A pollarded tree

Ian Cunningham

As I look out of my window I can see beautiful, relatively-untouched trees - and also somewhat ugly pollarded trees. I understand that in an urban environment it appears necessary to restrict the growth of trees in certain locations - for example close to houses. But it always seems a shame.

It seemed to me an obvious metaphor for how children are often treated in school - the equivalent of pollarding. Cutting off natural growth.

Examples of what has been said to some of the students in our College by past school teachers include:

'You're no good at art' - CHOP

'Give up trying to learn an instrument; you're not musical' - CHOP

'You've failed at maths' - CHOP

Each labelling of the young person chops off an opportunity for learning and growth.

The worst example I recollect is

'You're stupid, Jason' - a BIG CHOP

This example came from a boy who had been told this by his teacher in the last year of primary school. So, quite rationally, he decided to stop talking to teachers. If they had this view of him why should he interact with them? At secondary school he was labelled as selective mute - he never spoke in four years at the school. He even stopped attending school so they sent tutors round to his house. The last example of this was an English tutor attempting to teach him Julius Caesar - and giving up when Jason just burst into tears.

In desperation the school sent him to us.

Instead of trying to teach him we asked him about himself and what he wanted to do. He talked about his life and his interests and we were then able to start to see how we could respond. He then started to learn what he wanted to learn.

As the boy was statemented we had to go with him and his mother to a statementing meeting. The school teachers were shocked as he answered questions and spoke up for himself.

This is one end of a spectrum of inappropriate teacher behaviour. To return to some of the slightly less problematic examples, the student who was told he was not musical had built that view into his sense of who he was. He absorbed the notion that he lacked something, even though he was actually interested in music.

Having discovered his interest in music (only listening by now and not doing anything) our music tutor talked to him about his interests and let him pick up a guitar. She then asked him if he'd like to learn some chords. And so it took off. By the end of the year he was playing five instruments. He ended up doing a music degree. But how many other young people get denied this and end up accepting the judgement of their teachers?

In our College children often arrive saying that they are no good at things. Indeed we had one girl who came saying that she was literally no good at anything - school had labelled her so and she was absolutely serious in her assertion. We found out that she was involved in dance and that she was pretty good at it - and helped her to recognise that this ability had value. Despite her autism she rapidly learned how to contribute to our community meetings and was a great moral compass for other students. And she developed in many other ways during her time with us.

Natural growth

There is a story of two boys in neighbouring houses who were given a young shrub each to look after in their respective gardens. In one garden the boy's shrub was thriving and looking really healthy. In the next garden the other boy's shrub looked decidedly sick. The parents of each of the boys could not understand the difference. They decided to observe what they were doing. The first boy was watering and feeding his shrub every so often but otherwise left it alone. The other boy was observed to do nothing in the day but each night he crept out and pulled up the shrub to examine its roots. He then replanted it.

The clear comparison is with schooling and testing. Nurturing the child works; deadly testing is demeaning and undermining for many children.

People often object to the idea of naturalness. Children, it is alleged, need shaping like pollarded trees: their natural tendencies are not towards useful learning. Unfortunately for those espousing this view the evidence doesn't support it.

In Self Managed Learning College our students have freedom to choose what to learn, how to learn, where to learn, when to learn and, mostly importantly, why to learn. Over the last 15 years all students have gone on to productive careers after leaving the College at 16 - we have never had a NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) - though our students often don't choose traditional careers - including sometimes opting for self-employment.

Ian Cunningham, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Self Managed Learning College
Film available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fZUi6Kxriqw
Website college.selfmanagedlearning.org
Phone 01273 703691 or 270995



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