Thursday 21 December 2017

Marion Milner's "The Human Problem in Schools"

Marion Milner was a psychotherapist who, in 1938, undertook a research project on the nature of schooling by studying a girls school which was part of the Girls' Public Day School Trust which had been established in 1872. Milner focused on a range of dimensions of schooling including:

  1. The physical conditions
  2. Arrangement of the Time Table
  3. Teaching Methods
  4. Mental Health of Teachers
  5. Intelligence and Vocational training
as well as a programme of dissemination of findings (what Milner calls "lecturing to parents and staff"). 

She captured in note form the difficulties faced by various members of staff. For example, 

Difficulty in form mistress in getting to know her form when very often she does not teach them all. Thinks that children are not putting in their share of the work, they don't really work in class. 'We try so hard to make it amusing but certainly when they leave no one is going to do that' [...] Thinks the children are spoonfed. Thinks that fatigue partly due to fact that 'if you let up attention for a minute, you've lost them'.
Problem of change of regime when a form passes up to another form mistress with different methods of discipline... transition from strict disciplinarian to one who believes in independence, resulting period of apparent unruliness[...] Children take so long to settle down nowadays...
For the children, she created a questionnaire in which she asked what might be improved about their experience. She captured a list of "miscellaneous worries" which are fascinating:

  • When people are cross
  • Telling lies
  • Being the eldest in the class and the least brilliant
  • Quarrels
  • Feels her worries are too ridiculous to mention
  • Life generally
  • Losing things
  • Making younger sister go to bed when told to
  • Being late
  • If she's forgotten to do something she promised to do
  • Gets very depressed
  • Suffering in the world
  • Worries over trifles
She then tabulated these responses:

One of the big innovations in schooling at the time was the emergence of the intelligence test. Milner appears to support this, although she does document the thoughts and feelings of both staff and students towards it. One child said she didn't like it: "it's ridiculous and I don't believe in psychology and I know a girl who got ill through it", or another who said "it tired my brain too much" (p.62)

Milner conducted a series of deeper interviews with the girls. One of the techniques used was what Milner describes  as a postcard sorting technique:
A set of about 40 picture postcards was prepared, showing different kinds of people in a variety of different situations. When each girl came for her interview it was explained it was explained that a study was being made of the 'different kinds of things people are interested in' and she was asked if she would sort the cards into three piles, according to whether she would 'like to be one of the people in the picture, or hate to be, or not mind either way'. When she had done this she was asked to go through the 'likes' pile and the 'dislikes' pile and say why she had placed each card in that particular pile. (p.79)
In more detailed questioning, children were asked about their day-dreaming. One child, described by her teachers as having an "antagonistic attitude in class, indolence and lack of ambition" reported her day-dreams like this:

In bed I imagine I am diving in the Olympic Games, and doing extraordinary fancy dives absolutely perfectly. In school I imagine I am taking a Gym class. When listening to the wireless I wonder what it would be like to act, or sing into a microphone, or perhaps sometimes I feel I am broadcasting myself.
 Another child, reported as being aloof, has a different set of daydreams.
I imagine I am far away in some unknown land, I fancy it may be Utopia. The fountains play and in their spray there forms a cottage smallest of the small, I always think. The oak beams after many years have warped and now are bent and in the crevices grow moss of all shadses. This place, once a home, is now an empty field.
The roses, pink and white have spread over the doorway so that I cannot enter in. I know what is inside because through the lattice windows lovely visions play across my mind. The house is mine, I say, no one shall even know what I see in there! I shall always remember how a tall Poppy bnowed down to me and said, "It is yours for ever". This is one of my thoughts that comes to me when I am tired. I call it the Home of the Unknown. 
Milner points out that the contrast between these two descriptions as demonstrating "emotional assertiveness" in the first and a lack of interest in domination or successful performance in the second. She relates this to Jungian ideas of extroversion and introversion.

Milner then looked at ways of 'dispersing anxiety', using Jungian categories of sensation, intellect, intuition and emotion, she specifically focused on "finding a social function" and "dispersing anxiety through creative work" as two practical avenues the emotions could be dealt with. She also considered the environment for the growth of the individual, including:

  • The nature of the parents' interests
  • Amount of change in the environment
  • Opportunities available for the multi-level solution of conflict
  • Companionship of equals
  • Amount of emotional stress in relationship with adults (p189)
There's some stuff in Milner's book which is of its time, and to us would seem quite offensive. For example, her solution to reducing fatigue for the staff is to recognise "the intellectual limitations of the non-academic child"! However, she also supports "abolition of numerical marking", and comments that (in 1938!) "several parents mentioned, quite incidentally, that it is a recognized practice for girls to help each other over the telephone while doing their preparation"

She also comments that 
"much of the time now spent in exhortation is fruitless; and that the same amount of time given to the attempt to understand what is happening would, very often, make it possible for difficult girls to become co-operative rather than passively or actively resistant. It seems also to be true that very often it is not necessary to do anything; the implicit change in relationship that results when the adult is sympathetically aware of the child's difficulties is in itself sufficient."

1 comment:

Paul Hollins said...

A fascinating study !