As parents are pondering the best path forward for their children and families during this pandemic, a number of pundits have been featured on Canadian news channels urgently stating that children NEED to go to school. One even stated that children need to go to school more than they or their families need to be kept safe from COVID-19. 

Now there are many legitimate arguments one may make for school as well as for going to school, even when there are risks involved, but representing school as an essential developmental need is not one of them. Having spent much of my career training teachers and supporting the school system, I have great concerns over elevating school to the level of a basic human need. This not only puts undue pressure on the school system and the dedicated teachers who are expected to do the impossible, this attitude also undermines parents’ right to make a choice over how their children should be educated. 

It isn’t hard to understand that children need to go to school for the economy to recover or that some children may need to go to school in order for both their parents to go to work. Nor is it hard to understand that some children may need to go to school to give their parents a break, or if coming from troubled homes, to find some safety and stability. The inference, however, in these dogmatic declarations is that children need to go to school for their own good – to learn, to not to be left behind, to socialize with their peers, to develop normally. The urgency in these statements suggests that parents would be doing their children a huge disservice by not getting them back into school as quickly and as completely as possible. 

Do children really NEED to go to school to learn? or to socialize with their peers? or to develop normally? or to become fit for society? Is school the answer for every child? Is school as necessary for the child as it is to today’s society and its economy?

The answer is NO – a resounding NO to all of the above! Before I attempt a brief explanation, let me put this belief in the indispensable role of school into some perspective. 

School has been used for centuries as an instrument of socialization – shoehorning children into mainstream society. Governments that identify strongly with this agenda have made homeschooling illegal – Sweden and Germany among the most notable of these. In fact, in these countries, homeschooling can result in children being apprehended by the state. It shouldn’t be a surprise therefore that Sweden refused to close its schools during the pandemic. There are a number of educational ideologues in Canada that also align themselves with this agenda and hold Sweden and Germany as the models we should be following. It follows that they would think that school should be mandated for every child. In their thinking a child NEEDS to go to school for the government to be able to do its job, including stamping out any diversity that would not fit into the society they represent. This was also the thinking behind Canada’s residential schools for indigenous peoples. 

There are a number of problems with this approach. First, school is no longer as effective in fulfilling its socialization mandate, at least not in today’s society. Germany and Sweden, along with many countries in Europe and also here in North America, are experiencing significant problems integrating their youth into mainstream society. Secondly, the one-size-fits-all or government-knows-best attitudes are rather imperious and colonial in thinking and not suitable for more conscious and socially-sensitive times. Thirdly, I would like to think it is somewhat un-Canadian to mandate school as the required mode of education, at least the more grown-up Canada we would prefer to be. Fourthly, this belief in school as a social and developmental need is not truly informed by the science of how children come to their full potential, including how they best learn and become fit for adult society. Fifthly, it is not consistent with the evidence: homeschooled children have consistently demonstrated better results in both academic learning as well as integration into mainstream society. 

Nevertheless, the belief in school as society’s saviour remains entrenched. I have witnessed this first-hand when presenting in parliaments in both Sweden and Germany as well as at the EU parliament in Brussels (the Brussels address is available as a free resource on the Neufeld Institute website). And this belief also remains entrenched in some educational circles here in Canada as well. 

The real question we should be asking is – what do children really need to become fully human and humane, civilized and cultured. And secondly, how does school fit into these irreducible needs, for children in general and for one’s own child in particular. The final answer may very well depend upon the specific child in question. 

I have spent the majority of my professional career as a developmental theorist studying these issues and attempting to isolate the conditions that are conducive to the spontaneous unfolding of human potential. The conclusions would take volumes to properly articulate but let me summarize briefly here in an attempt to counter what I believe to be outmoded assumptions regarding school being the answer to what a child needs. I introduced these irreducible needs of a child ever so briefly in an earlier editorial (When Bringing School Home, Don’t Sacrifice the ‘Home’ – April, 2020) but revisit them here. 

First and foremost, children need to be ATTACHED to the adults responsible for them. There are many reasons for this as their attachment to us enables us to take care of them and creates the context in which development takes place. One of the primary functions of attachment is to foster socialization – predisposing them to emulate us and empowering us to impart our values to them, shape their learning, or inspire them to assume a contributing role in our society. School used to be outstanding at serving this function, not because of the curriculum however, but because students used to be attached to their teachers. Sadly this seems now to be more of an exception than the norm. In addition, school has become an unwitting breeding ground for peer orientation, pulling children out of orbit from the very adults – parents, teachers, grandparents – who were meant to be the answer to their passage into adult society. I speak to this phenomenon in Hold On To Your Kids. When children orbit around their peers, they become shoe horned into a culture created by other children and those who cater to them and exploit their preoccupations. These peer-oriented children tend to have more difficulty fitting into mainstream society. What is the advantage, if in sending a child to school, they lose the very attachments that are meant create the womb for their maturation and provide the pathway to their societal integration?

Secondly, children need to FEEL – their emotions, what moves them, their bodies, their inner states, and even their selves. This is critical not only for their emotional health and well-being, but for true growth and healthy development. We know that feelings are easier to access in safe relationships with caring adults and in emotional playgrounds. We also know that stress is hard on feelings. The reality is that many children find school stressful and our culture is less likely to provide the safe spaces for our children’s feelings to bounce back. Feelings are pivotal to becoming fully human and humane, including developing empathy and taking others into consideration. Like a child’s relationships to the adults responsible for him or her, we should be safeguarding a child’s feelings. Children certainly need to feel much more so than they need to be at school. What would it benefit a child if in going to school, they lost their tender feelings?

Thirdly, children need to experience sufficient REST from outcome-based activities like performance and achievement, as well having to make their attachments work, for their potential to unfold. Those that believe in school as the only way to get an education also tend to believe in WORK as essential to schooling. Hence the constructs of school work, home work, and the centrality of tests. As paradoxical as it may seem, all true growth – physically, emotionally, and psychologically – emanates from a place of rest, not work. Learning, including attention and memory, is optimized in the rest mode, not the work mode. So where are children to find that rest? And what is to be gained, if in going to school, a child loses the sense of REST that is required to become all they were meant to be? 

That brings us to the fourth irreducible need for potential to unfold and that is PLAY. I’m not talking about the kind of play that is outcome based, but rather the play that is truly ‘play for play’s sake’ – engaging in its own right, regardless of the outcome. By that definition of play, many games, sports, videogames and screen-play would not qualify. What has been discovered is that true play is a form of activated rest, bringing all the benefits of rest to our brains and bodies. We also know now that play is truly ‘Nature’s school’, that learning is optimized in the play mode, that play is the leading edge of maturation, and that play is the womb of socialization. It could well be argued that the superiority of the Finnish school system is due, not to its curriculum or its teacher training, but to the fact that it incorporates so much play into its daily structure. 

Consider curiosity. The essence of curiosity is attention at play. We all know how hard school is on curiosity, with it manifesting most in the beginning grades and least in the finishing grades. We also know how much learning is dulled by giving answers before the questions have formed. The issue is, where can curiosity be most carefully preserved and given the lead? Where is there more likely to be the patience and wisdom to wait for the questions? I’m not under the illusion that every home could provide this kind of environment, but there are many more homes that might if they knew it was important do so. Children need more to be curious than they need to be at school. What would it profit a child, if in going to school, they would lose their curiosity?

Consider also brain development. What has been discovered is that school doesn’t actually build brains. Play does. School only uses the brains that play builds. So when push comes to shove, what should we be preserving in a child’s life? What would it benefit a child if, because of school, they would lose their play and their playfulness?

Once we know what a child truly needs for learning to be optimized and healthy development to occur, the question becomes‘in what setting is a particular child most likely to experience these conditions and in what setting are these conditions most at risk? The answers to this question must then be considered in the context of the resources and options available. Sometimes the answer is clear but often it is not. But on the other hand, not considering these issues would indeed be a disservice to our children.   

Please don’t get me wrong. I believe in school. My wife and I, our five children and six grandchildren, have all been educated in schools. Several have also been educated at home for various lengths of time. Some of our children now teach in schools and one is actively involved in teacher education. What I am attempting to confront here is the assumption that children NEED school. It has become rather evident as a result of the pandemic that today’s society is reliant upon school. At the same time however, what a particular child truly needs may be at risk by going to school. This is where wisdom is called for if one has the luxury of options. 

Thankfully, parents in Canada can still make the choice for what they believe is in their child’s best interests. Let’s keep it that way. 

Whether returning to school or staying at home, the emotional health of our students is of utmost concern. We address these concerns in two upcoming webinar panels on September 17 and 24, 2020, the first panel focusing on home education and the second on the school setting. In the first panel, Tamara Strijack and Deborah McNamara will join Gordon Neufeld to continue the dialogue started in this editorial.

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