Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The New American Schoolhouse


Probably at one time or another all educators have daydreamed about what they might do if they were starting a school of their own with no constraints but a blank piece of paper.

One of my colleagues shared this (ten minute) video with me this morning. It offers an alternative vision of what school is, or could be. Daniel Harman, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, describes Fairhaven this way:

This is a school with no set hours, no required classes, no grades, no parent-teacher meetings, and no rules except for the ones the people here make up and vote on themselves. It's a school where youngsters have a say on everything - from whether sipping soda should be allowed in the sound-proofed music room to which staff should be fired at the end of the year.

Students ages 5 to 19 mix freely here with each other and with the teachers (known as "doers"), and are encouraged to take their time figuring out what they want to learn - and then how, when, where, and from whom to learn it. Meanwhile, in their "spare time," they play. Or get bored. Both, according to the school's mission, are welcome activities.

Fairhaven is a so-called "free school." The philosophy behind the model is that humans are curious by nature - and so the most efficient and profound learning will take place when started and pursued by the learner. Freedom and democracy, continues the philosophy, will help develop personal responsibility and maturity.


First thoughts?

3 comments:

Danny Mydlack said...

Hi, My name is Professor Danny Mydlack and I am the film maker. Thanks for linking to the trailer. I'm happy to entertain comments and questions as well. The full 80-minute film is also on youtube separated into its various chapters.

Skipper said...

Long time reader, first time writer - I thought I'd add to this as we've talked about "unschooling" in the past and we are seriously considering it for our children in the future.

Below is an article from Fairhaven's site - as a Sudbury-style school, they often have to explain their philosophy using terms of reference from other methods like Montessori, Waldorf, and Holtian "unschooling". The article is by Romey Pittman (Fairhaven parent, co-founder and former staff member).

Given your experience and extensive thoughts on current educational reform "within the system", I'm curious to hear what you think about 1) taking matters into one's own hands ("unschooling" at home in an environment that allows for exploration) and excepting the responsibility, time, and risks associated with such an endeavor or 2) forking over some money to a Sudbury Valley school (roughly $7000/yr at Fairhaven for context) to let your children freely explore and develop with other children. My wife and I are fully committed in the early years to letting our child explore at home, but do accept the reality that at some point he may grow beyond the capacity that we have to provide satisfaction for his interests and seek out the companionship of others of all ages for this satisfaction.

Ok, So You’re Sort of Like

After hearing a short explanation of our school’s philosophy, many people understandably try to link it with something already familiar to them. The most frequently mentioned “so-you’re-sort of-likes” are listed below. We have tried to be fair but clear in distinguishing ourselves from other philosophies. However, all the subtleties of these educational models are not laid out and comparisons are not made from every angle. We hope that the explanations below serve to clarify what the Sudbury model is and is not really about.

OK, SO YOU’RE SORT OF LIKE—
A Montessori school?
There are some ways in which the Sudbury model is similar to the Montessori approach. Children in both settings are allowed more freedom to make decisions about what interests them and how to pace themselves than in most other schools. Both models also hold the basic assumption that children are naturally curious and don’t need to be forced to learn.
But Montessori children may choose only between the specific options presented by the teacher, not from the full array of activities which life itself presents. Montessori educators believe that all children learn according to specific patterns and sequences. They base classroom activities on the model’s assumptions about what is “developmentally appropriate” for each age group, and restrict access to certain activities if earlier activities in the preplanned sequence have not been completed. The Sudbury model makes no assumptions about how individual children will learn at any age. There is no expectation that one learn multiplication before negative numbers or how to draw a circle before a square. Interest is the only criterion for engaging in any activity, and satisfaction the only evaluation of success.

—A Waldorf school?
Like Waldorf Schools, Sudbury schools care about the whole child. We are not only interested in academic success, but in the happiness and full human potential of each individual. Like Waldorf schools, we do not push children to read early, as traditional schools do. Both approaches value play, “deep” (intensely involved) play, in particular, as crucial to the development of children’s mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual selves, indeed as the fundamental “work” of children. We both respect the intuitive wisdom of children, and take their world views and interests quite seriously.
But the Sudbury model espouses no particular path of spiritual or emotional growth. Rather than listening to children in order to better guide them, we listen to them to respond to their self-determined needs. Unlike Waldorf education, we have no predetermined curriculum. We trust children to make their own mistakes, work though their own problems, and come to their own solutions, with help, when it’s needed, but without the assumption that we know the best outcome. Waldorf educators endeavor to move children, and society in general, in a particular direction, and seek to set up an environment that fosters such social transformation.
By contrast, Sudbury schools seek to create an environment where children can recognize and pursue their own agenda. Children and adults together assess and modify the culture of the school through the School Meeting. The democratic process in a Sudbury school can be loud and contentious; it involves special interest groups politicking, voters making judgements, defendants being sentenced. It is “real” and not necessarily “enlightened” (although always respectful). The Sudbury model simply aims to give children access to the full complexity of life, and the curiosity, confidence, and competence to participate in — and perhaps to change — society according to their own interests, experience, knowledge, and goals.

—A progressive school?
Sudbury schools believe, as progressive school reformers do, that traditional schooling is not working. Both identify authoritarian teaching and administration as problems, and seek to reduce the stresses students experience in being coerced into learning and evaluated by “objective” testing.
But the Sudbury model also rejects the notion that the alternative to authoritarianism is permissiveness — kind teachers giving kids second and third chances to shape up, trying to prevent any unhappiness, and bending over backwards to “make learning fun,” getting children to learn without them noticing they are learning. When kids are treated permissively they do not learn personal responsibility for their actions.
Adults in progressive schools retain the authority to grant or deny that second chance, to step in to resolve disputes, to establish the rules of conduct in their schools. There can be an illusion of freedom or democratic decision-making in progressive school, but if kids make poor decisions, adults always retain the power to step in and solve the problem for them.
In the context of learning, progressive schools often try to have the curriculum follow students’ interests. But the effect of teaching to a child’s interests is, as Daniel Greenberg has argued, like a parent waiting for a child to open her mouth to speak before popping in the medicine the parent wants to give her. Children who show an interest in playing Cowboys and Indians for a few hours, might be subject to six weeks worth of projects about Native Americans, regardless of whether their interest is sustained or not. The child administered medicine in such a manner may learn never to open her mouth around a parent with a spoon; the student administered education in such a manner may learn not to show interest, at least in school.
Learning something new can be hard work, and children are quite capable of hard work — when they are working on something they want to do. When a student has a serious interest, there is no stopping her, and “making it fun” is often an intolerable distraction. When a student has an interest, we believe she should be allowed to pursue it only as far as she feels necessary. She may return to an important idea later, to deepen her interest, but forcing or manipulating her to deepen it will only serve to lessen her curiosity and sense of self-determination.
Some progressive schools offer an array of courses, but do not require attendance. Sudbury schools do not have standard offerings, because learning to pursue one’s own agenda can be challenging, sometimes painful, sometimes boring. We think boredom is a valuable opportunity to make discoveries about one’s self. It is often easier to sit in classes, be entertained (maybe not as well as TV entertains, but still better than nothing), and avoid parental pressure, than it is to schedule one’s own life, wrestle with one’s own questions, learn how to seek the answers, and master one’s own destiny.

—Homeschooling?
There is a particular philosophy of homeschooling, often referred to as “unschooling,” which shares many similarities with the Sudbury model. John Holt was its best known proponent, and his writings have been invaluable to us in helping to explain just how learning can happen without teaching, and why on earth a child might choose to learn arithmetic or some other supposedly dreadful subject.
Unschoolers believe, as we do, that children are born curious about the world and eager to succeed in life and that kids learn best through experience and experimentation rather than by being told how and what to think. In the words of John Holt: “Real learning is a process of discovery, and if we want it to happen, we must create the kinds of conditions in which discoveries are made. . . They include time, freedom, and a lack of pressure.”
But unschoolers, for the most part, see the family environment as the best place for children to grow, while the Sudbury model believes that, as the African proverb states, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Children and parents have complex relationships and interdependencies which make it harder for children to discover true independence within the family.
In the environment of a Sudbury school, children face direct personal responsibility for their actions, without the emotional baggage that family-based accountability can sometimes carry. In addition, children are more able to develop some important social skills in a democratic school — the ability to tolerate diversity of opinion, to speak out against inappropriate behavior, and to develop and carry out group projects, for example. In most homeschooling families, the parent sees him or herself as ultimately responsible for the child’s education, while at Sudbury schools, that responsibility rests squarely with the child.

—Student governments in traditional schools?
Sudbury School Meetings are similar to student governments only in that they are composed of students and operate by majority rule.
But the School Meeting is a participatory democracy, where every student and staff member has the option of a direct vote in every decision made. Student governments are representative — students are chosen to represent the larger student body. More importantly, student governments are hardly ever given real power over substantive issues. Elected positions serve primarily as symbols of status, popularity, and “leadership potential” for college admissions purposes.
The School Meeting decides who will be staff each year, how tuition will be spent, what each and every rule of the school will be, and who will be suspended or expelled for violation of those rules. Staff members are involved on an equal footing, arguing their positions with gusto. But they are also equally bound to the rules of the school.
As a free majority, students experience real control over their lives at school, and real consequences if they fail to meet the responsibilities such control requires of them. That kind of government brings a community identity and sense of individual empowerment no token school government could hope to achieve.

Bruce Schauble said...

Thanks, Skipper, for your response and for the information from the Fairhaven site. I've got some reactions to that text, and then I'll try to address your two questions

"The Sudbury model makes no assumptions about how individual children will learn at any age. There is no expectation that one learn multiplication before negative numbers or how to draw a circle before a square. Interest is the only criterion for engaging in any activity, and satisfaction the only evaluation of success."

Hmm. Well, I'm not sure whether it's true that they're making no assumptions about how individual students will learn at any age. They're assuming, for one thing, that students learn best when their interest turns naturally toward something. I believe that, to a degree, but as I think back on my own education I can think of many instances, some of my most truly educational moments among them, when a teacher thought I was ready for something I had no inkling even existed. Many of those moments took place in the context of classes which did in fact have a preselected scope and sequence. Likewise, I would challenge the notion that "satisfaction is the only evaluation (I think they mean "criterion"?) of success. (I'm thinking of the Calvin and Hobbes comic where Hobbes observes dryly that Calvin seems to be endorsing a path to success that lowers expectations to the point where they're already met.)

I guess I'm also suspicious of any formulation that uses words like "only" (or "never" or "always." My experience as a student, as a teacher, and as a parent (three grown sons) has taught me that there are times when structure is necessary, and times when structure is a hindrance. To raise one's child by allowing him only to do the things that interest him, and to teach him that if he's satisfied he's successful, seems to me, frankly, a recipe for disaster.

I'm probably not being completely fair, because I'm taking a short statement which is already an oversimplification and simplifying it even further, but the long and the short of it is that once again I'd be looking, in the School of the World, for balance. Doing good work is often hard, and frustrating, and not always satisfying. Although I do agree that in the end the greatest satisfaction is most often the result of having done good work.

"Rather than listening to children in order to better guide them, we listen to them to respond to their self-determined needs. Unlike Waldorf education, we have no predetermined curriculum. We trust children to make their own mistakes, work though their own problems, and come to their own solutions, with help, when it’s needed, but without the assumption that we know the best outcome."

Uh oh. "Responding to their self-determined needs?" Here's my take. Kids are kids. Adults are adults. Kids are not Paradigms of Natural Wisdom—at least none of the kids I've ever met are, including my own children, whom I love dearly. Kids are, well sort of like the rest of us: generally self-interested, acquisitive, not necessarily trustworthy, sometimes lazy, capable of elaborate feats of manipulation in the event and agonized self-justification after the fact. They're human. Part of learning to become an adult—with the help of adult mentors—is coming to terms with our own very real destructive and self-destructive tendencies and figuring out how to curb them. Many times, kids don't know what their real needs are. They may think they do, but it's reasonable to expect that at least some of the time they will be mistaken. That's why they need nout just support, but guidance, and if necessary, correction, from adults.

"Sudbury schools do not have standard offerings, because learning to pursue one’s own agenda can be challenging, sometimes painful, sometimes boring. We think boredom is a valuable opportunity to make discoveries about one’s self."

I agree with this. But again, to a point. I think it is important for students to confront and work through boredom, but I think the answer to that has nothing to do with whether or not there is a set curriculum. Boredom, as the mother in The Glass Menagerie puts it, is, a failure of resources. There is nothing inherently boring. Some guys make a living studying rocks. The solution to the problem of boredom is self-discipline. You have to learn how to take an interest.

"In most homeschooling families, the parent sees him or herself as ultimately responsible for the child’s education, while at Sudbury schools, that responsibility rests squarely with the child."

Again, what concerns me here is not the idea, which has an element of truth, but the degree. The responsibility for a child's education does NOT rest "squarely" with the child. Does the child bear a primary, a significant, a very large part of that responsibility? Sure. But again, a child is a child. Most children don't know what's best for them most of the time. That's why they need help: at age two, at age three, at age fifteen, sometimes at age 23.

Now to your two questions: "I'm curious to hear what you think about 1) taking matters into one's own hands ("unschooling" at home in an environment that allows for exploration) and excepting the responsibility, time, and risks associated with such an endeavor or 2) forking over some money to a Sudbury Valley school (roughly $7000/yr at Fairhaven for context) to let your children freely explore and develop with other children."

If you have the time and the resources to be able to educate your own children, I think that's a noble thing to attempt. I would consider it up to somewhere age eight or nine, especially if there were other children in the neighborhood so that your kids could learn something about social interactions too. After that, I think you have to start preparing your children to deal with the rest of the world. All three of my kids went to public school—although my youngest went from grades 8-12 to the private school I now teach at after 28 years as a public school teacher—and the teaching they encountered there ranged, predictably, from the terrific to the flat-out pitiful. Skewed maybe a little to the right of that scale. But that didn't worry me much. My wife and I were still their primary instructors, if you were to put it that way. The main reason they were in school, as I see it, was to learn how to get along with other kids, how to deal with unfairness and cliques and making friends and losing them and having great teachers and having really bad teachers and learning how to tell which one was which and how to deal with it in either case. The real curriculum of public education isn't written down in the curriculum guides. What I knew, and what you know, is that in the normal course of events your kids are going to outlive you. You can't be there for them forever. By the time they're teenagers, they're going to want, and need, to be able to untie the apron strings and figure things out on their own. And I guess what I'm saying is that that is, or should be, a gradual process. I think Fairhaven and Sudbury make the assumption that it can and will happen organically. That's a nice idea. But I don't buy it.

Thanks for your thoughtful questions...

- Bruce