I want to explore some ideas about consent in education. What I mean by consent in this instance, is the idea that a person be given the opportunity to consent to what instruction/direction/training/ they are exposed to/participate in, and also the idea that this consent can be withdrawn at any time.
To put this into context, lets consider reading. Currently, children are not given the opportunity to consent regarding reading. Parental choice in this regard is limited to two choices, accepting reading instruction without active consent by entering mainstream schooling, or choosing to home educate.
When a child is not in school, they can be given the opportunity to consent to the ‘teaching of reading’ and/or the act of reading itself. They can also be given information that will help them to make an informed choice about reading, such as evidence based information about the broad range of ages for reaching developmental readiness for reading. Their own lived experience will likely influence their views on and interest in consenting to read. They can consent to reading as and when it feels right and appropriate to them.
Within schooling, no consent is sought, in fact mainstream schooling requires that intellectual or educational consent (which term is best I am not yet sure) is not sought. It is a system that is coercion dependent, and it uses an infrastructure of punishment and reward to facilitate and reinforce the coercive environment.
But why should it be acceptable that intellectual/educational consent be absent? Some may argue that a child is too young to be able to make a decision about consent, that asking them to do so would be age inappropriate and that adults should be trusted to make the decisions on their behalf.
To that I pose the question, are we not then doing something too soon? Would it not make sense to wait until time at which a child can make a consensual decisions, and in the mean time facilitate an environment in which for the most part children can demonstrate consent through their play choices? When schooling in some countries doesn’t commence until a child is 7 years old, we can be confident in saying that children will not be missing out intellectually or educationally by not being put through non-consensual ‘education’ in their youngest years. In my experience, by the time a child is 7 years old, especially if their life experience to that date has valued their voice and consent, they are in a position to make active and informed consensual choices about what they do in an environment designed for ‘education’.
Then we come to the barrier of fear, and negative stereotypes of children. The idea that given the freedom and opportunity, they would make bad, lazy, wrong or other negative choices. That they wouldn’t learn the right things, that they would do things in the wrong ways and so on.
But when else other than in childhood is there a better time for risk taking and mistake making? It is a fallacy to believe that there is only one magic moment to learn specific things. We know this as adults as we keep building our own knowledge banks, changing our minds, developing new skills and constantly shaping our world views based on new information that becomes available. Learning is a life long endeavour, the sense of rush and strict timings is a construct, not a necessity. We could afford children far greater freedom to determine the journey of their education without causing damage to their future.
And do we not believe also that sometimes the best or even only way to learn things is through what we might perceive as mistakes? Try something, find it doesn’t work and try something else until it does work? Maybe if I do it this way, or that, or look at it from a different angle, it will make sense? What if the very process of a consensual education journey provided the richest and most longterm learning experience of all, regardless of the actual content – the ability to think critical, to gather information to make decisions, to take personal responsibility, to realise that at no time do we know everything, and at all times we can find out more.
What more honest and richer an educational journey would we make if we were only asked for our consent, and given truthful and balanced context from which to make our decisions?
In the past it has been believed that doctors should hold all information, sharing as little as possible with patients under the premise that the doctors know best and the patient need not know. Perhaps this isn’t always in the past.
In the past it has been believed that women’s consent to sex was not necessary in marriage, and that their husbands had a right to their bodies regardless of their views. Perhaps this isn’t always in the past.
Perhaps one day it will be a thing of the past to believe that the minds, the intellects of children, are not their own, but are owned by others with power over them and who know best.
Or is that now?