Let’s take a few moments to think about what it means that schools are compulsory and coercive environments and not consensual ones. To do this, we need to think about the many compulsory layers that exist within schools.
Firstly, there is showing up. Unless home educating, young people have to attend school. There is no choice, it is compulsory, and failing to attend is a big issue with attendance data highly monitored. School being a place that you ‘have to be’ is the baseline of a person’s relationship with their school and education.
Then there is the compulsory participation within the school day. Students have to be in certain places at certain times, as decided by the teachers and school leadership. Their time during the day is rigidly structured in terms of the places they are allowed to go, and what they are allowed to do within those places. Again, compliance with this is compulsory, with deviation carrying the risk of punitive consequences.
Within this are further compulsory aspects. What information is offered, what, when and how students interact with that subject matter. Students are not given the opportunity to consent to what and when they are taught, and their participation in lessons is compulsory – you can’t just sit quietly at the back waiting for what you want to learn, you must tune in regardless of whether you actually want to or not.
Part of the reason for some of this highly managed and non-consensual environment is practical. There are large numbers of students in an environment that is designed for classroom based teacher-led learning, and so it can be said under their current design, a degree of structure and organisation is necessary to ensure everyones safety. Some of the compulsory nature necessitated by restrictions resulting from testing and imposed curriculum requirements.
There are other reasons as to why consent is absent in schooling, to do with beliefs and mindsets about young people and learning. These beliefs inform policy and everyday school life.
Some people believe that school and learning is ‘bad medicine’ that will only be taken if a person has no choice. That ‘education’ and/or ‘learning’ is only possible if children are forced into it. Some people believe that given the choice, children wouldn’t sit in that classroom.
Maybe there is some truth in that, when considering what is currently offered as ‘education’. Unlike teachers who can leave a school, or leave the profession, students can not talk with their feet. It’s impossible to say how many would show up given the choice, and how essential coercion is to the functioning of schools as they currently stand.
The fear within schools, that given the choice, students wouldn’t voluntarily show up, either to school at all, or to particular classes, is very real. It even prevents some schools from granting students free access to the toilet during the school day – the fear that a student would prefer to sit in a toilet cubicle than in a classroom.
To me, this fear and ‘bad medicine’ idea is telling us something very important. If people wouldn’t actively consent to being there and to participating, we have an epic problem that needs resolving.
There is a farmer in Spain called Eduardo Sousa, who produces foie gras without force-feeding his geese. His geese help themselves to enough of what they need, through their own choosing, to self-create some of the best fois gras in the world. No forcing, they do it through their own choice. They do it consensually.
His geese aren’t even penned in. They are free to leave at any time, should they wish to. Only, his geese don’t want to leave. Wild geese flying overhead even come down and join his flock. He has proven that it isn’t necessary to force feed geese to produce foie gras, it isn’t necessary to keep them under caged conditions either. Given the right environment and opportunities, the geese choose to be there and do it themselves, and given the space and opportunity, thrive. Some people believe you can only produce foie gras by force. Eduardo has shown that that isn’t true.
Some people believe that learning and education require force, compulsion, coercion. I don’t believe that to be true.
What would a school need to look like to replicate the effect of Eduardo’s farm? What environment and opportunities would you need to offer in order for students to actively consent to being there? What if students could choose with their feet, and the only type of school that was sustainable was one that students chose to show up to, and chose to participate in? What would the impact on ‘learning’ be if it was happening in a consensual and personalised rather than forced relationship?
For a school to be consensual, it needs to offer freedom of movement, it needs to genuinely listen to and respect the people within it, to offer space and time, and access to things of interest and value, as perceived by the participants as well as the providers – and those can be flexible roles. It needs to be an attractive and comfortable space that people want to be in, where people are free to meet their own needs, and can reach out for support if needed.
Who wouldn’t want to show up there everyday?