Shrinking Children

One of the main things that often strikes me about the young people who learn and play with us at Maverick Learning Community is how much space they take up! Physical space, and also space in our hearts and minds as adult facilitators in co-creation with them. At capacity, we have 3 adults for 18 young people aged between 8 and 13. It’s a high ratio, and it’s needed in order to support us all to show up fully and to genuinely engage in our autonomy-honouring community-building work. We also have a whole youth club building at our disposal – the footprint of which is equal to more than three average school classrooms – and often spill out into the world outside those walls.

It’s a real contrast to my experience as a secondary school teacher, where on some days I would work with 180 young people, 30 at a time, often as the only adult in the classroom. I cannot conceive of the young Mavericks ever fitting into that system – at least not without having to pack away many parts of their being – and that got me thinking…

I have come to realise that one of the main features of our mainstream education system is that it shrinks children. From the moment they step through its doors, at the tender age of 5 or even younger, it shrinks their bodies, minds and souls so that they cause minimal disruption – to the smooth running of the school, and also to the status quo.

The physical shrinking is perhaps most obvious. The ways in which children move their bodies are controlled in order to fit them into corridors, behind desks. They are constrained by impractical uniforms, by unreasonable rules. They are taught that they should walk, not run – a modality of movement which anyone who has spent time with a child who is free knows will always be the last resort in a world of skipping, running, climbing, twirling and jumping. They are taught to ignore the basic signs their body gives them – hunger, thirst, the need to use the toilet, the need for rest. They are admonished for fidgeting, or casting their eyes around the room, and praised for subjugating their own needs beneath those of the machine.

Then there’s the emotional shrinking. The need to not rock the boat, to tuck away their joy or grief or anger so that they can focus on their lessons. The need to tune out of the messages their emotions are sending them just as they do with their bodies – to ignore their feelings of frustration, of injustice, of confusion so as not to fall foul of increasingly draconian behaviour policies. The effort of doing this is huge, and often takes children to a place where there is no chance of meaningful learning. And when the mask drops at the end of the day the release of emotion can be overwhelming. It even has a name – after-school restraint collapse – and the resulting meltdowns can be terrifying and exhausting for children and parents alike.

I’m also increasingly interested in the intellectual shrinking, particularly as the development of intellectual/academic skills is often used as the justification for the controls and constraints I’ve explored above. In schools, we teach that academic learning happens in silos, in neat subject areas behind neat classroom walls. We also teach to the test – those all important grades that give everyone within the system meaning and validation – and that shrinks the potential for intellectual development even more. We shut down curiosity where it doesn’t fit into these measurable boxes, and teach that reproducing information is much more important than creative growth. Also relevant I think is the part that politics has to play in all this, and the ways in which this limits perspectives and lines of enquiry. Teachers are decried for being ‘woke’, and threatened harshly if there is evidence they are bringing their politics into the classroom. And yet the whole system is designed to teach a particular political narrative – that of patriarchal capitalism – one which feels increasingly like radicalisation as disparity deepens and the world burns.

Within this neoliberal framework, our schools shrink our children’s sense of possibility – their sense of what it is possible to achieve, and how; what success looks like, and what they should strive for. The arts are sidelined, nature is commodified, and a whole raft of different reward systems quash intrinsic motivation and self-worth, instead elevating the importance of external validation – validation our children will be searching for their whole lives.

There is an irony here that in order to feed the system’s desire for perpetual growth – that illusory aspiration that underpins so much of what is wrong with our world today – we need to shrink the humans that the system feeds on. The shrinking is necessary lest we rise up and overcome that system. And it has to begin in childhood, for this is when we are most inclined to grow.

I long for an education system that is expansive, liberating, committed to nurturing the seeds of potential inside each of us and seeing with wide-eyed curiosity what possibilities unfold. This would be an education system that would centre children and inspire change – not just prop up a broken system as it slowly kills us all.

For now, I cherish the opportunity Maverick Learning Community gives me to co-create something new, something that is evolving and shifting every day as our practice deepens and our trust and understanding grow.

But I do wonder what it would take for all our children to follow a path that does not seek to shrink them. Surely that’s not too much to ask?

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