Category Archives: Education

Peter Gray: Social Play and the Genesis of Democracy

I’m back sooner than expected and will resume posting about democracy soon. Meanwhile, here’s a link to the latest post over at Peter Gray’s excellent Freedom to Learn blog, in which Peter discusses how free social play lends itself to the development of a sense of democracy in children:

Children cannot acquire democratic values through activities run autocratically by adults. They can and do, however, experience and acquire such values in free play with other children. That is a setting where they are treated as equals, where they must have a say in what goes on, and where they must respect the rights of others if they wish to be included.

Link: Social Play and the Genesis of Democracy

P.S.
The rest of the blog is well-worth reading as well!

Democracy, Part 2: Structure

Contrary to popular imagination, democratic schools have a whole lot of structure. Democracy is meaningless without decision-making, and democratic decision-making is impossible without structure. Democracy is in a constant struggle with arbitrariness, the force democracy originally arose to negate1. Codifying the ways decisions are made and the scope of the decisions can be a certain safety against arbitrariness. The creation of procedures and structures in a democracy allows a system to arise which, to a certain degree, runs on its own. Democracy still requires constant vigil in defense both of its structures and of its spirit (the concepts discussed in Part 1 of this series), but procedures allow the democratic community to agree on a certain course of action without the constant need to discuss how things are done – or the danger that arbitrary decisions will be made ad hoc, without clear direction from the community. Indeed, rules and regulations may seem imposing, even frightening, and some find them strange in places where such emphasis is placed on freedom, but still they are as necessary a component of democracy as are the meetings and votes that put these in place.

For a community to make decisions, the individuals that form the community have to know how decisions are made. They must know that certain kinds of decisions can only be made in a democratic meeting. They also have to know that the meeting takes place in a certain time, in a certain place, and in a certain way; if anyone can just throw together a meeting at any time, the meeting quickly loses its legitimacy.

A democracy creates procedures for everything. The more important or common an issue, the more detailed the procedures that cover it. These procedures tend to grow organically over time, growing to cover and fill every loophole and conflict as it comes up. After just four years of operation, for instance, Sudbury Jerusalem had a Lawbook almost 50 pages long, with no less than 8 pages devoted to the Judicial Committee (JC), the body that oversees the execution of School Law (or the consequences of failure to comply with it.)

These regulations serve to protect the individual – the community gives the Judicial Committee a lot of power, with huge potential to disrupt people’s lives and freedoms; the procedures governing JC’s decisions limit it and make it clear what it can and cannot do. The procedures also dictate precisely how decisions are made – they say in what way cases are handled, what steps are taken and in which order, and who must or may be present for every one of them. The tendency is to leave as little as possible up to the JC’s own discretion; JC is merely a servant of the system, individuals doing their duty (in rotation) to apply fair judgment to the cases brought before them.  The meetings are structured – the procedures are set down in School Law, all that’s left to the Committee is to follow the rules, examine the cases, and produce decisions.

This system also supports an atmosphere of pleasant ease; visitors and newcomers are often surprised at how structured JC is, but also at how everyone seems very peaceful about it, even the accused. I found JC very pleasant and used to gladly sit by as an observer and watch cases when I had some free time. My guess is that it makes people comfortable to know that there are rules, that these rules work, and that all they have to do is simply follow them. Of course, in a Sudbury school the same people can also propose, amend or repeal the rules, making it easier to accept them2.

Interestingly, Sudbury Jerusalem’s central decision-maker – School Meeting (SM) – has never been quite as structured as the Judicial Committee. School Meeting is the only institution that existed in the school a priori, and perhaps for this reason, custom has had a far bigger role in SM than in the other institutions SM has created over the years. SM has always been run based on a modified, simplified version of Robert’s Rules of Order, although remarkably the rules have been passed down from one chair to another, rather than codified in rules or bylaws. Robert’s Rule necessitate a chair that runs meetings, makes note of members who want to talk and gives them the floor, as well as maintaining order by giving warnings to members who cause disturbance. So in this sense, it has always been run in a very structured way. But in comparison with the JC’s detailed procedures, SM seems somewhat unorganized. Tellingly, the same Lawbook with 8 pages about JC had just 3 pages devoted to SM.

Still, SM has a certain order in which things are done. For instance, second readings of proposals are handled before first readings, in order to make sure no flood of new proposals could push back the older proposals indefinitely, preventing the Meeting from ever making any final decision. But even such order as is maintained is seen more as tradition, or at least as more mutable, than the parallel order in JC. SM often decides to handle a certain matter out of turn because it is urgent. JC could never get away with rearranging the stages of its investigation.

The differences in the forms the procedures take in these two institutions reflects the different needs that they serve, as well as their different sources of legitimacy. School Meeting is the school community’s tool for democratic decision-making; it embodies the community and allows it to make decisions as a whole. Its legitimacy is direct – everyone who wants to take part is allowed to, the entire community controls it and agrees to accept its decisions because each and every one of them can affect these decisions. So changing the order in which decisions are made, although it sometimes has great effect on matters of importance, is something SM can do as it sees fit; there is no need for extra supervision or control because the decision is open to everyone. At the same time, a certain order is needed during meetings, to give each member a fair chance to speak and be heard; if everyone can speak whenever they want, the loudest will be the only ones heard, if any.

The Judicial Committee, on the other hand, is legitimized indirectly, by decision of School Meeting – it is one step removed from that direct legitimacy enjoyed by the authorized assembly where all can take part. The Committee has few members and one cannot simply come in and take part in the discussion. There are good reasons for this – the Committee is supposed to be efficient and fair – but it means that JC may sometimes be seen as a closed group. SM gives this group authority, but not unconditionally; there is a clear limit to what the Committee may decide, and clear procedures for exactly how it may be decided. In a sense, this is an assurance to the school community that SM is still in control, because its decisions about School Law determine the course that JC may take. In a way, this is the same in all school institutions and offices apart from School Meeting.

I hope this brief discussion provides some insight into the interaction between democracy and structure. In the coming three weeks I will be away, working, and when I return I will doubtless be swamped. But sooner or later, I will continue writing these posts about democracy.


1The Greek and Roman democracies of classic antiquity were instated after kings and tyrants were done away with, and designed to make the arbitrary authority of a king impossible. The authority previously held by the king was divided amongst multiple magistrates, serving in rotation, making it impossible for any single individual to hold too much power for too long. The younger Roman system evolved and was manipulated over time to create a tyrannical empire; the Greek system largely survived until the Roman empire conquered the Greek city-states.

2It is easy to accept rules that you proposed, but people tend to also respect rules they don’t entirely agree with. One reason is that after participating in School Meeting for a while, you get used to experiencing rules from both sides – as proponent and as opponent; you grow to accept the fact that School Meeting can make decisions you disagree with, and the feeling that you are part of School Meeting helps as well. Another reason is simply that the school community respects the rules by consensus, and operates the Judicial Committee to enforce them – those who fail to comply must face the consequences. It also helps that most rules are grounded in common sense.

Professor: "Grades poison the educational environment"

Excellent story from the Globe and Mail about a university professor who doesn’t believe in grades:

On the first day of his fourth-year physics class, University of Ottawa professor Denis Rancourt announced to his students that he had already decided their marks: Everybody was getting an A+.

In December, the senior physicist was suspended from teaching, locked out of his laboratory and told that the university administration was recommending his dismissal and banning him from campus.

But the professor is undeterred about those A-pluses: “Grades poison the educational environment,” he insists. “We’re training students to be obedient, and to try to read our minds, rather than being a catalyst for learning.”

globeandmail.com: Professor makes his mark, but it costs him his job

(Thanks, Tuur!)

The Importance of Being Bored

Boredom is not a problem to be dealt with, but a crucial learning process that needs to be given space.

People often ask why Sudbury schools can’t “just offer a few classes for anybody who is interested”. In reply I would answer, “why bother?” – if somebody is truly interested they can always start a class. Staff time is one of the school’s most precious resources; investing it in offering classes “just in case” could be a waste if nobody is interested.

But there is another reason why these schools don’t bother. This reason is that Sudbury schools value boredom.

Boredom has gotten a bad rep. There are entire industries geared towards providing parents and children with antidotes for boredom. But boredom isn’t actually a bad thing.

Boredom is the feeling of not being highly motivated. It’s unpleasant, which is why it makes us try and find a way to get out of it – leading us to to engage in high-motivation activity. There is nothing quite as satisfying as doing things you are highly motivated to do. Boredom is a part of our instinct to find that kind of drive – how can it possibly be a bad thing?

In Sudbury schools, we see that boredom plays a significant role.

Because students are allowed to do whatever they want and nobody tries to cure them of their boredom, they sometimes find themselves in a strange situation: They have all these options around them, people playing, painting, talking, studying or teaching, reading or writing, listening to music or making their own, yet unlike all of those people, they are bored.

This boredom means something – it means they don’t have something they are highly motivated to do; they have not found something that brings out that drive in them. Despite the extraordinary variety of self-organized activity within the school, they have not identified something there which they feel driven to pursue.

People cope with boredom in different ways.

Some find something to do – not necessarily something great, just something. They “peck around”, trying all kinds of different activities, some that already take place, some they create themselves. Often they keep pecking around, rarely sticking with the same thing for long, because none of these things dispels the boredom – none of these inspires enough keen interest and motivation to make them want to keep at it.

After the pecking (or instead of it), some sit around and whine about how bored they are; those around them will try and interest them in new activities – or get annoyed and tell them to stop whining. Sometimes, with or without the whining, they might start talking with someone about their boredom. Conversation often inspires all kinds of new ideas; at any rate, it keeps you busy enough.

Whatever you choose to do with your boredom, it ends sometime.

Sooner or later you do find something interesting enough that you really get into it, and then the boredom is gone. Sometimes you find something like this among the activities you “peck” at; sometimes you figure it out in conversation; often, it suddenly occurs to you after weeks of boredom (it might have been right under your nose the whole time!)

It could be anything — a game, a series or genre of literature, a religion, a science. It can be anything a person might care to spend time on. And people will pursue a newfound interest as if obsessed, often spending days on end just doing that one thing. In Sudbury schools, students have the time and space for that.

This process is cyclical – you may find something really interesting, but that’s no guarantee that you’ll never be bored again. Boredom is a natural part of living and learning.

Usually, when someone finds something they really like, they’ll be happily busy for a few hours, days or weeks. If they’re lucky, it will last for months. In some cases it might even last years (when you get paid for it, it’s called “a dream job”). But eventually, people exhaust their interest and get bored again.

They may have read every single history book they could get their hands on, or they played enough soccer to last them a lifetime. Maybe they discovered that that really tough video game is much easier to beat once you really apply yourself to it, or they realized that they want to do more than just work in a pet store. Boredom kicks in – and moves them to find something else that can really motivate them.

I believe you find motivation and keen interest in things that you consider valuable, or potentially valuable. Sudbury schools don’t claim to know better than the student what is good for them. Instead they say “it’s up to you to figure out what is good for you, what is important to you – and it’s up to you to go and get those things!”

People routinely become excited and motivated about things they identify consciously or unconsciously as important or useful.

Kids discovering reading and writing are often amazingly enthusiastic about it. They just gobble up all the reading they can get their hands on, or scribble out all the writing that they can.

You see the same excitement in somebody acquiring a new language, learning about numbers and arithmetic, learning to sketch or paint – learning almost anything, really. (Unless, of course, they are doing these things because they are forced to — then, it’s usually an awful chore.)

It is the fact that Sudbury schools do not try and cut off the search for an interesting new thing that allows students to explore themselves and the world around them in search of something interesting – something that may be valuable for them. And allowing this to happen means students learn to live with boredom rather than suppress it.

People who suppress boredom end up settling for less, stop exploring, and possibly end up doing things they really don’t care about. This is good if you want your kid to work in a dead-end menial labor job, but it probably isn’t what most people want for their children, or for themselves.

 

Study: Video games are attractive because of sense of achievement – not violence

A new study confirms something I have long suspected: the thing that makes videos games fun and attractive is the sense of achievement, not the violence. In my school and in many others, concerned parents have voiced their fear that their children are spending too much time playing video games, which is allegedly a waste of time and, depending who you ask, possibly dangerous because of the glorification of violence. My own parents used to take issue with my spending so much time on the computer, too, really.

But what is often misunderstood is what actually makes video games so attractive – what, in fact, makes games attractive in the first place. Let me give you a definition: Games are sets of restrictive rules, designed to create an artificial challenge that requires specific application of skill to surmount. This is the same in every context, from video games through board games through roleplaying games through card games and parlor games. It should be no surprise that children like games – children are incredibly eager to challenge themselves. Anyone with marginal involvement in the video game world knows that a game has to be challenging to be considered a good game.

Gamers and game-players are all in it for the challenge. And children, natural born learning machines, are challenge fiends. They love a challenge. So it should come as no surprise that they really like games.

Study: violence in games not that compelling for most gamers (Ars Technica) (Via Slashdot)

Economic collapse good for educational innovation?

John Robb over at Global Guerrillas put up a brief about education in the context of our very uncertain future:

[T]here is reason to believe that costs of higher education (direct costs and lost income) are now nearly equal (in net present value) to the additional lifetime income derived from having a degree.  Since nearly all of the value of an education has been extracted by the producer, to the detriment of the customer, this situation has all the earmarks of a bubble.  A bubble that will soon burst as median incomes are adjusted downwards to global norms over the next decade.

(Global Guerrillas: INDUSTRIAL EDUCATION?)

Robb concludes that the Internet will become a major platform for higher education, serving to reduce costs on both ends and providing broader access to high-quality education. This makes a lot of sense, but it leaves me wondering what will happen with school-level education.

The school systems in most industrialized Western countries  are incredibly inefficient both financially and socially. Sudbury schools are significantly more cost-effective, not spending money on anything the school community does not accutely need, and relying on a tendency to attract creative people and/or solutions. This may prove to be an adaptive advantage in the long run, especially in financially troubled times, but many Sudbury schools struggle to get new students in these times due to their tendency to take tuition. For some schools (Sudbury Jerusalem, for instance) the reason is a lack of government support. For other schools (Sudbury Valley School) it might be a matter of principle.

Allow me to speculate for a moment… Several governments are apparently trying to solve the crisis by paying failing companies truckloads of taxpayer cash, absurd as this may be. If instead the focus would shift to optimizing government and state systems for maximum efficiency at minimum cost, we might see a shift towards educational innovation as different models compete to best serve troubled economies (this would require governments ceasing to so strongly favor a single school system, supporting none or all more or less equally). If, however, the status quo in education persists, schools that require tuition may see a marked decline in enrollment, leading to at least a temporary strengthening of state-supported school systems. It remains to be seen how the schools will cope with such a situation. If nothing else, rigid curriculum-based education will quickly show its inadequacy in dealing with a reality that changes too fast for any predictions to adequately inform the creation of curricula.