The Gift of Time (Part 2)

Last week, I said that as an educator, and as a parent, I believe the best gift we can give our kids is the gift of time.

I am not just talking about a father taking a break from work and bringing his son camping in the woods. I am not merely referring to a mother adjusting her busy schedule to spend an afternoon with her teenage daughter. I am talking about breaking the spell that adults have placed on children called mass schooling and compulsory education — which for the large part involves taking a huge chunk of children’s time, dividing them up into neat little compartments called “classes” in which they do what adults have deemed is best for them to do, without regard for what they think or feel about the matter.

One of my favorite chapters in the book, Free At Last: The Sudbury Valley School, by Daniel Greenberg, is Chapter 18, Time Enough, and it starts:

“There are no bells at Sudbury Valley. No ‘periods.’ The time spent on any activity evolves from within each participant. It’s always the amount of time the person wants and needs. It’s always the right amount of time.”

Here, children are given enough time to do what they want, as long as they want. What they deem as important is respected. No adult comes to them and says, “Hey, you’re wasting time doing that. Why don’t you spend your time being more productive?”

“Jacob seats himself before the potter’s wheel. He is thirteen years old. It is 10:30AM. He gets ready, and starts throwing pots. An hour passes. Two hours. Activities swirl around him. His friends start a game of soccer, without him. Three hours. At 2:15 he rises from the wheel. Today, he has nothing to show for his efforts. Not a single pot satisfied him.

Next day, he tries again. This time, he rises at 1:00 after finishing three specimens he likes.

Thomas and Nathan, aged eleven, begin a game of Dungeons and Dragons at 9:00. It isn’t over by 5:00. Nor by 5:00 the next day. On the third day, they wrap it up at 2:00.

Shirley, nine, curls up in a chair and starts to read a book. She continues at home, and the next three days, until it is finished…

Time is not a commodity at Sudbury Valley. It is not ‘used,’ either poorly or well. It is not ‘wasted’ or ‘saved.’

Time here is a measure of the inner rhythm of life, in all its complexity. As each string of events unfolds, the time appropriate to that string elapses with it…

Year after year at school, I have watched as each child’s growth unfolded according to their own sense of time. I saw children spring forward, and then stay steadily in place for a seeming eternity. I saw people dream, and then ever so slowly drift back to earth.”

I am working for such a school to be reality in our city.

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Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

The Gift of Time (Part 1)

American author, Robert Byrne once said, “The purpose of life is a life of purpose.”

If you read biographies of people, you will find that many of the most accomplished and successful people (and I’m not just speaking in economic terms) are those who have a deep sense of purpose. It is what keeps them going in times of deep loss, discouragement, disaster, or despair.

And yet many people go through life without finding their purpose. They live an empty and hollow existence, and it doesn’t matter whether they are rich or poor, whether they are famous, intelligent, or talented. We have had our fair share of rich, famous, intelligent and talented people taking their own lives, perhaps wanting to end the meaninglessness of it all.

To find one’s purpose requires a great deal of time — time to explore one’s inner world, time to reflect, to think, to dream, and act and experiment on those dreams. The best time to do that is during one’s childhood and teenage years — when one is still relatively free from the obligations and responsibilities of adulthood.

But then there is the reality called school, and quite frankly, school robs children of their time — it divides their day into neat partitions of topics deemed important by others (though rarely explained why). It tells them what to wear, and what to read, and how to speak, and how to walk and how to behave. It tells them (explicitly or implicitly) what professions one should aspire for simply by the importance it puts on certain subjects — mathematics and sciences are often on top — and therefore professions which heavily use them are to be admired. The young boy who proudly declares, “I’m going to be an engineer” is more widely applauded than one who declares, “I want to be an actor.”

School haunts children even after school hours with endless homework and readings and papers to write. Parents obsessed with having kids graduate with top honors hire tutors for additional instruction after school.

This is not to blame parents, teachers or administrators of schools. They are just trapped in the system, and most of them have the child’s best interests at heart — only they are boxed in the framework they understand because that is how they grew up, and how most of us grew up. It is difficult to shift paradigms and look at things from another point of view when you yourself have been so inculcated in it.

But as an educator, and as a parent, I believe the best gift we can give our kids is the gift of time.

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Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

What Are Schools For? (Part 6)

The fourth and last purpose of education, according to Robinson,  is personal: “Education should enable young people to engage with the world within them as well as the world around them.”

He then distinguishes between these two worlds: “There is the world that exists whether or not you exist. It was there before you came into it, and it will be there when you have gone. This is the world of objects, events and other people…There is another world that exists only because you exist: the private world of your own thoughts, feelings, and perceptions…This world came into being when you did, and it will cease when you do.”

Conventional education focuses a lot on the world around us — scientific and mathematical  principles, historical data, language, grammar, and literature, and a little of the arts. Very little attention is given to the world within us — to our own thoughts, feelings and desires. In fact, they are hardly considered at all in school.

The teacher walks into his class, fully expecting you to listen and pay attention to what he is teaching; never mind that you are not interested, or falling in love, or having a fight with your parents, or just lost your dog, or just plain sleepy.

Even subjects that are meant to explore one’s inner world are given external and academic trappings — values education become just another list of things to memorize. Art and music focus more on learning what others have created and again memorizing what others have done instead of becoming a means of self-expression.

So called educational “experts” miss this very important point: “We only know the world around us through the world within us, through the senses by which we perceive it and the ideas by which we make sense of it.”

Is it any wonder then that most kids in school, even those that do well, are bored, disengaged, uninterested, stressed, anxious or even depressed?

Children are not incomplete humans needing to be filled with “basic knowledge.” They are not broken people who need to be fixed. They ought to be seen as unique individuals with their own special set of aptitudes, attitudes, personalities, interests and ambitions. Not one fits into the mold of a “model student” because no such mold and no such student exists.

Education must first allow people to connect with themselves, to understand their own thoughts, feelings and desires, to be attuned with who they really are, to attend to the world within, before it begins to engage with the world around. That is, in fact, what children are doing from the moment they are born. They are continually trying to understand the world within them as well as the world around them.

They do this as they learn to coordinate their different body parts, to grab things, to taste them and smell them, to roll around , then crawl, then walk, then run and play and dance and sing.

Sadly we interrupt this process of self-discovery with school and give the world around them too much importance, while the world within them suffers and cries in silence.

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Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

What Are Schools For? (Part 5)

The third purpose of education, according to Ken Robinson,  has a social dimension: “Education should enable young people to be active and compassionate citizens.”

Active citizenship means taking part in community activities and ultimately, voting in local and national elections. Yet, we have witnessed, time and again, in our elections, that those who are voted to power are not necessarily the most qualified, nor the most knowledgeable nor skillful, but the most popular. It is a running joke that the surest path to be an elected official is to be a celebrity.

I think this mentality is deeply rooted in how we “teach” democracy in schools. We have, from a young age, been taught that democracy doesn’t really mean anything. Oh yes, the lectures will say otherwise — that power rests in the people and so on — but the lessons imparted by practical experience and reality outweigh those held in classrooms.

Class officers don’t have any real power. That rests with the teacher. Let’s say the teacher comes in, and the class president tells the teacher, “We just had a class meeting and 90% majority has voted on postponing today’s quiz to next week,” and the teacher says, “No,” who do you think will be followed?

On a larger scale, student councils don’t have any real power either. Let’s say the student council president meets with the principal (or whatever highest school official there is), and says, “90% of the student population has voted against the rule that students are required to wear black leather shoes. They should be allowed to wear whatever footwear they are most comfortable with,” and the principal says, “No,” again who do you think will be followed?

And so from early on, we have learned, by experience, that voting doesn’t really do anything and that we don’t really have a voice. Power rests with those in authority and there is not much we can do to change that. So elections become just another game and we elect those we most fancy, which tend to be those who are most popular.

We, as a society, have not really learned democracy because our educational institutions are one of the most autocratic institutions in the world.

This is why I have such a high respect for the founders of Sudbury Valley School (SVS), where children and adults alike, discuss and vote on everything about the school, where the adult founders were willing to lay their jobs and their reputations on the line by allowing students to vote on their continued employment year after year.

Dan Greenberg, founder of SVS, says they don’t even need to lecture their kids about what democracy is. They live it everyday. This is a clear answer to Robinson’s call: “Schools have vital roles in cultivating that sense of citizenship. They won’t fulfill them by running academic courses on civics but by being the sort of places that practice these principles in how they operate every day.”

Having a better country, a better society, starts with having better and more democratic schools.

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