The traditional school system is based on a model of external control: fixed subject hours, presence sheets, evaluation, and assessment which maintains a teacher-imposed, performance-based structure held in place by the extrinsic motivation of reward and punishment. It imposes how, when and what a student learns: limited and controlled content is delivered from a teacher to a captive audience. Yet, there is an enormous amount of  research that show that learning is neither linear nor sequential and the paradigm we apply hinders, rather than helps, learning:

“Student development is multidimensional rather than sequential, and prerequisite leanings cannot be conceptualized as neatly packaged units of skills or knowledge”. (Sadler, 1989)

As DK Holland (2011) writes “The goal of any prison is to maintain control”; school is not about education as I understand it: that is to develop autonomous free-thinking, questioning individuals, but rather about a Foucauldian process of normalization (Foucault, 1979) brought about through power and control mechanisms. The aim is to socialize individuals to accept their place within an existing system and to uphold the status quo. It is for this reason the unequivocal finding of research done over the last hundred years including 900 studies (Johnson and Johnson, 2000) has never been truly instigated within the school system.

I come back to my painting of Icarus: my Icarus is not allowed to fly; the wings of his imagination and possibility are firmly tethered to a system of power and control. As a teacher I watch what well-intentioned systems can do to the fledgling potentials before me; enthusiasm and originality dampened to acceptance and conformity. This image is about my frustration.

I want to help students become autonomous, creative and freethinking. I seek their active involvement, not their passive acceptance and yet I find that we put in place more and more systems of control and limitation: the focus is not on efficient learning but on controlled presence and grades. Given the right environment these things become irrelevant: one of my classes spent two weeks of their holiday finishing a project, after all the grades had been handed in, because they wanted to.

Instead of spending our time trying to fix content and the order of learning we should be thinking about setting up dynamic, cooperative environments that tap in to the students’ own motivation and learning patterns.

As John Dewey wrote, there is no game without rules and removal of control does not mean removal of structure. Freedom is the freedom to think, not to fall into another form of external manipulation and control because of a lack of intellectual tools to order and judge information. The rules arise out of mutual respect of a group working together and the structure comes from the providing tools and methods of working and dealing with information.


 Foucault, M.: (1979) Discipline and Punish, Penguin

HOLLAND, D.K. (2011) Blow Up the Design School!, Communication Arts May/June issue

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., Stanne, M.B.: (2000) Cooperative Learning Methods: A Meta-Analysis, University of Minnesota

Sadler, D.R. (1989). ‘Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems’, Instructional Science 18(2), 119-141.

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