The Freedom Academy (Part 7)

Can kids handle this kind of freedom? Won’t there be chaos?

This idea comes from a misunderstanding of freedom as being able to do whatever you want. Freedom is not just that, however, because just doing whatever you want in a social context, would lead to conditions where you would no longer be free. 

For example, a boy who thinks he can just punch anyone in the face would sooner or later face a bigger or stronger boy (or even girl) who would also harass him, thus limiting his freedom. A girl who thinks she can just take someone else’s property would also find that others would do the same to her.

In order for a community to survive and live together harmoniously, there have to be agreements on how people ought to behave towards each other. With freedom comes a certain responsibility to honor those agreements and respect the rights of others, as long as one still wants to be a part of the community.

In our current society, these agreements are what we have made into our laws. As long as we adhere to those laws, we are pretty much free to do what we want, to pursue our dreams, to do business, arts, to practice a profession, and so on. But the moment we break those laws, there will be consequences that limit our freedom to some degree. A serious crime would lead to a graver consequence like imprisonment which is a severe limitation of freedom.

Now, how does all this apply to the Freedom Academy?

The Freedom Academy is first and foremost, a community — it is composed of kids, teens and adults sharing a common space for a few hours each day, and the foundation for behavior in that community is democracy — the idea that each individual has a certain amount of power over how the community is run and governed.

There are rules in this community, just like in any democratic society, but the difference between the rules here and the rules in any other school is that here, anyone in the community can propose to change any rule, or add a rule, or delete a rule and if that proposal gets a majority vote, then it becomes an official rule. In a traditional school, adults make and enforce the rules. Kids have no choice but to follow.

Another key difference is that here, it is not just adults enforcing the rule, but the kids themselves will form a committee to investigate and decide on consequences when the rules are broken.

In this context, kids will very quickly understand that if they want to continue staying in this community and enjoying their freedom, they must also learn to take responsibility for their actions and make sure to respect the rights of others. Otherwise, they may be asked to leave the community. And then where will they go? Back to school? I think not.

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The Freedom Academy (Part 6)

If there are no tests, homework or grades, how do we know if the kids are learning anything?

Let me answer this with a story.

Back when I was teaching at a Chinese high school, I had a student who had very high grades in her Chinese class. There was a poster on the bulletin board in the hallway and it was written in Chinese. So I called over this student and asked her to tell me what it was saying. She just smiled and said, “I don’t know, sir. I can’t read that.”

I said, “Why not? You have the highest marks in Chinese class.”

She replied, “Oh we just memorize that stuff. We don’t really understand it.”

This simply illustrates that even with test and grades, we still have no clue if our kids are really learning anything, or if they are able to apply what they have learned in useful and practical ways.

Forcing kids to do homework and take tests and get high grades is not a reflection of learning but a reflection of our need to validate their learning according to our standards. I am not saying though, that this is without merit. Certainly this type of instruction is useful in higher education or professional education when a person has decided to pursue a certain field.

I wouldn’t, for example, willingly place myself under the care of a medical professional who did not pass certain standards of medical practice, who would call themselves “doctors” merely on their own say-so, and without really earning that degree.

However, to place certain standards of children who did not willingly agree to be judged under those criteria, and then to grade and classify them as having passed or failed those standards, is a wrong way to measure learning.

Learning is the learner’s business, not the teacher’s. True learning happens when children choose to engage in areas and activities that interest them, and when they are given as much time as they want to perform and master them. 

And you don’t really need grades to know if they have learned anything. In real life, we don’t go around asking to see people’s grades to see if they know anything. We talk to them, we observe their attitudes, and we look at their work output.

That will be pretty much how it works at the Freedom Academy.

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The Freedom Academy (Part 5)

If kids can do whatever they want, won’t they just bum around, spend their time chatting or play video games all day? How will they ever learn anything?

This seems like a simple question but it is loaded with an underlying assumption that I would like to challenge.

The assumption here is that kids don’t learn anything when they are bumming around or chatting or playing video games or doing whatever it is that kids do. We have been programmed to think of “learning” primarily as academic learning. This is not surprising since most of us were brought up in the school system.

However, common sense and practical experience tells us that children, even before they go into school, are already tremendous learners. Think about a baby learning to crawl, then to stand, then to walk. Think of how much brain power goes into just coordinating the limbs, the large muscle groups, then the finer muscle groups like the fingers and toes. 

Think of how they learn to understand what we are saying to them, and then later to talk and communicate with us. Here in the Philippines, they even pick up two or three languages all at once. Think of how they learn the names of things, how they can read your expressions, to understand your moods just by the tone of your voice, to know what makes you happy and what makes you sad or angry.

They do all this and more before they even step inside a classroom.

People (and yes, children ARE people) are natural learning creatures. We are always learning something even when we are bumming around, or just talking to friends. In fact, a lot of us adults learn primarily through talking to others, through conversation, and even when we are just joking around and having fun, we are still learning.

And how about video games? Let me tell you something, I’ve been playing video games before I was 10 and I will probably play them up to the day I die. Video games have taught me many things — how to think out of the box, how to strategize, hand-eye coordination, how to type fast, how to find solutions, even how to communicate and coordinate with others (with multiplayer games). Won’t you say these are useful life skills?

The point here is not really whether the kids are learning anything because they obviously are. It’s whether the adults or parents think they are learning anything. That is another thing I would like to challenge. Being a parent myself, I would like to tell my fellow parents, it’s not always about you and what you want for your child.

Yes, I get that we want the best for our children, but sometimes that means leaving them alone to figure out their own path, to find their own voice, to forge their own strength. It means loving them enough to trust them, trust their marvelous capability to adapt to and understand the world around them in their own unique way, which may not necessarily be your way, and that should be fine.

You see, when you put your children in traditional schools, you are teaching them to conform to others. They always have to follow someone else’s standard of excellence or someone else’s view of what they ought to be doing with their time and even their lives. And we put them through this for more than a decade. No wonder so many graduate from school and have no clue what to do — they have become so accustomed to hearing other voices that they have forgotten their own.

In the Freedom Academy, we leave the kids alone to find their own direction, to find out who they really are, and to lead lives that they themselves find meaningful, all in their own time.

Don’t you think that’s the best preparation we can give them for adulthood?

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The Freedom Academy (Part 4)

In parts 1 and 2 of this series, I gave a general overview of the Freedom Academy, what it is, what it’s not, and what it aims to do. In part 3, I shared the historical basis, as well as some working models of the philosophy. For the next parts of this series, I would like to address some common questions and objections starting with:

What about college or university?

Around 95% of parents ask this question because we have been conditioned to think that a college degree is a prerequisite for a successful life or career. We have been conditioned to think that college is a necessary phase of life, but it’s not.

There are many successful people, at the top of their careers and fields, who dropped out of college, or didn’t even step into one. And it is important to note that many of these people did so before the internet was a reality. Today, knowledge is so accessible that one can be reading college-level texts or even listening to world-class lecturers, for free, while riding the bus.

But let’s say your child really wants to go to college. What are their chances of doing so at the Freedom Academy? I would say the chances are very good, because of three factors:

First, when self-directed children or teens express a desire to go to college, they do so because it is something they want. They know exactly why they are going to college and would usually have done their own research on what school best suits their needs. They are not going to college simply because they have graduated from high school and that is the expected next step for them.

Contrast this to the thousands of high school graduates who go into college simply because everyone else is doing so, or it is what their parents expect of them, and they don’t even know what to major in, or they simply follow their parents desire for them to take up nursing, accounting, engineering or whatever.

Second, a self-directed learner who wants to go to college will be highly motivated to fulfill the requirements for it, whether to prepare academically for entrance tests, to create a personal portfolio of achievements, and so on. The facilitators of the Freedom Academy will also throw in their full support in helping the child complete these requirements.

Third, since self-directed education is not a new thing (it’s relatively new in the Philippines, but not in other parts of the world) we have a rich history of data to draw from. Sudbury Valley School, which has existed for more than 50 years, have seen hundreds of their graduates go on to whatever college they desire, even top schools like Harvard or MIT. Their statistics show that 80% of their graduates go on to college.

The North Star Self-Directed Learning Center, which has existed for 20 years, also has many alumni who went to top colleges of their choosing. Research by Ken Robinson, author of Creative Schools (2015), shows that college admission directors see attendance at North Star as an asset because the kids “have a history of being self-directed and intellectually curious.”

Even here in the Philippines, homeschooling, unschooling and other alternative means of education have grown and flourished for more than 10 years, and many of these kids have gone on to college at our top universities like Ateneo, La Salle, UST and UP.

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The Freedom Academy (Part 3)

The educational model and philosophy of The Freedom Academy draws heavily from multiple sources of democratic and self-directed education. We draw inspiration from long-standing and well established institutions such as Summerhill School in the UK (founded 1921) and Sudbury Valley School in the USA (founded 1968), to more recent models such as the North Star Self-Directed Learning Centers (founded 1996) and Agile Learning Centers (founded 2012).

These alternative methods were born mainly out of frustration and disillusionment with the current traditional education system, which has remained essentially unchanged for hundreds of years. John Taylor Gatto, once a multi-awarded public school teacher in New York City (awarded Teacher of the Year in 1989, 1990 and 1991, as well as New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991), turned his back on the system and became one of its harshest critics when he saw the extensive damage it was capable of causing.

He authored several books such as Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling (1992), The Underground HIstory of American Education (2001), and Weapons of Mass Instruction (2008) describing in detail the way schools are used primarily for social control and for creating a docile and compliant workforce.

Sir Ken Robinson, a recognized expert on creativity and education, authored the book Creative Schools (2015), where he presents some of the most innovative learning systems in the modern world. The common thread I discovered running through all of them is that one way or another, they broke the mold of traditional schooling. They encouraged students to explore and develop their own interests. They respected the individual’s learning process and methods and allowed each to take as much time as they wanted, or to utilize whatever methods suited them best.

Daniel Greenberg, founder of the Sudbury Valley School, authored Turning Learning Right Side Up (2008, with Russell Ackoff), and he asserts, “No matter how ‘good’ the teaching or the opportunites to learn, an unmotivated student learns nothing.” What schools have been trying to do is to force this motivation on students, to enforce a social agenda by threats or enticement — e.g. “if you don’t go to school, you’ll become a bum,” or “if you want success and to earn a lot of money, you need to finish school,” and so on.

However, Greenberg argues that “the key role of an educational system…is to provide a setting in which the various internal motivations each child possesses can flourish into active pursuits. It is not the role of adults to attempt to replace the motivations already present in children with others that the adults wish the children had.” And this is the kind of students his school has been producing (and is still producing) for over 50 years.

It is upon this foundation that the Freedom Academy stands — to provide a venue for nurturing each child’s interest and motivations, where they can express themselves freely and not be judged, in a space that is open, supportive, energetic and caring.

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