The Human Elements In Education

The following are edited excerpts from a discussion which John L. Brown had with Browndale teach­ers and some outside observers during a visit to Browndale British Columbia in October, 1974

J.B: Approximately one third of the children who are in residential treatment in Browndale attend community schools. For the ones who are temporarily not able to do that—usually when they first come into the treatment program—we have to set up some alternative program. Our first school, in 1954, was in the home of a school teacher. We had one child in the treatment centre who couldn't make it in the public school be­cause her impulse control was too weak—she had a tendency to scratch or poke or hit if somebody got too close to her. A teacher who was at home because she had a young baby said she would prefer to teach the child in her house. So she got a desk which she put in her kitchen. The child would go over to her house during school hours and sit at the desk and the woman would teach her what she needed to know in a typical school room fashion, while she was also looking after her house and baby.

Later on, as we began to get more children who needed it, we set up a specialized school pro­gram. And as Browndale has ex­panded we have school programs in each of the different regions. How they are organized depends a great deal on the person running them. Sometimes they are very much oriented to academics and regular school programs and sometimes they are oriented to relationships, play and fun. And sometimes they teeter back and forth between those two extremes.

Q: Do you have a curriculum guide?

J.B: No. Our philosophy is that any academic material should be geared to the individual child; that if you wanted to use a model, use a tutorial model; that children are not expected to be at certain levels just because they are a certain age and we don't worry about them learning things in the sequence that is laid down by boards of education. We think there's a fallacy in the general cur­riculum attitudes of modern edu­cation. People don't learn in an orderly fashion. They learn in a random fashion depending on their circumstances, their interest, their receptivity and curiosity.

There used to be a great deal of support in educational circles for the theory that people go from the academically simple to the aca­demically complex in an orderly fashion; and that people go from the emotionally undemanding to the emotionally demanding in a progressive orderly fashion. The theory was that if, in teaching, you keep to those two principles— starting with something that's very easy to learn and has no emotional content and going on to that which is hard to learn and has great emo­tional content—you'll have nothing but success. It was a beautiful theory that somebody invented, but it wasn't true. That isn't how people learn.

If you watch you will see that people learn certain things when they're ready to. The order in which they learn them will depend on many different factors. The order in which they become interested in observations is something that is unpredictable. There are certain things that have to be learned be­fore certain other things can be learned. But how children ran­domly learn that in nature is some­thing that doesn't have to be that controlled. You don't have to be too worried if somebody does it at this age and somebody else does it at that age, provided they have opportunities to express their curi­osity, to explore, to have some freedom of alternative choices around things that they do for play and for fun and for individual fulfill­ment. They will find the model for their learning. 

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My own point of view is that it doesn't really matter that much whether a kid knows how to read or write or do mathematics; or whether he has attained a certain level of schooling. We grew up in that period when the school was absolutely es.sential to the produc­tiveness of society. We had to have people who could read and write if we were going to have an industri­alized society and the propaganda was out that reading, writing and arithmetic were the greatestthings. It was just like motherhood: you could not criticize it; you couldn't condemn it. But that wasn't true. It's nice to be able to read, but any­body who wants to, will learn quite easily. Kids will learn to read out of the school system as successfully —and sometimes more success­fully—than they will within the school system. We have elabor­ate school procedures that teach people to read and write and yet when they get to university many of them can't comprehend what they read; so that we have a very high ratio of poor performance after twelve years of preparatory education. It doesn't take a kid more than maybe a week to learn to read if he wants to. So in Brown-dale schools we don't emphasize that. What we emphasize is that it is much more important for the children who come to us, who have been through all kinds of crap edu­cationally, to have a time when the pressure is off them.

I say to kids, especially if they're somewhere between 13 and 17, "Don't sweat it. You know if you really knock yourself out and get an education that will qualify you for a particular job, nine chances out of ten you're going to have to do something different before very long." People who train to be a technician of a certain kind may find that those occupations aren't available by the time they're quali­fied. Some people who are very well trained in terms of education and college find it hard to get a job and have to think about what they are going to do as an alternative to what they have prepared them­selves to do. Formal education to­day doesn't have that much rele­vance. I like a child to be able to explore what there is to explore and to manipulate what there is to be manipulated in the universe around him. What I like for him may not be what he likes for him. But I would say that you shouldn't be pushing academics—reading, writing, arithmetic—with your adolescent children. Let them tell you what they want to learn and give them a tutor. I don't think it's good for kids to be pushed around, they get the wrong atti­tude.

The Browndale schools vary a great deal from region to region, but you'd recognize them as Browndale schools if you went in because they have a certain atti­tude about learning and kids have a lot of fun, usually.

If you think of the learning pro­cess in its simplest form, it's a pro­cess of taking something in from outside and making it part of you. If you do that, then you can in­corporate it and make use of it. It's a process in which the communi­cation of the data comes to you through your sensory modalities and gets laid down in the grey matter of your brain where it's re­tained for future recall.

Most people forget the fact that not just the information gets laid down; the feelings that were pre­sent when the information was re­ceived get laid down in the grey matter along with the information. So you may have a fact that is very important for somebody to know, but it's surrounded with so much crap that was part of how that fact was brought to the person and taken in, that that militates against the fact being regarded as something of any relevance or use­fulness to that person. If the brain had a mechanism by which it could extract say, mathematical data and store that separately from the emotional context in which it got that information, and if the re­lationships that were experienced at that time could be sorted out and stored in another part of the brain, then there would be no diffi­culty. But the emotional content gets absorbed along with the mathematical data and the recall includes all of it. So when we say we're educating people, we should make sure we're not doing it in a way that will make the data or in­formation unacceptable to them, or unpleasant to recall.

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Our Browndale schools tend to range from schools that prepare children to go into the standard classrooms of primary schools and secondary schools in a very care­fully plotted and designed way, to schools in which there isn't a single bit of curriculum content that any­body could notice, although in fact, they may have a great deal of curri­culum content. The most common educational process used in Browndale is the project. You start with something that a child is in­terested in and you pursue from that, or the child's curiosity builds from that, to those things that the child needs to know to pursue his interest in his project.

We've found it very difficult to use professionally trained teachers because part of becoming a teacher is becoming a person who can use the structure of the curri­culum as it is laid down by the De­partment of Education. People who are having a hard time following that structure in public schools or secondary schools, may come in our schools and be happy with us. But even then it's hard for a teacher who has been trained and has been practicing in the school system to come into our system. We find our best teachers are teachers who come from the child care staff and we supplement them in most of our schools with the staff of houses who come in with their chil­dren, especially the more difficult children.
We find our best teachers are teachers who come from the child care staff

Q: Aren't there problems with licensing when you think that way?

J.B: Yes; but we are only just re­cently getting into those problems because we were looking after children who had been kicked out of schools, children whom the De­partment of Education didn't want to be bothered with. So long as somebody was willing to set up a school to take care of them, as long as the Department of Education didn't get bothered and didn't have to pay for it, they were happy to leave it that way. But now the De­partment of Health and Social and Family Services are saying: "That's education and we don't want to pay for it because the Federal gov­ernment won't give us refunds for the educational component of your program. You're going to have to get the money to run your school from the Department of Educa­tion."

To get the money from the De­partment of Education, our schools have to be licensed by that depart­ment. When our schools are licensed, the department will supply teachers to supplement our staff. In Ontario, new legislation vests in local boards of education the authority to fund programs for emotionally disturbed children in local school board districts. In Thunder Bay and Newmarket local boards have opted to do this with Browndale schools in a beginning way. They're providing a special ed teacher and certain supplies. This holds good promise for the future.

Now, in Michigan, we cannot operate a treatment centre unless we have a licensed school: and to have a licensed school we have to have a specialist teacher who is trained to deal with emotionally disturbed children. So there we say, "Fine, we'll hire these teach­ers but they will be there to learn, and we will have child care staff do the teaching in the school program." If the specialist teachers start to work together with our child care staff, there's a lot of intermingling of knowledge and insight and they add some­thing to the school. But we don't expect them to run our school. If they did, it would be like all the traditional special classes for kids that were failing these kids before they came to us.

If you have acting out behaviour it is because the child isn't feeling safe.

Q: How is behaviour handled in the Browndale schools?

J.B: We believe that school should not be a place where de­structive behaviour is allowed. If you have acting out behaviour it is because the child isn't feeling safe. You can have a helluva good time, you can have relaxation, you can have fun, but you have to provide a structure in which the kid feels: "In this place I'm safe. These people will see my impulses don't get out of hand."

Q: How about discipline?

J.B: That's the same story. You get acting out and bizarre behavi­our from these children if you see them as cases. If you see them as human children who have the same needs as any human child, then you won't get that bizarre behavi­our unless you invite it. I get a lot of requests to talk to teachers of emotionally disturbed children and the first question they ask me is: "How do I control the destructive-ness in my classroom? What do I have to do with the children?" I tell them, "Don't do anything with the children; do something with you."

In classrooms where the teacher doesn't want acting out and de­structive behaviour, there isn't any. In the classroom where teachers invite it, there is. Those teachers may not know, consciously, that

they are encouraging it, but they're giving the messages, they're giv­ing the permission, or they're not setting the proper limits.

What are proper limits? I'll give you a little story to illustrate what I'm talking about. The director of the Haliburton region of Brown-dale in Ontario drove down to To­ronto one day to pick up a nine year old boy who was being re­ferred to us from a detention home because he was "unmanageable". He'd take off his belt and he'd whip children and staff with it and they felt this was an unmanageable child. They made arrangements to place him with Browndale and my brother, who Was the Regional Director of Haliburton at that time, came down in his car, by himself, to pick up this boy. The people who referred the boy were shocked: "You're not going to be able to drive 130 miles with this boy unless you have some help", they said. But my brother and the boy drove back by themselves; they stopped for cokes and milk shakes and hamburgers on the way and they talked about where they were going and where the boy was coming from and so he had a sense of where he was. They got

to the farm up north, they went into the house and there was a re­ception for the boy there.

One of the kids who was roughly his age took him around the house, showed him his room and intro­duced him to everyone. Everything went beautifully then, all of a sud­den, the boy remembered who he was. In the middle of this festivity, he took off his belt and he said, "You know, I hit people." Well, everybody was kind of embar­rassed. The other children were embarrassed for him and the staff didn't know what to say at first— everyone just stood there in stunned embarrassment for a moment. Then one of the staff said, "Well, here you don't have to do that." That was the only time that boy ever manifested that be­haviour with us and there wasn't even a limit put on it. He simply received the instruction that he didn't have to do it. In an environ­ment in which that kind of be­haviour was not invited, an en­vironment in which he wasn't getting double messages, he stopped hitting people. If you think a disturbed kid who has been locked up in a detention home has to be bizarre in his behaviour, you can count on him finding a way to be bizarre. But if you don't expect him to behave in a bizarre way he won't.

Q: What happens when children leave this family environment of Browndale and go back into a society that basically doesn't care?

J.B: But, you see, that's how it is for all of us. We all start off the same way, pretty uncivilized, and become civilized in our contacts with others; by having loving people who care for us set limits for us within the family. That doesn't mean that we have to be in that protected environment for­ever. It means if we get enough fundamental caring when we need it, we're able to cope with all kinds of stress afterwards. The same is true with the children who come to Browndale. How they manage when they're out in the world on their own depends partly on what kind of help they got while they were in Browndale and partly on many other things. It depends on whether they are able to receive some kind of support from their own relations and what kinds of circumstances they encounter in their lives, just as it does with you and I. When we grow up and go out from the family, it isn't auto­matic that everything is going to be okay; what happens to us de­pends on the circumstances we en­counter and the support we get. But if the child gets what he needs when he needs it, you don't have to keep on carrying him, supporting him, controlling him.

Now there are some children for whom the basic early damage to the personality was such that you may have to do that. For certain types of alienation in early life when the child has never been affiliated closely enough, or the affiliation hasn't been a trust­worthy affiliation, you may have to provide continuing supervisory help. You may have to do this for children who are retarded and can't make judgements. You may have to do this for certain kids who have been locked up in the back wards of institutions for a long time and who don't come to us until later adolescence. About 50 per cent of those children don't succeed in rehabilitating them­selves to the extent that they can live an independent life. They may have to have some kind of super­vised lifestyle although there are a lot of things they can do for them­selves. It's hard to get a society that allows us to provide the whole range of services that are needed.

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Q: And so often, if you get them late, it takes so long to get them to trust you.

J.B: That's very true.

In that respect good teachers and parents are partners.

Q: Is there a difference in the role of a teacher in a Browndale school and a house staff?

J.B: Yes. Just as there is be­tween a teacher and a parent. The house staff are not the real parents of the child but they're acting in the role of the parents and their major task is to civilize and to edu­cate the child in fundamental ways and to support the learning that the child gets. The school teacher does not take care of the parenting task to the same degree, other than in the way that a good school teacher is also a good parent. A good school teacher is concerned about the person as a whole, as well as whether the person is learning or not learning. In that re­spect good teachers and parents are partners. Problems arose when society became so complex that parents couldn't teach their chil­dren themselves. I like to remind myself from time to time of what the model used to be.

We lived off nature, from what we could gather or grow, and the child up to a certain age carried very little responsibility. He might play as he saw adults act, but it was play. Then at a certain age the child was expected to learn. The girl would work with the women; she would learn the way they prepared the food, and made clothes and all the other tasks that were tradition­ally the women's responsibility. The boy would work with the men and they would show him how to make tools and at some point they would take the boy with them into the jungle, or into the forest, and show him which game to hunt, how to kill it and dress it and to bring it home; how to gather the fruit or the nuts or the berries or whatever it was that they were eating; or how to till the soil and plant and reap.

There was an instruction that came from a person close to you in the family and you were part of a workforce related to survival so that the relevancy of what you were doing was obvious and there was a certain kind of easiness to the learning. Most of it was done by imitation, which is the ideal model for learning. You watch somebody do it and you do it and you compare how you did it to how the other person does it and then you do it again.

That was the model for learning at that time. But now that society is more complex and families more nuclear with fewer relatives around to be involved, very little teaching goes on within the family. More and more nuclear families tend to give up a role to society that used to be theirs, whether or not there is the provision for it in society. A lot of moral training, a lot of the standards of society used to get handed down through the family from generation to generation, by exposure to the grandparents and other relatives. Now everybody wants somebody else to do it. People think the schools should do it; or "society" should do it, or television should do it. We're in a dilemma because there hasn't been any equivalent to replace the early model of the educational input from the parents to the child. Dr. Spock and Dr. Salk, and we our­selves at Browndale, have been harping for a number of years—and increasingly loudly in recent years—that something needs to be done to reverse that trend. The family must assume more of the early teaching of the child, and that teaching is more essential than the teaching that comes later. Because the most important thing that any human being can learn is trust. You have to have trust in people if you're going to be a self or if you are going to move on, or expose yourself, or extend out. That can­not be taught in a school; it has to be taught at home in the relation­ships that parents have with chil­dren and children with one another. It can then be reinforced and ex­tended in the school.

Many school teachers feel an acute sense of failure because they aren't able to teach the child the things he needs; things he should have gotten from his family but didn't get. The teachers see the need and they try to extend to it. But they are not in a position to do it really well. Their role cannot be a parental caring role because they're not responsible for the things that are life essential to the child—eating, sleeping, getting up and so forth.

... we have forgotten about all the human elements that are part of education.

We have been so busy mass-producing education we have for­gotten about all the human ele­ments that are part of education. Consequently we have a lot of very screwy, miserable people who can cope with assembly-line jobs but find it hard to live with other people or make decisions about the kind of society they want or even how to manage their own lives.

Q: I am working in one of the Browndale schools and I don't feel that what I have accomplished, in the short time that I have been with a child in the Browndale school, will be strong enough and lasting enough to help him con­tinue in a renewed sense of love for learning, once the public school comes back down on top of him.

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...once a child's curiosity is freed, he can learn despite the school system.

J.B: I think you are underesti­mating the potential of the child. What you're dealing with is the child's curiosity which has been blocked, atrophied, or frustrated. The child has given up the process of taking in new things and learn­ing because his experience has been that so much shit comes with that process. But once a child's curiosity is freed, he can learn de­spite the school system. I did it and you did it, any number of other people did it. I've found with chil­dren that it isn't the amount of time you're with them that deter­mines whether the magic happens; sometimes it happens in one en­counter, sometimes after many re­peated encounters.

Q: Well, I would at least like to make the time that I get to spend with that child as long as possible so that I can open up a good feel­ing towards learning in the child and I'd like Browndale to see that as a priority.

J.B: You have to be careful with it because you can get fooled. What is a renewal in an interest in learning to you, may not have any relevance to the child at all. He may see that as just the same old shit that he's been getting in the school system all along. A renewal of in­terest in learning is something that has to come on the child's terms and he has to tell you how. It doesn't come out of focussing on that; it comes out of not focussing on that. Focussing on a renewal of interest in learning with the child more than likely will frustrate the child in the same way that he's been frustrated before.

I don't want the kid to think I'm trying to get him to learn—I don't give a damn whether he learns or whether he doesn't learn. I'd like him to free his curiosity to pursue it wherever he wishes to. How you do that, how you free that curi­osity, is quite different from the educational techniques for stimu­lating an interest in learning or the process of learning. This is why lots of schools fail and this is why lots of special schools fail.

If you have a relationship with the child you can be sensitive to indi­cations from him that he wants to pursue something. And you can be helpful to him by being a resource that he can use, when he wants to use it; but one who respects him and doesn't try to provide input when you think he needs it.

Q: Well, I'm not a public school teacher.

J.B: No; but you use some of the words of the special educa­tional programs that I've encoun­tered where the theory is good but the practice violates the kid. And what is this time thing you are concerned about? What is it that prevents you from having enough time?

Q: As soon as children seem capable of dealing with a regular school—that is, they're not going to act out in class—they're imme­diately returned to public schools.

J.B: Yes; that's how it should be. Otherwise, we'd be trying to set up an alternate school system. We don't have any authority to do that in the first instance; and if we did it would be the most frustrating failure that you could possibly have.

Q: Don't you think we should take an interest in alternatives?

J.B: Yes; everybody should, in­cluding parents. The whole edu­cational system should be of very great interest to all of us, but we shouldn't be using our kids to further that interest. That interest should exist separately from the children who come to Browndale for the purpose of getting help so that they can return to the com­munity.


Q: Would you agree that those alternate schools do tend to be more sensitive to the individual needs of the child?

J.B: They have about the same degree of failure as other schools; I don't know of any that are parti­cularly successful.

Another teacher: I think you have to listen to what kids say and kids say that they want to go back to public school and to be like everybody else. I don't think you can reawaken curiosity and in­still a love for learning. I think that's already there, badly injured. It might be the same old shit they're learning at school, but they can do it now; that's what's going to make them feel safe enough to be curious and feel that it's not threatening to try things.

Q: That's not what I'm talking about. I'm assuming, as John said, that there is a love for learning and I'm also assuming that you learn how to learn. Especially as you get older, learning sometimes involves spending two or three days think­ing about something rather than five minutes. If you're never guided toward disciplining yourself to do that, then it's a difficult kind of ability to develop and most people don't have it.

A teacher: The discipline comes with the desire. At our school we have an eight year old who has a two-second attention span. Today he got so excited about the times tables that he did a long sheet of four columns of timestables and he did it for 45 minutes. Now I don't expect him to do that tomorrow.

J.B: No. Right!

A teacher: But before today he hadn't been able to concentrate on anything for more than five min­utes at a time. The discipline came with the desire. I can't force him to be disciplined.

Q: Who said force? I'm saying that there are things to be aware

of in terms of ways of teaching people to follow up on things.

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J.B: Work habits are important, I agree, as long as everything else is okay. But those things are hard to introduce right at the beginning. Once the kid wants to learn, then you begin to teach those things.

How you teach them is another thing. You may have the most beautiful things going into the school program, but if you think that learning is something that starts at nine o'clock and ends at four you've missed the whole business of learning. The time framework of the school system is something that's related to the time framework of our industrial production world—not to people's learning ability or interest. There may be many adolescents who sit in the classroom day after day and cannot learn because they're sit­ting there in the daytime. It might be that they'd be more receptive to learning from eleven o'clock in the evening to two o'clock in the morning. I don't hear many people who want to do new things around schools talking about what is the best time for kids to learn. This might be the type of thing that you should be looking into. Can you do things outside the school? Can you do things with the school at night or early in the morning?

Q: How much freedom does the teacher have to set up different schedules that might be more pal­atable to the children?

J.B: It depends on your regional director. You'll have to fight it out with them. I'm not the boss of any program anywhere in Browndale.

I like to get these kinds of ques­tions and discussions going be­cause nobody has all the right answers. If you have good ideas ask permission to try them out and don't be disappointed if they don't work right away, or if they fail and you have to try something else. Every child is going to be a little different.

It's the same in a house with the kids. We don't have a formula; we've tried to avoid writing any­thing that could be construed as a formula. We like to give you con­cepts and principles and values and then let you be as creative as you can be within those. If you do creative things in the school your­self, the kids' creativity will begin to come into it. It's hard for any person to stand around in a free creative kind of situation and not have his or her own creativity stimulated and seek expression.

I think we're lazy sometimes in borrowing typical traditional struc­tures. For instance, consider the adolescents in our own school pro­grams. I get a feeling that they are not that happy or gaining that much from the programs we set up for them. I wonder why you don't give them an opportunity to set up a structure and ask for the resources that they would like to have. Because they are concerned but they don't know what to do about it because they're always stuck in a system that they can't influence or change. Well, here, there's no reason why they can't influence and change the system to be more like what they think it should be.

Q: We believe in free speech in Browndale as far as the kids having input into the schools?

J.B: Oh, yes; I would think so. I would believe in free speech pretty well through the whole organization. Now, I wouldn't allow a child to abuse another child.

Q: No, but you think the child should have a say in setting up a program that he or she would want to work on?

J.B: I would think so, certainly. For some of the older kids there's no reason why they shouldn't de­cide who the teachers will be and what the curriculum will be.

Q: And some of the kids would probably supervise classes for the younger kids?

J.B: That's right; we do that a lot.

Q: There's nothing like respon­sibility for kids.

J.B: And adults too. It's good for people.