On Democratic Schools

What is more important-that kids learn the same thing at the same time and pass high stakes tests that show they learned basic information? Or is it more important that they learn who they are, be comfortable in their own skin, work well with others, take initiative, live without fear? Do we choose the former because it is the best for our kids or our nation or world, or do we choose it because it can be quantified? Do we avoid alternatives because it isn’t good for our kids, or nation or world; because it can’t be quantified; or because we don’t want to yield that much power to the kids? What do we fear?

How much of what we teach kids is necessary to effective citizenship? How much is necessary in an average daily life? How much math do we need? Do we all need to be excellent writers? Do we all need to be effective writers? Do we all need to know how to balance chemical equations? Do we all need to know how to identify the theme of a story? Do we all need to know that the sum of the angles of a triangle equals 180 degrees? Do we need to know the causes of the Civil War?

This leads me to the biggest question of all: what is the purpose of education? The late Masanobu Fukuoka, a leader of the natural farming movement, said there is no inherent value in the traditional schooling kids receive today. That sounds shocking at first, but upon deeper consideration, I agree with him. As a society we have created an imaginary value for our schools. We created grades and diplomas and certificates and test scores to assign values to what we do. Those become the measures of success. Employers begin to look at grades, diplomas, certificates as parameters for hiring. Employment then becomes a correlate of what we call “academic success.” But all of these measures may have little or nothing to do with what kind of workers we are.

I have often wondered what skills are most necessary for people. What would be most necessary in a post-apocalyptic world? Ultimately, little would matter beyond the basics; food, shelter, security. Being able to produce food, identify edible food, hunt would be most important in that kind of world. Yet, how many kids even know that hamburger comes from cows?

The argument is made that we are not preparing kids for a post-apocalyptic world. We are preparing them for a highly advanced world in which math and science are paramount. Understanding and using technology are key to the success of today’s students. All students need to learn math, science, technology to help the nation create a well-educated workforce. This implies that the purpose of schools is to create good employees.

I was reading a brief history of education which outlined the phases through which formal instruction has passed, from its beginnings in the protestant reformation, during which the purpose was to create readers who could read the Bible themselves and know the word of God without intermediaries like priests. Education changed and evolved, as did its purposes. Curriculum changed with the purposes and each determiner of purpose, each designer of curriculum had its own agenda. So the value of formal education is contingent on the agenda of the movement at hand. If it is contingent then it has no inherent value.

Psychology tells us there is inherent value in play. It tells us there is value in boredom. It tells us there is inherent value in conversation. There is inherent value in intrinsic motivation. Now think about traditional schools. We strip away recess to make more time to prepare for tests. We limit kids’ time to talk and require them to sit quietly for hours and just listen to things in which they are not interested. We offer token economies and grades and test scores to extrinsically motivate them to learn, which psychology research tells us causes a decline in intrinsic motivation. We take away all those things which help kids learn in order to make time for them to pass tests which have no inherent value.

Boredom stemming from idleness gives way to creativity. Creativity, with intellect and task commitment are three components of genius. Yet, we stifle creativity by demanding students sit quietly and listen. Task commitment is artificially and extrinsically induced by grades. Instead of working on long term projects, kids complete a worksheet or read an assigned chapter. Things are chunked into bite size pieces to help kids retain information in short term memories and to make them easily assessable for teachers. Again, the whole design gets in the way of genius and real learning.

Every education major in the country learns about Vygotsky and his theory of language-learning interaction. But the theory is used by teachers in the classroom only to have students discuss little bite size pieces of information. To encourage such conversation in a classroom beyond a certain level is to incur the disappointment of other teachers. While substituting some time ago, I allowed my kids to chat while they were working on math problems. A teacher in a neighboring classroom came in to my class to hush them. Her class was taking a test, and we were bothering them. The test became more important than the learning in my classroom.

Teachers allow conversation, as long as it is related to the task or does not get in the way of the task. However, in a free school, it is this incidental conversation, related or not to the task at hand, which results in learning….real learning. It is natural and uncoerced. However, this “learning” is not measured by legislated standardized tests. Therefore, it is considered an interruption of what is important. I submit it is the conversation which is most important, while the task at hand is artificially induced, completely unnatural and unnecessary. Traditional formal schooling conflicts with nature.

Traditional formal schooling conflicts with nature!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Think about that! What animal, besides man, deprives its children of their innate natural curiosity and playfulness and makes them sit quietly and learn from an adult about things that may or may not be relevant to their lives?!

We separate kids into age grade divisions for administrative ease, but society is a huge mish mash of mixed ages, abilities, genders and races.

We limit free play. Even if we have our kids in soccer travel teams and after school athletics and p.e. classes, we limit free play. We limit their abilities to be bored and creative and self-regulate, by only allowing play under adult direction, not just supervision for safety’s sake.

We limit conversation. Even if we allow kids to talk about the project at hand, we limit their conversation to just that, rather than other social issues or things of importance to them.

We limit their exploration. It doesn’t matter to schools or teachers if a child is interested in current events. If we are teaching history of colonial America, that’s what they will learn about, because it’s easier and it’s what is required by the artificial curriculum and tests. If a child wants to spend the day playing violin, we tell her no. Do we rid the world of a virtuoso because it’s more important that she learn long division, a task which few do with widely available calculators.

We make kids do long division, even though we have calculators. Why? Do carpenters go out and use their fingers to turn screws if there is a power screw driver available? Do research scientists use slide rules if computers are available? It’s unnatural to not use tools that are available to simplify tasks.

We believe in free rule, the Bill of Rights and free will. Then we bring children up in little dictatorships where authority and approval emanate from a single powerful source. They have no opportunity to practice democracy, even as we try to inculcate in them democratic values. We model the opposite of what we want them to be. We deprive them of participation in their own governance in a nation where that is considered a responsibility of its citizens.

Many believe that children need order, structure, discipline. But why? When did this start? They need order, structure, discipline to exist in this unnatural education system, but in the absence of that system, would they need it? Such a system has only been around for about four hundred years. Man has been here (depending on your belief systems) for about 10,000 years. What did children do before the advent of formal coerced education? They were laborers in factories for wealthy industrialists. They were laborers on feudal farms for lords and barons before that. When they were hunter gatherers, they played and learned in a natural setting. They played at those skills they would need as an adult. They played at hunting and even as adults hunting was a continuation of their play. Children in some hunter gatherer societies which still exist today aren’t even expected to “work” until they are in their late teens.

For millennia now, children have been deprived of freedom in order to serve the adults around them. When that was barred by law, children were imprisoned in unnatural education systems until an age at which they were determined to be old enough to unleash on society. Now that we live in a system in which children are no longer needed to support adults, we have free time to offer them; why don’t we?

I have suggested elsewhere that the biblical story of Genesis is about the beginning of agriculture. This is not an original thought, but rather a theory posited by thinkers greater than me. But this makes sense to me. Once man began to use agriculture, and settlements began to replace the nomadic lives of hunter gatherers, populations began to grow. Agriculture began to expand to meet the needs of the new population, which continued to grow, which caused increased demand, ad infinitum. Work replaced play as all the demands of “civilization” replaced the natural order of the hunter-gatherers. Paradise was lost and toil began.

The basic need for food, shelter and security has been replaced by a never ending quest for the nicest car and granite countertops and second homes on exotic islands. Children no longer need to work at learning. Despite all we have, all the time that is made available by modern conveniences, we still imprison our kids in this unnatural system of education when they could finally be freed for play.

In Democratic free schools, children are free to play, and converse, and pursue topics of interest to them. They participate in their own governance as equals with adults in a one person-one vote democracy. They sit on justice committees which provide due process to students and adults alike accused of violations of the rules created and voted upon by the student body. There are no adult areas off limits to students in such schools. There are no attendance policies. There are no grades. There are no mandatory classes. Adults hold seminars at student requests or bring in outside speakers if that’s what the students want. Students vote on adult contracts. It is the students who determine if a teacher returns to the school.

They learn through this process to participate. They become self-aware and fearless. They learn to advocate for themselves and others. They learn to self-regulate. They learn to identify their interests and how to pursue them. They understand compassion and unconditional love. They see freedom and democracy and responsibility modeled, and they model it themselves rather than reading about it in a book proscribed by a curriculum. They are trusted and develop trust. They learn from older students and become nurturers to younger students naturally. They become good democratic citizens, which should be the goal of education in a nation such as ours.

Sudbury, Summerhill and other free schools work because they are natural. They allow nature to run its course, rather than forcing an unnatural system on its youth…..



About bjbundy2014

"And for all I know he is sitting there still, under his favorite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly. He is very happy." -Munro Leaf in Ferdinand the Bull
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