The holistic philosophy is about the interaction of the cognitive and the affective; the combination of knowledges – teacher and academic (also other); teaching and learning being organised by dynamic broad aims (assisted by criteria that can be seen as converted objectives); dynamic broad aims being an expression of the essence of curriculum areas; learning being meaningful, exploratory, and challenging (hence the attention to discovery learning and problem solving); learning experiences having shape extending from an introduction, to gaining information, to using that information flexibly, to a conclusion; learning being coherent and organic not fragmented and desultory; children having significant control over their learning; observational evaluation being central; and that philosophy being fundamental to school education in a democracy.
The aspect selected for attention: ‘and that philosophy being fundamental to school education in a democracy’.
The holistic main aim for school education in a democracy is that school education should prepare children for life in a democracy and to support and to protect it. This main aim points to its basis in humanism which affirms the dignity of the individual and advocates democracy as a way of establishing and furthering that. It rejects authoritarian beliefs, emphasising individual freedom, responsibility, compassion, and the need for tolerance and co-operation. And it affirms that we must take responsibility for our own lives and the world in which we live.
The implications inherent in the holistic and humanism make clear the kind of curriculum schools should act on and the kind of experiences children should be provided with. The main characteristics of that kind of curriculum are listed in the opening paragraph above and in the opening page of the File, and what follows in the File is an explanation of the holistic in practice.
The File also sought, sometimes vehemently, to support and protect school education in a democratic context.
It is not my intention to go through the curriculum justifying, for instance, the arts or history as important to preparing children for life in a democracy and to support and protect it. If it is not apparent to a teacher or inherent in his or her education philosophy then that teacher would not be reading this in the first place and unwilling and unable to act on it in the second. The argument I make takes a different tack, one designed to provide impetus to teachers who are already on the way.
Many parts of school education should have no immediately recognisable use except within the values of that curriculum area, for instance in art, writing, mathematics, science, drama, poetry, reading, music, history, geography, and so on. The key impulse should be creativity and exploration rather than utility. True learning needs no justification other than its own development. No greater compliment could be paid to a curriculum area than being able to trust it as authentically structured to deliver, if well taught, a manifold bounty. But many curriculum areas are not authentically structured, they have been corrupted, or officially undervalued as not sufficiently vocational or utilitarian. Consider how art has been neglected because of its allocated lack of utility; writing damaged because of children being forced to write proto university-type essays; mathematics distorted because of an unwillingness to slow down to get children to explore problems; science caricatured by being reduced to projects under the scourge of inquiry learning, leading to the cry from science educators – where is the science?; drama and poetry dismissed as far out and how could it be handled?; music and dance seen as the responsibility of the home; reading burdened by comprehension exercises and other paper or digital demands; and history and geography destroyed by a trendy (neoliberal inspired) devaluing of knowledge to become soggy exercises in skills.
And about Maori language, it should speedily be introduced into schools, even if done with a degree of gradualism. It should not be described or discussed as ‘compulsory’, we don’t hear English or social studies being described in that way; it should simply be described as part of the curriculum. I find it hard to think of any part of the curriculum that would help prepare children better for democratic life in New Zealand and to support and protect it. Maori language learning is the most authentic way into a world view vital to democratic living in New Zealand with all the culturally compelling components that it encompasses but, even more, it is a democratic right for a people who live in a country where one world view dominates to have their world view as a powerfully inherent part of the overall culture.
In behind all these pedagogical faults and omissions lies the obsession with narrow vocational utilitarian outcomes leading to distortion and neglect.
As I was putting together the File, I wondered how it might be considered by a reader a few decades ahead (fond hope I know). Would a hypothetical reader because of the dominance of the digital in that reader’s age dismiss what is written as hopelessly old-fashioned? Responding to that has been much in my mind as I’ve written, especially in later File postings. The opening paragraph to this writing provides the basis to that response.
The question now, as in the future, is not can the digital be used, but is its use in a particular teaching and learning circumstance, the best for children’s learning, also their preparation for life in a democracy? The involvement of the teacher and children together has abundant learning and humanising advantages. The active role of the teacher in teaching for democracy is crucial: in motivating the children, asking open ended questions, developing the affective based on children knowing things (knowing particular things not random knowledge), giving twists and insight to learning that only the teacher can adjudge and provide, and involvement at key stages of the learning process.
The digital, especially when hyperreality is commonplace, is vulnerable, especially if used by corporates or governments to introduce values the antithesis to those needed to prepare children for life in a democracy and to support and protect it. I ask that hypothetical reader to consider, irrespective of the age or technology, the universality and timelessness of values fundamental to democracy.
Preparing children for the future vocationally, and nowadays that mainly means digitally, is not commensurate, indeed, woefully inadequate, for preparing children for life in a democracy and to supporting and protecting it. A child’s vocational future does not exist in a social vacuum; it exists in a social context. Those advocating a rush to digitalism need to be mindful of the kind of social context the digital is constructing, and the human effects it is having. As well, how many of the digital experts urging rapid digitalisation of classrooms have the foggiest idea about the curriculum, therefore where digitalisation fits in productively, or doesn’t, or even where it does fit in productively, there being an even more productive way available? Given the considerable number of dystopian films and books that catch our attention and those of children, it is both aberrant and telling that the social context has been largely omitted from the discussion of preparing children for a digital future.
The digital futurists by dwelling on the digital future are taking ownership of more than the future; they are also taking control of the present. All claims for the future are also claims on the present, but consider the hopelessly narrow claim implicit in the digital one. And one should look at who is pushing the digital future devoid of reference to the social context: the digital corporates and their emissaries. In fact, the corporates do have a social context in mind, but a very narrow one, and in association with the neoliberal elite. A key point about school education and preparing children for life in a democracy, is that while prospects for the future affect considerations of the present, preparing children in school education for life in a democracy is not primarily or most effectively about the future, it is about the present.
For those who support school education involving preparing children for life in a democracy, the exact opposite to that is the neoliberal philosophy, with its central tenet being that those directly involved in implementing a policy, because of their inherent self-interestedness, are excluded from participation in any decision making to do with it. In other words, neoliberalism is a continual movement of power upwards to groups that are, illogically, weirdly, and beyond my comprehension, apparently devoid of self-interest.
For schools to function on the basis of democratic values, the education system needs to be based on those same values. The following is my perception of an education system based on democratic values:
- For a democratic, participatory education system, the production and validation of knowledge should be shared amongst a number of groups. One of the reasons why New Zealand primary schools functioned as well as they did through to the 80s was because of the checks and balances inherent in the system. Those checks and balances derived from the relative co-operativeness in the way groups related to one another. No group could carry out its functions without the support of a number of others, and no group could force its will on another. Ultimately, though, it must be acknowledged that what the government wants, the government gets, but what the government wants could be modified by educating the public to influence the government – success in doing this being the measure of teacher organisations. But that basic consideration aside, university lecturers, official education personnel, those delivering advisory support, publishers, school boards, research organisations, service organisations, and teacher organisations – all those groups were to some extent dependent on other groups for carrying out their functions. In the absence of the inevitable conflict and control behaviours generated by a strict hierarchical system, those groups were able to remain mindful of the need to negotiate in a spirit of goodwill to be able to proceed.
- Teachers are unsettled by the possibility of curriculum and administrative ideas being able to be passed quickly down the hierarchical chain without those ideas requiring teacher involvement at all stages of development. The best ideas for education come from teachers and those close to them. The part of the education system that is important to teachers is the part close to them. The part further away has the capacity to do much harm, but little capacity to do much good. The nature of the education system should protect teachers from hastily conceived ideas – no matter their potential benefits. Good ideas are only good if the process for their development has been good. The last thing teachers want is the kind of efficiency that has someone in the hierarchy having an idea and then using the chain of command to force it on them.
The challenge in school education whether digital or not, whether a mixture or not, is the following:
In whatever the curriculum activity, the aim should be to provide an education experience of the sort that transforms (or is intended eventually to transform) children intellectually, aesthetically, ethically, and reflectively. Such experience takes children back to two fundamental cultural breakthroughs – the way things are, are not necessarily the way things are or should be; and an individual’s place in it is not predetermined: and from that the realisation of ‘I am’ and the capacity to think, imagine, appreciate, and appraise. In a sense, the individual becomes of the world he or she lives in and a step beyond it. Leading to three questions continually to be asked, wrestled with, and answered but never concluded, they are: Who am I? Why are we living this way? How can we make things better? It is this process that puts all curriculum areas, and the digital, into context, a democratic one – transforming the main purposes of everything that occurs to prepare children for life in a democracy and to support and to protect it. My additional comment about the process is that it requires the committed, regular, and insightful involvement of the teacher.
The moment I am waiting for is something like the following headline: ‘Change must come to education, and quickly, or we’ll be left behind’ and the advocacy that follows not the usual digital panic by a digitalist with a vested interest, but a call for more drama (as part of daily activities); the arts (exploring, expressing and commenting on life in the South Pacific); history (based on history is a current event also exploring, expressing, and commenting on life in the South Pacific, and knowledge leading to the affective); poetry (what a neglected but powerful expression of human experience); voracious independent reading of books (from I can read to I am a reader); children writing with sincerity and joy (I am an author); problem-solving in mathematics (huge expert agreement on this); science using the science process; open-ended questioning; and general creativity, along with children knowing how to use the digital judiciously and confidently.