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What are we going to do today?

How do we know that what we do from day to day is any good? Phineas Molepo, a graduate of the Diploma in Child Care Administration in South Africa, remembers some challenging questions posed by educators

In their landmark book Teaching as a Subversive Activity published in the 1970s, Postman and Weingartner challenged educators to ask themselves the following three questions:

We know that it is necessary that all of us have a clear picture, at all times, of the essential reason for the child’s presence in our program. A few questions have to be answered if we are to maintain sound direction in what we are doing. Are we educating these children to function adequately in the real world or are we preparing them only to function adequately in our residential setting? To answer this question, we need consciously to look at the curriculum and the methods we use in our daily interaction with the children who are in our care.

What am I going to have my students do today?
Toffler made the point that we must prepare children to be able to live in their own future world, the world they will find waiting for them “when they get there” and in which they must function independently. In so saying he warned us to revisit our policies, routines and teaching to see if they will really prove relevant to our present clients.

Some organisations, consciously or unconsciously, regard their routines as more important than individual programs and education. Child and youth care workers should be in a position to make decisions on a daily basis as to which activities are more important and which contribute towards the real education of the children.

This does not mean the worker should go to work in the morning without any program in mind, because if there is no program, the children are quick to fill the vacuum with their own — and workers then find themselves doing little more than “putting out fires” as Gannon puts it. He goes on to say that “when I see staff putting out fires it suggests that the kids have grabbed the initiative and are driving the action.”

Child and youth care workers should be leaders rather than followers, but they should also know where to lead. They should more often be questioning their own sense of direction: “What is going on here? What would be the most helpful thing for me to do? How would adults handle this situation in a real world situation?”

For example, a child may decide to spend his afternoon working on his broken bicycle which he rides to school, instead of sitting around a table because it is ‘homework’ time. Many a child and youth care worker would not allow this, because the ‘routine’ says otherwise. In the real world, it would make real sense to spend one’s time fixing one’s bike or car to be able to get to school or work the following day rather than following a rigid timetable.

From the organisation’s point of view, it means the administrator should encourage staff to allow children to take more responsibility for planning their time, and to do things which promote their education.

Look at your practice today: what are your students doing? Just like progressive educators, we should believe that our educational philosophies not merely serve the residential community but can influence and change it.

What is it good for?
If a skill like fixing a bicycle can be mastered, and then be portable and relevant (that is, it will work back home in the child’s real life) then a good educative organisation would rather allow the child to spend his afternoon learning this skill.

In work with difficult children we have a lot to do in a limited time. There are times when we are doing more technical ‘treatment’ work; there are times when we are doing more normative ‘teaching’ work; there are times when we are having fun. But everything we do must be useful — it must “be good for” something in the child’s future life. But experiences can also be good for the child’s life today — good experiences today change a child’s perceptions of his world and the way he responds to it. Most of us in my organisation have a tendency to emphasise the future rather than the present, which suggests that we fail to see that what we teach them today can be relevant to them now.

We often use the words, “When you grow up, when you leave this place ... ” I think we must put our efforts into helping our children to understand the importance of our rules and routines now rather than giving them the impression that life is still to come — that what we do today is mere preparation for real life. John Dewey, writing in the school journal in 1897 (did you get that date?) regretted that “much of present education fails because it neglects this fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life. It conceives the school as a place where certain information is to be given, where certain lessons are to be learned or where certain habits are to be formed. The values of these are conceived as lying largely in the remote future.”
We should always keep Dewey’s conclusion in mind that “Education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” This will enable the child to see education as a step forward for the child today — and allow him to see it as being good for him today and tomorrow.

How do I know?
What am I going to have my students do today? What is it good for? How do I know? This last question is a tricky one, because what I may regard as good for the child may not be experienced as good by the child or even by my fellow workers. It is through the feedback from the child and from those he lives and interacts with that we can know that what we are doing is good for him or not. According to Brendtro et al. in their chapter on brain-friendly learning, “the desire to master is seen in all cultures from childhood onwards. People explore, acquire language, construct things and attempt to cope with their environments. It is a mark of humanness that children and adults alike desire to do such things and in so doing, gain the joy of achievement.” 

So we will recognise the value of what we teach when we see children trying more and more to do things without fear of failure. We will know by seeing children developing interest in what we are teaching them. We will know by seeing children gaining courage without feeling threatened. All these can be seen if our curriculum is relevant, up to date and interesting without posing any threats to the children. However, we need to be very careful when we set criteria for assessing what is good and what is not, because our criteria may reflect expectations which might set up children for failure. Gannon (1988) suggest that “A group life environment should provide children with the incentives to grow and the freedom to fail. In other words, we should not assess the child’s progress by comparing him with other children. Children should be taught and encouraged to compete against themselves and not against others.”

How do we know? We will know when we see children deciding by themselves what to do and how to do it, without an adult having to prescribe for them. We will know when we see children wanting to and being able to pursue their own personal goals.

Postman and Weingartner warn that these three questions must be treated with caution as they can cause friction between the organisation and the individual worker. However, this can be averted by our building together a policy through which everyone on the team will want to share in creating demonstrably useful educational experiences, today, tomorrow and every day.


Brendtro, L., Brokenleg, M. and Van Bockem. (1990) Reclaiming Youth at Risk, National Education Senrice, Bloomington

Gannon, B. (1986) Curriculum Building in Child Care. The Child Care Worker 4.11 

Postman, N. and Weingartner, C. (1971) Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Harmondsworth: Penguin