Reconsidering Traditional Classrooms: The Problems with Domesticating the Natural Child


Anna Brix Thomsen I Education I Commentary I November 20th, 2014



" When children are demonized, they are often described as feral. But feral is what children should be: it means released from captivity or domestication."

- George Monbiot.



From the moment a child is born, it is expected to assimilate to the culture and society surrounding it, to make its norms and traditions its own. It is a war with the goal to break down the child until it surrenders its natural instincts and accepts its domestication.

This process is unnatural and not without bloodshed. Screaming, conflicts and violence ensues when the child tries to fight tooth and nail to express itself in a way that comes natural to it, and not succumb to the unnatural assimilation process. It almost never works. And when it does, the child is labeled with one of the increasingly pervasive diagnoses that we hide behind to not have to take responsibility for our creation; the invention of a society and a culture that breaks down life before it had even had a chance to grow. We call it ADD, ADHD, hyperactive disorder, child depression or simply: 'bad seeds'. The child innocently asks: "But why?" The parents' response? "Because that's just the way it is. Get with the program."

Let me give you an example: We expect children to sit down, sit still and stay put, and only be active in their minds exercising abstract cognition. We think: "Well what's the problem? I love sitting still, I can sit and work a whole day without getting fidgety, so surely a child should be able to do the same!"

We say that "the child is acting out" or "it is misbehaving" or "the child doesn't follow the instructions." But have we really considered what it is like for a child to have to sit still all day? Have we considered that we too are the result of this brutal process where our natural expression has been broken down and suppressed until nothing was left but a docile thinking-machine that can't even feel, let alone consider itself as a living, breathing physical organism?

A couple of days ago, I read an article where veteran teacher, Alex Wiggins, described what she realized after following two students around for an entire day. She would do the work they did, sit with them during class, and basically experience everything that a student goes through on a daily basis.

What she found was heartbreaking and alarming to say the least:

"In every class for four long blocks, the expectation was for us to come in, take our seats, and sit down for the duration of the time. By the end of the day, I could not stop yawning and I was desperate to move or stretch. I couldn't believe how alert my host student was, because it took a lot of conscious effort for me not to get up and start doing jumping jacks in the middle of Science just to keep my mind and body from slipping into oblivion after so many hours of sitting passively…"

"High school students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90 percent of their classes."

"In eight periods of high school classes, my host students rarely spoke. Sometimes it was because the teacher was lecturing; sometimes it was because another student was presenting; sometimes it was because another student was called to the board to solve a difficult equation; and sometimes it was because the period was spent taking a test."

"It was not just the sitting that was draining but that so much of the day was spent absorbing information but not often grappling with it."

"I asked my tenth-grade host, Cindy, if she felt like she made important contributions to class or if, when she was absent, the class missed out on the benefit of her knowledge or contributions, and she laughed and said no."

"…it made me realize how little autonomy students have, how little of their learning they are directing or choosing. I felt especially bad about opportunities I had missed in the past in this regard…"

"You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long."

"I lost count of how many times we were told to be quiet and pay attention. It's normal to do so - teachers have a set amount of time and we need to use it wisely. But in shadowing, throughout the day, you start to feel sorry for the students who are told over and over again to pay attention because you understand part of what they are reacting to is sitting and listening all day. It's really hard to do, and not something we ask adults to do day in and out. Think back to a multi-day conference or long PD day you had and remember that feeling by the end of the day - that need to just disconnect, break free, go for a run, chat with a friend, or surf the web and catch up on emails. That is how students often feel in our classes, not because we are boring per se but because they have been sitting and listening most of the day already. They have had enough."

"In addition, there was a good deal of sarcasm and snark directed at students and I recognized, uncomfortably, how much I myself have engaged in this kind of communication…Of course it feels ridiculous to have to explain the same thing five times, but suddenly, when I was the one taking the tests, I was stressed. I was anxious. I had questions. And if the person teaching answered those questions by rolling their eyes at me, I would never want to ask another question again. I feel a great deal more empathy for students after shadowing, and I realize that sarcasm, impatience, and annoyance are a way of creating a barrier between me and them. They do not help learning".

Teachers are stressed; the educational environment is artificial and ironically not designed to optimize learning. There are too many children in one class and while all children have specific individual needs, they're expected to follow (and the teacher must teach according to) a standardized 'one-size-fits-all' lesson plan. It is no wonder that most of us leave school asking ourselves if we ever really learned anything.

In my work as a teacher I also come across children that 'act out' and that can't sit still, and I do get frustrated. But what I refuse to do is to blame the children - and if I do it anyway in the silence of my own mind, I make sure that I investigate how I can stop blaming the child and instead look for solutions through which I can change the situation.

I had a class where the students were continuously goofing around and laughing. As it kept happening and it made it difficult for me to teach, I became more and more frustrated. I tried talking to the kids about it, explaining to them how it was difficult to teach when they were goofing around all the time. I even agreed with them that they could have a portion of the lesson to goof around if they promised to pay attention the rest of the time. Nothing seemed to work. So I decided to take another look at the situation and see if there were dimensions missing that I hadn't considered.

I then began looking at how I could solve the point and to my surprise I realized that it was me who was being too restrictive because I had an idea about how the lessons were supposed to go. I realized that within my need to control the lesson and how it played out, there was actually a fear in terms of my own role as a teacher, what the children are 'supposed to learn' and a fear of how others would see me as a teacher if I was not following 'the norm.'

I realized that I too am a product of the exact same school system that perpetuates an unnatural learning environment, not optimized for learning but for producing docile and complacent individuals.

I decided to let go of my control. I decided to let the children do what they do and see if I instead can join with them and support them. So I did and it was very interesting. I laughed with them, I goofed with them. I allowed myself to relax.

What I started to realize is that the students primarily need interactive exercises that are not just about reading and writing while they sit still. They need to feel, touch and hear. They need to use their hands, be creative and create a connection between themselves on a physical level and whatever it is they are learning about.

Because as we've seen, learning as it is constructed now, is based on the premise that the child must disconnect from its physical body and literally 'plug out' or go into a vegetative state, while the mind is supposed to be the only active tool that the child uses. By doing that, we are cutting the child off from its life force, from its creativity, its passion and as a result: from itself. THAT is why they are so passive, why they don't participate, why they don't feel an ownership for what they learn; because essentially, it has nothing to do with them. Their bodies and minds belong to the school, to society.

The whole purpose of going to school is to assimilate children just enough for them to be functional members of society who will work and consume in an endless cycle like little cogs in a wheel.

In previous blogs, I've discussed how important it is for learning to be connected to the real world, that it has meaning for children so that school doesn't just become a mock or simulated version of reality that is entirely disconnected from their own lives. What I hadn't considered was that one of the ways that education must be real and connected to the child, is through the physical.

So I realized that I had to connect the lesson material and the topics, the words and the grammar to physical activities. I started to incorporate that into my lessons, where the children would switch between reading, writing and doing physical exercises or otherwise interact/be creative. To my surprise, I was able to teach them a lot easier. They were not disrupting or disturbing, and they would happily join in. It was also a lot more fun for me as a teacher, and even I learned a lot.

So what all this has taught me is to focus more on checking where the students are, especially if they're disrupting - because there might be something that I'm not seeing where they need and require a different type of learning environment, especially focusing more on being physical and less on sitting still. Overall I've discovered that anything interactive is much more enjoyable for them, and even here they can still learn all the things they need to learn - but it can be in a fun and creative way. I learned that when I allow myself to let go of control, lean back and observe, I actually see a lot more - and can see solutions that I hadn't considered before because I was too locked in an idea about how I wanted things to be.

We domesticate children to exist in a world that is anything but civilized - but that is in fact barbaric and savage - and we tell them that what is inside them as their natural expression is 'too wild', 'too savage', that it must be contained, controlled, and cannot be let out into the open, because: "What if everyone did that?"

Well... what if they did?

It is not the child that has to change, that has to "behave, sit up, sit straight and shut up." It is us. We have to dare to think out of the box, hell; live out of the box - and realize that we've become the box. And to change it, we have to change ourselves…

Supporting the creation and nurturing of self-aware and self-responsible children is imperative for us to change the current course our world is on. Because it is through the domestication of children where we disconnect them from being alert, awake and present in their physical bodies; where we create those zombie-like placated human beings that do not contribute anything of value to our world but perpetuating the cycle of working and consuming.

For example: Students only learn about the world; the names of the countries, cities and continents as abstract knowledge that they just have to learn to survive without fully understanding why. They are disconnected from seeing themselves as part of the world, as existing in an interdependent and interconnected world. They are unable to place themselves in the shoes of another with compassion because they have never learned to even be firmly grounded in their own shoes. Instead, they exist in an artificial tension field between virtual reality and their own minds.

It doesn't have to be this way.

Education could be so much more if we would only admit to ourselves that the society we are preparing our children for, is NOT the most optimized, is not how the world should be. (Obviously because the situation is what it is, we also can't just entice them to rebel and become oppositional because that doesn't work either.) But we can show them both sides of the coin.

We can provide them with a holistic perspective that works with a three-dimensional and tangible reality, instead of focusing exclusively on a one-dimensional simulation. We can stand by them and stand with them as they go through the education system, to not allow their life force and expression to be squashed, but to find creative ways to work with the system, in the system, and slowly but surely prepare the road before us of taking the leap into a different way of co-existing.

Just imagine the adults who would come out of such an education system and the potential they would have to create substantial change in this world.