Another Look At Education: The Brooklyn Free School

I wanted to piggy back on last weeks conversation about education and take a look at one of the most intriguing models for education I’ve ever heard of. I think it forces us to really think about what education reform might look like in the US and how we go about achieving it.

About two years ago I heard a very interesting story featured on one of my favorite podcasts, This American Life, that looked at The Brooklyn Free School. This is a school where there are no grade levels and all students vote on all issues and all rules before anything goes into effect. A living, breathing democracy run by children ages 4-14. And it’s also a reflection of a much larger “Free School Movement” in alternative education. Not only are there no grade levels, it gets “weirder” than that, but there are also no tests, homework, nor defined curriculums. Teachers simply offer classes that the children can choose, or the children vote on starting a new class they’d like to take. For those of us who grew up with traditional education, it’s easy for us to write this model off as ludicrous and probably unsuccessful in regards to truly educating our youth. It probably seems like an all day recess, even. But as you explore their website (here), and especially the FAQ (here), the vision behind the model really does begin to take shape. Here are some of the FAQ’s from the website that I think are especially helpful in understanding what the Free School Movement is all about.

How do the different age groups mix?
Democratic free school models believe age mixing to be integral to their success. They find that young children ask older children to read to them. Older children explain things to younger children and take pride in being able to work with young children. It is not unlike a very large family.

Is there evidence that this approach to education works?
Studies in homes, schools, and workplaces repeatedly show similar results: the empowerment of people to make their own decisions about their activities and performance leads to higher satisfaction and better quality results.
The Sudbury Valley School [another democratic free education school] has done extensive research of its former students and the results have indicated that students who have undergone this type of education have become “successful” in later life. Successful is in quotes because it’s an inherently subjective term. Our program will be successful if the students grow naturally-socially and emotionally, as well as academically; each at their own pace and in their own way; are happy with themselves and what they are doing, and when they have decided that they no longer want to stay at the school, or need to change schools for some reason-are confident that they are ready to assume whatever challenges await them…Students who have experienced democratic free education for any significant period of time clearly articulate how invaluable this educational experience has been to them in the pursuit of an occupation, higher education, or other life choices, providing strong evidence that this approach works (Pursuit of Happiness, Sudbury Valley Press 2005).

So it seems the school is trying to be defined by their commitment to empowerment, unity and critical thinking. The children are encouraged to work together in resolving the problems that face the school (In the This American Life story, we see a student call a school wide meeting because two boys called her a whore in order to get students talking about bullying/name calling and to show that using derogatory language affects more than just one person, it affects the whole school).

The journalist, Jyllian Gunther, finishes the story with this “When she came into the school five years ago, Malia was scared to say what was on her mind. Over the years, she’s learned to speak up, and she’s seen that lead to change. She admits the meetings can be boring and frustrating, but she takes the authority she’s given by the school very seriously. All the kids do. Malia feels bad for adults, she said, because they can’t just call a meeting and take a vote at their jobs, or wherever, to fix something that bothers them. I get that. Once you’re grown up, democracy is not so pure.”

Okay, But What Does It Mean For Us…

It means that as more and more of the great thinkers of educational psychology, like Sir Ken Robinson, continue to criticize the current, traditional model for education and the ways it fails to raise up critical thinkers that are ready to face the challenges of the future, we must adapt our model. The biggest change we’ve made to traditional education in the past ten years is to introduce more standardized testing and, so far, this change has been a huge failure (As of 2012, the US is #30 in math, #14 in reading, and #20 in science source). This emphasis on standardized testing was meant to improve education levels, hold teachers accountable and maintain the current infrastructure of the educational system. What the success of these alternative models for education show is that, perhaps, the infrastructure needs to be replaced in order to best prepare our country’s children for success in life. That when teachers are held accountable solely by standardized testing, they become restricted to teach on those specific items as opposed to the complexities of critical thinking and problem solving. I think our teachers need to have the freedom to engage students in different ways on different topics in order to encourage the development of “thought” skills as opposed to simple memorization. And in a system that hinges on memorization to pass tests, they’ll never have that freedom.

The question is would the Free School model be beneficial to every student? Does there need to be several different approaches to education that are government sponsored so the parents and students can select which would be most beneficial on an individual basis? How can we improve the education system in the US without radical changes or is a radical change necessary?

Here’s the story from This American Life, I’d highly recommend it if you’ve got the time. And if you don’t listen to This American Life regularly, I think you’re missing out. Subscribe to it on whatever player you use.

This American Life #424 – Kid Politics – Scroll down and play Act 3 – Minor Authorities.

Be sure to share your thoughts in the comment section.

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4 responses to “Another Look At Education: The Brooklyn Free School

  1. What I wonder is whether this system only works if there’s always the threat of being pulled out and put in public school if the children don’t respect each other’s decisions. I kind of wanted to hear more about the kid mentioned who had to have individual supervision from his peers and whether or not that was sufficient to change his behavior. And does that lead to kids caring even more about what their peers think of them than they do in a public school?

    Also, are kids with mental disabilities welcome in these schools? I know Stephen’s little brother is high functioning enough to be in a classroom, and to benefit from the social aspect of that, but he would literally only play video games all day unless he was forced to do otherwise, because everything else is hard for him. Do kids get meetings called on them if they refuse to read? Are the other kids helpful if one of them turns out to be dyslexic? Can a kid get specialized help if he needs it, or does the student body have to have a meeting about it first?

    • What I think is great is that it seems that perhaps kids care more about what their peers think of them than public school, but they care in the right ways because each student is empowered. It’s like their may not care if their peers think they are “Cool” but they do care if their peers think they are a “Jerk”. So it’s a different peer dynamic there, at least seemingly.

      The disabilities question is really interesting, it’s not really addressed in the This American Life story or on the website. But you would think there’s gotta be some sort of inclusion. It would be really interesting to see, like, a full documentary on all the schools that fall into this Free School movement to see even more of the inner workings of the schools.

      Do you think the current educational system needs to be changed? Could something like the Free School model work nationwide? Is there a different model you’ve seen that might be more universal?

      • A documentary would be amazing. I’d like to see like, a long term one where they follow a handful of kids, and check in with them every six months to see some real results.

        There definitely needs to be reform, it’s just hard to say how much. If you try to change it too much, you risk making the children irrelevant. For example, how do these free school kids do holding down a job? Would they have issues with authority and dealing with crappy bosses? Or are they being prepared to be something more, to skip the 9 to 5 that most of us have to deal with once we get out of college? Since that’s where I am in life, I like looking at education from the “are these kids ready for the real world” perspective. If free school kids find creative and fulfilling ways to enter the job market, love what they do, and be successful, then I think it’s worth serious consideration.

        • The problem, for me, is what we’ve come to define as the “real world”. That you work a job you hate to make some money and hopefully find a hobby you can make time for. And in a lot of ways, that’s what our education system is currently fueling. So I like the idea of something totally different like this that could fuel a different fire for our society. Someone should definitely make a documentary about this, it’s a fascinating concept for education.

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