28 Sep 2018

20th century schools are failing our 21st century children

Educational institutions do not want to change. Fresh visions are quickly replaced by bureaucracy, control, sanctions and all other kinds of idiocy -- an interview with Jesper Juul.

Wysokie Obcasy
Agnieszka Jucewicz Wysokie Obcasy, Global
20th century schools are failing our 21st century children  - NewsMavens
School girl, Pixabay

The following fragments from Agnieszka Jucewicz’s interview with Danish family therapist Jesper Juul appeared in the Polish weekly “Wysokie Obcasy” in April 2015.

Agnieszka Jucewicz: You once said: “Teachers, students and parents should take to the streets and protest against the current educational system. And if that ever happens, I’ll be the first to stand up and join them”. Do you maintain your stance?

Jesper Juul:  I surely do. Unfortunately, the situation in many countries is still unsatisfactory and requires a radical transformation. The current educational system in Germany, Austria, France or Poland does not bring value to students, parents or teachers. It’s oppressive and outdated, and based on power, hierarchy and absolute obedience.

The traditional educational system was designed to provide the country with submissive citizens dutifully fulfilling tasks on assembly lines. But times have changed.

AJ: Instead of factories, we have corporations.

And these corporations are not looking for meek, compliant workers anymore. Today they’re after creative, inventive people who think outside the box and are willing to make bold decisions.

AJ: What else has changed?

The way parents treat their children. Their relationships seems to have become deeper and more authentic. And kids themselves have changed as well. Just like women 30-40 years ago, children have finally started claiming their rights, calling for respect and the freedom to make decisions. And as with women’s emancipation in the past -- these claims are  arousing strong objections and resistance.

Nobody in charge likes to share their power, so schools are stubbornly clinging to archaic structures and ignoring all the changes going on around them. Educational institutions still resemble an industrial factory, in their worst and most toxic form.

AJ: When you say “school”, what do you mean exactly?

The whole formation of teachers, parents and children. But most of all, a school is a political institution and an extremely effective tool used by governing bodies in their fight for their next term of office.

We can see the same scenario in many different countries -- new governments take power and one day teachers are portrayed as heroes and on another as culprits, depending on the caprice of the ruling party.

As long as parents and teachers are at each other’s throats, politicians can rest easy.

Innovation and fresh visions are consistently and quickly replaced by bureaucracy, control, sanctions and all other kinds of idiocy.

That’s why we should make authorities realize that their countries need educational reforms, regulating the way people treat each other at school and the way school treats them. It happened in Denmark 30 years ago. Consequently, all the major decisions related to educational system are made in parliament, in the presence of ministers, members of teachers’ union and a representative of the students’ association, which, for over last 20 years, has consisted exclusively of girls -- all eloquent, thoroughly prepared and excellent negotiation partners. Do you know how it all started?

AJ: Not a clue.

With a legal reform. After numerous social transformations, politicians finally realized that a child is an independent  human being and that schools should be responsible not only for the level of education but also for child’s social and psychological development.

AJ: Aren't developmental issues mainly the parents’ responsibility?

Not only. Consider how many hours a day children spend at school and multiply it by 11-12 years. That’s a lot of time. Teachers, apart from passing on their knowledge, have a huge influence on our children. That’s why the reformation of the educational system should primarily be addressed at taking good care of teachers.

AJ: How?

Teachers should be provided with adequate training, preparation and support. Many young educators after 2 or 3 years of teaching give up and say: “Never again!” They feel burned out because their way of thinking already differs from old rules and practices, yet they still lack the tools to put their ideas into action. Even though they are inspired to change, they keep getting brutally defeated by the unyielding, conventional system.

During their university years, teachers attend classes on developmental psychology. Unfortunately, these classes often focus solely on children. What’s still missing are lectures or seminars that would teach our future teachers different methods of self-awareness necessary for the development of empathy. You can only imagine and understand another person’s feelings if you thoroughly know and understand yourself.

The capacity for empathy is both crucial and highly undervalued in schools.

For years it has been treated as a soft, feminine feature undermining a teacher’s authority, while in fact it’s the key to creating a supreme educational institution. It’s empathy we should focus on, and not the -- stereotypically associated with men --  omnipresent hierarchy.

AJ: Do you think schools today have a typically patriarchal structure?

Undoubtedly! It stems from the times when men held exclusive power.

AJ: In your book “Schools in Crisis” you mention the “school culture”. Corporate culture is the executive board’s responsibility. Who’s in charge of the “culture” at a school?

The headmaster or director. They decide on what values and principles their school should be built on and in most cases they’re free to do it, regardless of the ministry’s guidelines. I’m not spurring anyone into a reckless fight with the department of education -- that would be like Denmark going to war with Vladimir Putin -- I only suggest that in-school relations between people are pivotal and might require more attention.

AJ: What kind of competencies should a school director have?

They should be a professional, not a bureaucrat, have good managing and leading skills, but mainly, they need to have a vision! The teaching staff need to feel that he or she is always reliable, but in case of conflict between a tutor and a student, they should thoroughly analyze the argument from both sides, instead of automatically defending their employee. This blind solidarity happens too often these days. It’s inappropriate and totally unjust.

AJ: What would be your advice for parents?

Parents today are too heavily focused on their children. I like to call this overprotectiveness “neo-romanticism” as it’s equally sentimental and delusional. At the same time, I understand them -- some of these parents were over-disciplined as children. To make sure they don’t repeat their parents’ mistakes, they spoil their offspring, overindulging them, and following them like shadows.

AJ: Doing their homework?

Oh, that is a real nightmare! We’ve been through this in Denmark too, until parents realized how much harm it was actually doing to their kids. By relieving children of their tasks, parents disregard and neglect their natural need for progress and life exploration. Childhood is like a marathon. We, as adults, can stand at the finish line, cheer and pass the drinks or food, but it’s the kids who have to complete the race single-handedly. We can’t just pick them up and carry them to the finishing post.

Today in Denmark homework is voluntary, and do you know what’s most surprising about it? 65% of kids choose to do it! And since they feel responsible for it, they do it all by themselves.

This is precisely why I think that compulsory school attendance should be replaced with a right to education. It completely changes the atmosphere.


Jesper Juul -- Danish educator and psychotherapist, author of “Your Competent Child”, “Aggression: A New and Dangerous Taboo” and “Schools in Crisis”. Founder of FAMILYLAB organization offering trainings, seminars and workshops for parents and public institutions in 15 countries.

Translated from Polish by Martyna Kardach


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