Words and actions
When I was asked to speak at a conference for English and drama teachers entitled 'The child at the centre of learning,' I struggled--not least because the more I thought about the phrase, the more I realised that I needed to think about what it actually meant.
'The child at the centre of learning'. The idea seemed somehow liberating and hopeful. An image of learning came to me: a big swimming pool, the child in the middle, free to learn by moving in whichever direction and at whatever speed they wish. The child is in control, swimming purposefully up and down, or round and round, or just splashing about having fun. Sounds great. But who put the pool there and why? Are there any filters in place to stop undesirable things polluting the water? What happens if a child doesn't swim but starts to sink? Who's there to dive in and help them out? What about the children who choose to hold the heads of others under the water? Hmm. Perhaps the metaphor wasn't such a good one and a more semantic approach was needed.
'The child at the centre of learning'. Not 'children', but 'the child'. The use of the singular noun appears to stress the importance of recognising children as individuals, each with their own strengths and needs, and each with a potential future that may only be fulfilled through learning that is designed to complement that individuality. The zeitgeist is that 'every child matters', not 'all children matter', but 'every child matters'. Certainly, to suggest that not all children matter or that some matter more than others seems heretical; but is that what all who are concerned with the education of children really believe? To what extent do such values and beliefs hold fast in extreme cases?
Accentuating the primacy of the individual was of course the Thatcherite credo of twenty years ago. However, even before she issued her now famous edict that there is no such thing as society but only individuals, David Hargreaves had coined the term 'the fallacy of individualism' to describe the belief that 'if only schools can successfully educate every individual pupil in self-confidence, independence and autonomy, then society can with confidence be left to take care of itself.' (Hargreaves 1982 p 93) Can it? Some would say that the Thatcherite condonation of individualism was responsible for the rise in the 1980s of a 'looking after number one, dog eat dog culture' and its dire social consequences. While the expression of the individual may sometimes suit those in power, the backlash comes when those empowered to use their self-confidence, independence and autonomy do so in ways that overtly challenge those who licensed such empowerment. (Paradoxically, the imposition of a tax on the individual by the Thatcher government led to thousands of individuals refusing to pay and the worst riots for a century.)
An alternative interpretation of the use of the singular noun would be that there exists a coherent, unified vision of what 'the child' is. Centring education on the needs of its collective recipients certainly sounds more comfortably egalitarian than using the education system to mould children into shape according to the will and desire of those already in possession of knowledge and power. Such an interpretation, though, is contingent upon believing that there is an essential, universal model of 'the child' which transcends social and historical contexts.
Maybe the swimming pool metaphor can work in a different way, with 'the child at the centre of our learning' suggesting that the child should be at the centre of our learning. So there they are, in the pool, and there we are on the side--educationalists, carers and policy makers--watching, listening, critically evaluating. As a result of what we learn perhaps the pool is redesigned, some extra filters are put in and a few more (or fewer) lifeguards are employed. Why? Well, so the kids in the pool get more out of the experience according to the criteria we have formulated by watching them and drawing on our own experiences. …