Freedom to Learn Section VII: Do We Dare? Some Reflections

“As I look back over what I have written in this book, I fall into a somewhat dreamy, reflective state. I hope you can enter this inner world of mine and enrich it with your own memories, experiences and thoughts.”
This - final - chapter gives a fresh summary of the advantages of a person-centred approach in the classroom. It also points to the resistance to change that is evident in our educational system and explores some of the reasons for this. It closes with a challenge to the reader.

1. The Miracle of Childhood

Rogers meditates on children all over the world before they have been exposed to school, “the activities are ceaseless, the curiosity endless … they are moving, restless, spontaneous, determined … they are learning, learning, learning – probably at a rate they will never again equal … and then their ‘education’ begins. Off they go to school.”

2. One Pathway to Education

Rogers draws a picture of a small boy’s first day at school, which is the complete opposite of his experience so far. Here, he learns that:
  • There is no place for his restless physical energy in the school room;
  • One conforms or takes the unpleasant consequences;
  • Submission to rules is very important;
  • Making a mistake is very bad;
  • The punishment for a mistake is humiliation;
  • Spontaneous interest does not belong in school;
  • Teacher and disciplinarian are synonymous;
  • School is, on the whole, an unpleasant experience.
As time goes by, he also learns that:
  • Most textbooks are boring;
  • It is not safe to differ with a teacher;
  • There are many ways to get by without studying;
  • It is okay to cheat;
  • Daydreams and fantasy can make the day pass more quickly;
  • To study hard and get good grades is behaviour scorned by one’s peers;
  • Most of the learning relevant to his life takes place outside of school; 
  • Original ideas have no place in school; 
  • Exams and grades are the most important aspects of education; 
  • Most teachers are, in class, impersonal and boring.
This is one pathway experienced by millions of children and young people, of boredom, constriction and coercion - schools as prisons holding students against their will, who learn only hatred for everything that passes under the label of education, administrators as political connivers with no concept of what learning can mean, and teachers who are bored and burned out, waiting for their pensions.

3. A Second Way to Learning

There is another path, another way. Rogers draws a picture of a small girl’s first day at school – this time a humanistically-oriented school. Here, she learns that:
  • Her curiosity is welcomed and prized;
  • The teacher is friendly and caring;
  • She can learn new things, both on her own and with the teacher’s help;
  • There is room for spontaneity here;
  • She can contribute to the group learning;
  • She is valued as a person.
Through the years, she also learns that she:
  • Will have a part in choosing what she wishes and needs to learn
  • Will learn reading and mathematics more rapidly than her friends in other schools
  • Will find an outlet for her creativity
  • Will become more expressive of both feelings and thoughts
  • Will develop a confidence in, and a like for herself
  • Will discover that learning is fun
  • Will look forward to going to school
  • Will like and respect her teachers and be liked and respected in turn
  • Will find a place in school for all of her many and expanding interests
  • Will develop a knowledge of resources, ways of finding out what she wants to know
  • Will read about, think about, and discuss the crucial social issues of her time
  • Will find some things very difficult to learn, requiring effort, concentration and self-discipline
  • Finds such learning very rewarding
  • Learns to attack tasks cooperatively, working with others to achieve a goal
  • Is on the way to becoming an educated person, one who is learning how to learn.

4. What We Know

What we know, as this book has shown, is what makes this second school possible: the attitudes that create a learning climate, facilitators who can develop their skills, administrators who help maintain the climate – and that this leads to more learning, responsibility, self-discipline. We know all of this, yet schools are not moving toward this second path – “great sections of our educational system seem wedded to a traditional mode of education, and incredibly resistant to change.” Why is this?

5. No Feedback

For Rogers, the main reason is “that the school has an almost complete lack of evidence as to the eventual effect of its work.” If doctors are similarly resistant to change, at least there is a mechanism to learn from mistakes in that he may harm or kill his patient and there will be an autopsy. Similarly, if industry is not profitable, then it will reflect and learn to improve. Education has no such feedback system – final examinations “are judged only by the self-protective inner criteria of the system. It is not known what relationship they have to later success, failure or enrichment of life.” Education desperately needs feedback from its consumers.

6. Obtaining Information from the Consumer

Rogers proposes an example of consumer feedback, a simple anonymous questionnaire, allied to depth interviews with students and parents, in order to uncover areas of satisfaction or dissatisfaction. The resulting data would be widely disseminated and used for planning the work of the next year.
The process might very well be painful (as well as rewarding), however not taking this risk means that we do not wish to know how effective our education system is.

7. Other Reasons

Apart from the need for feedback, Rogers offers two more reasons for the resistance to change by our educational system.

7.1 The need for conformists

Few people would openly argue that our industrial-, technological- and military-oriented society needs vast numbers of conformists to operate successfully – however, at an unconscious level, there is a desire for our schools to produce obedient, good followers, willing to be led. Those who think for themselves tend to ‘rock the boat’. This is short-sighted – the problems of technology overreach, military self-destruction mean that we need critical, independent-thinking, creative problem-solving, the kind of learners who develop in a person-centred school.

7.2 A reluctance to share power

“Administrators pull away from sharing power with teachers; teachers are fearful of sharing power with their students. It seems too risky. It is easier to stay with the conventional authority structure – the hierarchical order – which is so prevalent in our society.” At a deeper level, this means that we fear democracy itself, the belief that the best decisions are made by the people themselves:
What is represented in this book is the conviction that a democratic way, based on a fundamental trust in persons, is applicable and effective in education. The educator takes a risk of empowering the student to take an active participatory part in their own educational process, putting a democratic philosophy into action in the classroom.

8. The Final Issue

Rogers concludes Freedom to Learn (1983) by outlining the challenge of the book, and by showing how all persons are respected in a climate of responsible freedom in which students respond with an avid interest in learning in the spirit of democracy:
We have set forth openly the risks, the difficulties of adopting such an approach and the obstacles society places in its way. To be fully human, to trust in persons, to grant freedom with responsibility – these are  not easy to achieve. The way we have presented is a challenge. It involves change in our thinking, in our way of being, in our relationships with our students. It involves a difficult commitment to a democratic ideal. (Rogers, 1983: 307)
He ends the book with a simple question that we must ask, individually and collectively, of education:
‘Do we dare?’