Keeping the child where he belongs – at the centre of learning

Learning as a shared experience

Learning as a shared experience

“The word “education” comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I
lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what
is already there in the pupil’s soul.”

Muriel Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

In his book “Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education” published in 1916, the American philosopher and educator John Dewey espoused the theory that with every child being an individual, it was likely that they would not all learn in the same way or at the same pace. For this reason he proposed that we should put the individuality of the child at the centre of what we did as teachers. Others whose theories came largely after those of Dewey, such as the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky and the Italian teacher Maria Montessori developed these ideas further until we came to a compendium of approaches which together are often described as “Child Centred Learning.”

The idea of “child centred learning” gained considerable currency throughout the latter half of the twentieth century and was in part responsible for teachers’ increased awareness that some children found learning much more difficult than others. Because our philosophy was one of considering the child as the most important part of the education equation, many of us felt the need to concentrate our efforts to ensure that these individual needs were addressed. With this came a growth in special education provision and in more recent years some of those who pioneered this approach have been at the forefront of movements towards increased inclusion.

Over the last few years this notion of “child centred learning” has come under attack from many quarters. There has been a concerted effort from some politicians, members of the media and a number of teachers who have expressed the view, that being “child centred” has led teachers to ignore the importance of imparting knowledge and instilling those principles of discipline so essential to an orderly society. Many, including government ministers, have put forward the view that teaching needs to return to a much more formal approach, in which the teacher is a figure of authority imparting knowledge to children who learn by rote and are thus enabled to regurgitate facts and figures. “Child centred learning”, they suggest has encouraged children to become disorganised in their learning, and has been promulgated by a generation of teachers with laissez faire attitudes and low expectations of attainment. One example of this view was that expressed by a journalist in a popular English newspaper, who is now a director at a school where he has avowed to stop the focus upon play in the nursery department and replace this with a more structured provision of a knowledge based curriculum.

The call for a return to much more formal education, where children are crammed with knowledge will undoubtedly find favour with many, including those parents who believe that we could return to a mythical golden age of education. However, this attack on child centred approaches leads me to question the level of understanding that exists in respect of this term. Those who have advocated “child centred teaching” (and I would place myself firmly in this camp) have long suggested that the purpose of education is to enable children to develop as individuals, and to find their own enthusiasms through which they can work towards achieving excellence. It has never been denied that all children should learn the fundamentals of their native language or of mathematics, neither has it been suggested that children should not acquire skills and knowledge through the sciences, humanities or arts. What has become clear to those of us who have worked in schools for many years is that not all children learn in the same way and that if we simply adopt one method there will be many children left behind.

Understanding the child as an individual is the key to fostering those kinds of relationships that encourage learning. Furthermore, this level of understanding enables the teacher to appreciate what motivates the learner and to evaluate the progress that they make. Putting the child at the centre of this process seems to me to be fundamental to providing them with learning experiences that they will understand and enjoy. Of course, if the child is not at the centre of learning this presumably means that they are pushed towards the periphery. What then replaces the child at the centre? I suppose it could be the teacher who is enabled to teach in one style in the hope that those pupils who are furthest out on the edge may somehow engage with the lesson. Or maybe that the centre will be occupied by a political doctrine that ensures that all those children who are able gain a prescribed knowledge whilst those who struggle are allowed to fail.

If I am guilty of the crime of being child centred, then I know that I am in good company, with many tens of thousands of teachers who still believe that learning should focus upon the needs of the individual and not be driven by doctrine. Sadly, at present it feels as if we may be losing a battle.


6 thoughts on “Keeping the child where he belongs – at the centre of learning

  1. Carla Rinaldi in Reggio Emilia speaks of the de-centred child. An interesting notion where teaching and learning apply to the child and all around her, including the community. A bit Bronfenbrenner-ish, but with a twist. Worth a look for those of us, like you Richard, who want education to serve and provide the best for kids and families. Yet another great post, mate. Keep up the bloggin’

    • Hi Tim, The work at Reggio Emilia has always been an example to those of us concerned to keep the focus upon children’s needs, rather than political dogma. The term de-centred child is interesting and one which should cause us some alarm. There is an ever increasing need to engage people in dialogue about this issue, and such a discussion needs to engage not only professionals, but also parents and politicians. As ever you give me much food for thought.

  2. If the child is truly at the centre, differentiated creative lesson plans and other ideas will be a natural and meaningful response rather than these practices being adopted in isolation just because it is the latest “fad” in other countries.

    • Hi Shuba. This is an important point, and I have a sense of what you are saying in the context of your own teaching situation. A natural and meaningful response is certainly what we require. We need to learn from caring mothers who never consider placing the child anywhere other than at the centre of their attention and always see them as an individual whose needs are different from those of other children. Thank you for your reply.

  3. In a week that has seen the murder of Anne McGuire and the tributes of her believing in each child even when they didn’t believe in themselves your comments about chid centred education are very timely.
    I fear a return to Dicken’s Gradgrind approach to ‘filling little vessels’ or the banker approach as described by Freire. When teaching at an international school one of the pupils who I did not teach was amazed that I knew her name. When we talked about it she explained that in her previous school in the Ukraine she was used to even the Head Teacher calling out,’You there blonde girl’ whereby half a dozen girls would turn around.
    Perhaps our best argument against the focus on rote learning comes from the recognition of the knowledge explosion whereby it is our ability to adapt and learn that is key to success. Even 10 years ago did you foretell that the phone in your pocket would be more powerful than the computer which sat on your desk at that time, be capable of taking high quality photographs which you could share with a range of people within seconds of taking who could be anywhere in the world?
    Knowledge has a sell by date whereas the ability to learn is a skill for life.
    It is surprising that the politicians with views based in their own ego-centric perspective tend to be the loudest advocates of whole class didactic teaching.

  4. Hi Carmel,
    The idea that “knowledge has a sell by date whereas the ability to learn is a skill for life”, is interesting. I don’t think that any of us in education have ever suggested that knowledge is anything less than important, however, simply being able to recite facts does not make an individual an “educated” person. As you rightly state, that is much more to do with having the ability to utilise the skills of learning.

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