Child-led learning and responsibility

“You say it best when you say nothing at all.”

Overstreet, Schlitz and Keating, 1999

Everyone seems to have an opinion on how much responsibility a child should be given and at what age. Famously Maria Montessori came up with a list of tasks that could be completed by age and perhaps, in her centenary year, we should pick the best bits of her ideas about child-led learning.

There have also been many articles of late about helicopter parenting, snowflakes and how young people no longer take responsibility for, well, anything. Back in my day when life was sepia toned, children were expected to be able to do just about everything that a grown up could. We could re-shoe horses, compose a symphony and stop a ship from sinking while writing sonnets… in Latin. Today, they’d have to use an app (and that is just typical) say the cynics. I certainly enjoyed a far greater level of freedom as a young person than many children would enjoy today; perhaps my parents were simply far less responsible than I am, perhaps it really was a different world. Some observers would say that we are guilty of “spoon feeding”, of doing too much, saying too much, of expecting not enough and indeed there may well be some truth in this opinion.

I’m the first to encourage young people to take responsibility. I couldn’t have been more impressed with those politics students who stood as election candidates and had to do that most difficult of tasks – standing up and talking in front of one’s peers. Similarly, all those who managed to manoeuvre their bicycles down to the green pitch by themselves on Wednesday morning. Last weekend one intrepid band of D of E Award participants took their own route, only to discover that they had to put it right. They must have done because they were in school on Monday. In the course of any day our pupils both take a lead and accept responsibility. Whilst there are often adults underpinning these activities, important habits develop. British education is all about the whole person and that sometimes means taking risks and this also means not always being right. Most difficult for teachers (and parents), it also means that we have to stand back and let young people “get on with it”. Sometimes education works best when we don’t helpfully interfere.

If there is one place where we have no choice but to allow independence, it is the exam hall. Once there parents cannot assist, teachers can’t advise and for once students are by themselves. Whilst I am no great fan of high stakes testing, one thing I do like about exams is that children have to think and do for themselves. They are accountable for the result that they get and perhaps more importantly they are responsible for what they do with the mark or grade later on. Do they take it as a spur to achieve or a reason to give up? If we want to know the real value of exams this is perhaps it; not the result but the reaction. Saul Alinsky may just have had it right when he said in his Rules for Radicals that one should never do for others what they can do for themselves. He wasn’t thinking about cleaning a pair of shoes or doing the laundry, nor was he talking about packing a bag for a forthcoming school trip but he might as well have been.

Nicholas Hammond