Objectifying education sabotages learning

Sarah Fitz-Claridge

From the archives: First published in Taking Children Seriously 23, 1997

Parents taking their children seriously want to help their children to discover what interests them and to pursue those passions. They want their children to retain the love of learning and the flame of creativity that is almost universal in young children and almost universally extinct in conventionally educated adults. They want their children to be free from the constraints of externally-imposed curricula and the stultifying educational hoops that children are required to jump through in school. They want to give their children full access to the world, and would not dream of restricting their access to television or any other source of knowledge. In these and many other ways, non-coercive education does not look like conventional education.

This can raise a problem for some parents when, for legal or social reasons, they are obliged to satisfy other people that they are providing a proper education for their children. Under the pressure of such situations, parents may lose sight of their non-coercive philosophy and slide into a damaging ‘homeschooling’ mentality. 

They might find themselves thinking about what the children’s peers are learning in school, or wondering what conventional wisdom says children ‘should’ know, or what skills they ‘are expected’ to have, by such-and-such an age. They might worry that people will judge their children’s education ‘unbalanced’ or to have significant ‘gaps’. Assuming that they resist the temptation to pressure their children into ‘filling’ such gaps and distort their education to make it “look” better to the conventionally-minded outside world, parents may nevertheless find themselves taking defensive measures such as keeping a diary of ‘educational’ activities their children engage in, or making a note of ‘key skills’ that their children appear to have acquired, or accumulating a portfolio of their children’s work. 

The children’s education is then objectified. That is to say, it becomes an object in its own right, under scrutiny.

On the face of it, there is nothing coercive in that: the children are as free as ever to pursue their interests, and the parents are just as determined as ever to avoid the pitfalls of a conventional education. Perhaps some parents can indeed prevent this monitoring from doing any harm. They are able to avoid their own objectification of the education becoming entangled with the way the children think about themselves. However, once the education has become objectified, there is at least a tendency for the non-coercive approach to be undermined and for the children’s learning to be progressively distorted and damaged. I want to explain some of the dangers here.

But for external pressure, why would non-coercive parents ever want to know about things like school curricula? There could be innocuous reasons; but if the reason is to find out what their own children would be studying if they were being coercively educated, what exactly do the parents intend to do with that knowledge? If they have no intention of manipulating the children into ‘filling in the gaps’, why do they want to know about the school curriculum? Parents who sincerely do not want to harm their children’s autonomy may nevertheless end up doing so inadvertently because of their fear of being judged inadequate as parents or educators. Familiarising oneself with the school curriculum is likely, for many parents, to lead directly to such a conflict. 

What if parents read up on the school curriculum just to get ideas for what their children might become interested in? Again, there’s nothing wrong with that, in itself. Part of a parent’s job is to provide a stream of such ideas. On the other hand, how likely is it that children will just happen to become interested in subjects studied in school, or topics covered in the school curriculum, at just the ‘right’ times and in just the ‘right’ order and in the ‘right’ proportions? There may be some overlap between some children’s interests and the school curriculum, but this is a dangerous way to think about what they might become interested in.

A better way to approach this might be to look out for nascent interests and for opportunities for the child to discover new interests, and to make great efforts to facilitate interests that arise. Parents who have a school curriculum in mind may systematically miss vital clues about a child’s evolving interests because those interests are not in tune with the curriculum. Children’s interests arise out of who they are, so it is infinitely better to think about the individual child and to ask what might be of interest to that particular child, rather than to look at a school curriculum for ideas.

To ‘prove’ (to government-appointed authorities, for instance) that their children are receiving a proper education, some parents keep diaries of educational activities or portfolios of their children’s work. This, too, is dangerous. In making themselves continually conscious of their children’s education as education, parents are very likely to convey this to the children. And once the children become conscious of their education as education, they are likely to start thinking about their ‘education’ at the expense of their own interests. For thinking about one’s learning is not the same as learning (except, of course, when thinking about one’s learning itself arises naturally out of one’s own problem-situation), and these things tend to conflict. It is none other than our old enemy, the conflict between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations.

Under those circumstances, education becomes performance. Children’s creativity is diverted into the problem of how to perform – how to be seen to be meeting the external standards implicit in the school curriculum. Instead of the growth of knowledge, the process becomes one of producing ‘evidence’ of their studies, or how to show ‘progress’. Instead of pursuing the interests and solving the problems which arise naturally out of their own personalities and problem-situations, the children focus upon the semblance of education. 

If parents keep a collection of their children’s work, then the more important they consider this collection to be, the more likely they are to convey the theory that their children should produce paper work for the portfolio – and finish work once started, and suchlike horrors. They may exert subtle but very damaging pressure on their children to perform. To a greater or lesser degree, they will be thinking about education conventionally-construed rather than about what their children enjoy and are interested in or might become interested in, and how to facilitate those interests. 

It may be best not to keep one’s children’s work at all. Keeping it ‘for grandma’ is manipulative; keeping it secretly, to give the children when they have grown up, is a form of lying. For many children, keeping their work at all will be enough to change the focus of their thinking from content to product, and likewise to change the focus of their endeavours from autonomous learning to performance.

One educationalist recently questioned the wisdom of my suggestion that one should not keep children’s work. “But children like to see the progress they have made,” she said. “If parents don’t keep their work, they won’t be able to see how far they have come.” Yes. Children in school may indeed “like to see the progress they have made”, but that is likely to be no more than a sad reflection of their focus upon performance that is the raison d’être of their whole ‘education’.

The carrot of ‘good progress’ is, by logical necessity, backed by the stick of ‘poor progress’. Whether it is intended that way or not, keeping work and showing children their ‘progress’ is one of the sticks used to beat children into performing ‘better’. The children are motivated by the pressure to keep ‘improving’ their performance and to stay ahead of their peers. It is coercion, with all the deleterious effects that entails.

Children’s work should remain their own private property, not to be looked at by anyone unless they want to show it. And if they do want to show their work, is it a way of begging for a carrot, or is it for a less sinister reason? Are they excited about having solved a problem they were working on? Are they seeking criticism and help solving a problem? Or is the purpose of showing their work to get affection and attention from their parents? In that case, the child is being manipulated with praise or attention. That is to say, the parents are coercing their children by the implicit threat that they will withhold affection or attention. Consider whether the children’s learning is self-directed or other-directed: autonomous or externally-motivated.

Where parents have already embarked on the sort of monitoring I am criticising, they might find it useful to consider whether the work their children are ‘choosing’ to do bears a suspicious resemblance to the work their peers might be doing in school. For instance: are they using textbooks? Do they ‘do projects’? Do they ‘love their fun maths workbook’? This may be nothing to worry about, but just how likely is it that any text book or workbook would answer the burning questions a child might have – and keep doing so? It seems a very artificial way to have one’s questions answered, and I suspect that workbook-loving children are primarily performing – jumping through hoops, rather than pursuing their interests and solving their own problems. Beware of anything which looks like conventional education: it might be just that.

I should add that if you do conclude that the children are merely ‘performing’ rather than following their intrinsic motivations, the cure is not to manipulate them further by denying them the praise, etc., that they seem to be asking for! The cure is to go back to the root of the problem and stop the monitoring, curriculum-browsing and other pressure that has diverted them from seeking their own path.

One of the most common mistakes made in human relationships is to impede the growth of loved ones as persons. People sometimes form a view of a person and fail to notice that the person is trying to improve his life, or is otherwise growing and changing significantly. They continue to interact, as it were, with the old person. In effect they condition the relationship by the view that the person is stuck in his old self. They may define the person by his past mistakes or strengths, or simply by who he once was, and thereby sabotage his growth – and their own too. 

This is especially true of children, who are growing and changing very fast. Parents tend to see them as the younger children they were rather than the older, wiser people they may have become. Persons are dynamic, evolving entities, not immutable selves. One danger is that the children may themselves adopt the stultifying parental theory. Or they may find that every time they take a positive step, their parents inadvertently push them back to where they were.

If you are keeping your children’s work it might be worth asking yourself whether you are defining your children by who they once were. For if you are, your children might themselves adopt such bad theories. If instead, children pursue their own passions, unconscious of their progress qua progress, their learning qua education – in other words, if they are pursuing rather than performing, if they are engaged in the process rather than looking at the process as an object of scrutiny – they will be less likely to self-consciously define themselves by moments in their pasts, less likely to grow up thinking that they once had such-and-such an attribute so they will always have that attribute. They may be more likely to grow and learn.

Children should be free to look – and move – forward; avoid encouraging them to look back. For that matter, don’t encourage them to look at their learning at all. Learningis one thing. Looking at one’s learning is something quite different.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1997, ‘Objectifying education sabotages learning’, first published in Taking Children Seriously 23, ISSN 1351-5381, pp. 8-10, original title: ‘Beware the curriculum mentality: it may be harming your child’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/objectifying-education-sabotages-learning/