Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Free Schools


What is meant by non-interference of the school in learning? . . . (It means) granting students the full freedom to avail themselves of teaching that answers their needs, and that they want, only to the extent that they need and want it; and it means not forcing them to learn what they do not need or want . . . I doubt whether (the kind of school I am discussing) will become common for another century. It is not likely . . . that schools based on students' freedom of choice will be established even a hundred years from now. ~Leo Tolstoy (Education and Culture)

Democratic education has been on my mind a lot lately. My friend and Woodland Park alumni Maya recently directed me to a piece from a couple months ago that ran on This American Life about the Brooklyn Free School.

The democratic education movement, or "free school" movement, grew out of the theories of psychologist, philosopher and education reformer John Dewey, who I wrote a bit about yesterday. The basic concept is to run a school based upon the democratic ideals of citizen government, universal suffrage, free speech, and the free marketplace of ideas. Free schools have no curricula other than democracy, no rules not made by the students themselves, no classes except those created by the students, and teachers whose votes carry no more weight than that of a 5-year-old.


The two most famous of these schools are the Summerhill School in England which was founded in 1921 and the Sudbury Valley School founded in the US in 1968. I first became aware of democratic education several years ago when Arya's mom Sarah gave me a book to read call Free At Last: The Sudbury Valley School which is a collection of essays and vignettes about life at the school.

I think most of us, when we first hear about schools that entrust children's education to their own natural capacity to learn what they need and want to know through their freely chosen daily interactions and activities, driven by their own curiosities, react with skepticism. Certainly, there must be some higher authority in the form of adults. Won't it just turn into The Lord of the Flies? Won't they just play all day, or worse, do nothing at all? How do we know they'll learn the basics? How will they get into college? Get a job?

I won't try to answer those questions here, although if you want to see how the Brooklyn Free School answers them, take a look at their FAQ page. But before you do take a look at the "cheat sheet," I urge you to hang out with the questions on your own for awhile. I've found it fun to reflect on how we answer those questions and concerns now.


In our current educational system, the adults definitely are in charge, increasingly taking control of not only what, but how a specific curriculum is taught to all kids, circumventing even the classroom teachers. We then repeatedly test our children to make sure they've learned what the higher authorities want them to know, despairing that they've learned it inadequately, then calling for more rigorous instruction, longer school days, shorter vacations, larger classes, and, indeed, more tests. And largely because of these tests, which focus almost exclusively on math and literacy (and a little bit of science), this top-down model of curriculum dictatorship results in a very narrow, very vocational type of education, one that may prepare kids for worker bee jobs at Microsoft, but with only the barest knowledge of the arts, humanities, civics, athletics, music, dance, human relations, world affairs, science, and rest of our magnificent universe. It seems to me that there is no inherent advantage to putting adults in charge.

In our current predominant educational system, the adults make all the rules, dictating everything from behavior and dress to when and where children must be at any given time. Adult rules regulate what children may and may not say. Adults dictate when children may sit, when they may stand, when they may eat, when and if they may play. Perhaps as the children get older, say high school, they are given some level of autonomy over their own lives, but only to the degree the adults in charge allow it. As a consequence, we have teachers who spend much of their time dealing with behavioral issues, constantly herding and corralling and correcting and disciplining, all in the name of these rules that have been forced upon their fellow human beings. It's only natural to rebel against being told what to do, no matter what your age, even my dogs pull back against the leash. And the natural response of a dictator when "challenged" is to impose yet harsher control, stricter rules, and to do things like wield baseball bats as a way to emphasize their authority. From where I sit, it looks like a crazy cycle.


In my own little school, the preschoolers make their own rules by consensus. We've done it for years and have found that the kids tend to cover all the bases of decorum and safety all on their own. Not only that, but when a rule is broken we simply remind the children that they and their friends agreed to that rule and that's that. Our summer program invites in children who have experiences in other schools. Last summer as one of these children was eating his snack with Charlie B., the boy suggested they do something, to which Charlie replied, "That's against the rules." When the boy asked, "What happens if you break the rules?" Charlie thought for a moment, then replied, "We don't break the rules."

Anyone who reads this blog, of course, is probably already sold on the idea of a play-based curriculum and would see nothing wrong with preschoolers, at least, choosing to play all day. We know that this is the natural way for young children to learn everything they need to know, through freely interacting with the world according to their passions and curiosities, yet even the most free-thinking of us are tempted to draw a line as kids get older, but why? Why shouldn't children continue to "play" as they get older? When we play, we are fully engaged, we learn through the experience, by trail and error. We learn from our successes and even more from our failures. We learn what we need and want to know. But what about the basics, like reading a math? The premise of the free school is that these things are learned through the natural pursuit of knowledge. I've yet to find an example of a free school student who has failed to learn these things.

But what about "the basics" anyway? Who decided that these were the basics? I, for one, spent a lot of time "learning" the basics in school, the word learning being in quotes because most of it, being unimportant information to me, was just memorized for the purposes of the next test, then conveniently forgotten. The stuff that interested me, the stuff I needed or wanted to know, stuck. A few days ago I was talking to my friend Scott about education in general and dropped the famous Fran Lebowitz quote into the conversation: "In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as algebra." He laughed, but then told how he needed to "re-learn" (his word) his algebra several years back because of a skill he wanted to add to his professional tool belt, a career he loves. I asked him if it was hard for him. He answered, "In school it was, but for this, it was a piece of cake." Learning is real when when it's something we need or want.

What we call "the basics" is such a small slice of everything there is to know. The goal of learning most of all too often, it seems to me, is to learn the techniques of cramming. How much better it would be if we each got to determine our own basics from the wide, wide world, and fill in the rest as we need it. It's what we do anyway, but without really learning what we need and want during our years in school.


As for college and jobs, I'll just say that the graduates of the democratic schools go on to college at rates far, far higher than those in public schools and on par with that of traditional private schools. As for jobs? Well, those of you who have read here awhile know that I tend to think education is for creating good citizens; let employers train their own workers.

The longer I've taught at Woodland Park, the closer we get to the ideals of the free school movement, even with preschoolers. It's not something we've done consciously, but rather by following the path that seems best for the kids. Our current educational system seems largely set up to train kids for their economic futures, and by most accounts we're even failing at that. I think education should prepare children for a full life, one in which their vocations are only a part, and democratic education seems to come much closer to that ideal than what we are doing now.

I've only just begun my studies on the subject and I'm having fun with the ideas. I'm sure there will be more in this space as time goes on and I play with it a little more.

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19 comments:

Marla McLean, Atelierista said...

I also am fascinated by free schools. Some of the elements that they seem to all have in common are: small sized population, homogenous socio-economic groups, involved parents who search for such schools.
How can we make available these values of democratic schools, play based learning, and student directed inquiry for our marginalized and isolated populations. If I see another example of military inspired, chanting, rote, drill charter schools as successful models, I am going to just explode! These schools strip children of their strengths in order to maintain a sense of discipline and uniformity. Culture and expression is eliminated because they are considered unimportant to test taking. There is great discipline, negotiating, and yes, even uniformity in democratic schools-but it comes by way of love, connection, expression, inquiry, and relationship. Great post Tom!

Rachel Baker said...

Hi Tom,
At the end of my teaching degree, I wrote my dissertation on 'democracy in education'. After my degree I visited schools in Norway & Denmark that seemed to run a far more child-lead system. Even tho that was a long time ago, I think perhaps you would find the Danish approach worth a little research...

carly@LearningParade said...

Super post Tom. We had to watch a documentary on Summerhill as part of our teacher training course. I remember that the liberal thinking behind it all was so extreme; much as I endorse child led learning, there is still a place for facilitating and guiding learners in the right direction. From what I recall, in the documentary many of the pupils, especially the teens, were simply running amok!

Andrea, founder of parentsguild.com said...

Tom, I'm really enjoying your blog. My children attend a play-based preschool, and I almost feel I'm there with them when I read your writeups.

I'm still in the skeptical camp. I'm sold on play in preschool, kindergarten, maybe even through 2nd grade; and ideally I'd like learning to be play-based, and student-led, as much as possible for ever after. Just can't shake the "as much as possible" part... at least not yet :)

Just had to chime in on the "worker bees at Microsoft" reference. Maybe that's an illusion to Bill Gates and the roll he's trying to play in reforming education? But, well, I worked for a small company that was bought by Microsoft and I stayed at Microsoft for a few years - and I have to say that no amount of testing-based education would have prepared me for the creativity required in my "worker bee at Microsoft" interaction design job or any other jobs I saw there.

To be frank, I'm not sure what job NCLB and similar practices are actually sufficient for. Fast food service?

Teacher Tom said...

@Marla . . . I've been trying to get my mind around what it will take to bring progressive educational ideas into mainstream schools. What I keep coming back to is that people like us need to keep preaching, especially to parents. We need to help give them the words to express what I believe most of them already feel in their hearts. They know something is wrong and politicians and business people are rushing to fill the need they feel with more of the same, only, well more so! I hope we are entering an era of parent and teacher activism on behalf of our children.

@Rachel . . . Thank you. I've been researching off and on, but I'm really feeling the need to learn more. I'll take your counsel and look into what the Danes are doing.

@Carly . . . Most of what I know about Summerhill I put into this post, although I did notice that even on their own website they still acknowledge the "controversial" nature of their approach. I have no doubt that the documentary showed teens running amok, but at the same time many people have observed my school and seen preschoolers running amok. I'm just starting my investigations. I would certainly be interested in seeing that documentary if you remember what it was called.

Jess said...

Believe it or not, many schools and teachers are employing democratic ideas already. Yes, in public schools all over the u.s! I think the scare tactics of lumping all schools or "the system" into one uniform whole can be quite misleading at least and possibly damaging. Perhaps as much so as the 'drill and test' schools are damaging to the natural tendencies of kids. It serves to alienate teachers from parents, especially teachers who already are, in fact, progressively educating their students. Parents get all freaked out that their kids are being failed by every school out there, and it's simply untrue. Fabulous schools require parent involvement, and where this exists, schools can be, and many times are, great! And rogue teachers everywhere are bucking the system from within! Teaching the way we learned in grad school, and not the way the amorphous "they" want us to. Nodding our heads, then doing as we please, or, ahem, as we know is best for the kids.

Also, schools reflect our society as a whole. If schools are broken, our society and culture needs examining.

Jess said...

P.S. I LOVE your blog! I love how you describe what I think, for the most part! :) Here's an example of the culture/school conundrum:
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2062419,00.html

Maya said...

Tom, I totally get what you're saying and where you're coming from. However, I'm starting to feel like we're all mere automatons programmed to do precisely what is asked of us and if we don't all fall in line, well, there goes that college scholarship, or that promotion or that higher paying job. I'm afraid if children don't fall in line soon, they'll fall back. I, like most parents, want my children to be successful and as much as I don't like the testing (in fact I despise the testing) how else will my child grow to be a successful adult in these time? I think there's something to be said about the term "starving artist" only the very few ever find monetary success becoming an artist. And I know what you're thinking -- why should we gauge success on income alone? I don't know, but isn't that how it's done. The more you make the better you've done for yourself. I want my children to have success in all areas of their lives, but sometimes its hard to find those other successes when you're struggling to find a job or pay the rent. However, the notion of a free school still intrigues me, then again, the notion of less testing and more hands on learning in public schools intrigues me more. Oddly enough, my word verification for this comment is, NoPride. HA!

jenny said...

Tom you would really enjoy reading "Lives of Passion, School of Hope" by Rick Posner. www.http://rickposner.com

My school has a democratic / progressive approach. It is not a free school, and we do struggle with the idea that we are not giving our kids enough choice within the curriculum. The kids have 2 free choice afternoons each week after lunch - the whole school together. If you could see the way these kids play together, all ages, choosing their own bliss - the learning that is happening is amazing. For weeks my 7 year old, and a gang of other kids worked together building a base at morning tea and lunch. Free choice afternoons gave them the opportunity to really sink their teeth into this project and they ended up building their own dry stone wall - on a slope.

For the past 3 years most of our primary school leavers have been accepted into selective high schools despite never have done a test or homework.

My own 12 year old started high school this year and is finding the work boring, and gets annoyed that the other kids don't want to learn and spend so much time misbehaving in class. He has come top in a few tests lately - again, having never ever done one.

I think that watching kids come through this type of education, and seeing what they achieve when they have the opportunity to follow their interests, be really heard and not having a full focus on academics is the proof in the pudding so to speak. It is sad for me at the moment to watch my son who loved going to primary school and never ever said it was boring to now find learning boring.

carly@LearningParade said...

Tom, I think that the documentary we watched was Summerhill at 70. Made in the 90s, this film was damaging to the school and sensationalist. In hindsight, perhaps not a balanced portrayal, but may still be of interest?

catiew said...

Changing Education Paradigms: http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2011/03/how-do-you-educate-a-little-geek/

I've only just discovered your blog (thankfully!) and I think this short video would be right up your alley. It causes much thinking and questioning about our current education system. And, who doesn't love amazing drawings that illustrate valid points?

susan said...

Hi Tom. My kids go to the Clearwater School http://clearwaterschool.com/ , our seattle area Sudbury School, and it has been a really great experience. Before Clearwater, they went to NSCC coop preschools - I remember meeting you years ago at PAC meetings. Now I have just found this blog and I am really enjoying it. I am sure everyone at the Clearwater school would be very happy to have you visit sometime if you are interested.

Those Crazy Stevenses said...

"But what about the basics, like reading a math? The premise of the free school is that these things are learned through the natural pursuit of knowledge. I've yet to find an example of a free school student who has failed to learn these things."

Dude. I hate to break it to you, but I think you're a closet unschooler!

Robin said...

In More's Utopia, a major premise is that people, when left to figure things out on their own in a conducive environment, will discover religion for themselves. I suspect that people, when left to ponder education in the presence of real children and if able to keep an open mind through the process, will ultimately discover some form of free schooling, student-led learning, play-based learning, etc. Isn't that ultimately how we all actually learn something? I think ordinary public schools have their place...just like chain restaurants when you're in an unfamiliar town. They provide a certain level of reliability in product, etc.

At least in our state, and I think most, it is very difficult for teachers in public schools to do anything besides teach to the tests as their jobs depend on their students test scores in that same year. Some states are trying something new (here's an article on West Virginia )

Ultimately, I see no reason that children should have to go from being natural learners to forced learners. If left to follow their passions, they will learn what they need to know to follow their dreams, and learn it well.

I love your blog and use your ideas, practical or philosophical, all the time!

Hilaree said...

Thank you so much for this highly eloquent post. We are an unschooling family in New Hampshire. Based on her own timing and desires, my seven year old daughter taught herself to read, no problem, no hassling, no coercion, and she loves it. Thanks for being such a lovely voice on the internet. I'll be checking back again soon.

Michael Enquist said...

Is anybody still reading here?

As I read the comments and concerns of people regarding democratic free schools, I can pick out a common thread: Fear.

"If my kids can think for themselves, how will they get a scholarship, go to college or get a job?"

Think about that for a minute, or two or three.

How many people went through the motions and are doing what they feel they must, calling it "duty," and feeling jealous of the people we see who are doing what they want?

If liberty and democracy are social goods, then why do we raise our kids in dictatorships, then kick them out into the "real world" at 18 and tell them they must now be fully functioning citizens?

Why not start from the beginning, allowing children - who are not clean slates - to express their interests, try them out and see how much more they want to do?

Watching a film in grad school will not give one a good idea of how democratic free schools work, and, honestly, if that is what you are using to make your judgment, I wonder about your critical thinking skills.

Kids in democratic free schools learn critical thinking skills every day because they must learn how to interact with each other and not let their society devolve into "Lord of the Flies." The tool for this is called "Judicial Committee" or "JC." This is where students present their concerns about the behavior of others, the "accused" gets his or her say, and their peers - their real peers - decide how best to correct the problem, not just punish wrongdoers. Because each student has a turn at sitting on the JC, they learn compassion for the accused, but learn also that being "soft on crime" just means that more trouble will come later.

Who will make better citizens: Children who have had the chance to think for themselves, direct their own learning, discover what more they need to know and who learn how to work together to make a harmonious society, or those who sit in rows, are told what to think and how to think it and have nervous fits the night before the next high-stakes test?

I recommend visiting the site of The New School of Newark, DE for more information about why democratic free schools work. Pay particular attention to the students’ theses that they presented to the school community to demonstrate why they believed they were ready to move into adult society. (You will need to go to the search page and type in “thesis”) In other works, please try some original research rather than just accepting what someone else has told you.

Sorry if I seem a little impatient, but I have a difficult time with the idea that teachers are feeling proud of themselves for bucking the system rather than being honest and abandoning the failed system completely. How can I be so bold as to say that the system has failed? Two reasons: We are so poorly educated in how to participate effectively as citizens that we continue to elect hooligans and kleptocrats to our positions of government, and we are so poorly educated in how to participate effectively in the economy that we allow corporations to have more rights than do flesh-and-blood human beings.

If you disagree, then we should discuss it, just like they would do at a democratic free school.

In fact, this blog itself is proof of the value of democratic free schools: You, dear reader, came here of your own accord because you were interested in the topic. You read the post, perhaps followed the links, and maybe commented. You judged, based on your own previous education and experience, if you were going to trust what Teacher Tom wrote. You left with a new understanding of democratic free schools. You became educated, all by yourself, without anyone telling you that you should.

Since it worked for you, why would it not work for your children?

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Kyla said...

Hi Tom!

I feel like my words are coming out in your blogs! My son attends BFS and is like a fish in water. He loves it and we couldn't be happier.
I have been involved in education my entire adult life and have been rethinking everything. I consistently love your posts. I hope you use all of these wonderful posts to create a book. I also think you should speak at the next AERO conference (alternative education resource organization). Your voice and experience is right on!
I was looking for a link for my blog and, of course, you had one. I know that this is an older blog post, but truth stands the test of time.

Cassie said...

Hi Teacher Tom.
I am a preschool teacher at The Patchwork School(a free/democratic school) in Louisville, Colorado. I have just come across your blog while searching the web for schools and teachers like us. I SO look forward to exploring your blog, and want to say thank you for taking the time to create such a place for supporting progressive/alternative education.
Thank you!

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