Originally published in Sunstar Davao.
I dream of putting up a school in Davao.
It will be a free school and it will be the first of its kind here.
It is not “free” as in being without cost. It is “free” in the sense of being democratic.
In a nutshell, this is how it works. Students come to school and they can do pretty much anything they want — of course as long as it’s legal and doesn’t harm themselves, or anyone else.
Anything? Well, yes.
If they want to play computer games all day, they can. If they want to sit around and talk to their friends, they can. If they want to read, they can. If they want to play basketball, they can. If they want to sleep all day, they can. And if they want to learn new things or listen to an adult talk about Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity (or watch it on Youtube), well of course they can do that as well.
“But how will kids learn anything in such an environment?” You may wonder.
Before I answer this, consider the environment of a traditional school. Children are forced to sit through 6 or 7 different lectures in one day and they have no say on the topics of these lectures. They are forced to learn things that have little bearing on their present or future lives. They are then tested and graded, whether they like it or not, whether they are sufficiently prepared or not. And children are then treated differently by their parents, teachers, and peers depending on their grades — whether they admit it or not.
Ken Robinson, a world renowned expert on education and creativity, says that the traditional school is modeled after a factory. In fact, the idea of school bells comes from the factory bells. Children are educated in batches of the same age group (a “production line mentality”) when clearly many children even of the same age have varying degrees of interest and abilities. But they are forced to go through certain lessons at a certain pace just because of their age. (See Ken Robinson’s talk)
Now in such an environment, what do kids learn? They learn conformity instead of creativity. They learn to cram and memorize. They learn not to rock the boat. They learn not to ask questions (or too many of them) because it makes them look stupid, ignorant or even rebellious. They learn to copy instead of being original. They learn that their own interests are not as important as what adults dictate they should be. They learn to live in drudgery instead of dreams. And the worst is when they learn to despise school and see it only as a necessary evil.
American journalist H.L. Mencken says that “the aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed a standard citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.”
Now let’s go back to the question of whether children really learn anything in a school that lets them do pretty much anything. The answer is a resounding ‘YES!’ Learning need not only take place in the classroom but happens all the time, even when kids are playing or just talking with each other. In fact, there have been numerous studies highlighting the benefits of playing games, music, and discussion as valuable learning tools (yes, even video games). People learn more when they are having fun.
Democratic schools are not as new as you might think. The first democratic school opened its doors in 1921, in England – a school called Summerhill founded by A.S. Neill. One of the more prominent democratic schools in the U.S.A. was founded 1968 by Greenberg, Rubin and Sadofsky and is called Sudbury Valley School. To date, there are over a hundred democratic schools in more than 30 countries worldwide.
Jennifer Schwartz conducted a study of Self-Directed Learning and Student Attitudes in a Sudbury-model school called Sego Lily School. She published the results in the Journal for Unschooling and Alternative Education. She notes that “students in these environments do not suffer from the stresses of traditional schools, nor do they lose interest in learning simply because information is forced upon them. Graduates of these environments go on to earn degrees from prestigious universities such as Harvard and Stanford, and/or pursue careers that are important to them, such as being a professional musician or forest ranger.”
As a former teacher, I have witnessed how a child’s love for learning is crushed and deadened by an educational system that ironically purports to foster it. I and a lot of fellow teachers have felt generally helpless in fighting this system, although we did the best we could to work around it. Still, one can only do so much in a system that has, in my opinion, outlived its usefulness.
It is time to break free from the old ways of thinking and change our paradigms of learning and education.
It is time for a new kind of school.
Andy Uyboco is a businessman, trainer and speaker. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.