I can make my own decisions

But are you going to let me make them?

The drawing you see above was what a student produced after I asked him for one of his drawings. But let me tell you how it really happened. One day, when I came to work, there was a student having some extra, remedial classes on grammar. He’d been having some difficulties with the use of a certain grammar structure, which wasn’t really what caught my attention. What did catch my eye was the drawing he’d made on the piece of paper he had in front of him. He’d drawn a very nice picture (in my humble opinion) and I decided it was worth praising him for that. So both I and the other teacher who were in the room asked him whether he’d like to have his drawings on the brand new school blog. As he was leaving, he said he’d do it, but not in a very confident way. We just looked at him and told him to think about it and whatever it is he decided, we’d be OK with. To my surprise, a couple of days later, he gave me two of his drawings, which were then published on the school’s blog.

This picture is the first thing that got me thinking about sharing some thoughts on a blog post. I’d already shared the picture on twitter and a friend of mine commented that it portrayed learner’s autonomy and independency, which I very much agree with. But then, as if this wasn’t enough, something else happened. I was teaching a class with 10 teenagers, who are either in high school or have just finished it and are about to start college. It’s an exam preparation course for the Cambridge CAE examination, and there was a listening activity on education and the role of teachers. I had decided I’d show them Sir Ken Robinson’s interview on the Bonnie Hunt show. Their reaction upon the ending of the interview was a, “Is there such a school?” in unison. Needless to say, the topic sparked their interest and they held a rather long but productive discussion about the topic. Now, we, teachers, have long been discussing education and the need for change. But it was comforting to see that kids also came to similar conclusions. This is what they said:

  1. There are many different talents that are simply ignored by schools.
  2. We are forced to learn certain things just because someone else considers them important. No one values nor allows for growth of what we can already do well.
  3. There are good teachers who are not allowed to encourage their learners because of schools’ policy.
  4. We’d all like to study in a school that values us for who we are and not for our grades on tests.

I didn’t interrupt them once. Then one of the kids said that the problem is that even if schools wanted to change and teach students based on their individuality and personal skills and interests, such schools would go bankrupt. He said that unless the means of access to higher education changes, students and teachers are bound to be trapped in an educational system that values academic achievement over anything else. (I wish I could remember his exact words, but that’s the idea.)

Just to make it clear, in Brazil state run schools are known for their poor standards and low level of education. Any parent who can afford to pay for private education will enroll his or her son or daughter in a private schools based on that school’s results in the last entrance examination to universities. If we know this, we can easily understand why that student said that any school that tries to break away from ‘the rat race in education’ is likely to go bankrupt. And it’s not only parents that wouldn’t want their kids to go to such schools. When I asked the kids whether they’d like, at this very moment, to change schools and go to a school that is not known for its passing rates on the entrance examinations, they all said they wouldn’t. (There’s something about this here.)

The question then is, are we caught up in a catch-22 situation? Is this a dead-end road? Well, if I believed there was no solution, I wouldn’t be a teacher. As a teacher, I have to believe there’s hope and fight for change. We can make a difference in our students’ lives. We can inspire and motivate by deed and by word. We can get them to realise that, yes, they can make their own decisions and thrive.

*Many thanks to Vitor, the student who drew the picture and let me use it here.

4 thoughts on “I can make my own decisions

  1. Very thought provoking! I’ve been reflecting on these things a lot lately, after reading Ken Robinson and interacting with a young woman I know who doesn’t ‘fit the school mould’ and has a lot to say about it. I’m reading Daniel Pink’s Whole New Mind at the moment, which I recommend too. Thanks for the post!

    1. Thank you for the book recommendation! I hope I can find it here. Even though we have some very good and humungous bookstores, it never ceases to amaze me when they simply haven’t got a clue of which book you’re talking about. 🙂

  2. In Japan, most students start attending cram schools in 3rd or 4th grade (between 8 and 10 years old). None of the moms was keen about starting their kids down that road, but were more afraid of leaving them at a disadvantage if they didn’t. It’s difficult to do well on junior high entrance exams without the additional tutoring, and if you don’t get into a good junior high you won’t get into a good high school, and so on until you aren’t able to find a good job with benefits–all because you didn’t start cram school in 3rd grade.

    When I was in Okayama recently for a workshop, I was walking back from dinner with a local teacher. He spotted a student of his, walking to the station, still in his school uniform. The child was probably 9, and it was after 9 p.m. It’s not an unusual case.

    It’s like, everyone wants to jump off of the carousel, but is afraid to go first in case no one else follows.

    1. Your very last sentence defines it all:

      It’s like, everyone wants to jump off of the carousel, but is afraid to go first in case no one else follows.

      In Brazil, the way I see it, and at this very moment, the schools that could try to do something different are the state run schools, where teachers wouldn’t have to fear losing their jobs and most parents wouldn’t withdraw their kids from school. After this bound to be successful change, other schools would probably follow.

      The situation in Brazil isn’t as bad as the one you described, then. Kids here only truly start worrying about it when they start high school.

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