Progressive Education… and green hair!

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Marilyn Smith - Green HairA sibling of one of our students, who attends a school nearby, was startled to hear his teacher telling the class that “You have to have green hair to go to Preshil!” Seriously?

What is it about hair that so irresistibly tempts perfectly intelligent adults to make such fools of themselves? The examples of this folly are so numerous and range from trivial pettiness to shocking instances of repression and discrimination.

But let’s stay with the issue as it relates to Preshil.

Our School has never required students to dress in identical outfits; we are happy to accord decisions about dress to the students and their families. Preshil’s origins did not emerge from any of the traditions associated with uniforms, such as the military, the church or the traditions of private schools in England.

Preshil was founded from within the progressive education movement that similarly gave birth to the Montessori movement, the ideas of John Dewey, of Froebl and the artistic flowering of the Arts and Crafts movement. All of these educational philosophies recognised the importance of individual agency in developing critical thinking, creative capacity and intellectual curiosity. Uniformity, regimentation, conformity – all of these concepts were shown to be the opposites of true intellectual growth.

In an educational landscape where having even the wrong coloured hair ribbons is a punishable offence it is not surprising to find people aghast at the idea that the young adults at Preshil are free to dress themselves – and arrange their own hair. But it is sad.

The policing and punishment of uniform infringements, for hair and details of dress, is mindlessly time consuming. But it is, of course, the most powerful way of establishing and maintaining the power hierarchy required to impose military-style discipline in learning and in behaviour.

Preshil takes our “Courage to Question” motto very seriously and sets this as an objective for the way teachers and students relate to each other in matters of adherence to arbitrary rules and, much more importantly, in matters of teaching and learning.

The International Baccalaureate programmes have allowed us to take this idea of questioning the validity of ideas, arguments and assumptions to another level. The IB courses at Preshil are inclusive, collaborative and focused on developing strong research skills, defining new areas of challenge and engaging in rigorous debate.

Academic ‘rigour’ has become confused with ‘rigidity’; the two meanings could not be more different. Rigour has come to be symbolised by high scores in exams and the amassing of conventional subject-based knowledge. Regimented adherence to traditional values, right answers and the prioritising of some subjects over the ‘creative and non-core’ subjects – all fit into a uniform school package, promising school success as the reward for sticking to the rules. Uniforms, ties, socks, hair – all become symbols of academic discipline.

The problem with this version of rigorous regimentation and rigidity is that it actually has to be unlearned – if students are to flourish in the contemporary world of tertiary study, future employment opportunities and in all aspects of their adult relationships and lives.

At Preshil our students and teachers recognise that genuinely rigorous thinking and learning is not generated by formality or conventional wisdom. Intellectual rigour is nurtured in a culture where there is genuine trust, individual agency, a willingness to try out new solutions, to work in partnerships and embrace mistakes.

Genuine intellectual rigour is actually hindered by neat rows of desks, authoritarian hierarchies and competitive systems that engender a fear of failure. Rigour flourishes where debate is not confined to answering the teacher’s questions, or just by being the fastest in completing a worksheet.

At Preshil students are free to enjoy debate, to play with new ideas, to imagine new solutions and to create their future world.

And to recognise follicular folly for what it is.

       –   Marilyn Smith, Principal

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