First up, I’m very happy to hear concerns, questions, challenges. How boring and pointless if we all agree with each other out of hand!
But having said that, I don’t think I disagree with much of what you’ve said.
Very few democratic schools don’t introduce or offer new ideas, topics or subjects to their students — for the same reasons you give. For instance: the Lumiar schools in Brazil put the responsibility of choosing project topics or issues to the learners but teacher-facilitators then shape a series of lessons covering anything from geography and physics to design thinking and languages.
But — at the same time, the idea that children might not discover new ideas, topics or subjects, indicates the level of mistrust us adults have given our limited education. Do we really believe that the limited offering of sciences, maths, english, two foreign languages and token craft/design subjects represents the fullness of what children could be learning about? Really?
A democratic school I interviewed were inspected by the government’s inspectorate after being reported by local councillor as having ‘no curriculum’. The inspectors found that the school offered a far more varied curriculum than the mainstream schools, because the children all had the opportunity to introduce their own ideas and interests, to each other.
And again, the idea that ‘if we don’t push them, they won’t push themselves’ seems to be another fear that’s based on mistrust of children, not on the reality of how human beings work. Time and time again, when we see children engage in something they care about, they’ll push themselves as far as they possibly can to achieve that thing they’ve set their sights on. Sometimes to worrying degrees!
Sure, if we’re talking about pushing them to achieve things they don’t care about — I’d have to agree, this isn’t going to happen in freedom-centered schools. But I’d argue that this is a thoroughly unhealthy and potentially damaging lesson to learn, that isn’t really necessary in ‘real life’ unless we’re saying everyone should take up meaningless jobs that they don’t care about.
Similarly, when we talk about having to engage in boring tasks, I’d have to say that mainstream schooling doesn’t do anything to encourage children into taking responsibility for service and contribution to others, or fully dealing with difficulty. This is taken care of by caretakers (cleaning, servicing), and teachers (resolving conflict).
In most democratic schools, the children are expected to contribute to the upkeep and maintenance of the school (Sands, in Devon, have ‘service time’ as part of its timetable) and in the first instance children are usually expected to resolve their own conflicts, given tools and mediation support, not go to the teacher to deal with people who they’ve fallen out with.
In a democratic school, it is not possible to avoid any of these slightly painful or boring things. In mainstream school, avoidance is by design.
I realise this sounds like a very firm rebuttal, but I think I’m saying: “I agree with you, and this alternative approach meets your concerns way better than the current model”
I think your (very few) objections are very common and, in my personal opinion, founded in the paradigm of education and work that we’re already familiar with, not the one that is possible.
I think the risk is that we make it sound like democratic/freedom centered schooling is fun and full of joy, but it’s not that at all. From what I’m learning it’s bloody hard and pushes us to our limits in ways mainstream doesn’t.
So what I’m saying is that we need to give children full responsibility for their learning, and for being an active part of their own community. This is far from easy, and sometimes no fun at all. But it does have meaning, and it does offer them the opportunity to learn the skills and competencies needed to be a well-balanced human being in a volatile, complex world.
With gratitude and respect,