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A friend of mine recently sent me a link to a wonderful lecture given by Ken Robinson http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms.html
and I then found more talks by him on the TED site (www.ted.com) which earlier this year hosted a series of talks by people with an innovative views on education. I would urge anyone with an interest in education, anyone with children, anyone who feels school let them down or is letting their children down, to check out this series of talks.
In the talk Ken Robinson gave in 2006 he spoke about the reforms going on in the public school systems all over the world, Brazil is one of the countries that is trying to reform its public school system and in my mind, failing a huge number of children in the process.

I recently spoke to my dentist on the topic of education in Brazil (he was not working on my teeth at the time), he said he has given up hope of Brazil resolving its problems because the people holding the power do not want to give it up and don’t want to share it with anyone else. Although there is plenty of money in the country, the public school system will never be given what it needs in order to really educate the people because it is easier to control a large population of poor people if they remain ignorant, if they stay un-educated, as educated peoples know their rights and are more likely to demand them.
This is a tactic of population control that has been used the world over since time immemorial and certainly he has a point about the power holders, schools and their lack of funds, but I hope that positive change will come, though it cant come fast enough for the the head teacher at the school here, who agrees whole heartedly with the dentist.
When I first visited the village school I was horrified to see that the infant class rooms were basically bare, there was nothing for the children to play with bar a few broken toys. How can it be right to call children into school at 3 years of age and then expect them to sit in a bare room with nothing to do, no stimulation, no creativity. This is the reality for the children here, it leads to an emphasis on learning by rote, not through play and yet Prainha has one of the better schools, there are many other schools with far less, hard as that may be to believe.

The bare classroom cupboard.

The bare classroom cupboard.

A lack of resources is not the only problems the school, teachers and children face, there is a lack of understanding of how children learn, something the teachers themselves point out as a lack in their training. After a particularly successful fundraising event in London, I returned to Prainha with 5 holdalls of educational toys for the school, one of the teachers said “ This is all lovely and good but how will we ever get the children to learn anything now, all they will want to do is play” For me that was a shocking thing to hear and I am very pleased to say that the particular teacher has now realised that children learn so much from play.

Children and teachers delighting in the new materials donated by Brookfield School, in North West London

Children and teachers delighting in the new materials bought with money donated by parents, children and staff of Brookfield School, in North West London

I did voluntary work with a Downs syndrome child here, he is a sweet boy but his parents, for their own reasons, refused to send him to school until legally obliged to do so, by which time he was at least 8 years old. He had no language and non of the teachers had the faintest idea of how to involve him in the class room or what to do with him. I worked with him in my home for a few months but my home is quite a distance from his and he often didn’t arrive. When my son started at school I tried to continue working with the boy in the school but the lack of resources and his poor attendance made it difficult to make any progress and I reluctantly called it a day. The boy now rarely attends school, still doesn’t speak or communicate in any way, shows no understanding of the world around him and is to all intents and purposes in a world of his own, his future looks very bleak indeed. It breaks my heart to see him, for although I know that he would always remain severely handicapped, had he received the appropriate help at an early age, his future would have been very much brighter.

It is the system in Brazil that children take an end of year exam, if they fail they are held back to repeat the year. There are some children who undoubtably benefit from this system but if the child has failed to progress because of a learning difficulty and this difficulty is not addressed, then the child will never progress, the problem can become entrenched, with the child suffering from a feeling of failure and lack of self esteem that is dreadfully damaging. Instead of helping, the system of repeating years can be a huge hindrance. I am now working with a young boy of 13, he is in my son’s class (my son is 7) and clearly has global learning difficulties and lacks self esteem as you would expect, how would you feel in his situation? He has been told by every one in his family that he is a Donkey and good for nothing, hardly likely to make him feel like trying. He is in a class of 7 – 8 year olds and is occasionally disruptive, but wouldn’t you be? I know I would.
My own son has learning difficulties, he could be mildly dyslexic, but mostly he is just not interested in the daily classroom activities and I don’t blame him, his text books are as boring as hell, having absolutely nothing to do with his life. He loves dance, he loves art, he loves using his imagination, creating things or scenes. He wants to be in the circus (he saw Cirque do Soleil in London and was gripped by the show from beginning to end) or to be an artist. If I let it, the system here would squash out and stifle any spark of individualism or creativity that he might have Thankfully he is able to explore the world that interests him at home, our house is full of books and art materials, he is a lucky one, the majority of children here live in homes with NO books (they are a ridiculous price here), no art materials and there is precious little of either in school.

While I was working with special needs children in a North London Primary School, the SENCO (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator) asked me how it was that I was able “To get inside the heads of the children” I worked with, she said that I seemed to instinctively understand their difficulties. I was flattered, if I am able to do that, then I can only assume it is because I also struggled at school, I always felt like I was being hammered into a shape that I didn’t fit. The only class I felt comfortable in was Art, I was stopped from doing Drama and Music because my academic level was not high enough, I was told I had to choose from one of the 3 subjects, I had to concentrate on getting better marks in English and Maths, but WHY? I can and do read all the time, I can calculate my bills, my mortgage deal, my monthly expenditures, my tax account. I’m not stupid but I was made to feel I was.
One of the arguments Ken Robinson brings up is that thousands of children are forced into academic study when it really isn’t for them, we are waisting the artistic talent of these children because our idea of school doesn’t value the arts enough, yet we value artists. Look at the millions paid to musicians and film stars, footballers and models. Of course there are many talented people who don’t make a fortune, some do many don’t but if they are making a living and enriching their lives and the lives of others then we should be pulling out all the stops to help them along the way. We tell children Go to school, get an education and you will get a job, but for many of them that isn’t the reality, they go to school but there is no job at the end of it, we are setting them up to fail and along the way they have been made to believe that they are at fault, that they are stupid, that what interests them has no value.

We have to look at how we are educating our children, the world over. The old systems do not function in these times and we are failing our children by sticking to them. Ken Robinson ends one of his lectures like this “………the gift of the human imagination. We have to be careful now that we use this gift wisely……………… And the only way we’ll do it is by seeing our creative capacities for the richness they are, and seeing our children for the hope that they are. And our task is to educate their whole being, so they can face this future. By the way — we may not see this future, but they will. And our job is to help them make something of it.
I wholeheartedly agree.

©Claire Pattison Valente 2011