It’s not the child that’s sick, but the school it’s in

by Christoph Schmitt

photos: from the video „Ninnoc“ by Niki Padidar

In 1971, activist Rosa von Praunheim produced a movie for public television in Germany entitled: „It’s not the homosexual who is perverted, but the situation in which he lives“. This title reflects a fundamental characteristic of culture: normality is a matter of context in which it’s claimed; everything about culture can be interpreted differently.

The societal normative has therefore not fallen from the sky. It’s a cultural concept, and it’s the same with school as a concept that was once invented. For reasons. Today it is one of the few that we still have left from the last 150 years. Highly charged and sacrosanct as once were the great Christian churches, which have long since lost their function as moral whisperers of capitalism. Most other systems (e.g. politics or health) may not be outdated, but they are thoroughly economized.

Now all hope relies on the traditional concept of schooling. It appears as the last refuge for the reproduction of culture – as the last cultural canvas. A kind of lifeboat for the people. This adds the nimbus of school as an institution that should not actually be open to discussion. To nag at it: of course. Reforming it: you’re welcome. Digitize it: if necessary. But schooling itself is not up for discussion.

School is over

There is some evidence that this situation yet has occurred, that schooling as a system has come to an end. Similar to other cultural carrier systems, which were invented to guarantee societal solidity over centuries, and then disappeared with more or less noise. We are at a point in history where the school system has lost its role of stabilisation and has become dysfunctional. Every day social media deliver reflections on this diagnosis. Explicitly or between the lines. Among others Andreas Schleicher – as always related to the big picture, Bernie Bleske regarding the schooling of young peopleand Jack Ma with a lot of drama:

School no longer guarantees societal continuity (whatever that may be), it undermines it. We assume that all the problems that school has and creates are under control. We are still convinced that we can manage this with enough money and as much reform as it needs. With other parents and better teachers and more iPads. But that’s the fundamental mistake. Why?

For instance, the use of supportive professions in education is constantly increasing. There is speech therapy, psychomotor therapy, integrative education, integrated special education, small(er) classes, remedial teachers, social workers and some more. The corresponding degree courses and jobs are becoming more and more important. At first glance, this is all about supporting children to handle their problems, which is also reflected in such statements (source):

„School is not the repair company of society“, says the President of Swiss Teachers‘ Confederation

Apart from the fact that it’s quite controversial to speak of „repair“ referring to people, the main point here is probably an illusion of „smoothness“, following the example of industrial production processes. Andreas Schleicher also states in the interview mentioned above that the industrial working model still has a great influence on school culture. In fact these mindset raise the issues together with the children who „cause problems“. This has been verified – among others – by Remo Largo’s long-term studies in Switzerland. Also, more and more children and their parents have been experiencing for years in a completely non-scientific way that school tends to make sick rather than smart.

We have reached a point where only those children and teens remain „inconspicuous“, who have a solid social and materially pillowed home environment, because, unlike Ritalin & Co, private lessons are not paid by health insurance.

Surgery on the consequences

We don’t look at the powerful correlations. We operate around the consequences. The procedure is hermetic in a perfidious way: the school system gives the impression that it is „doing something for the children“ and expects gratitude for this. The fact that school itself builds the main cause of a problem that it then generously addresses as a solution: this trick is still ignored. For reasons.

However, school does not only produce problems which it then pretends to solve. Rather, it teaches countless children and teens a self-image as problematic, retarded people who are difficult or impossible to integrate – not least through the senseless grading system (here a statement by Remo Largo):

Standardization – and nothing else is a grading system in which everyone is evaluated equally – often destroys creativity.

(Haeme Ulrich)

It remains completely out of sight that humans never „are“. We „behave“ in one way or another. The situation we put young people in to learn always has a fundamental part to play in how children and young people behave.

It is not the child who is sick, but the school in which he or she stucks. Curative pedagogy, school social work, Ritalin and private coaching are survival strategies of the school system. It is about saving our idea of normality. Even problems such as bullying, which is fixed reflexively to „the children“, „the media“ and „the parents“, thrive above all in traditional school contexts. Anyone who wants to understand bullying should not only look at the children who practice it, but also at the school where it happens. The fact that bullying does not occur in innovative and alternative schools has nothing to do with the fact that there are „special children“ who the school picks out like candy. It has to do with the fact that the issue has no chance at such schools, because children and young people, who also come from every conceivable personal background there, experience a different culture of learning and community, and because they learn to deal with power & authority quite differently there.

Not to mention the fact that even the children and teenagers who manage to stay inconspicuous (aka „successfully“) are not being prepared at school for what the future requires in terms of attitudes, abilities and skills. The reasoning given here by the school system is again and again: „We can hardly do our job because we have to deal more and more with troublesome children“. The fact that a child is simply overburdened when stretched in a framework that systematically ignores and suppresses the individuality of learning and personality does not attract attention. Rather, it is precisely then that we hear: children must first learn to adapt and to subordinate themselves.

The opposite is true: we need completely different learning environments for children and teens. We need a coalition of all the forces in our societies that can take this into their own hands. Those who rethink the subjects of education and learning together and in a radically new way. Not just isolated parents and parent groups who take their children out of school because it is no longer viable (as is increasingly happening in several regions of Switzerland). This can only be a beginning. An important and valuable beginning, because it alarms. But there is much more at stake. It is about developing, building and implementing completely different spaces and ways of learning for children and young people.

Addressing or waiting for traditional institutions is pointless as long as they are neither willing nor able to engage in innovative initiatives and learn from them. The safaris and pilgrimages towards such initiatives end up like the many trips of politicians and entrepreneurs to Silicon Valley: people return to their own education world frightened and fascinated by the insight „that it can’t work like that in our country“ – for reasons.

The questions we have to ask now are: What are the reasons for continuing education as before, supported by all these excuses and reflexes, because we still think that the existing school system is the best of all possible, that we are screwing around and reforming a bit here and there, absorbing some digital tools and a school software that manages credentials and the lack of teachers?

And what speaks for the fact that the traditional school has come to an end: in terms of concept, method and our idea of mankind – because this system generates most of the problems it faces by itself, by doing more of the same all the time in a situation where a radical new beginning is the only solution.

New learning grows in niches

Based on my observations, consultations and research, I assume that those initiatives will increase most who are not innovative within the existing school system, but in the open space: initiated by people who have understood what is needed; who scrape together money and attention in order to develop their valuable concepts and make them accessible to a wider public. For me, the following is a wonderful example on my own doorstep: The „Grundacherschule“ in Sarnen. Click on the picture to watch the video.

The leitmotif is the interest in children’s interests.

At the moment this is still associated with high risks – especially in the German-speaking world, where states are harassing citizens by a rigorous obligation to attend school or, as in Switzerland, are only funding the traditional systems – be it with money or with validity. There is still a lot of resistance to overcome in case of state monopolism on education, but it has neither been able nor is it able to prevent wonderful initiatives from developing and spreading in niches – and by that I don’t mean those private schools on Swiss soil that charge 50,000 Swiss francs a year for getting young people through the matriculation exams, which in the end are dancing to the rhythm of the traditional system again.

I mean those initiatives that fight for financial survival themselves, precisely because they work with a completely different approach than the state schools. At this point I would like to mention three of them again, in which I see a future of learning: The now over 50-year-old concept of the Sudbury Valley School in all its radicality, the School Circles in the Netherlands and – for me particularly impressive, because it was created and established in a rather conservative cultural environment: Learnlife in Barcelona, which is now part of a global network of learning communities.

The new ways of learning that we so urgently need will not unfold in the old school system – similar to many of the changes we are currently experiencing in the context of digitisation, all of which are taking place elsewhere in the world but in traditional silos. Old Europe has become powerless. It still operates according to the scheme of „draft horses, followers, dependants“. The ancient & repetitive is celebrated: „Fancy new clothes for the Emperor and his tribe“.

Patriarchal traditionalism, with its symbols and artefacts, its hierarchies and networks, is still permeating everything so that the radically New cannot establish itself: sustainable forms of economic activity and coexistence, ecological new beginnings on a broad scale, overcoming nationalist narratives, inventing new narratives about life worth living, an inkling of what our future could look like, instead of the ritualistic unhooking of all those proposals that are not yet approved. For reasons. Fears of avoidance instead of hopes for the future everywhere. And in between, the primal scream of all pedagogy: „panem et circenses“ (bread and games) in a new outfit.

The first step in breaking this vicious circle is to interrupt the delivery of „human sustenance“ to this system. Either we take this risk and reinvent education and learning now, or we will be buggered.

(You read the English translation of a blog post I published in March 2019 – supported by deepl.com)

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