Wednesday, November 23, 2022

"It's Hard Not To Curl Up In A Ball In The Dark And Be On My iPad All Day"

The democratic education movement, or "free school" movement, grew out of the theories of psychologist, philosopher and education reformer John Dewey. 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. These kinds of schools in the US, in fact, are most frequently referred to as "Sudbury schools."

Play-based preschool, at least as I've always conceived of it, and to the degree possible considering that some of our citizens are pre-verbal, is one of these kinds of schools. At its heart, the Sudbury model is what play-based learning looks like for older humans.

A while ago, I was scrolling through one of the social media accounts for one of these schools, one that enrolls children between the ages of 5 and 18, when I came across this quote regarding one of their adolescent students: "When we asked her what challenges her at school, she said . . . 'It's hard not to curl up in a ball in the dark and be on my iPad all day. But I know that I don't have that much time to be a kid . . . So I should own it -- so I act or I draw."

It struck me because, even as a middle aged man, I fully identified. I know that many, if not most, adults in our modern world struggle with the lure of social media, gaming, or binge watching. I wouldn't want to go back to a world without computers, tablets, and smartphones if only because they make my current lifestyle possible, but at the same time I often find myself thinking something along the lines of "I don't have that much time to be a human . . . " 

What this girl is dealing with may not look like the classic "three Rs" education, but it's a genuine, nearly universal real world challenge. And that, according to John Dewey himself, is the essence of a true education:

"Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself."

Even before personal computers were ubiquitous, even in a world where the internet was the stuff of science fiction, it was still a struggle, because at the end of the day, what this girl is talking about is the oft neglected challenges of dealing with freedom. We all value it, we want it for ourselves and for others, but the greatest difficulty of no one telling us what to do is always self-motivation. Even without the wonders of the computer age, it was hard not to curl up all day with television, cassette recordings, and snacking. 

Standard schools handle this challenge by simply rendering children largely unfree. For a good thirteen years, most of us were told where to be, when to be there, and even what to think about. We had to have permission to eat, to sleep, to talk, to use the bathroom. This is a preparation for something, but certainly not a life of freedom.

We can argue all day about how free our world is, but there is no question that life itself, at least in my country, is vastly more free than anything we experienced in school. Is it any wonder that so many of us struggle with self-motivation? We don't get to practice it until we're nearly full-grown, which means that we are likely missing the natural window to really learn it.

Honestly, I don't know if there is a natural window to learn about self-motivation or not. But we do know that the things we learn when we are young, we tend to carry forward into adulthood, so it makes sense that after a childhood of external motivation, we feel cast adrift when suddenly confronted with a world that requires self-motivation. It also makes sense to me that if we want education to truly prepare children for life, it behooves us to let them actually live it.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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