Maria reveals some radical ideas about education

“Detention is a kind of violence towards pupils”

This soundbite has caused quite a stir and my Twitter account has been busy with tweets and retweets. So this week’s blog is a quick synopsis of my thoughts on our education system.

Last week saw me speaking on the Behaviour Panel at the Festival of Education at Wellington College.

You can watch the video here:

Here are some key points about our mainstream education system

Our education system teaches four important (for the wrong reasons) things:

  • Obedience to rules even if the rule is pointless and has no human value
  • Working for extrinsic motivation is the right way to live
  • The clock is more important than loving kindness
  • Children who come from wealthier homes will do better

Think about these things and what this means.


The whole point of creating rules was so that people could live together in harmony. This means rules are there to serve life. When we expect people to serve the rules we have got this the wrong way round. Here’s a good example. My daughter was told that only brown or black hairbands could be used in school to tie back hair. When she was in a hurry she used a brown hairband to cover over the pink one she has used in the boarding house. The fact that 2 mm of pink hairband could be seen poking out from under the brown one caused a set of responses that were beyond ridiculous. I’m not suggesting that she shouldn’t have been challenged over it. I’m questioning the way she was challenged. What the school demonstrated was not in line with the intention. I guess the intention was to help students learn about presentation and appropriate attire. What she was left with after being given a list of punishments was resentment and exasperation at how the adults could forget any relationship they had with her as one of their model students and just apply a rule in the most ridiculous of ways without seeing the human being.

Extrinsic motivation

When a person learns to pass exams and get gold stars or behaves in a way that is compliant to avoid punishment or reap incentives, we miss the whole point of our humanity and we stop people from truly learning how to flourish and contribute as a whole human being. This method sees children as empty vessels to be filled up with mostly useless knowledge only to spout that knowledge to people who judge them on their ability to regurgitate. To create sustainable communities children need to find an internal place of learning, development and growth through creativity, inquiry, negotiation, navigation and trial and error. Adults are there to facilitate this process and to show children how to find the joy of discovery. Rewards are just the same as punishment; an expectation to work to a standard set by someone else whether or not it makes sense to the learner.

Living by the clock

This is a recent introduction from the Industrial revolution. When people were farm workers they worked in step with the rhythms of nature and were close to the earth. Now we shoehorn things into an ever packed diary and this starts with the adults. Adults in schools are overworked. The expectations on teaching staff are not realistic. There is no earthly reason to pack so much in and rip the joy out of the school experience for everyone in that community. The greater system has placed unnecessary burdens on teaching staff which do not translate into anything useful for children

Poverty and results

It is completely obvious to students in schools in poorer areas that they should not expect to do as well as their wealthier counterparts. This means that needs for equality and fairness go unmet each and every day. When our needs for equality and fairness are unmet it is difficult to trust any system that tells you we are an equal opportunities society.

What needs to change

In a multi-cultural society where young people have access to images and information that most of us would prefer that they didn’t and where families are under increasing pressure the current system of education cannot fulfil what it is attempting to do. Students should learn about collaboration and the impact we have on each other and how principled negotiation through dialogue is the route to creating co-operative communities. To learn these principles we need to change the whole conversation and get rid of ‘behaviour management’ and replace it with ‘quality contracting and effective relationships’. We need to achieve ‘zero tolerance’ to violence and anti-social behaviour but the route to achieving it is restorative not punitive.

Ask me how to do this and I will happily schedule a talk at your school.