Giving children choices helps grow healthy democracies

Sep 26, 2017 | News media and blogs

by Sive Mbolekwa

Sive Mbolekwa, PRAESA literacy mentor, reflects on his day in the classroom and the emphasis on obedience over choice that he observes. How will the children whose choices are so curtailed become the active citizens South Africa needs, he wonders…

This morning at school, as I was putting blank paper up on the wall preparing for a story sharing and discussion activity, I noticed children grabbing books hungrily from the book shelf and boxes. I was reminded of what my colleague Nadia Lubowski had said during a conversation at one of our Monday office meetings: “You know, sometimes all they want to do is read by themselves”. I had turned my back on them for less than a minute to put up the paper to record their ideas during our discussion. When I turned to face them, they looked so pleased with the access to the books that I just stood there, pleasantly surprised.

As I watched them taking a keen interest in the books, I wondered what this could mean. Could it be that they get too few opportunities to access the books and read for enjoyment? A likely scenario if you take into consideration the fact that most of the books were packed away in boxes behind the book shelf. Before I had a chance to ask why the books were not accessible, the teacher volunteered, “I pack them and only choose the ones I am going to use for the week”. And there were only eight to ten titles on the bookshelf. I just nodded without probing any further because I have learnt to speak only when I find the right phrases to use. One ‘wrong’ phrase can make the whole session difficult due to a teacher’s change of attitude in reaction. So I’ve learnt to address certain things when a teacher is in a good mood and starts chatting with me after a session.

Instead, I decided to allow the children all the time they wanted with the books. After some time, witnessing how absorbed they were in reading for enjoyment and sharing their favourite parts in the stories, I put blank paper and writing utensils on the tables closest to the reading area. Some noticed that there was paper for a writing activity, came to me and asked what I wanted them to write. I told them they could do whatever they wanted to do and perhaps could write or draw whatever was on their minds. While some decided to go to the fantasy area, others opted for the block area and others decided to draw on the blank paper provided.

They made so much ‘mess and noise’ that it displeased the teacher. I was mostly observing and listening with less interaction than I usually enjoy. This is because I am training myself to simply sit or stand while observing and listening to their conversations. I want to hear them out, to understand them better and thus work with them better. Indeed, I noticed so much learning happening – even numeracy and road signs. For example, I witnessed one child counting the cones that they had laid out on the blocks area next to the road signs they found. And I drew the teacher’s attention to this for she had been teaching them addition this very morning. I pointed out that the children were learning and using the knowledge explored in her lesson to enrich their play. She mentioned that her children love numeracy.

As well as the inaccessibility of the books and perhaps even free writing opportunities, another thing that troubled my mind was how the children would ask for permission before making any movement in the classroom. Apart from asking me what it was I wanted them to write, they even asked me whether they could start writing or not. I understood this to mean that they were not only used to being told what to do but that they were not centred in their own classroom. Therefore, their classroom experience was not a democratic experience where they were required to be responsible for their own play and given opportunities to practise decision-making in choosing what to do for fun in the classroom. I understood it to mean that they had little or no voice or agency in their own classroom experience. Teaching and learning in the classroom was an authoritarian experience where the teacher and only the teacher decides what is and isn’t allowed in the classroom, and the only responsibility of these young students was to obey and carry out the tasks set by the teacher. Failing to do this would result in punishment, even physical.

The children were so unsure of what to expect from the democratic way I approached the session that they did not trust much. Apart from not trusting me, they did not trust even their own ability to make decisions. Some stood around, unsure of what to do – what to choose to do – when presented with the opportunity to choose. They eventually joined play areas where their friends were – I know this because these children were called by their friends to join them. I wondered then what kind of citizens we are building who cannot make their own choices. I wondered what that meant for their participation in a democratic South Africa. Would they manage the complexities of having to vote in order to choose leaders who can best take the country towards realising a more inclusive society? Or will their critical thinking be shut down to benefit the perpetuation of the status quo, allowing leaders – or the media – to do all the thinking for them?

I was helped in reflecting on my classroom experience through reading Ben Mardell and Natalia Kucirkova’s chapter, “Promoting democratic classroom communities through storytelling and story acting”, in Storytelling in early childhood – enriching language, literacy and classroom culture by Cremin et al.