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.