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Toxic Schooling: How Schools Became Worse
Toxic Schooling - Clive Harber
Member Name: CrazyEgg
Toxic Schooling - Clive Harber
Advantages: Synoptic coverage of a range of educational texts
Disadvantages: No index
"That sounds interesting," I thought. "Worse than what?" Worse than in the 1960s and 70s is the answer.
The back cover made things clearer with a quotation:
"We are faced by the paradoxical fact that education has become one of the chief obstacles to intelligence and freedom of thought". Bertrand Russell, 1926
I am always interested when something said such a long time ago could so easily have been said today. The synopsis on the back of the book explains that during the late 19th and early 20th centuries a number of figures, such as Rudolf Steiner and Bertrand Russell were critical of schooling and suggested "more personalised, democratic and humane forms of education as alternatives". The focus on 'personalised' interested me as there has been much talk of 'personalised learning' within education in recent years, and inevitably there has been much debate about what this really means and the practicalities of it. The synopsis goes on to explain that in the 1960s and 1970s there was a fresh wave of debate about the relevance of schooling (as opposed to 'education') and a number of influential texts were published by people such as Paulo Freire, John Holt, and Carl Rogers.
Toxic Schooling sets out to consider a range of texts published in the 1960s and 70s that critiqued schools and the education system. Each chapter takes one text and summarises it using extensive extracts and Harber's own analysis and contextualisation. This makes it a very useful book for anyone interested in the history of education and educational theory. Most of these texts come from a British or American perspective, but Harber argues that the key features of schools- classes, timetables, exams, bureaucracy, teacher control- are relevant in international contexts too. Having analysed the texts he draws out and summarises the main criticisms and the second half of the book considers how much, if anything has changed since the publication of these texts. Not surprisingly, given the title, Harber identifies much that remains relevant and some aspects that he argues are in fact now worse than ever.
Within the introduction to Toxic Schooling, Harber outlines key theories about the relationship between schooling and society. One is the Human Capital theory: the idea that education contributes to the productivity of a society and in turn aids equality of opportunity. Then there is the opposite argument- Reproduction Theory- that says that education merely reproduces things as they are ie poor people remain poor, the rich remain rich and a few people change their status giving the appearance overall of a meritocratic society. The third argument, on which Harber has written a substantial amount in other books, is that schools actively make things worse for individuals and for society as a whole.
Harber argues that the negative features of schooling are global and can show themselves in a myriad of ways. His contention is that people are so accepting of the notion that schools are 'a good thing' that they do not question them, and that pupils, families and society are often blamed for problems when it may well be the institution of school itself that is the problem.
The 13 books discussed have such titles as: The School that I'd like (E. Blishen), Pedagogy of the Oppressed (P. Freire), Compulsory Mis-Education (P. Goodman), The Betrayal of Youth (J. Hemming), How Children Fail (J. Holt), School is Dead (E. Reimer).
The key critiques of these texts are summarised in Chapter 14. These include: schools are authoritarian with pupils playing little part in decision-making, a fixed subject-based official curriculum cannot educate for the present, let alone the future, guven the pace of change in modern life, many children are unhappy and bored at school, schooling is dominated by tests and exams which dictate what is learned, repeated testing causes stress and anxiety, a lot of time in schools is wasted.
Many of these are aspects which are in the realm of public debate as opposed to being the prerogative of teachers and educationalists, so the book is interesting even for those not involved in education.
In the closing chapters Harber discusses whether the criticisms raised by the writers of these texts in the 1960s and 70s are relevant today. Drawing on a wide range of evidence from international organisations, media reports and his own research, Harber makes a compelling case to suggest that they are indeed relevant. The statistics and evidence drawn from international sources make fascinating and in some cases horrifying reading. Examples include the town of Harrold in Texas, where teachers are permitted to carry concealed guns in order to guard against school shootings and schools where pupils are indoctrinated into hating other communities. Critics would argue that Harber, writing in 2009, has ignored many positive changes in schools. Certainly, some aspects have made the headlines in recent years. For instance the introduction of 'personal learning and thinking skills' as a move away from distinct subject-based learning to transferrable skills has been introduced in the UK, but the means of implementing and level of enthusiasm varies. How much this really changes practice would require much more thorough investigation. Harber acknowledges changes, but he is sceptical as to their efficacy.
Whether you agree or not, it is a very interesting and relatively quick read.
At the time of publication Harber was Professor of International Education at the University of Birmingham. He has since retired. The book is published by the Educational Heretics Press, and is 150 pages. There is an extensive list of references, but no index, however the book is short so I don't think this is too much of a problem.
Summary: A very interesting read about the negative aspects of schools as an entity
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