Are Children Really Starved for School?

I cannot count the amount of times I’ve heard from parents or other teachers, in speeches by politicians, or on some news media regardless of whether it’s more ‘independent’ or more ‘mainstream’ that children are starved for school. It feels like almost everyone is in agreement with this idea and that it’s something that’s completely true just by the nature of it having been said a number of times.

But my observations of and conversations with students have led me to an entirely different conclusion: They’re starved for society, they’re starved for access to people (adults and other children alike), and they’re hungry for more collaborative learning opportunities.

And most of these do not require a school.

Most adults seem to conflate the socialisation of children with going to school. This is probably because it’s one of the only institutions that is intentionally made for children (even if it doesn’t always seem like it), and it’s one of the few places where they can find some freedom (even though school can have seriously rigid curriculums and terribly inflexible rules). It’s a space that is (supposedly) meant for them.

Plus, as adults, many of us have been indoctrinated into how important school is. I know I was.

This conflation has been going on for ages. Despite the fact that most children were initially educated in the home and a lot of learning and education took place almost anywhere, we’ve managed to change our minds in only a few generations and assume that the socialisation of children can only happen in schools.

Why do we assume that children can only socialise in places that bombard them with tests? 

This is something that I’ve noticed with regards to families who choose to homeschool their children. Simply googling the phrase “homeschooling socialisation” brings up a number of papers and articles that elaborate all the ways in which it’s antisocial and stifles children’s social skills, harming them for life and causing irreparable damage to their ability to socialise. All of this is despite the fact that there is no evidence backing up this claim, and the evidence that does exist starts from the most biased of places: the very researchers making that claim and searching for anything that supports it.

It’s interesting because if you talk to parents who homeschool, many of them put in a lot of work to ensure that their children’s needs are being met both socially and educationally. Most of those parents consciously try to enrol their children into programs that allow them to socialise with other children, that give them the opportunity to participate in the community; they consciously build schedules that enable them to work with other kids who homeschool or to interact with children at public parks and playgrounds.

Much of this research rarely, if ever, pays attention to everything that the families who actively engage in the educational process, those who have gone out of their way to learn something alongside their child or have found someone else who could. Many of the people doing this research never really look at all the ways that parents and their children interact with the educational process; they rarely look at how complex learning can be and how varied it needs to be to engage everyone, instead backing up the assumption that all children must attend the state-sanctioned system because they won’t learn the appropriate ways to socialise.

They won’t learn the obedience that the state requires to continue. They won’t learn their place in the world.

Oh, and just to note, much of the research rarely ever makes a distinction between families who remove their students because they believe the state has failed them and has created an unsafe environment for their children (such as the parents of queer or disabled children) and the parents who remove their kids because they’re angry about school claiming support for queer children and how that impacts on their so-called “religious freedoms.”

But this conversation about the socialisation of children has continued into quarantine, and it’s found a new target: Online school.

There have been a lot of issues with moving schools online. Namely, the biggest issue was the speed at which most schools required it be done by their teachers due to sudden closures in most places. Since nearly every school on the planet hadn’t made any such plans to accommodate students who couldn’t attend in person before the pandemic (such as disabled or chronically ill students), they were woefully ill-prepared to shift to the online environment. This was an active choice that was made by the people in control of this system; they consciously decided to exclude people to their own detriment.

Plus, many teachers simply didn’t have the training or the tools, especially because they were never prepared for the possibility of having to teach at home (and rightfully so, since they assumed their work was in the classroom). Teachers and students alike may not have had reliable access to the internet; some of my own friends in rural parts of the United States were running through their data plans because they didn’t have stable access to the internet (and their employer refused to reimburse them for any charges they incurred in order to do their job). A lot of families had shared devices (if they had one at all) that the whole family used, and schools refused to take this into consideration; this impacted both teachers and students.

The way it was implemented was a total mess, and it showed us a lot of the pitfalls of our current school systems. Namely, it showed us how ill-prepared they all were to educate anyone because the people running them actively refuse to listen to anyone who had been fighting to improve accessibility, attendance policies, and every other aspect of the school before the pandemic happened.

Plus, some teachers and professors have gone seriously overboard in trying to control students at home in the same way they did in the classroom, which should’ve been sparking a lot of questions. Why are children required to spend six hours on the computer in some places, as if synchronous learning is the only option? Is there a reason for giving students homework and expecting the parents to drop everything and create a home-school environment according to a curriculum they had no choice in? And why is it that a teacher would think it’s fine, for example, to call the police on a 12-year old Black boy for playing with a Nerf gun in his own home?

It’s completely possible to talk about all the problems encountered without completely throwing away online learning and implying that students must be inside of a school building in order for them to learn or “get an education,” but we need to address these problems for what they actually are: These are problems that were created by unjust systems that have created inequality which have been negatively impacting families for years; they are issues that are being caused by trying to enforce irrelevant rules that are designed to control people and teach them obedience within their own homes.

Exactly none of these so-called “problems” need to be happening, but they persist because people who want power refuse to imagine what things could look like.

We’ve been doing this for hundreds of years as we’ve slowly reformed a system that is no longer, if it ever truly was, functional for most people. We’ve had so long to take note of everything wrong with the system and of all the things we could get rid of or change, but we’ve collectively refused to engage with them.

We could be offering a range of educational opportunities to everyone; we could be allowing them to engage with education outside of school and in contexts where they can apply what they’ve learned. We could be making everything far more accessible to all students, and we could stop pretending that grades have any actual meaning. We could allow students of all ages to work together; we could enable more asynchronous learning, even in offline environments.

We could be taking some time to experiment and some time to dismantle the schools we’ve built in favour of something healthier than what we’ve built before.

Perhaps, as some curriculums tell students, we could be doing more critical and creative thinking.

What is the Place of an Anarchist Educator in Current Educational Systems?

Most school years seem to start with the same question: What is the purpose of education? For many anarchists, we recognise that education is really important in developing the core of how social values are shared throughout our societies. Those of us working in currently existing education systems often find ourselves frustrated by a range of issues, namely the overly restrictive rules that are enforced on all people within the school ‘ecosystem’, the conflation of education with schooling, the hyper-focus on choosing the ‘correct’ educational path in order to achieve a career, and the lack of community inclusion in the development of any educational programs.

Sitting through a number of meetings taking place throughout the school year, it’s hard to figure out exactly how to function within current education systems and whether or not it’s even beneficial. There are a lot of questions that run through my mind when I’m participating in these meetings:

Why isn’t the school run in such a way that more voices are heard? These meetings are often run by someone who holds a title like ‘coordinator’, ‘principal’, ‘school manager’, or ‘educational director’; many of these people give presentations that tell teachers what they will do, even though they will never be responsible for implementing those programs or policies. It’s unclear to me what their purpose is when they refuse to collaborate and only wish to dictate, especially when they seem to hide in their offices away from everyone else.

Where are the student voices in the development of an environment that’s supposedly made for them? Why are we dictating what is best for them and how they ought to learn? How come we always assess the students in the same ways, either through standardised tests or identical assignments? Why aren’t we asking them to look through their past work and showing us where they think they improved? And how come we can’t allow them the opportunities to design their own projects and learn or showcase skills they’re interested in?

Why are we forcing students to complete subjects or participate in classes where they’re uncomfortable? One of the few things I remember from my (really bad) teacher training class for history content is that the instructor said you “need to be prepared to explain why your subject matters.” What he seemed to have forgotten is that I don’t get to choose what history is taught in my classes; that is set by the state or national curriculum.

How do I justify to my students focusing so much on cis men in our history and literature classes and seem to forget about the accomplishments of literally everyone else? How do I justify the focus on white people, the glorification of colonialism and imperialism, the excessive use of euphemisms about slavery or genocide in many materials, and systematic erasure of the achievements of Black and Indigenous people? How do I justify books leaving out the systematic displacement and murder of Romani in World War II and those that pretend nothing’s wrong today? How do I justify ignoring and overlooking the existence of disabled people because able-bodied and neurotypical people are uncomfortable acknowledging us? And what about the constant erasure of any and all queer history? Y’know, just to name a few.

I can’t justify any of that, and I shouldn’t have to. The only thing I can (and actually) do is try to add in sources that increase the range of history and literature my students are exposed to, but that doesn’t guarantee my students’ future teachers will do that or that students will acknowledge the information now. How can I teach equality and freedom when the curriculum tries to hide everything that proves we aren’t as free or equal as we’re told? How do I encourage my students to explore when the school doesn’t support it and often actively works against explorations of curiosity (either through blocks to websites or selections of library books)? 

Why do we force students into the same schedules? Teenagers often need a later starting time, but not all people live on the same schedules anyway. Why do we deny the learning that people do outside of schools, which is often more effective than what they learn in schools? Tons of students have shown us that they’re learning more outside of school, especially with regards to their own activism.

And how do I, in this current economic system, maintain my job without getting fired because I might work for the one person who hates what I do and hates me for doing it? Teachers who try to expand upon the curriculum to highlight the reality of events, to encourage students to remain curious, and help them access more information or opportunities are often the people most targeted by administration with abuse and/or firings.

So again, I have to ask, where does an anarchist educator fit in? And how can we exist if we’re required to uphold the status quo that we disagree with? And more to the point: Can we fit in at all?

That’s the crux of the debate which is one I have with myself all the time. There’s never going to be one single correct answer. I believe my existence in a school helps to normalise anarchism even if I’m not directly talking about it, as it’s better for an actual anarchist to discuss the idea when it comes up and to address confusion (like when people use the word ‘anarchy’ to refer to ‘chaos’ and then assume the same of anarchists). It’s probably better for us to exist, even if we’re doing most of our work indirectly, than for us to be completely removed from the current society.

Plus, a paycheck is helpful to continue working on other activist causes.

But I also know that I’m stuck in a system that forces me to act in ways that are antithetical to my beliefs and often invalidate my identity. The state, unless students acquire paperwork to be excused for a reason they consider ‘valid’, requires that students be at school a certain number of days or risk failing, which I don’t agree with at all.

I’m required to teach certain topics because they exist on a test or a state curriculum. If I overlook too many of the rules I disagree with, I get targeted for harassment (affecting both my mental health and financial stability). And it’s not always safe for me to be an open non-binary queer person or to talk about my disabilities, and I’ve received complaints for “indoctrinating children” for simply recommending novels with openly queer characters and “scaring” them for including stories centered around disabled people.

In Slovakia, they openly segregate disabled children from mainstream schools. While they have developed schools specifically for children with disabilities, many public schools don’t even have the proper equipment to accommodate physical disabilities, such as a stair lift or elevator (and I’ve been told about public schools where the parents had to do fundraising to get an elevator installed instead of the state doing the job it claims to do).

I’ve visited another school in the country that is split into two, segregating Slovak Roma children from “Slovak” children because the “Slovak” parents retain anti-Roma beliefs. For the Roma students, almost none of their teachers are Romani or have connections to their community, forcing them to participate in the dominant culture and ignore their own (or risk getting in trouble). And, by the way, this segregation is illegal. (And while the European Commission called on Slovakia to desegregate their schools? It’s not like anything happened, which would only be shocking if anyone expected states and “political unions” of states to do anything useful to protect all people.)

Working in education systems requires some form of a desire to want to reform them, to alter them while still maintaining what’s “good” about them. But how do you improve schools like the ones above? How do you make them work for everyone when they were never designed for all people? COVID-19 has shown that a lot of our whole system is inaccessible and broken; students (along with their parents and communities) have found alternative ways to learn and work together, but we’re still pushing everyone to go back to normal.

And so I keep finding myself in a predicament: Do I continue working in schools and hope that I influence the next generations to continue pushing for gradual change? Or do I find another avenue, as an educator, to work towards organising a philosophical shift that just isn’t happening?

Because I don’t feel good in the schools, and I don’t feel good out of them (for as long as they exist).

I guess I’ll just have to keep doing both. For now.