A Free School in Davao

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 andy@freethinking.me.


The Failure of Grades (Part 2 of 2)

Failing Grades
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

I took the Masters program in Educational Leadership and Management at De La Salle University around 8 years ago. One of my most memorable experiences then was visiting a school that had successfully done away with grades. I expected this school to be one of those new and innovative small schools.

I was surprised to learn that this school had already been existing since 1972, is PAASCU-accredited, has over 7,000 students, and whose graduates go into mainstream colleges without any unusual problems. This was Angelicum College, founded by the Dominican visionary Fr. Rogelio Alarcon, OP.

I was so enamored with this system that I eventually enrolled my eldest daughter into the school. The non-graded system is summed up in 5 statements (Alarcon, 1975):

  1. The school will not use a graded structure. Grades one, two, three etc. will be done away with. Instead, there will be levels of learning. The difference here will be in the time limit. While a grade refers to a set of skills programmed for learning within a span of time, level refers to the same set of skills to be acquired without time limit. As a student completes one level of work, he goes right on to the next, regardless of the time of the year.

  2. There will be no marking system. The usual 75’s, A’s, or other rating systems indicating if achievement is satisfactory, failing or is considered without credit, will not be used.

  3. Positive motivations will be the rule. Scolding, ridicule, embarrassment and punishment in any form will not be considered as disciplinary measures.

  4. It will be important for the teachers to know their students well because teaching will be done at the child’s individual pace and level.

  5. Teachers will be free to do what they think is best for the child. There will be no checking, no supervising. The school will rely mainly on the teachers’ sense of responsibility although when inevitable, they will be free to approach the administrators.

(Those interested in reading the full text can download a PDF version of The Angelicum Experience from http://www.angelicum.edu.ph/index.php/pistang-bayan/199-the-angelicum-experience-by-fr-rogelio-b-alarcon-op.)

Where traditional graded education fails is this — students are expected to learn their lessons in lock-step with each other. They usually go at the pace of the rest of the class, or the pace of the teacher. They are then given marks based on how well they are able to cope.

Child A knows just enough to pass the subject (pasang-awa) and is promoted to the next grade. Child B, however, keeps pace easily, gets high marks is also promoted to the next grade. Child A clearly lacks some knowledge, skill or mastery as compared to Child B, yet they both start the next level on equal footing. This is like putting an Olympic-class runner side-by-side with an amateur and expecting them to reach the finish line at the same time. As the years pile up, the gap widens and you are left with many students unmotivated and even despising school. Is it any wonder then why so many teachers are frustrated today, especially those high school teachers who wonder why their students cannot add simple fractions? The answer is simple. They were not given enough time to master and appreciate the concepts in elementary school because they had to finish the curriculum whether or not they had sufficiently learned the lesson — because the teacher needs to submit the final grade.

Alarcon notes that this system “disregards the characteristics of individual growth. The process of growth – whether physical, intellectual and emotional – is not constant. It may be rapid at one time, slow in the next. If a child picks up a rapid rate at a certain point in his growth, he is likely to slow down at a certain period. Neither does a child progress all in one piece. He tends to spurt ahead more rapidly in some areas than in others. He may be fast in Mathematics but slow in Literature.”

In my experience as a teacher, I have come to loathe grades. I see them now more of a hindrance than an indicator — the grade only indicates how much they are able to conform to what I teach, but not really how much they learn. Much of education these days is about the practice of teaching — how well-prepared is the lesson plan, the content of the lecture, the variety of activities, classroom management, test-construction, and so on.

But that is not what real education is all about. Education is not about the teacher, it is about the learner. It does not matter if the teacher has mastered teaching, if no learning has taken place within the student, then education has failed.

Andy Uyboco is a businessman, trainer and speaker. Share to me your thoughts and stories about school and education at andy@freethinking.me.

Catholic Eternal Truth — Really?

Photo by dizznbonn
Photo by dizznbonn

I just saw this article in a blog called Catholic Eternal Truth which was written in response to my previous post, From Nothing To Something.

The article is called “A Skirmish With An Atheist, A Response To Andy Uyboco’s “From Nothing To Something.”

I have responded to the author, Mr. Isahel N. Alfonso, on the comment section of his site a few days ago but for some reason, he has not yet published my responses. So for the sake of a good discussion, I will post them here.

Response to your opening statements:

A) You labeled me as an atheist, but I am really more of an agnostic. I do not believe in your particular god, but that doesn’t mean I reject the idea of some supreme being altogether. If you think about it, you are also an atheist with respect to Zeus or Odin.

B) Filipino Freethinkers is NOT an “organization for atheists” as you claim. It is a group that upholds reason, science and logic as the tools for discovering truth as opposed to accepting dogma, tradition and authority. While it is true that our founder, Red Tani, is an atheist, many members and even officers hold on to different beliefs (or unbelief). Yes, some are even Christians (and Catholics such as yourself, at that).

What keeps us together is not the commonality of our belief, but rather our willingness to discuss, debate and dialogue using reason and evidence, with no holds barred.

Now, that we have that out of the way, let’s proceed to your responses:

Uyboco’s response to the argument from causality is trying to lead us away from the issue, instead of responding to the question  “is there really an uncaused cause?”

If you read carefully, it was never my intent to refute the argument from causality — that was never the point. What I merely intended to show was that even if both of us accepted this premise, then you still have a few more steps to go to connect that uncaused cause with your particular version of god.

The reason for this is that many Christians use this argument, and then say “therefore God exists” but what they really mean is God (who is Jehovah/Jesus/Holy Spirit) exists. I’m saying that’s not necessarily so. I can use the same argument from causality and tell you that God exists and his name is Bartolome and we had breakfast together a while ago.

…however for that kind of futuristic event to happen in the future would only be a speculation, hearsay and a lot of guess work.

 Oh but speculation and guess work is the very foundation of invention and discovery. But then this whole issue of there being a god or not is one big exercise in speculation is it not? I mean, if there were conclusive proof of god (such as proof that gravity exists), then we wouldn’t be having this debate.

If atheists would want to use this kind of argument then it would be a very weak one because one has to have a conclusive argument not that one that is unproven and ambiguous.

 Well, if I were an atheist and vehemently claim that there is no god, maybe that would be true. As it is, I do not know. I do not have sufficient evidence to make any conclusive claims or arguments. If you notice, I do not have any hard conclusions in my writing. And that’s because I have none in reality as well. I am quite comfortable in my uncertainty because that pushes me to learn more and seek more.

“What if” is an indication of uncertainty and wishful thinking, “What if” does not constitute truth therefore it is not worthy of our time and effort.

To repeat a point made earlier, “What If” is the basis of invention and discovery. A lot of the technology we enjoy and take for granted would not have been possible without mavericks asking “What if.” Contrary to what you say, I find that it IS worthy of my time and effort.

Uyboco is now flip-flopping from his position at first he claims that there is no God.

I am not flip-flopping. You are making things up. I never claimed “there is no God.” If you can show me exactly where I said that, I’ll treat you out to dinner.

Life would not be meaningful without God, you would not have your friends and your family if didn’t create them on the first place.

With that statement, you are presupposing that your God is true and that he created my friends and family. We are not there yet. You jump to a conclusion you haven’t proven.

And who are YOU to say that MY life is not meaningful? You are not me. You do not know the joy I feel at being unencumbered with belief, of enjoying life as it is here and now.

If I live in accordance to the teachings of God and I died and found out that there is no God then I lost nothing. But if I live a life of hedonism and atheism and I died and found out that God indeed exists then I lost everything.

I have discussed this in my article, False Dichotomies, if you would care to read it.

But in short, you have just presented a false dichotomy — either you believe in the Christian God or you live a life of hedonism and atheism — but why only those two choices? You can live a life of devout belief in Allah as a Muslim. You can live as a buddhist ascetic. You can become a Hindu and believe in reincarnation and karma. You can be an atheist but not a hedonist (why should the two necessarily go together?). You can be agnostic and searching like me.

You could live according to the teachings of YOUR God, then die and find Zeus with a lightning bolt grinning at you saying, “Wrong choice, buddy” or you could see Apollo Quiboloy saying, “See? I told you I was the real appointed Son. Now go to hell.”

The Failure of Grades (Part 1 of 2)

Image from Baloo's Cartoon Blog
Image from Baloo’s Cartoon Blog

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Every year, around March, many parents all over the Philippines get extremely anxious and nervous. What is this time of the year? It’s report card distribution day! Of course, there are a few who look forward to this day. They are mostly those who can’t wait to take photos of their children’s report cards and post them on Facebook.

The silent majority, however, comfort themselves by saying “grades aren’t really that important” and things like that. The apparent hypocrisy of that remark, however, will be sorely tested if their usually-average or summa (sabit) kid suddenly gets high marks — guess who’s going to be posting photos of the report card on Facebook? The reverse also holds true. Very few parents will remark that “grades aren’t really that important” when their kids get failing marks and have to take summer classes or worse, repeat the entire year, or change schools.

It is funny how our emotions, and even our judgment of our children and others, are ruled by a bunch of numbers. When I was a teacher, there was no day I probably hated more than the day I had to submit my students’ final grades. I hated it because it was such a cold and impersonal assessment that said very little about the student. I hated the way grades could instill false confidence and pride. I hated the way grades could cause unnecessary despair, harsh judgments, physical abuse, and even suicide. I hated the way grades cause people to wrongly use it as an indicator of future success in one’s career or life in general. By now, we have thousands of anecdotes of successful people to know that their grades in school have little bearing on future accomplishments.

Do you know how the grading system began? One of the earliest documented records of grading was in the late 1700’s, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, by a tutor in Cambridge University named William Farish.

He probably got the idea of grading students from the way factories exercised quality control for their products. A shoe factory, for example, would pronounce a shoe as “up to grade” if it was good enough to be sold in the market. In the same way, a student was judged by a singular mark which pronounced him up to standard to move on to the next level. At that time, this was revolutionary because it allowed Farish to “process” a large number of students at any given time. This rapidly caught on with other teachers because it provided a shorthand and impersonal method of evaluating students. A teacher could grade a student even if he didn’t know anything beyond his name and ID number. In short, the grading system paved the way for the mass production of education, which was probably a good thing for that particular era. But it is now high time we reviewed this method of evaluation because we have already shifted from the Industrial Age to the Information Age.

Education in the Industrial Age was mostly memory-based. You memorized facts and procedures. In this respect, grades work. Getting a grade of 98 on a test means you have memorized 98% of the facts correctly.

The landscape today has changed drastically as tons of information is available freely at the flick of a finger. Education today, supposedly places great emphasis on creativity, and interdisciplinary connections. However, I say “supposedly” because the grading system is still largely based on how well one has memorized the material or the procedure, or in the case of essay questions, how well one’s answers conform to the teacher’s opinion.

In short, we are emphasizing 21st century values but are using 18th century tools to evaluate those values. Clearly, there is a mismatch, and even teachers feel this difficulty but find it very hard to break free and still retain their jobs. But how does one grade creativity? How does one grade effort? How does one grade resourcefulness? How does one grade the ability to learn?

So a teacher in a traditional system is forced to go back to quantifiable and objectifiable measures of grading, and thus lose a lot of richness and depth of material and methodology that could have been possible if grades were not a hindrance.

Andy Uyboco is a businessman, trainer and speaker. How would you grade this article? Send me your thoughts at andy@freethinking.me.

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