Phonics, who decides how we learn?
“Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation.” – Angela Carter
One characteristic that often stands out for me about mainstream education in England is the obsession with “evidence based” teaching. This is such an effective term because it hides within it flawed assumptions, which if we were to think about more, will make the whole logic of the system crumble. This “evidence-based” approach assumes that we can all agree on evidence towards “the goal” (scoring higher in tests that are built by the same people collecting the evidence) and on “how” (there is one method which all children universally respond better to).
Yet, one might ask, if our approach is so “evidence-based” – why have we not figured it out? Why instead of having the brightest, most enthusiastic, highest-achieving kids, we are facing larger than before anxieties and drop-rates? And, one might ask, why do “evidence-based” policy makers ignore so often “the evidence”?
Take, for example, phonics. Despite no evidence to its superiority, mainstream education policy in England has made phonics into the dominant method meant to teach reading. The reason behind this, in my opinion, is because evidence-based education is never about the “evidence” – it is about control. The guise of objectivity allows policy makers to design a system in which every act of the student and the teacher can be recorded, assessed and scored. There are numerous ways to teach reading, but phonics stands out as the easiest method to assess and grade. It is hard to assess “love of reading” and “confidence”, but with synthetic phonics you can score a five-year-old on whether they can properly pronounce made out words such as “blem” and “meck”.
Democratic education, by contrast, offers a fundamentally different approach. Rather than try and choose one universally correct method for teaching reading and writing, we believe that children will not master language by gradually being “given” it by adults and then “tested” by them. Language is to be mastered by children when they feel that it belongs to them, that it is being created with them and for them.
In practical terms, it means that children are given the freedom to choose to read and write, to read at the pace they want and to read and write about the things they want to read and write about. When the children are learning about topics that they want to learn about, they are happy to read and write about them. When we are in an environment in which children are not graded, they have greater confidence to read out something they may ‘get wrong’. We encourage children to write their thoughts, feelings and creative ideas, and learn from the strengths of each other’s work. We believe children will master their language because it belongs to them as a tool of learning and self-expression.
Mainstream policy makers will continue to find ways to rigidly assess children’s every step of acquiring language because it is a powerful tool of control, and we will continue to help them feel that that this language belongs to all of us because it is a powerful tool of liberation.