an agenda still exists in the work/play of the teacher. Is this what the child really wants? Or rather is it what we think they should be learning and assume they are unable to achieve this without our help?

To be continued....

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