The education world is currently in fierce debate about how to help our young people recover from the traumatic effects of Covid-19. On the one side are those arguing for face-to-face lessons during the summer in order to help students catch up on missed knowledge; on the other are those calling for a summer break to allow students, teachers and parents some time off. Essentially, the argument is between a ‘summer of school’ versus a ‘summer of play’.
For Christians, finding an answer to this problem may come down to the question of what a good response to the core commandment, ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, looks like. Firstly, it could be said that a key problem with our current education system is that we have lost sight of our young people as our ‘neighbours’; we tend to view our young people as being the ‘engine of our economy’ rather than people in their own right (see Nick Gibb's 2015 speech, ‘The Purpose of Education’). This tendency has arguably resulted in a system which over-estimates young people’s capacity for exams and homework and simultaneously under-estimates their ability for discernment and to accept responsibility.
One idea which is increasingly gaining traction (but which is not new) is that, in order for children to learn most effectively with the greatest degree of wellbeing, they must have more freedom in their education. For younger children, this means more play with less interference from adults. Here, they would learn how to relate to each other in a natural setting, how to create and maintain relationships, and how to solve disputes independently. For an excellent example of this, I highly recommend watching ‘The Secret Life of 4 and 5 Year Olds’; it’s very cute and very funny, but it is also a fascinating insight into the importance of free play. For biblical evidence, look at Zechariah 8, which describes an utopian vision of Jerusalem, part of which envisages children joyfully playing in the streets. The absence of references to formal schools in the Bible should also be noted!
Self-directed learning is another way of allowing young people a greater level of autonomy in education. With the teacher acting as a guide rather than an instructor, self-directed learning ensures that students still gain the necessary knowledge but through choice and in a way that they understand. Examples of self-directed learning range from the popular Montessori method, to the highly effective Mason approach, as well as to the ethos of more radical schools such as Agora School in the Netherlands and Summerhill School in Suffolk. These approaches have their differences, but at the centre of each is a recognition of the child as an autonomous person who is capable of much more than the UK’s education system may give them credit for. This also makes sense from a biblical perspective in that we are lovingly made as unique individuals in the image of a creative and relational God who has bestowed upon us the capacity for free will and responsibility. He did not make us in a form that reacts well to sitting quietly behind desks being told what to think.
On the basis of this, a ‘summer of play’ would seem the obvious choice. However, it cannot be emphasised enough that, while recognising that our young people are our neighbours means esteeming them highly, it also means remembering that they are unique individuals who cannot all be measured by the same scale. To insist that every young person will benefit from either a summer of school or a summer of play is unwise and reductionist. Throughout lockdown, each young person will have experienced different struggles and situations, so – whichever option is chosen – a high degree of flexibility must be given in order to ensure that each student receives assistance that is tailored to their own needs.
To do this, we should perhaps also consult with the students themselves. Young people are not infallible – they make mistakes and bad choices like all of us – but their opinions are valid, especially when it comes to their awareness of their own wellbeing and development, and they must be given the opportunity to be both seen and heard.
Hannah Kunert is one of the participants in the Jubilee Centre's 2020/21 SAGE Graduate Programme. She has a degree in English from Durham University.
To read Hannah's full research essay - and to see a video of her presentation at the 2021 SAGE Conference - click here.
This is a post by a guest contributor. The views expressed by guest writers are their own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Jubilee Centre.