Childish Things

February 9, 2010

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” 1 Corinthians 13:11

So …..kids.

What are they like?

I’m not asking what the children I teach are like. I’m not asking what the worst of the children I teach are like. I’m not asking about what our battleground schools make kids into, although I will talk about that later. I’m asking about the qualities we can expect in children in general, the qualities we’d have to fight hard to suppress, the qualities which just seem to appear naturally.

We can begin with the fact that children are, for want of a politer word, ignorant. They don’t know as much as they will when they are older. This is convenient for those of us in the teaching profession because we can do something about this. We can tell them the things they don’t yet know, the thoughts that they haven’t yet had. As long as there are adults who know significantly more than children there will always be a point to the existence of teachers. It is a tragedy when students are subjected to teachers who don’t know more than they do. To quote Oakeshott (1972) : “an ignorant teacher is a contradiction”.

This means children are constantly discovering new things. Curiosity is a way of life. Children will touch a hot plate just to check that it really is hot. They are living a life that nobody has lived before which is not predestined to go in one way or another. They are not trapped in the same narrow paths of most adults. They have a freedom to change their minds and change their lives that adults don’t have. They can remake themselves in the image of the best of what they see around them. They constantly encounter, or come up with, new ideas, or at least ideas which are new to them. Children are effortlessly creative when they want to be, although they often don’t want to be. They are also constantly changing. You never really know what they are going to be like in three year’s time. Children try on opinions like some people try on shoes. They will constantly express an opinion just to see what happens, how it goes down, how it makes them feel. There is no point telling a child not to rush to judgement, but you can rest assured that their opinions will change in a second and, as children are no more saintly than other human beings, this will often simply mean adopting and expressing selfish positions that an adult would be less ready to express in public.

Finally, children are social creatures. If you put them with their peers (and that is the basis of our education system) then they will do what their peers do. They look at each other constantly for approval. They are obsessed with finding their own position in the hierarchy and joining the appropriate gang. They cooperate instantly, often on the basis of the smallest of signals, from the dominant personalities in their social circle. If children have known each other for more than a few weeks then they will know who is king, who is a potential usurper, who is a kingmaker and who is a serf. When classrooms are strict enough to disrupt the organisation of the students and replace it with the organisation of the teacher it is a genuine liberation for many of the students.

Now I mention these things for a reason. I mention them because it makes it clearer when educational ideas are based on child worship. If children are to be worshipped as gods then you will inevitably try and make children more like children rather than more like adults. So to begin with, ignorance will not be challenged. Content will be removed from the curriculum. Experts will lose their authority and children will practise their “skills” rather than acquire knowledge. Any actual content that children are to learn will be left for them to “discover”. This might not be an efficient way to gain information, or a way to ensure that what they learn is reliable, but it is certainly the most childlike way. Additionally, attempts will be made to encourage those qualities that children already have in abundance like curiosity and creativity. Those activities that come most naturally to children, like working in groups, using new technology or expressing opinions will become part of the curriculum. Children will be left to act in line with their own nature, as if human nature was something that can be trusted as a guide. Even the most selfish desires will become respected as genuine wants or needs to be met, and children will be left to think that their own conclusions on any moral question, no matter how obviously self-centred, are to be respected. The child worshipper will demand that children be taught to “think for themselves” as if that wasn’t the default position of any child. The adult world will withdraw from the world of the child and “normal relations between children and adults, arising from the fact that people of all ages are always simultaneously together in the world, are … broken off” (Arendt, 1961).

In other words this is where we are: the insanity of progressive education. We are trapped with a failed experiment, which is never abandoned only reinvented, in which we attempt to remake the future in an image of the imaginary, innocent perfect child and instead recoil to discover we have only created adults who retain all the vices of childhood. That is what our system does best: it stunts development. Young adults, who in other cultures would have jobs and a responsible position within their family, act like children. Sometimes, as a teacher you have a sudden moment of realisation when you realise that the child in front of you having a tantrum because they aren’t getting their way is sixteen not six. We have left the formation of new adults to a system in the hands of people who don’t believe in adulthood and we are paying the price.


Arendt, Hannah, Between Past and Future, 1961

Oakeshott, Michael, Education: The Engagement and its Frustration, 1972



  1. Please please please Old Andrew do everything you can to get this article in the hands of Balls, force him to read it and then dare him to contradict you.


    There are about half a million teachers in the country. We can make our voices heard and not simply sitting in the staffroom moaning.

    Inclusion, child worshipping etc its all wrong but noone is standing up and telling it to the politicians faces.


      The people in power are quite well aware they are doing this. It’s a feature, not a bug.

      • Sorry, but cock-up theories are right a million more times than conspiracy theories. Nobody gets into power in order to deliberately screw things up; it’s just with some politicians they might as well have.

  2. I agree with a lot of what you say here. But I’m confused by your reference to the ‘insanity of progressive education’. I consider myself a progressive and I work in education but there is nothing progressive in most of the policies and practices you critique here.

    Also, surely it should be the aim of (progressive) education to see that children learn to think for themselves. This can’t be their ‘default position’ of if they are more concerned to ‘do what their peers do’.

  3. Excellent piece, Oldandrew. Preaching to the converted again though. Even though I agree with every word, trying to frame it in a way that doesn’t leave you open to charges of child-hating, regimented, Gradgrinding Nazism will occupy me gainfully during tomorrow’s briefing.

  4. “I agree with a lot of what you say here. But I’m confused by your reference to the ‘insanity of progressive education’. I consider myself a progressive and I work in education but there is nothing progressive in most of the policies and practices you critique here.”

    Progressive education is quite distinct from progressive politics.

    Although some of the same criticisms do apply.

    “Also, surely it should be the aim of (progressive) education to see that children learn to think for themselves. This can’t be their ‘default position’ of if they are more concerned to ‘do what their peers do’.”

    “[T]hink for themselves” is such a vague phrase that we can’t really define it. However, in progressive education it is usually used in contrast to accepting the ideas of the teacher. The issue of peer pressure is not really acknowledged.

  5. Perhaps there is a difference between ‘thinking for yourself’ and ‘thinking what you want’. Being able to think for yourself is something that has to be learnt. Thinking want you want is the route to ill-informed opinions, prejudices and ignorant assertions.

    It’s ridiculous, isn’t it, that teachers are made to feel that asserting the superiority of their knowledge and expertise in the class room is somehow a problem.

    K-Punk is thinking about something similar over at


    scroll down to FEBRUARY 11, 2010 PRECARITY AND PATERNALISM

    • I’d argue that “thinking for yourself” isn’t well-defined. We tend to think that people who disagree with us are the ones who haven’t thought for themselves.

      A lot of rubbish is talked about “thinking”. Certainly a lot of the activities children are made to do in the name of thinking (expressing opinions, answering open-ended questions, talking about their feelings) are pointless, whereas tasks that actually require a lot of thought (calculus, translating into a foreign language, essay writing) are condemned as unengaging or old fashioned.

  6. Old Andrew,

    I would like to know your opinion on what can be done by the teaching community to try to improve the state of education in this country.

    As I said in my opening comment, there are enough of us to make a very loud noise if we all shout together.

    Forget the useless unions, i’m talking more about teachers standing up for themselves (and their health)

    I read your blog regularly and am a big fan and would love to hear your thoughts.

    • I can’t forget the unions. If we can’t organise effectively through unions then I can’t imagine we can do it any other way. All we can really do is speak truth to power any chance we get.

      • But people like you have been doing just that, yet still the initiatives come, still behaviour is not tackled etc etc.

        As a new teacher I guess I am looking for some hope for our profession.

        • I didn’t say it would be easy.

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