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.