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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The Freedom Academy (Part 2)

There is an internet meme going around which says, “Imagine if schools actually helped kids identify their strengths by exploring their talents from a young age and growing their skills over the 12 years, instead of letting them all follow the same routine and leaving them confused in life after graduation.”

The Freedom Academy is a Self-Directed Learning Community built on the idea that people (from childhood and all the way until they die) are naturally curious about the world around them and are always working at increasing their knowledge and understanding of it. Given the freedom, time, opportunity and resources to pursue their interests, they can learn whatever they deem necessary to become independent, responsible and productive individuals of society. As such, learning is self-directed, self-motivated and achieved without coercion or artificial inducement.

There is no defined curriculum or set material that students “must” go through. There are no exams, homework, seatwork, and the like that supposedly measures competence and ability — unless the student so desires and makes a prior agreement or arrangement (i.e. the student asks to be taught a certain subject and part of the teacher’s condition is for the student to perform drills, homework or tests and to be evaluated based on these). 

Also, the term “teacher” may not necessarily refer to an adult but another fellow student from whom the learner wishes to gain knowledge or skills. Adults who work to keep the school in operation are simply called staff or facilitators (from the French word “facile” or Latin “facilis” which means to make things easy or effortless — thus it is the facilitator’s job to support children in their interests, to make it easier for them to learn and develop).

Children can and will educate themselves. The academy provides a supportive environment where they:

  1. Can play, explore, converse, socialize and interact freely with all age groups;
  2. Can learn what they want and at their own pace;
  3. Have access to various learning tools and materials;
  4. Are free from bullying and harassment;
  5. Have a voice in the day-to-day affairs and governance of the community.

Imagine kids, and even teens, excited to go to this school that is not a school, where they are happy learning and doing things they love, where they are free to explore their interests and try out new things without judgement or criticism.

In a few months, there will be no more need to imagine as the Freedom Academy pushes forward to become a reality in Davao City.

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The Freedom Academy (Part 1)

The Freedom Academy is my vision of what an educational center ought to be. 

It is not a school — certainly not as we traditionally understand schools. Mention the word “school” and what comes to mind are classrooms, lessons, homework, quizzes, exams, recitation, grades, curriculum, teachers, uniforms, requirements and class schedules. Most of these are thrust on kids who have almost no say on the matter and have little choice but to comply.

A kid can’t say, for example, “I don’t feel like doing Math today. Can I skip Math for today? Can I skip Math for a week?” or “I don’t like my teacher. Can I have another teacher? Can I just watch Youtube instead? I understand the guy there more than our teacher” or “I don’t like all these subjects. I want to learn how to fix things around the house like fixing a leaky faucet or a squeaky door. Can I learn those instead?”

In school, students have to do as they’re told, and perform tasks as required of them, and they are judged, graded and labeled based on how they perform. It doesn’t matter if they like it or not, if it is important to them or not, if they’re interested in it or not. What’s worse is they are expected to master these tasks at more or less the same timeframe. Too bad if a kid can’t figure out how to add and subtract polynomials in 3 days, the teacher has to move on to multiplication and division, and the kid will just have to struggle to catch up. Some just give up.

And so kids get tired of school, and because learning is so often associated with school, they get tired of that too.

Now that’s a shame, because people, especially as children, have that inner curiosity, that burning desire to learn things. It’s a shame that school kills that desire. Don’t believe me? Ask kids if they’re excited to go to school, especially those who are just beginning — you’ll get a lot of nods, “yes’s” and smiles. Of course, it’s a new experience for them.

Now, ask any teenager if they’re still excited to go to school. You’ll be lucky to get 1 yes out of 10, or maybe 1 out of 100.

The Freedom Academy is not a school, but I envision it to be a center of vibrant learning. There will be no classrooms — or rather, anywhere is a classroom. There will be no teachers — or rather, anyone can be a teacher, whether an adult or a fellow student. There are no imposed schedules or subjects, no curriculum except what the student wants for himself or herself. There are no quizzes, exams, homework or grades except if the students ask for them, maybe to measure their own understanding.

The Freedom Academy is so named because we believe the cornerstone of learning is freedom. A child who is forced to learn will only learn enough to to satisfy the teacher or the parent. Learning is a chore, done only for compliance, and whatever they learn may be easily forgotten after the exam. But a child who learns out of their own free will, out of their own interest and volition, will retain that knowledge and will even delve deeper into it on their own without any prodding or coercion.

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Joy and Sorrow

Christmas and New Year are 7 days apart and these days are usually the most festive and joyous occasions of Filipino families. Relatives and friends come home, schools hold reunions; food and drink are plentiful; there are parties left and right, and people indulge in the warmth of friendship, laughter and good conversation.

Yet in the midst of these there are those who still experience pain and sorrow. I was sad to hear the news of two women I knew from Toastmasters who passed on. One on Christmas day, and the other on New Year’s Day. They were two of the gentlest and kindest women I knew.

Vicky Leuterio was the founder of the Holy Child College of Davao. I was in my twenties and had been a Toastmaster for around 3 years when I met her. Their school had just formed a new club and were always on the lookout for guest Toastmasters to come help and mentor them. It was an honor for me that a woman of her stature and achievement would take tips and evaluation from someone half her age, with no hint of arrogance and resentment whatsoever.

Even later, when I felt I had done something to offend her, I sought her out to talk to her. The apology was hardly out of my mouth when she smiled and said, “There’s no need to apologize. It’s not your fault.” That was Vicky — ever gracious and with a big heart.

Winda Casiano is one of my oldest friends in Toastmasters. We were neophytes and charter members together of the Davao Noontime Toastmasters Club. She made her mark as a humorous speaker from her very first speech, which was about introducing oneself, but she soon made it an advertisement for her sporting goods store, and she even advertised her siblings’ professions in case we would need their services. That speech had us all in stitches, and I still remember it to this day. She eventually competed and became our Humorous Speech Champion.

Winda was the first treasurer of our club, but she found herself constantly re-elected to the position, showing the huge amount of trust people had in her. She also served in various positions over the years — as President, Area Governor, then Division Governor.

She was warm and hospitable, inviting us often to her home for impromptu fellowship sessions. We in turn, invited her into our hearts as a second mother, a confidant, a friend.

The Toastmasters world has lost two champions, and we grieve and are one with their families in suffering their loss. And also, we are thankful that their lives and ours have crossed paths, that we have shared many happy and meaningful moments — and that brings us joy and peace.

Vicky and Winda, you fought the good fight and did not go gently into the night. Rest now, my friends.

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This Is It, Pansit!

2019 was an interesting year.

In January, we braved the winter cold and freezing temperatures of Eastern USA to attend a wedding in Greenwich, Connecticut and also to visit the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts. This December, tomorrow in fact, as I write this, we will be off to reputedly one of the hottest places in the Philippines, Gensan. How hot is it there? Well, an internet meme puts Gensan in between the Earth and the Sun.

We had two weddings in the family. My niece had hers in September and my wife, Marylene and I were the emcees. The last time I was a wedding emcee was around 8 years ago so I was nervous at first but a few minutes in, it was like slipping into familiar, comfortable clothes — or like riding a bike after a long time of not doing so. You don’t really forget how to do it and it only takes a couple of kicks on the pedal to get going again.

Marylene and I had never been to Boracay — never ever. But last October, we had the opportunity to go there — twice. Talk about making up for lost time. The first was courtesy of our supplier, United Laboratories, and the second was to attend the second wedding in the family – my nephew – brother of the niece who got married in September. We no longer emceed that one so we just kicked back and enjoyed the show.

Perhaps the most significant undertaking I had this year is really threshing out plans for starting a Self-Directed Learning Center. I wrote a lot of articles about it, studied some implementations of it like Sudbury’s democratic schooling, NorthStar and Agile Learning Centers. I organized meetups among like-minded parents or just those curious to see what this was all about, and generated interest, questions, doubts, objections — and it provided a lot of material for thought and reflection.

We were able to gather a group crazy enough to start this experiment — well actually not much of an experiment any more since we’ve seen great results from people who already experimented on this for decades. It’s not so much stepping into unknown territory as it is just following the model they have already laid out and to avoid pitfalls and mistakes they have already experienced. We already have a place and all that’s left is to fix it up and get the paperwork straightened out.

So 2019 was interesting, but 2020 will be exciting.

This is it, pansit!

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