Sunday, April 24, 2016

Letter from Denmark (1966)

From the May 1966 issue of the Socialist Standard

As a teacher with socialist ideas I hold that the only sensible thing in a sane society is to teach children when they want to be taught and what they want to be taught. I feel sure that most of children want to explore the world in which they live. We all know of children who don't come home in time because they are engaged in play or in the act of investigating things. And who does not know children who keep on asking questions of all kinds? I find such behaviour characteristic of most children and I think all questions must be answered in a way satisfactory to the children at the time. If their request for information is not satisfied by us, we cannot hope that the abilities and talents which each child possesses will he developed fully!

Yet to develop these is precisely one of the stated aims of education in Denmark! The law says that the purpose of education is: “to further and develop the children's abilities and talents to strengthen their characters and give them useful knowledge.’’ The wording of this paragraph gives the teacher quite a wide scope on the theoretical level, for it is not defined in detail how to strengthen their characters and what useful knowledge is. Every teacher will interpret it his own way, and this makes if appear very democratic. But such a law should also give a socialist teacher a chance to try out his ideas in this field.

However, theory is one thing, practice another. What is actually happening at school?

A child starts at seven and leaves again at fourteen at the earliest. For each year of school a syllabus has been worked out—that is to say, by the end of the school year the pupil is supposed to know a certain number of things. At the later stages of school life examinations take place. If you pass these well, your chances in adult life arc good. If you happen not to be bright at the right things it's just your hard luck. The result is that teachers, parents and often the children themselves become very ambitious with regard to examinations. This means that the teacher asks questions to which he already knows the answers, and the children answer them as best they can. A teacher may ask : “How did the Norwegian and Danish people react to the German occupation?” The teacher knows the answer, and for some reason which is not apparent to the child it is desirable to know this fact. Motivation for knowing the two peoples' reactions is completely lacking. By the time you have lived your school life in this way for 7 years at least it has become quite natural to think in terms of “What am I expected to answer now?” In a class of 15 year olds a teacher had once asked everybody to watch a TV programme about 3 religious altitudes with the purpose of using the programme as basis for discussion. Nearly everybody had managed to see the programme, but when it came to the discussion nobody had anything to say except the teacher. She could provoke no one to speak. How good her techniques in this direction were I cannot say, but after the lesson a girl told her that of course all pupils had an opinion but did not like to put it in front of the class. In this case the children had to make up their own minds about a question and by now being so used to have a set answer to learn, the pupils found the idea of speaking freely awkward. This phenomenon cannot in many cases stimulate and develop the interest of learning.

But with the stated aims of education being as they are, a teacher should be able to change this situation. A number of things have to be considered in this connection It is impossible for a teacher to avoid examinations and tests. He, or she, will be judged on the basis of examination results, for the future employers must know your qualifications when you apply for a job. It is clear, therefore, that a good teacher is still one who can give knowledge which will give the best chance for a job to as many children as possible; and those will have the best chances who can enter into frictionless co-operation at their future factories, offices or other places of work. In today’s society technical skill is of utmost importance, and so the emphasis in the syllabus has been shifted from classical subjects to technical skills.

Some people hold that the fact that children are no longer expected to have so much exact knowledge and that demands in this direction have been eased considerably, is a sign of progress. It is true that there is a tendency towards teaching children how to find out things themselves, but at long as examinations and tests do not examine this quality in children it is pretty irrelevant to base your everyday teaching on this alone.

In practice it often happens that children ask you questions which do not lie within the subject you happen to be teaching. Many of these questions are very important to the children and would be interesting to discuss, but mostly pressure from above stops a teacher from taking up such questions. If you are a teacher who wants to satisfy these very relevant demands made by the children, you are in a dilemma. You want to do a thing which you are prevented from doing because you are at the same time subjected to quite contrary and different demands from the authorities.

So my conclusion must be that you cannot change one part of society successfully without changing all other parts. When some changes have taken place in education, I see their cause lying in changes in the methods of production. New techniques for producing goods developed all the time, and the worker is then required to learn new things all along. It means that more emphasis must be put on his ability to readjust himself to newly adopted techniques. Therefore children now in school must learn different things from what their parents had to learn. There is also a move away from direct authoritarianism. The latter change is, I think, due to the realisation by those in control that contented people are better producers, and these are important for capitalists to make bigger profits. Capitalism will run smoother in this way. So to me, the whole aim of society will have to be changed if any radical change is to be expected in our schools.
A. Peterson,
Copenhagen.


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