Arguments about free will date back to ancient Greece, but the scientific consensus now tends towards the belief that free will is an illusion. It’s become an article of faith in the life sciences that all organisations can be reduced to algorithmic processes written in our genes. We either respond to environmental stimuli either by rapidly and unconsciously processing the best option in terms of survival or through random biochemical blips. We may believe we choose our actions, but in actual fact, choice is an illusion. If every choice we seem to make is just an electrochemical brain process – a deterministic reaction to external stimuli or a random event caused by the spontaneous decomposition of a radioactive atom – nothing we do is really our fault. You may disagree with this, but you need to know that this is current scientific dogma.*
So, where does that leave us in schools? I’ve maintained in the past that behaviour is a choice, but is this just a romantic, liberal humanist illusion? Certainly, some people think so. There’s no end of apologists queuing up to tell us that children have no agency or control over how they behave, that their poor behaviour is caused by poor parenting, poor self-esteem, poor reading or poor teaching. Interestingly, there are very few people willing to suggest that poor behaviour might be caused by poor genes though this is probably more credible than the other usual suspects.
The key is to understand that determinism is not the same thing as inevitability. The mistake philosophers have made over the centuries is in conflating determinism with physics. It makes much more sense to look to biology. Inevitability suggests our fate cannot be avoided – this is clearly nonsense as we have evolved precisely to be able to avoid all sorts of potentially grisly fates. We anticipate risks and take corrective measures. Think about it like this: if you duck to avoid a stone thrown at your head, have you demonstrated free will? No – your eyes saw the light bounce off the stone and your response – ducking – was biologically determined. Having seen the brick you had no choice but to duck. What you have is a limited freedom of action – you could (and would) have acted differently if you hadn’t seen the stone.
So should we just accept that children have no choice in how they behave and let them do whatever they want? No. Our reactions to the environment may well be – at least in part – pre-determined, but we can also learn to suppress and control our desires. This still isn’t free will, my choice to delay gratification or to avoid a risky situation may still be governed by algorithms but we can, thorough socialisation, influence children’s perceptions of what constitutes a good choice through well-chosen rewards and sanctions. The key here is to understand that there may be all sorts of very valid reasons why children may choose to misbehave, but these reasons should not be accepted as excuses.
For instance, it may be the case that if a child is unable to read fluently and accurately their predetermined reaction to being asked to read aloud is to feel ashamed and punch someone. That’s perfectly understandable, but it’s not acceptable.
Now of course, it’s equally unacceptable that a child is not taught to read fluently and accurately. Reading difficulties are much more likely to be caused by poor teaching than low intelligence and schools should be held responsible for any children who leave unable to read. Just like the child who feels angry at being unable to read, there are many excellent reasons why schools feel unable to invest the time and resources in teaching children to read. But there is no excuse.
If we accept excuses then we allow children (and schools) not to take responsibility for their actions. I’m not suggesting that children (or schools) should always be punished for making mistakes, but I do believe that we should all be accountable for our actions and not allowed to duck our responsibilities. By forcing children (and schools) to take responsibility we change the environmental stimuli against which they are reacting. If our algorithms compute that throwing a chair, or consigning a child to a bottom set would be a bad choice, then we’re less likely to ‘want’ to make that choice.
Free will may be an illusion, but the environment is – at least in part – within our control. Let’s seek to understand the reasons why poor choices are made, but let’s also refuse to accept these reasons as excuses.
*If you’re interested in pursuing the free will argument, the following list makes a decent starting place:
- Michael Gazzaniga, Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain
- James Miles, The Free Will Delusion
- Richard Oerton, The Cruelty of Free Will
- And here’s Sam Harris’s Free Will site
- My personal favourite: Harris & Dan Dennett discussing free will.