what children learnChildren learn to walk and talk without any help from schools. Then they arrive at school eager to learn more, and all too often, within a few years, they have lost interest. Almost all conventional schools teach children that learning is a disagreeable chore.

Falko Peschel, is a German teacher who has written two books about what he calls 'Offener Unterricht' (Open teaching) and now runs his own school, the Bildungsschule Harzberg. In his first book he describes his first class of six-year-olds, ranging from one child with learning difficulties and two immigrants who can hardly speak any German to a few who are well ahead of the expected standard. Then he writes, “So a single traditional course for everybody is obviously out of the question. It is obvious to me, that I couldn't teach in a sufficiently differentiated way take into account the previous knowledge, working speed, eagerness to learn and emotional maturity of each individual. Whatever I did I would be losing some of the children. A good proportion would be totally left behind, and the rest would soon get bored. But they do actually all want to learn? They badly want to learn. But something new, something exciting. Something that they don't know already. And something that they can make use of.”

Most schools fail to provide that something. As Peschel says, a good proportion are totally left behind, and the rest soon get bored.

School also has unfortunate effects on children’s social education. Joanna Gore, who spent six months as a researcher in a London primary school in the role of a pupil, observed in her book, Leave me Alone, that children learned to stand in lines, to ask for permission to go to the lavatory and to sit, for the most part, in silence, but they also learned the skills of what the anthropologist James. C. Scott calls “peasant rebellion.” The principle elements of peasant rebellion are false compliance, foot-dragging, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander and sabotage.

There is no need for schools to produce these undesired effects. If a school would only start from the children themselves, what they know and what they want to know, it would nourish their curiosity instead of stifling it. The children would learn more, and faster, and they would love doing so.

What children usually learn at school is how to conform, either to the official school standards or to the standards an underlying peasant revolt. It would be much more valuable if they could learn to be true to themselves.

As Walter Scott said, “All men who have turned out worth anything, have had the chief hand in their own education.” (Letters, volume 11, 1936).

More articles by David Gribble