The New Authority by Haim Omer
If I had to choose a book that has influenced and inspired my approach to teaching and learning it will have to be The New Authority by Haim Olmer. The book presents a new model of authority that is in line with democratic values as it is founded on the principles of non-violent resistance. It offers a valuable model for adults who are either privately or professionally dealing with children expressing challenging or even violent behaviour. In contrast to the traditional model, which is perhaps best represented in Pink Floyd’s teacher figure in the song “The wall”, this new kind of authority lets go of the need to control the child. It lets go of the strict hierarchy between adult and child and the need to be right. It lets go of criticizing and blaming, of verbal threats and physical force. Instead it focuses on re-establishing respect and restoring the relationship through increased time spent with the child.
As a parent, there are three steps to follow in non-violent resistance: First, there is the announcement, with which you send a clear message to the child that you are no longer willing to accept the offending behaviour and that you are resolved to do whatever it takes that is non-violent to find a solution. Next there is the sit-in, where you spend one hour (repeated daily until there is a solution) with the child in silent resistance after having explained the reason for your demonstration, and expressed your wish for the child to offer a solution. Your sole challenge here is to remain patient, serene and most of all silent, no matter how bad the verbal assaults by the child. Unless of course, the kid resorts to physical violence, in which case, you should get help from a friend or family member as a witness. This person should be someone who has emotional bonds with the child. This leads us to the third step, involving the community. As the old African adage goes, it takes a village to raise a child, so get a network of support by alerting the community, especially those people who play an important role in the child’s life.
This approach may, at face value, seem problematic to implement in a school setting but elements of it can be adapted to deal with challenging behaviour as it arises. Our default reaction towards “problematic” behavior is to avoid the child thereby intensifying their feeling of being the outcast. However, by consciously getting involved with the child, we increase the kid’s sense of belonging to the community, and this can go a long way when trying to help children back on the right track again. What I really love about the approach is that it’s the adults who have to do the hard work by remaining present but silent and non-violent thus helping to avoid any escalation of the conflict. And if they succeed, they really have proved that they are the authority that can be trusted and looked up to as a role-model for they live aligned to their values; they walk their talk!
Thinking in Education by Matthew Lipman
It is not easy for me to identify the book which has influenced my teaching the most. Actually, I would probably prefer talking about the many books about education that have helped me to find my own approach in the classroom. Nevertheless, a serious transformation in my teaching was, was brought about by Matthew Limpan’s Thinking In Education.The book is one of the late Lipman works and for a very long time it was on my desk, close at hand and to mind while I was preparing for my lessons.
Lipman, considered to be the founder of the Philosophy for Children movement, basically implemented Dewey’s idea about critical thinking in teaching of primary school children. To put it simply, Lipman believes that children are born philosophers, so the teacher’s role should be to provoke and nurture philosophical thinking instead of hindering reflection . Teacher and pupils should create a community of inquiry in order to explore philosophical or scientific problems. Lipman’s approach also encompasses the development of different thinking skills: inquiry, reasoning, information-organizing and translation. All these skills support the development of a safe environment for meaningful dialogue in the classroom.
Lipman also describes multidimensional thinking which can be classified as critical, caring and creative thinking. Although many criticise this book, as a young philosophy teacher I found this book to be an absolute theoretical inspiration, and it supported my understanding of the importance of teaching methods. The lack of prescribed activities or exercises was beneficial for me because I was forced to create my own material. At the time, I was not aware that philosophy for children has different schools, approaches, clans etc. That’s why I was very surprised when during the first conference about philosophy for children which I attended in Padua, most practitioners wanted to know which particular approach I was using.. One evening Oscar Brenifier asked me the same question and I answered him: “My approach!” He was delighted and told me: “It is the best approach!” He inspired me not to be “just another teacher” or “just another practitioner” of philosophy for children…Actually, thinking about this, I am probably more of Brenifier’s student than Lipman’s, but Lipman’s Thinking In Education was my first step…
Freedom to Learn by Carl R. Rogers
I first came across Carl R. Rogers when I was doing my literature search for my MA in French philology. I wanted to focus on the reform of university learning and more concretely a reform of the French studies at Graz University which I found totally outdated and counterproductive in the late 70s.
Having used Edward T. Hall as the main author of reference in my English studies master programme a few years earlier (Beyond Culture, 1976) and the implications of his thinking for intercultural communication and communicative competence and having already decided to use Ivan Illich’s Deschooling of Society and the emancipatory role of education as described by Paolo Freire as central elements for my proposals, I was still looking for something or someone to satisfy my need to understand the educational process and learning itself looked at from the perspective of the learner.
This is what I found in Carl R. Rogers’ book Freedom to Learn with clear explanations of what this means for the actions of a teacher. I was preparing to become a teacher of English and French and I needed to find concrete support and arguments for my dislike of what teachers were expected to do in the classroom: transmit the right content knowledge to unmotivated and resistant learners through complex didactical and methodological practices or manipulations. I couldn’t see myself standing in a classroom in a year’s time and performing the subtle or not so subtle game of taming savage animals in a circus.
I was also looking for thinkers about education who would think along the lines of the book I read a few years earlier about Summerhill by A.S. Neill and who could propose something to those of us who were not going to teach in a Summerhill-type school but in the public school system.
And I also found this in Carl Rogers’ book. There were his fundamental principles and thoughts about learning, significant learning which needs to be self-initiated, based on personal involvement and above all permeated by meaningfulness… for the learner I hasten to add. A lot of what happened and still happens in education is perhaps meaningful for the teacher, the school, the educational system, but not for the learners and thus all of this is destined to fail as we can observe regularly.
In addition, there were the accounts of many concrete experiments and concrete classrooms where teachers put these ideas into practice and one of the ideas that struck a deep chord in me was that you do not have to give absolute freedom to make a positive change. Rogers repeatedly states that every teacher can only give as much freedom as she or he can afford to give in their classrooms and although this only goes part of the way, it still makes a decisive difference to the learners and is therefore an important step forward.
This is probably why in my professional life as a teacher, teacher trainer and organiser of teacher education programmes, I have always underlined that it is much better to make a small and concrete step forward than to plan a large leap that remains wishful thinking and is never put into practice.
Illich, I. (1971). Deschooling Society. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Lipman, M. (2003). Thinking in Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Neill, A. S. (1960). Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing. New York, NY: Hart Publishing Company.
Omer, H. (2010). The New Authority: Family, School, and Community. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rogers, C. (1969). Freedom to Learn: A View of What Education Might Become. (1st ed.) Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill.