Neil Flinders authored the book, “Teach the Children – An Agency Approach to Education”. With his permission I have reproduced a segment from chapter 4 of his book that contains 4 stories which help illustrate different educational experiences including an agency-based approach. There are several questions at the end to help think about these different approaches.
Education and Values
Imagine two couples, Frank and Ellen, and Harold and Jennifer, conversing after sharing an enjoyable dinner hour together. The food was delicious; they are comfortable and relaxed. They are reflecting on the question How can we provide our children an education that will enable them to cope successfully with the world we live in? Clearly, each of the four has come from a background that stressed different values on this subject. As the dialogue develops, each parent describes his or her own education. Let us listen in for a moment.
Frank is speaking:
I know my experience with school was very different than Ellen’s. Her parents had very strong feelings about letting their kids chart their own course in life. That wasn’t the case in my home.
When I was in school both my parents and teachers made it very clear that if I expected to succeed in life, I’d better learn what I was told. Kids are just like other living things. They are going to grow up, and they are a lot better off when somebody makes something worthwhile out of them. People where I lived understood it was the school’s job to prepare us to fit into the real world. The teachers knew the rules; they knew what we needed to know, and it was our job to learn what they told us. People generally agreed, I believe, that this was the way to prepare kids for life.
At school my teachers were very definite about things. The objectives were very clear in every course. Due dates on all the assignments were given in advance. Most of my teachers were well prepared; they worked hard to keep us motivated-to make sure we paid attention. They piled on the work, tried to keep the class under control, and the room neat and orderly.
I remember them dividing us into groups according to our abilities. They really did try to make something out of us. I’ll never forget the tests. The teachers said they measured how well we achieved the objectives they set for us. I suppose they did, but I always wondered how one point could be the difference between a “B” and a “C.” I never felt fully comfortable with the way they compared us against each other and with national standards-probably because I wasn’t one of the brains. They told us the grading was fair and accurately reflected our ability, but at the time it didn’t always seem that way. There wasn’t a lot of controversy in our school. I remember it was a no-no to talk about religion or church. The teachers always seemed nervous when anyone asked questions about religion. School was school, not something else.
Frank was right when he said things were different at my house. We lived in another part of the country, and I don’t believe the public schools were as good as they were in Frank’s neighborhood.
Education must have been important to my parents, especially my dad, because when I was very young they enrolled me in a private school. It was a fun place. My teachers always seemed like friends; they were willing to talk about and explain most anything, but they never pushed us into studies we didn’t want to do. At times we would sit around for hours, getting very bored doing nothing until some idea or activity would catch our interest. I can’t complain about being forced to do things. The only objectives or assignments I can remember originated with me, not my teachers.
It seems like most of us worked on different subjects at different times. I don’t remember all of us ever doing the same thing at the same time unless we were involved in doing a play or working on some common project like a musical program; even then different people did different things. Whenever one of us expressed an interest in something, the teachers really became involved. They provided lots of resources, direction, opportunities, and challenges. We were encouraged to explore it all the way. There were times when I would spend days on one subject and get so involved I hardly wanted to play, eat, or do anything else.
For example, I remember when I was about thirteen I got interested in geography. For three or four months it seems geography was all I ever studied. My mind became a sponge. I could remember nearly everything I read. I think I knew more about geography at the end of that year than anyone in the school, including my teachers. It was geography that made history and other subjects so interesting to me. I could always connect them to peoples and places I knew about. My father and mother received lots of compliments from my teachers about my work. My parents were very pleased. I’m sure that was the major reason I qualified for a scholarship to attend college when I was sixteen years old.
Independence and self-reliance were stressed. You could believe whatever you wanted, but if you were going to talk about it you needed to be able to defend your point of view. It was sure to be challenged. I can still remember how I felt in those conversations.
Jennifer compares her education with Frank’s and Ellen’s schooling:
Well, Howard and I certainly come from the other side of the fence, and yet even our experiences were quite different-in fact, very different in some ways. When I was a child almost everyone in the neighborhood went to parochial school. It was a very religious community in the sense that the Church had a lot to do with most everything-politics, holidays, community standards, etc.
My school experience was something like Frank described-only everything began with God. Without God our school wouldn’t exist. We wouldn’t exist. In fact, nothing would exist. God was in charge of everything-the church, state, family, individual, nature. Our teachers made it very clear that if we wanted to be happy in the next life then certain things were expected of us in this life. Preparing for the next life was most important. Those who fail the big test, we were told, are going to be in serious trouble.
Certainly, there are important things to learn in this life. Our teachers explained how everyone needs food, shelter, and clothing if they are going to be happy. It was clear that we needed to learn how to make a living if we wanted to live comfortable and satisfying lives and be able to help others. They told us if we expected to do this and do it well, it was essential for us to pay attention, do what we were told, and learn the lessons they taught.
We had regular reviews to make sure we knew the right responses to whatever questions were asked. God knew what we should do, and he had put the church in charge of seeing that we did it. Our teachers were well informed and very religious; they were good examples academically and morally. I know they cared about us-sometimes they seemed to care too much. It was hard to get away with anything.
Our teachers made the expectations so clear that we all knew there was no excuse if we messed up. We had time to study and time to meditate on what we studied. We were expected to do our own work, but we also knew it was our duty to assist those needing extra help. We had a kind of family feeling most of the time. There was really no need to fail if a person followed the rules and didn’t become rebellious. Life seemed easy as long as we followed the rules and did what we were told.
It was strange to us why people in other areas of the city didn’t understand the importance of discipline and the value of following the practices taught by the church.
Howard turns to Jennifer and winks as he reminds her:
Speaking of following the rules, I’m sure Jennifer will never forget the difficulty she had adjusting to my ideas. I grew up believing that parents and the family were primarily responsible for establishing and maintaining personal rules for conduct.
“Howard,” she used to say, “Why do you feel that way? Isn’t it enough and isn’t it easier to just do what we are told and not ask questions? Don’t they know what’s best?” But that wasn’t the way I was reared. I was taught that school rules and church rules wouldn’t have much impact unless they first came from the family. Rules had to be family standards before they would work very well at school or church.
I grew up in a little town quite isolated from large cities, big money, or life in the fast lane. Our school seemed like an extension of my home, although we had nearly four hundred students in our high school.
Looking back, I don’t think it was the location as much as it was the way the people thought and lived. School for me was something like Ellen described, but it was probably more organized. Teachers didn’t make us do things; instead they told us what they were going to do and invited us to join in. We managed to study everything at one time or another. School was seldom boring. It seemed there was always something to touch my curiosity.
Our parents and our teachers were always talking about their mission in life and asking us if we knew what our mission was. We were very much aware that we should be preparing to do something. Like Jennifer’s community, the people in my town also looked to God for the basic rules. Scripture study was a part of my life as long as I can remember. We sensed a feeling of partnership with our Heavenly Father. We were on a journey and it was important. Our school helped in some ways and the Church helped in others, but it was the family that seemed to be the main focus.
Jennifer did notice one significant difference: God was not a mystery to my parents or my teachers. They all had a very personal relationship with him. There was a definite feeling that God was leading them along through life. It was all very personal, not distant or formal. People went to Church to get spiritually refueled, to compare notes on how to help people in the community who faced special challenges, and to take turns sharing with each other what they learned from the scriptures. It was something people wanted to do, not something they had to do.
We were never given grades in our school. But we did have lots of interviews with our teachers and our parents on how things were going at school. The interviews at school were something like those we had at home with our parents. A lot of the same kinds of questions were asked. We knew it was our responsibility to compare what we were learning with what we already knew God had said about certain things. This made it fairly easy to decide what was right and wrong as well as what was most important.
In our school everyone was encouraged to succeed in something they felt was important. The teachers went out of their way to help us discover what that could be. We knew we were all different and had different talents and abilities. School was like trying to solve a puzzle.
Questions to Consider
As you reflect on the view of education briefly described by Frank, Ellen, Jennifer, and Howard, you might ask the following questions: Which of the four approaches best represents my own experience with education? Which one would I prefer for my child? What happens to a child that goes through each of these types of experiences? Would I want that to happen to my child? What impact do you think each of these approaches has on the society that promotes it? Is that impact important? Why? Why not? Should I worry about this? If I have a preference, is there anything I can do about it? If I do have a preference and choose to do something about it, what will happen? If I have a preference and choose not to do anything, what will happen? Do I really care one way or another? Is it any of my business? So what? Who else cares? Who should care? Education is a different experience when it is societal (Frank), individualist (Ellen), theological (Jennifer), or agency (Howard) in its orientation. Our choices do make a difference.