Why do we have professional teachers?

We now take it for granted that people are paid to teach in schools in universities, but such has not always been the case, and it is a system hard to justify on logical grounds. The biggest problem with the idea is that a professional teacher is unlikely to be as skilled or knowlegable on a subject as someone who practices it for a living. This is an ongoing cause for concern in all areas of work that require practical skills. Even though students go to college to be trained as cooks, car mechanics, builders, hairdressers, etc., it is accepted that they have to have work experience, working in real businesses before they can really learn the trade.

The reason why tradespeople do not take on apprentices, like they used to in the old days, is not so much because they are incapable of training a young person to do a particular job, it is more because it is no longer worth their while to do so. On the one hand, businesses are under pressure to make short-term profits, and cannot afford to make long-term investments in training staff, and on the other hand, there is no guarantee that an apprentice, once trained, will stay with the company. As a result, people settle for the system of students being prepared for work in a non-working environment by people who are not subject to proper business pressures, and who have only limited experience of a business environment.

Unsatisfactory though this may be, it is not as potentially damaging as the system of employing professional teachers in theoretical and academic subjects. At least there is a certain amount of communication between businesses and training colleges, and teachers have to accept feedback from local employers about the quality of their work. In the academic sphere there are almost no external sources of feedback or control.

Some subjects, most notably history, but also literature, philosophy, political science, and, to a certain extent, economics, are taught with a strong local bias, with different countries teaching different interpretations of the same facts, and students being assessed on how well they are able to conform to the local perspective. Different institutions may also wish to promote their own view of key events, so that students that attend one university may be expected to espouse a set of right-wing beliefs, and students that attend another, left-wing beliefs. At one time, scientific subjects were thought to have been immune from this form of institutional bias, but the role of business in funding scientific research has forced different universities to take a stand for or against specific technologies; and now that climate change and the environment have become such emotive issues, scientists have divided along political, economic and ideological grounds for and against various policy initiatives and new technologies, leaving little room for logic and clear thinking.

The education system is set up in such a way that, generally, the people who go into pre-school child care, did not themselves do very well at school and have very few academic qualifications, the people who become primary-school teachers did slightly better, but were not academically successful; secondary school teachers generally have a university degree in the subject that they teach but did not a particularly good one, and then some of the most successful students stay on and teach in a university. This means that when you are very young, and most able to learn, you will be being taught by people who have the least grasp on their subject matter. As you progress through the system, you will be asked to forget much of what you were told by them, because it was either over-simplified, or simply invented. Naturally, most children find this to be very disorienting, and become increasingly confused as they progress through the system. Ultimately it leads to a class of teachers who are not properly interested in the material that they are teaching, and who do not really believe that it has genuine value.

The way to foster learning is to allow children, and young people, to develop an interest in a subject, and an awareness of its significance, and for them to be able to seek out someone who can help them to find out more about it. This would involve children feeling part of a wider community, so that they would know directly, or indirectly, adults who had a wide range of skills and interests. The real repository of knowledge in our society lies within people who have spent their lives working in a particular trade or profession, and it is perverse that they should not be able to pass on their knowledge and experience to the next generation.

By leaving education in the hands of professional teachers, people deny themselves the chance to pass on to children the knowlege that they have acquired in their lifetimes, and it allows what people are actually experiencing in their daily lives to become increasingly disconnected from what children are being taught to expect during their years in school.


The Curriculum

Perhaps when children first started going to school, the curriculum that they were being taught made some sort of sense to them, but that ceased to be the case some time ago. As time has gone on, children have spent more time indoors, and in classrooms, and less time outdoors and actually doing things in the real world. As a result, they do not have any first-hand experience of many of the things that teachers try to teach them, and, therefore, spend much of their time in school in a state of confusion. It is a sad fact that, in our society, it is often the children who get the blame when there is a breakdown in educational achievement, while teachers and school officials are not required to acknowledge that they have made any mistakes at all.

This is clearly illogical and extremely damaging to everyone concerned. It is the responsibility of adults to provide children with an educational programme that is relevant to them, and which grips their attention. It is not the responsibility of children to try to manufacture interest in subjects that that do not appear to have any immediate value.

Childhood is not supposed to be wasted in irrelevant activities, it is meant to be a super-charged time in which skills and knowlege vital for future success are acquired and developed. The truth is that we, the adult population, have no idea of how to help bring this about for the next generation. In particular, things that we may think that we know to be true, do not stand up to investigation in the real world; for example, contrary to popular belief, there is not a particular age at which it is necessary for a child to be able to read, or be able to perform particular calculations, or to know particular facts. The more rigid a curriculum, the less successful it will be, and the more disenchanted the pupils will become.

This may not always have been the case. In traditional communities, in which life followed the same pattern from one generation to the next, it would have been clear what children should have been taught, and when. In addition, the stories that children were told, and the history that they learnt would have featured things with which they were familiar in their daily lives; everything that they were taught could be woven together to make a coherent picture that explained why life was the way it was, and what had to be done to keep it that way.

In contrast, we live in a rapidly changing world: most adults are confused by the ways in which the world has changed since they themselves were young, are struggling to deal with the latest technologies, and cannot understand why the financial pressures that they are under are so much worse than they had expected. It is not really now within anyone’s scope to be able to explain to a child what is happening in the world, why it is happening, and what is likely to happen in the near future. Even in the most highly-controlled educational environments, children are subjected to conflicting ideas, with no guarantee of success if they follow one route or another. To make matters worse, there is no longer widespread confidence that the new technologies will be beneficial, or that changes being instigated now will avert the predicted environmental calamaties that have been predicted.

Rather than following an educional curriculum devised many years ago to deal with a completely different set of circumstances, or more-or-less randomly picking a curriculum that you decide might be appropriate, it makes sense to return to basics: the first priority is to give children a chance to connect directly with the natural world. This gives them a foundation upon which to build their understanding of life.

The second step (which may come much later, because no one ever fully understands the workings of the natural world), is to try to make sense of the man made world. At one time, this may have been relatively easy to achieve: most of life would have been governed by the seasons, the cycle of the crops, and managing the countryside, and there would have been very few aspects of life that were not directly and visibly affected by one aspect of nature or another. Anyone who had learnt a foreign language, read a certain number of books, and mastered a certain level of theoretical mathematics was considered to be well educated and capable of understanding and participating in intellectual life. This is no longer the case, very few aspects of modern lie appear to have any direct connection with nature, and there are different fields of study – science, medicine, engineering, IT, economics, business, culture, philosophy, politics, etc. – each of which seem to be vital to the modern way of life, but which do not appear to have any obvious connection to each other.

The overall volume of information available, either in printed form or online, has become so overwhelming that any choice that adults make as to what should be prioritised in a curriculum will always seem arbitrary, and difficult to justify. For example, the answer to the question of which foreign languages it would be most useful for a child to learn will vary from person to person, similarly, it is difficult to say whether it is more important to understand the ins and outs of how modern technology works, or to have an understanding of political science, or of modern culture. Or maybe an understanding of the origin and development of medical science is now of paramount importance, or perhaps economics and accountancy. It is not realistic to expect someone to be able to master all these subjects, but neither is it reasonable to deny anyone the opportunity to learn about them, given that people operating in these fields are making decisions that have a major impact on daily life in the modern world.

There ought to be a natural process whereby a young person develops an interest in a subject, and is then able to not only access written information on the subject, but is also able to make direct contact with someone with experience in the field, who is able to give them practical help and advice.

Why do we have professional teachers?

A New Contract With the Environment

In our world, people, and children in particular, find it difficult to establish anything but a superficial connection with nature – we can go and look at nature, walk through it, read about it, or watch documentaries, but that is, generally, about as far as it goes. Almost all of the countryside has been moulded in one way or another to meet the needs of modern farming methods, and no one really has any idea what it might look like if it was managed in a more holistic fashion. This leaves us with a vision of nature shaped by ‘wild’ places, such as stretches of coastline in remote areas, or mountain tops, far away from centres of population, which helps to re-enforce the idea of nature being inhospitable and something from which we need to be protected.

The antedote to this sense of detachment from the natural world, is to find a way to take direct responsibility for an area of land – whether it be large or small – and to find out for oneself how nature responds to ideas that one may have about how it should be managed. For most people, the default ideas are those with which they have grown up, and which underpin our society: we decide what we want, and then try to make nature give it to us – whether it be flowers, trees, lawns, vegetables, or just a pretty place to sit and do nothing. The tools that we have at our disposal have largely been developed over the past hundred years – manufactured garden tools, lawnmowers and hedge trimmers, polytunnels, plastic sheeting, slug pellets, bags of peat, packets of commercial seeds, etc. – and in theory they should work.

The other approach starts off from what may appear to be a similar point, and it is to work out what one actually needs, and to see if an area of land can meet any of those needs – wihout you have to resort to outside help by using industrial products that are far beyond your personal ability to create.

In the first approach, you will encounter unforseen problems as the natural world does not respond in exactly the way in which you had imagined it would – things that you want to grow don’t grow, things that you don’t want to grow do grow, the weather is too hot or too cold, it is too wet, or too dry, there are pests and diseases, etc. If you keep sticking to your original idea of what you want to achieve, the solutions you find usually involve buying more products, and expending more energy to make things the way that you thought they should be. In one respect you move closer to your goal, but in other respects you move further away, spending more than you can afford in time and money, and always creating unforseen consequences that lead to new problems requiring new solutions, and so on and so forth.

When involved in a project of this sort with a child or young person, they soon lose interest; adults, who often have stronger ideas about how they think things should be, tend to stick with it a little longer, but unless there is an outside source of finance, sooner or later the project will grind to a halt, leaving behind an assorted mess of garden-centre products, depleted soil, and devastated wildlife. In itself this could be a profound educational experience, albeit a slightly depressing one. It is a microcosm of our idea of economic development, providing a clue to what is happening to the planet as a whole.

The second approach leads to a different destination. Similar problems arise as in the first case, but instead of reaching for an off-the-shelf solution, you re-examine whether or not your original objectives were valid or not – did you really need tomatoes in April?, etc. – and you look for simple things that you can do to resolve a problem without having to go to the shops. Over time, you adapt what you are trying to achieve, and come more into line with what is feasible given your local conditions. At some point, things start to change, you find yourself working with nature, rather than in opposition to it. The soil starts to gain in fertility, seeds germinate better, seedlings survive better, pests that had been a problem seem to be automatically kept down to a reasonable number, birds and other wildlife make a home on your land, and the seasons start to display themsleves in the flora and fauna that flourish in the natural conditions that you are nurturing. All this makes sense to children, and, freed from the obligation to use power tools, and chemical products, there are always things for children to do, and to be part of. In this environment, the idea of forcing anything to do things against its will makes no sense at all, and the idea of working co-operatively suddenly appears to be the natural order of events.

School teachers and administrators often justify what they are doing by focussing on what they are teaching, rather than on the way that they are teaching it. This is a fundamental mistake: it is the way that one teaches that determines what children learn, and how they will go about leading their lives. The information that children and young people are being given about the environment and the damage being done by human activity on the planet, may be broadly accurate, but it will not lead to a new approach to the way in which we deal with the natural world if it is taught using the hierarchical school-type model. Young people need to be given a chance to work closely with nature and to gain a first-hand understanding of the give and take required to live in harmony with natural systems if a more harmonious relationship between modern man and the natural world is to be forged.

The Curriculum

Co-operation, Competition and Coercion

Working in a man-made environment, with man-made things, is fundamentally different from working in a natural environment. In the first, everything is non-living (dead) and remains inactive, or in a state of gradual deterioration, unless there is some form of human intervention. In such situations, competitive behaviour becomes the determinant for success – when resources are limited, the most competitive person ends up with the most stuff. This is the world for which children are trained by our current education system.

In simple terms, the modern economy operates by money being generated in finite amounts by government agencies, and people then competing with each other to get as much of that money for themselves as they can, which they can then use to purchase products and services, which are themselves produced in finite quantities by different sections of the global economy. In theory, if you do well at school (i.e. get higher grades than other children of your age) and are then able to combine a qualification from a top university with ambition and competitive drive in the workplace, you will be able to buy an expensive house, own an expensive car, go on exotic holidays, eat in expensive restaurants, and pay other people to do mundane tasks for you, that you may find too tedious to do for yourself. Other people, who have been less successful in the competition, have to content themselves with smaller houses, smaller cars, and less exotic holidays, etc. This is commonly justified as being ‘the law of the jungle’, or to the more scientific-minded, ‘the survival of the fittest’, implying that that is how nature works also.

This represents a fundamental misunderstanding of nature, and takes no account of the dynamics of a living system, within which everything has to show respect for everything else, if they are not, indirectly, to do themselves harm.

There are many obvious flaws to an education system that relies too much on competition; winning the competition to get the best job, does not automatically mean that you will be able to do that job effectively, particularly if it involves managing other people. Being over-competitive is not an asset in home life or family life, and being too competitive does not help at all in non-hierarchical situations in which you have to work on equal terms with other people. Competition leads to social division and inequality; people who do well in the competition may be happy with their rewards, but there is no reason to believe that people who do not do well in the competition will be happy to accept a second-class status. Coercion of one form or another has to be employed to keep the have-nots in line, fulfilling their assigned tasks.

The reliance on competition in our education system is closely aligned with the historical trends firstly of colonialism, and, more recently, economic development. This has seen Western powers impose themselves on more traditional societies through the medium of hierarchical institutions that recruit staff from education programmes that offer the greatest rewards to the students that come out top of a competitive selection process. The inexorable way in which these institutions and industries have been able to grow and take more and more control over people’s lives, has made it increasingly difficult to question the validity of their hyper-competitive ethos.

Originally, schools did not emphasise competition. The purpose of the schools was partly to keep children off the street, and partly to increase literacy. Children gained little or no material advantage from being top of the class, and there was no direct route from a primary school to a job that was significantly better paid than the work being done by your parents. Children drawn from tight-knit communities would not have been inclined to be over-competitive with each other. Children in the same school would have been living in close proximity to one another, and helping each other in their daily tasks. The long-term imperative would still have been for children to learn how to work in co-operation with other family members, and other people in the village or local community, and that would not, at first, have been changed by children spending a relatively small amount of time in school.

This has changed slowly and steadily over the years. Traditional communities, based around farming and country crafts, have gradually disappeared, and the working-class communities that formed the basis of city life during the early years of the Industrial Revolution have now also been broken up, as people move from one place to another in search of work. The old idea of children automatically being able to find a life for themselves within their local community no longer applies, and school-based qualifications have become all-important. Going hand-in-hand with this process has been the trend for many of the tasks once performed within the community, through the medium of co-operation, being taken over by paid workers. This process is spreading into all areas of life so that it now covers not only care of the elderly, nursing the sick, and looking after children, but also the provision food supplies, clothing production, and energy supplies.

This process has taken no account of the fact that human beings are social creatures, and need to work together, not only to guarantee their material well being, but also to fulfil their emotional and psychological needs. People who have not had the chance to develop their social skills through working as equals in a society based on co-operation, lack the skills needed to build long-term personal relationships, and, as a result, society fragments and people are more prove to suffer from insecurity and loneliness.

The belief that it is natural for people to compete against each other, and that coercion can always be used to resolve disputes when more gentle methods fail has now become so ingrained that there is now almost a complete lack of communities or institutions that could teach children the value of co-operation relative to competition. Fortunately, the world on nature is still staying true to the rules that it has always followed, and still gives children a chance to discover for themselves the interplay between co-operation and competition in living systems – and the consequences that arise from from not understanding the rules.

A New Contract With the Environment

Finding Your Place in the Ecosystem

Most efforts to introduce children to the world of nature are counterproductive, because they re-inforce the idea that human beings are somehow separate from nature, and not part of it. Once acquired, this idea tends to stick with people for the rest of their lives, and can make them behave in quite peculiar and irrational ways.

In order to avoid simply being a spectator, children need to have a certain degree of involvment with nature when they are outdoors for it to become a truly positive experience. A short burst of being outdoors can be counterproductive – if children are taken to a place with which they are not familiar, and if it is a little too hot, or a little too cold, or if it is raining, and if they do not really have anything to do, and then they go back home to a house full of modern comforts, then the idea that there is nature on the one hand, and human beings on the other is re-enforced.

It has taken a long time to get to the current level of detachment from the natural world, and being able to provide a child with a genuine experience of being part of nature is not as simple as one may imagine. It requires a different approach from the people in a child’s life, a different sort of outdoors, and a way of behaving that has largely fallen out of the collective memory.

The idea of a group of children under the control of one or two adults does not work well in an outdoor setting. A ratio of one child to one adult, or one younger child to one older child, works better; it allows the older person to be engaged in a useful activity at the same time as taking an interest in the younger person. When you have a larger number of children per adult, the adult has to give all their attention to the children, making the whole group detached from where they are – observing nature, or playing in it, but not part of it.

Often when children are taken outdoors, it is into spaces that have been designed for them specifically, or as places for general recreation: playgrounds, parks, playing fields, footpaths, etc. These spaces are often delineated by fixed boundaries such as walls and fences to prevent children from running off into the road, or onto neighbouring properties, vegetation is generally close-cropped and manicured, and everything is designed to be as safe as possible. Well meaning though this may be, it gives children the idea that the wider outdoors, beyond the fence, is full of danger, and not somewhere where they can feel at home.

The most important issue of all, however, is whether or not you are working in co-operation with nature or waging a battle against it, trying to force nature to conform to your wishes. If the latter is the case, even if you manage to interest a young person in the work being done, all that is achieved is to reinforce the idea that nature is something alien to themselves which needs to be fought against.

If, on the other hand, some simple needs are being supplied direct from nature, without resort being made to motorised tools, fertilisers, or chemicals, then it becomes relatively easy to include children in what you are doing, and for them to start to feel that they have a place in the natural world. In Europe and in other parts of the world with a long history of agriculture, there is a long tradition of people having maintained a sustainable lifestyle, in harmony with nature, whilst still taking a very active role in shaping the environment to suit their own needs. In such areas, the obvious starting point for re-engagement with nature has to be some form of gardening and agricultural activity using non-industrial techniques.

The flora and fauna in areas that have been inhabited by human beings for any period of time, depend upon human beings continuing to play their traditional roles in the countryside in order for their own ecological niches to be maintained. This applies to wild flowers, insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, mushrooms, and the whole range of life that we consider to be native to a particular area. Every traditional activity, from walking along a particular path every day to coppicing a row of trees every few years, helps to create an ecological niche to which one or more particular plant or animal is adapted. The more of these traditional activities that you do, the more of these niches you re-create, and the greater the diversity of wildlife that can return to your piece of land. This diversity allows more creatures to become established, and, gradually, something resembling a complete self-sustaining ecosystem evolves, with a human being not detached from it, but playing a vital role at its heart. Working in nature in this way gives children a chance to understand their own place in the local ecosystem, providing a sound foundation upon which to build the rest of their education.

Co-operation, Competition and Coercion