Unthinkable: Should education be student-centred?

Teachers should not try to make content ‘relevant’, says sociologist Frank Furedi

The days of Mr Chips are long gone. “Good riddance,” most educationalists will say. The model of the teacher as a commanding source of authority has given way to a modern practitioner who is sensitive to children’s feelings and interests.

Education is now designed to be "student-centred". It sounds good in theory but, according to sociologist Frank Furedi, students are getting short-changed. Furedi, whose books include Paranoid Parenting and Wasted: Why Education Isn't Educating, criticises current trends in educational reform.

He says the school curriculum is being sanitised, including the removal of material dealing with difficult subjects likesuch as suicide, and that lessons are being redesigned to turn pupils into "good citizens" with "transferable skills".

In this fashion, he provides today's idea: "Child-centred education really isn't any good for children."


What’s wrong with making education student-centred?

“I would argue that this whole notion has a very corrosive impact on education because education, at its best, is its own focus. Education in its own right and for its own sake is what’s really important, and the moment education becomes focused on an object external to itself – whether it’s the child, the teacher, the economy, nation, religion or whatever – it tends to be at the expense of imparting knowledge and preparing children for their independence.

“In many respects the impulse behind child-centred education is the erosion of adult authority – in this case the teacher’s – and the feeling that there is something wrong with the imparting of values and knowledge of the older generation.”

How do you believe this manifests itself in the classroom? Is there a dumbing-down of content?

“It’s a bigger thing. I don’t know how it works in Ireland but it’s very common for teachers in the UK to say, ‘I teach the child, not the subject’. It sounds very sensitive, but of course that is something mothers and fathers should be doing; teachers should be teaching the subject.

“You really notice this when subjects become confined to what’s relevant to the child. Education should be the opposite because the whole point about education is that it’s the one place – the one institution – where children can transcend their immediate experiences. They can learn to abstract, to compare, to gain perspective, and the last thing they need is to be ‘educated’ about what happens in their community; they learn much more from what happened in ancient Rome . . . So the pedagogy of relevance really limits the horizons of kids.

“The pedagogy of child-centred education has at its basis the idea that education should not violate the child’s nature or natural inclinations. Well, of course, that sounds very nice and sensitive but education is, in fact, very unnatural and that is the whole beauty of it.

“What you are doing is getting people to engage with issues and problems which are not reducible to something you can think about spontaneously.”

The inspirational teacher is often a maverick, someone who tries to take students out

of their comfort zones. Does that follow on from what you’re saying?

“I agree with that. I am a big fan of maverick or subversive teachers who don’t simply carry out what the curriculum dictates.

“Authoritative teachers can be inspirational, and that authority comes not from their designation as teachers but from the fact that they really know their subjects inside-out, and can talk about maths, or history or physics in a natural way. So the inspiration isn’t a psychological or motivational inspiration, it is the subject that inspires both the teacher and the class.”

Is part of the problem as you see it an inability among teachers to discipline students?

“It is wider than discipline. The question is fundamentally about teachers being able to exercise discretion and being able to exercise their professional judgment. That relates not just to discipline but to everything you do, because a really good teacher learns to be an even better teacher through making the right type of judgment calls.

“In England, you now have a situation where children as young as five, six or seven are being expelled from school for everything from sexual violence to bullying. You have to ask yourself: when did a grown-up teacher stop being able to manage the behaviour of such young children? That’s a totally unprecedented development historically, and it has something to do with teachers feeling they have no authority in their own right.

“A consequence is that we use these very administrative, bureaucratic policing rules, and you then have this grotesque situation where children are almost criminalised or at least treated according to adult values.

“People lose the sensitivity to understand that when a six-year-old child is playing doctors and nurses, like we did in our day, that is not an expression of peer-to-peer abuse. Sexual motivations are pretty alien from their imaginations at that point, but we are recycling our own through the medium of the children’s eyes.”

Joe Humphreys' book, Unthinkable: Great Ideas for Now, is now available to buy at irishtimes.com/irishtimesbooks