Today I taught my second lesson of philosophy in a Danish public school. I teach two very different groups, and my story today is about the first group. They are a 7th grade class, all 13-14 year old boys and girls.
In Denmark, compared to the Netherlands, the authoritative structure of the school is quite loose. For example, classes are scheduled to start at 8 am. However, it seems like most don’t start before 8.15 – amongst others because teachers are late – and until about 8.30 students are arriving. In the Netherlands on the other hand, if you are 1min late your name is registered, if you come late twice it means two hours of cleaning duty. Another Danish example is that apparently it is quite normal for students to decide they want to work elsewhere but in the classroom and to simply leave the classroom without saying anything. So far I have several times lost some of the students and I have to search them in the school, because otherwise I can’t help them with their work.
Yesterday the students chose questions they found interesting and today they got assignments and texts to philosophically examine these questions. The questions are (links refer to the assignments): A) How do we know that we do not live in a game?; B) What is time?; C) Morality: how can we solve a moral dilemma?
In the 7th grade there is one boy, let’s call him Max. Max is very hard to handle. He is not necessarily unkind, but he simply does not participate in class activity. Obviously I don’t know him very well, but it seems like he is quite unhappy, restless and not motivated to learn anything. Yesterday he was spending most of his time either walking around the classroom touching some of the other boys – mostly holding his arm around their neck and pushing them down -, sleeping on his desk or he was just gone from the classroom altogether.
So this morning I started the day by asking him what he wants, what he needs to learn, what he likes, what he finds interesting, what he needs from me. He said that in fact he thought the class was interesting and when I asked him why he did not participate, he said that he did and in fact for a moment started discussing the question of the moment (Matrix: would you take the red or the blue pill?). However, quite soon after, his interest or concentration or whatever was gone again.
When later in the afternoon I offered to read a part of Plato’s The Republic with him and two of his friends, his friends were willing and we started reading together. He first came and sat with us without his text. His friends told him to go and get his paper. He walked back grudgingly, got the paper, dropped it on the floor a bit further, said something in Danish and walked away. When I asked what he had said his two friends shrugged their shoulders and said that he was just going. They wanted to read the text. When I suggested to wait for Max they said they would rather not, because Max wasn’t interested in learning anything. So they would rather read without him (and these were not very serious, hard studying boys).
When later I asked the other teachers about Max, they said that it was a school problem. They didn’t know what to do with him. Danish education is inclusive; the idea is that all children, no matter their background, religion, behavior, iq level, etc. are welcome. In this way the class represents regular society. But what to do with a boy like Max, when you have 25 other students that need your attention? The answer in practice, apparently, is: you give him the freedom to leave the classroom whenever he wants. It is a problem, the teachers admitted. They did try to get the boy psychological help, he has been out of school for 1,5 years, he has been in a special school for a while.
I am at a loss here. I don’t know what to do with this boy. He has a right to education and I want to teach him. But I cannot sit next to him all the time if I also have to teach 24 other students – even if I would love to and I think it would help him. It would not be fair to the other students. But this means that Max plays around in the classroom or walks away, and in either way he is not getting any education…