An alternative approach to educating children
Our education system can be thought of as a means of mass production. Basically, there are a number of production lines which lead to employment. The system puts students on one of the production lines as early as possible - usually when they choose their subjects at the age of 12. These subjects lead to O-levels, which in turn affect what they can choose as A-levels.
However, the simple truth is that it is very unlikely that students at this age know what they really want to do with their life - most probably they want what their parents desire. In fact, I meet many people doing a university degree or who have even completed one who feel they do not know what they want to do with their lives. They just continued studying for the sake of having something to do.
Most people will probably just start working, and throughout their life never consider what they really want to do. This is why I would like to present another view of education - one which many won't even dream of being possible.
The problem is that our idea of education is that of thrusting information into children's minds and moulding characters into the right code of behaviour. I find this a very patronising attitude and a total lack of trust in children's inherent goodness.
In a way, it is also violent, because we force children to fit the system, with adults deciding when they should start learning. We seem to think we know it all and want to pass on this supreme knowledge to children. But some 90 years ago there was a person who challenged this approach.
In 1921, Alexander Neill started a school called Summerhill in the UK where children are free to choose whether to attend classes or not, how much time they want to spend playing, the rules of the school, and so on.
Many might think all its classrooms would be empty and the children would be playing all the time. But that is where they are wrong, because they assume children don't want to learn. In fact, children do want to learn, but not necessarily what adults want them to learn or at the pace we choose for them.
The result is that Summerhill school produces mature adults who are less likely to spend their lives doing work they hate, and more likely to know who they are and what they want to do with their lives.
Education at Summerhill is not mass-produced, but rather, tailor-made for each student. Obviously, this approach requires a lot of trust in children. The children at this school become more self-confident and their childhood is not filled with things they will probably forget an hour after the exam.
A crucial principle underlying Summerhill is that children do not need to sacrifice their childhood for their adulthood. Childhood has a right to exist without the need to try to anticipate the future. We seem to have little faith that children will automatically respond to the needs which arise throughout their lives.
I feel I learnt English much more when I recently started using it for science, rather than through all the years I spent at school.
Summerhill even goes a step further and allows children to run the school. It is the children who punish each other in a general assembly. And the impressive thing is that the teachers and headmaster have just a single vote each, just like the youngest child in the assembly.
The result is children who believe in themselves and children whose morality is not based on fear of, or 'respect' for adults, but on freedom, truth and respect for each other's freedom; children who have already faced many important issues in their life, such as dealing with the anti-social behaviour.
Children at Summerhill learn to take initiatives and stand up for their rights, since they have already been involved in many decisions and in the drafting of laws.
Aren't such children what we really need as future citizens? Having passive citizens following the herd instinct might have been fine in the past, but no longer in our continuously changing times.
Admittedly, Summerhill is a boarding school, and thus it has more contact with students than a traditional Maltese school can ever have. Also, the concept behind Summerhill is not a panacea, and there are many challenges involved in implementing such a concept.
Still, there is much to learn from this 90-year-long positive experience. At least, we should question our ways and have an open mind. The ideas behind Summerhill do not imply only education in schools but also at home.
Unfortunately, we seem to have little trust in our children and it seems many people think the only way to succeed is to get a university degree and a highly-paid job. We tend to give little importance to our identity and happiness.
Recently, I attended a meeting about entrepreneurship at University. Surprisingly, the common ingredient among all the successful entrepreneurs present is that they all love what they are doing, and that is why they do it so well.
I believe that being successful in life has a lot to do with knowing who you are and believing in yourself. It certainly has much less to do with being able to memorise knowledge to pass exams.