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  • Anna Brix Thomsen

Is Equal Opportunity Possible in a One-Size-Fits-All Education System? DAY 57

The other day I was working with three first graders (6 year olds) who were practicing writing. One was writing very neatly and stuck to the laid out instructions. The second was struggling and is in general struggling and often looked over to see what the first one was doing. The third one was rushing through the assignment and was moving a lot faster through it than the other two. I had all three boys in kindergarten as well before they started in school and this third boy had already started reading and writing in preschool.

So the third boy is the best of the three when it comes to reading and writing. He is basically at a level of a second grader and has a natural ability for learning how to read and write. Socially however he is not as ‘developed’ as the second boy and he tends to be quite disturbing in class. In this lesson he was writing very fast and quite ‘messy’. He was also writing a lot faster than the other two boys. And I see how especially the first boy struggles and tries to keep up. All three boys are quite competitive when we are in class so I’ve been working with teaching them to collaborate and work together instead of competing with each other so I suggested for the third boy to write neatly on the next page. I did this deliberately to slow him down so that the pace could be more equal between the boys but also to show how it’s not enough to be able to read and write. Basically I attempted to equalize the competition that I saw was playing out between the boys.

So I asked the boy to write ‘neatly’ and after I had helped one of the other boys I turned around and realize that he had written the word ‘neatly’ on the page. I am not sure if he took what I said about writing ‘neatly’ literally or if he was being funny, but it was quite an interesting situation because it caught me by surprise.

So all of this got me thinking about the responsibility we as adults have to give clear and concise instructions to children and how children tend to take everything we say literal. And this is in itself interesting because why shouldn’t we take what each other say literal? It is because we’ve created a convoluted language based on deception and manipulation where we use philological tools such as sarcasm to manipulate others. But children haven’t’ learned this ‘forked tongue’ language and so they take everything at face value… until they learn that words cannot be trusted to be what they are.

This situation also got me thinking about how children learn differently, at different speed and pace and how the education system does in no way accommodate for the individual prerequisites that each child has. On the contrary – and this is specific also for the Scandinavian educational tradition – education is streamlined into a ‘one-size-fits-all’ structure created to serve the masses in the name of a social-democratic idea of collectivism and equality. This can be traced back to the invention of the public school in the 1800’s where farmers and workers children were given access to education that until then had been a prerogative of the children of the elite. Unfortunately this way of thinking is more based on an idea of equality than actual equality. Because the idea is that all schools must teach the same curriculum the same way and in the end a cohesive community is formed that has the same equal opportunity – but what is not considered is that the ability to grasp this ‘equal opportunity’ isn’t equal in fact.

What I mean to say is that each child has different prerequisites. But the school system only provides a certain kind of environment, a certain didactic platform and not all students fit into that ‘cookie cutter’ as much as the school system tries to leave no child behind. Some children learn slowly, some learn best with their hands and bodies and some for example need a quiet and stable environment to be able to focus.

An example of how the ‘equal opportunity to learn’ provided by the school system isn’t enough can be seen in the case with my three students:

The third boy I mentioned, who wrote the word ‘neatly’ on his paper and who is very fast at learning to read and write is the younger brother of an older brother whom I’m also teaching who also is very fast in his learning process. The boy that was struggling on the other hand is the older brother to a younger sister and has no older siblings. The other boy who is the most socially developed of the three and is sort of ‘in the middle’ between the two other boys is a middle child with a younger sister and an older brother who has also been struggling in school.

Now – I am not a psychologist and I cannot definitively say that the boys sibling relations effect their ability to read and write, however as a teacher I see patterns between the boys relationship to their siblings and their learning ability as follows: The boy that is the best in the class has an older brother who also learned to read and write early and who himself is very fast paced in his academic development process. It comes easy and natural to him. As such the younger brother has had an example from an early age. And this is exactly something that described and documented in psychology books about sibling relationships and child development, the younger child often learns faster because they have the example of an older sibling. When looking at the boy who is the older sibling in his family he has not had the same input to learn from. He has not been the younger sibling looking up to an older sibling. Instead he’s been the older one, always knowing more, who is now finding himself in a vulnerable position because he’s suddenly seeing other children being much better than him. This obviously doesn’t make it easier for him to learn if he starts doubting himself and becoming insecure because he’s suddenly in a position of not being the one who knows more. Now – the last child, the one who is in the middle: he is literally in the ’middle’, both in his own family and in the class. He is always very attentive to both the social dynamics in the group as well as his own assignment. Though sometimes he’s a little too attentive to the social dynamics. He is extremely accommodating towards me as a teacher. He always helps me pack away things and notifies me if there are changes hat I need to know about (even if it is my shoe laces that has gotten untied lol). He is a pleasure to teach, but I also see the possibility of him becoming self-effacing and diffident, though until now I’ve more seen it as his natural expression. But it is profound to see how the placement each child has in their family (and here we’re only talking about one dimension of sibling relationships, not even the entire family dynamic) is directly affecting how they are in school.

Someone recently mentioned in a comment to a post I placed on Facebook: “You don’t know where those children come from and what drives them, but everyone expects you to turn them into gold” and I find this to be such an accurate and spot-on statement.

As teachers we come to these ‘unified’ schools where we’re supposed to teach children the same curriculum, at the same pace, at the same time, basically press them into the same ‘cookie cutters’ – because that is apparently what establishes an ‘equal opportunity’ in society. But if we take a look at what happens in the other end of the school system where the ‘cookies’ have been ‘baked’ we’re seeing that this equal opportunity that the school system so grandiosely provides isn’t manifesting itself into practical reality.

So what is the solution?

To solution is to rethink the entire education system in such a way that it accommodates both the prerequisites of each individual and their natural learning ability and at the same time functions as a public service to establish cohesion in society. One of the ways this can be done is through focusing on smaller classes with fewer students, more involvement between home and school, better training of teachers and individually structured education for each child that allows for the necessary flexibility required to ensure that each individual child meets his or her true potential.

Obviously such a reform is going to cost a lot of money. And currently education systems all over the world are moving in the exact opposite direction, of costing as little money as possible while still maintaining a ‘front’ of providing dignified schooling for our children. Here in Sweden for example many preschools and schools are now situated in ‘barracks’ apparently because there’s a plan to build new and better schools, but instead of seeing these being developed, we’re seeing more and more of these barracks. What is also needed is for parents to get more involved in their children’s education and actually take an active interest in what is going on instead of expecting the educational system to ‘magically’ produce a perfect child for them.

So a political decision has to be made to prioritize education as one of the most important thing we as a society can spend money on. And not as it is now where it is the first place budget cuts are made because children aren’t taken seriously when they speak up and neither are teachers.

Studies have shown that it is worth the while to invest in proper education, because what we’re looking at here is a long-term investment. And when we compromise education now to maximize profits for ‘instant gratification’ all we’re doing is creating more consequences and lack in the future for our children and ourselves. But when we prioritize education and invest the time, money and resources necessary to provide our children with the most optimal education, we pave a path for them where equal opportunities aren’t just fancy words, but a real and substantial foundation of the life we live together here on Earth.

I urge you to investigate the Living Income proposal – because with the implementation of this system as a political and economic solution, we can actually give our children the future not only they deserve, but that we deserve as well, so that when they grow up and we are old and fragile, they will care for us in the same way that we have cared for them.

I recommend reading the following blogs:

Natural Learning Abilities blog series – a MUST READ! 

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