Kids don't "need structure"

Martin Roberts, a colleague on EUDEC Council, brought up an argument yesterday that you often get when talking about Sudbury schools. “Why not offer classes? Some children need structure.” (These are not exactly his words, but this is the argument in a more general sense.) I replied to Martin directly, but because of how common this line of reasoning is, I would like to discuss it more extensively. In this series of posts (originally a single post that got out of hand) I will explore this issue from a few angles and hopefully provide you with something interesting to read, if nothing more.

First, let us clarify what the “kids need structure” argument actually means – after all, it does not refer to children creating structures to meet their own needs on their own terms. No, what the argument actually says is that children are not all capable of getting everything they need independently and some of them need adults to provide them with an extrinsic academic structure.1

Before I explain why I disagree so strongly with it, I will point out an unpleasant implication of this claim that seems problematic to me: when making this argument, Martin implies – although I am sure this is not his intention – that children are not capable of managing their own lives. Moreover, I am willing to bet that Martin, like most people, would never make this claim about adults. If you, dear reader, happen to be an adult currently in the workforce, can you imagine making this claim about your colleagues? Or your friends? I assume most people will answer with a “no”.2 So without meaning to, Martin is not treating the vague age-group called “children” with the same respect as he would afford to fellow adults. This does not mean the claim is false – in fact, as we will see, I think it is true and disagree nonetheless. But equal respect for people, regardless of age, is not only an essential requirement for democratic education, but a necessary step for society to make as a whole. It makes very little sense to disrespect people because of their age and leads to the ridiculous situation where everyone is disrespected for no good reason sooner or later. But I digress.

Let us turn to the argument itself: “[some] children … need adults to provide them with an extrinsic academic structure”. Before I start to address it I would ask what “need” really means here. Surely it is not used in the same sense as “children need a regular intake of oxygen, water and food” – no child ever died from lack of an academic framework. Rather, what is intended is “need” in the sense that some children are unhappy, or experience hardship, when lacking academic guidance (this is the sense Martin meant this is). It is true that some young people have a very hard time when they aren’t prescribed academic structures by adults, a matter which I will return to in the next post. The final possible intention I can see for this claim, which is not the intention in Martin’s case, is that some children “need” a framework of instruction in order to grow up to be successful adults. This is an important interpretation, because people outside of democratic education very often claim this when defending the practices of traditional education.

In the next post, I will address Martin’s sense of this argument, that it is difficult for some students to deal with a lack of instructional framework. In the posts following that I will examine the last sense of this argument and go in more detail into how this claim ties in with video games (which so many people view as dangerous for children, especially when no structure deprives them of the chance to play them.) I have already written much of this text, so these posts will be more frequent than I have otherwise been posting.


1A similar argument is that children are not capable of controlling their diet in a healthy way and need adults to dictate when, what and how much they eat. When a teacher says “kids need structure” this is usually not what they are referring to.

2The exception is totalitarians, who explicitly believe human beings need to be led by a charismatic male who tells them what to do. I will not bother arguing against that kind of claptrap here.

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