Freedom to Learn Section I: Difficulties and Opportunities (part one)

In Section I, Rogers presents the barriers and enablers to humanizing the classroom.

1. The Challenge of Present-day Teaching

Rogers relates his experience of visiting a classroom in 1981, where the teacher “is clearly being a person in the classroom, not a mask or fa├žade” and where he shows his obvious liking for the children, as well as his openness with them. The children develop their own cooperative systems as part of a democratic framework of engaged freedom of choice in project-based group and individual learning. Standardized achievement tests show that the children have learnt more than would be expected, but the significant learning is much more impressive: increases in self-confidence, creativity, self-discipline in learning. Unfortunately, the same teacher is leaving at the end of the year due to more rigid, bureaucratic and authoritarian policies being adopted by his school.

1.1 Obstacles

This section looks at some of these negative elements affecting educational institutions.

1.1.1 The Declining School

Budgets have been cut drastically, the ‘baby boomers’ have been to school by now, so enrolments are falling rapidly, so there are fewer opportunities for teachers, whose average age is increasing.

1.1.2 The Impact of Bureaucracy

External regulation is becoming ubiquitous, damaging the teacher-student relationship “in a confusing web of rules, limits, and required ‘objectives’”, which curtail creativity and innovation.

1.1.3 Danger from the Right

In the face of alarming change in society, the conservative right wish to revert to some lost golden age where life was much simpler and education was narrowly defined – and these groups are rich and politically powerful. In particular, the strength of right-wing groups comes from TV evangelists, who equate humanistic education with ‘secular humanism’, so regarding Humanism as responsible for all of the country’s evils.

The attitudes of this conservative movement are dangerous because “whenever one group in society (a) has proclaimed itself as having the moral truth, and (b) has insisted on imposing its view of the truth upon all”, the result has been tyranny (eg., the Inquisition, McCarthyism, Totalitarian Communism). The title of this book would be unacceptable because it implies “a freedom of thought, a freedom of choice in learning.” Learning to solve complex problems, social and scientific, is “a primary objective for education. And it cannot be achieved in a situation where conformity to one dogmatic view is demanded.”

1.1.4 Student Dissatisfaction

Students report that “school is a BORE” and are angry, frustrated and disappointed with a cold, passive education, especially the absurd lecture system. Another reason for this is the “continuous – and increasing – stress upon grades”, limiting creativity and expression and causing unhappiness and dissatisfaction. A third reason is the focus on ‘discipline’ and ‘punishment’ in education, “the necessity of holding students against their will in schools that are little better than prisons.”

1.2 What does it mean to teach?

Starting by saying that teaching does not involve keeping order in class, pouring forth facts, giving examinations and setting grades, Rogers now stresses “the other side of the coin”, the challenges and opportunities which make teaching satisfying. He begins by quoting Heidegger arguing for teachers to ‘let learn’, which underscore some of the central themes of the book: teachers should let learn, learning how to learn is always valuable, and there is no place for the authoritarian.

1.3 What is Learning?

Rogers attempts to provide practical answers to the question: ‘How can a teacher be creative in facilitating learning, and a love of learning, in the student?’, beginning by addressing what ‘learning’ is. Or rather, what it isn’t: it is “not the lifeless, sterile, futile, quickly forgotten stuff that is crammed into the mind of the poor helpless individual tied into his seat by ironclad bonds of conformity!” Rogers is talking about LEARNING, something full of life, insatiable curiosity, discovery, motivation and excitement.

1.3.1 Two kinds of Learning

Rogers describes a continuum here: at one end learning without context or meaning; at the other, “significant, meaningful, experiential learning”, which involves feelings and personal meanings.

1.3.2 A definition

Rogers focuses more on what he means by significant learning:
  • It has a quality of personal involvement – the whole person in both feeling and cognitive aspects being in the learning event.
  • It is self-initiated – even if the impetus is from outside, the sense of discovery, of reaching out, comes from within.
  • It is pervasive – it makes a difference in the behaviour, attitudes and perhaps even personality of the learner.
  • It is evaluated by the learner – the locus of evaluation resides definitely in the learner, she knows whether it is meeting her need.
  • Its essence is meaning – the element of meaning is built into the whole experience.

1.3.3 Whole-Person Learning

Rogers argues against an exclusive focus on cognitive, linear, logical left-brain activity – “to involve the whole person in learning means to set free and utilize the right brain as well … Significant learning combines the logical and the intuitive, the intellect and the feelings, the concept and the experience, the idea and the meaning.”

1.3.4 The Dilemma

Rogers cites a prescribed curriculum, similar assignments for all students, predominantly lecturing, standard tests and instructor-chosen grades as the measure of learning, “then we can almost guarantee that meaningful learning will be at an absolute minimum.”

1.3.5 Do Alternatives exist?

The will is there but the traditional and bureaucratic educational system is self-defeating.

1.3.6 The Balance

“We can never escape the exhilarating fact that when a student’s eyes light up with a new discovery, a new learning that pervades and illuminates his or her life, this makes all the hard work, the personal effort of teaching, completely worthwhile. How can that precious gleam occur more frequently? It is the purpose of this book to suggest some answers.”