Tag Archives: Democratic Education

Preparing to succeed

by Rocpoc, on Flickr

Sudbury and traditional schooling have something in common: they agree that young people leaving school should enter the world well-prepared for a successful life. For Sudbury schools too, this includes professional life – and that’s a good thing.

When talking about Sudbury schools, one point seems to get people a little worked up, at least in Europe. It’s not unusual for Sudburians to talk about students preparing themselves for a satisfying and successful life, including getting a good job. In progressive circles in Europe, a lot of people frown on this; “getting a good job” shouldn’t be so important to us, right?

I think this is all basically a misunderstanding. People don’t like to hear about school preparing children for the job market because traditional schools say they do that – but we don’t mean the same thing.

Continue reading Preparing to succeed

Peter Gray on Video Games

Peter Gray, my favorite education blogger, has recently written two posts I can highly recommend:

As always, Peter does a great job of supporting his point with research, and writing some sobering posts about video games is a much-needed service for democratic schools, as well as for parents everywhere. It’s also nice to see how much his well-founded and academic post matches what I wrote about game addiction two years ago based only on anecdotal evidence.

Solidarity: for all or none at all; Colonialism: still here

Display of Fairtrade products at the Derbyshir...
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Bjarne argues that while we don’t need a planned economy, we do need an economy that takes people into account and acts fairly and morally. I tend to agree, but I am not sure how this is supposed to look. I would argue that global fair trade must come along with a strong domestic safety net, or not at all, and that financial exploitation is only one aspect of a bigger problem.

Unintended consequences of fair trade

What were to happen if every developed country in the world simultaneously passed good labor laws that applied not only to workers in the country, but also to workers employed directly or indirectly by companies in that country? In other words, what if the first world would suddenly apply the same standards when it came to those it employs in the third world as it does to those employed domestically?

Like any change in a complex system, this would have all kinds of different consequences, some of them unintended. For one, this would, with 100% certainty, mean that almost all goods and services sold in the first world would become a lot more expensive to produce, and somewhat more expensive to consume. This would hurt the middle and lower class hard: they would no longer be able to afford to consume nearly as much as before, at least in the short term. In the long term, this would give companies in the first world less of a reason to employ people in the third world, meaning more people in the first world would have jobs. This would, in turn, also mean that the first world would produce more goods and services, increasing exports. So I imagine it might actually balance out eventually. (I’m trying to think like an economist here – tell me if it’s working.)

A conclusion is simply where you stopped thinking

So in the short term, making world trade fair would harm everyone in the first world but the rich – massively. This is, of course, a bad thing. Should this be our conclusion then, that fair trade is a luxury and forcing it upon society would punish “our own” poor? No, of course not, that would be near-sighted. Rather, I think fair trade is a good argument for social solidarity and a strong safety net in the first world.

After all, there is an enormous amount of wealth in the first world. The existence of poverty is not a force of nature but an aspect of our economic system. With tools as simple as progressive taxation and a basic income guarantee, we could tweak our system to protect all individuals in society from the chaos of post-industrial life. And if we can make sure that even a large, across-the-board spike in the price of goods would not harm anybody too much, we can afford to trade fairly with the developing world.

In other words, global solidarity and domestic solidarity are interconnected. Only enforcing fair trade would harm the first-world poor in the short run. Only guaranteeing economic security in the first world would come at the continued cost of the third-world poor. In fact, presenting the two as separate could be seen as a subtle factor in why neither is terribly popular – if you really care about the basic rights and conditions of all people, why should you want to improve conditions for the poor at home but not elsewhere, or vice versa? But if we consider the two to be one package, one thing, inseparable, suddenly the parts all make sense.

Schooling the world for the wrong jobs – colonialism is alive, and kicking the third world in the face

But fair trade is not enough for the third world, either. The western corporate colonization runs much deeper than that.

This summer, at IDEC@EUDEC in England, I had the opportunity to watch a very difficult film, Schooling the World. What I learned is that what we know as conventional schooling in the west is being forced upon communities in the developing world which have no need for this form of education, nor for the content taught in it – essentially the same content as taught in the first world. Young people there are being trained for western jobs and academic careers where there are none, in communities which have their own way of life, requiring neither. The young people subsequently have no real choice but to move to big cities, where there is at least some chance of finding a job they are qualified for – but there there are still not enough modern jobs for everyone. Imagine being a young adult faced with the choice between poverty in the big city, where you have a chance of finding a job you are somewhat prepared for, and moving back to the countryside, where you might not even speak the language (as many schools forbid native languages and enforce the use of English and/or the state language) and would have to learn traditional crafts from scratch in order to be useful.1

Bringing “modern”, “high-quality” education to the developing world – often motivated by the best of intentions – is destroying cultures and forcing young people to either work for first-world companies or actually move to the first world. And if this is not stopped, universal fair trade could be a disaster for the third world as well, at least until developing economies are able to offer the jobs domestically that “modern” education requires for its graduates.

Exploitation of low or non-existant standards in the developing world is in the end only one facet of what western colonialism has become in the “post-colonial” era. Although the colonies are gone and the developed world’s mindset has shifted, it has not changed completely. In our arrogance, we help the developing world mainly in ways that help us more, and there are many, many fronts to fight on for a more just world, with freedom for all. The past is never gone, no matter how much we wish it so, and we have to be curious, brave, and determined if we are to find and root out its poisonous remnants wherever they may be.

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Footnotes

  1. It’s worth noting that radical democratic schools would not have the same effect, as their content is whatever the people present bring in – not a curriculum designed by someone from the city. []

Thoughts about: reality as a function of belief

I

When trying to understand why most schools work the way they do, it can be useful to understand schools as the result of what people think education is. In other words, the reality of schools is a function of beliefs people have about education.

The reason so many Sudbury schools fail to grow or even to survive is that they do not fit the beliefs people currently hold.

The reason any Sudbury school does succeed is, then, that some people in some places are capable of conceiving of education quite differently from almost everyone else; this in turn probably has some history behind it, as I don’t believe that beliefs undergo massive shifts spontaneously.

People who understand un-schools like Sudbury schools must have had some previous contact with some unconventional understanding of education.

II

The same probably holds within schools: the way most classrooms are in most traditional schools is a function of how people, in particular education professionals, understand education.

Most people I’ve met in some stage or another of teacher training want to change/improve the school system from within. I assume this is not some special feature of my generation, but has always been this way. So how have most schools managed to stay fundamentally the same as 100 years ago with so many people trying to change them from within all of the time?

Again, it might be useful to understand this as a result of people’s beliefs about education. In most cases the revolutionary young teacher will come into a school where the majority of staff is old, tired, old-fashioned, and so used to its way of doing things that they’re almost automatic. Almost any change the newbie tries to make will be met with resistance and criticism. There is almost no way one or two young teachers could change the minds of all of their colleagues. They can rebel, live through hell, then likely get fired; they can just quit; or they can conform.

I’d guess very few young teachers have ever rebelled and made it into their second decade of teaching. We are thus left with a system of schools staffed by those whose will has been broken, whether or not this happened before, during or after teacher training. All this because of persistent beliefs on education.

Turning this around, how does a non-traditional school achieve persistence and coherence? By creating an environment in which prevailing beliefs on education dictate a different line of action. I’ve met people from a democratic school in which the traditional beliefs about education maintained enough of a foothold that the structures eventually came to closely resemble those of traditional schools. I hear the mentality and atmosphere may slowly be following.

As a social structure, the reality of a school depends entirely on the beliefs of people.

III

Another attempt at applying this principle: (self-)selection of those attending democratic schools may be driven more by the expectations of those who choose not to apply than by those who choose to be part of them.

Many accuse non-traditional schools of being an elitist escape of the well-to-do – a way to separate themselves from “the dirty masses”. The reality is that while most democratic schools are not intentionally exclusive, they tend to, indeed, primarily include well-to-do families (i.e. middle and upper classes).

Why? Perhaps because of the tremendous power of popular beliefs: those who have a financially stable background can afford to go against popular beliefs and get an education that people don’t think is an education; those who must struggle to survive get an education everyone can understand because this is safer.1

IV

Sudbury schools’ internal workings are nothing like those of a traditional school. Yet as an institution, they do conform to popular beliefs about education in that they are places young people go to during working hours with the long-term expectation of them being prepared for adult life.

This might be a kind of memetic bridge – matching some practical beliefs people have about education while defying most theoretical beliefs. This may help abolish or amend the belief structures that create schooling as we know it, eventually making even Sudbury schools unnecessary when society understands that what children need is not an “educational” environment, but simply an environment that protects and empowers them – something we could ultimately have in many different contexts, not just specialized “schools”.

On the other hand, this conformist aspect also attracts a lot of problems. Many people come to Sudbury schools expecting, well, a school, and have a very hard time understanding that while it may look like a school and fulfill a similar social function, it is formed by very different beliefs. These problems are worth the bother, because without appearing to be a school, Sudbury schools would likely attract few students, and have a very hard time growing/surviving.

 

NOTE: The above is reflection resulting from an online/Copenhagen discussion of John Moravec’s Horizon Forum, which I took part in yesterday (although unfortunately I couldn’t stay until the end).

Footnotes

  1. Here I ignore a very important aspect: in most countries, democratic schools have to charge tuition, even when they don’t want to and even when most schools are free of charge. If states have a problem with elitist schooling, they should fund all types of schools and abolish mandatory tuitions. []

Give democracy time, and it will deliver

 

The first of many extra-plenary discussions (July 4)

Democracy can be excruciating. It takes a lot of time, and it takes a lot of discussion. A lot of repetitive discussion, as you have to convince a majority of your point of view. But democracy can deliver.

A strong reminder came at EUDEC’s Assembly meetings, three weeks ago, right before and during the IDEC@EUDEC conference. The difficult, divisive issue was, as always, membership: who’s in, and who’s out. This particular story starts a year earlier, at the previous meeting of Assembly, in Roskilde, Denmark.

In Roskilde, Assembly decided, based on my proposal, that in order for a school to become a full member of EUDEC, it would have to declare that it is a democratic school (under EUDEC’s definition) and intends to stay one. This decision was made at the very end of the very last plenary, when everyone was exhausted and very few people were really paying attention. Many people were confused and angry about the decision afterwards. But the decision also established a committee to discuss membership issues and work towards a comprehensive solution.

The committee was less active than I had hoped, but eventually the discussions started there brought me to make a new proposal. For this year, I proposed to get rid of the Roskilde restriction, and even open up school membership more, while adding tools for (self-)evaluation and transparency regarding how each member school works.

I thought the proposal would be an easy sell – boy, was I wrong! Membership discussions bring out a lot of emotions, and they very quickly come down to discussions about the core vision of the organization; as a democratic organization, EUDEC’s nature and course of action depend quite directly on the makeup of its membership.

By the second day of discussions, there appeared to be two separate camps, for and against our proposal. Each side talked amongst itself more than with the other side. When the sides met, the debate was heated and people came away feeling sick. At some point there was an (Extended) Council meeting in which we talked about it, and some of us were in tears, others close to it. A few of us who had been involved since founding EUDEC – myself included – had a sense of doom; it seemed our organization was about to splinter, sputter and die. The difficulties seemed truly insurmountable.

But then, maybe an hour or two after that meeting, everything changed. Some of us had talked with “the other side” in the café and came out feeling our differences were minor, both in principal and in practice. It was as if we were standing on a cliff, about to fall, only to be suddenly yanked back onto solid ground. That feeling opened us up – all of us, on both sides, I think – to what other people were saying. And then my friend Or Levi came by and took advantage of my openness to tell me that we’re all being idiots (loudly, but in Hebrew). As has become typical in our friendship, he came at me with criticism that at first seemed ignorant, insensitive, and arrogant, but quickly turned out to be useful in that it questioned things I took for granted.

New ideas came up that evening, ideas that it was too late at that point to introduce into the debate. But that evening calmed everyone down and left us with the knowledge that we’re in this together and everyone is determined to resolve the differences and find the right way to go. It also taught us (or me, at least) that given enough time, new solutions may come up that weren’t even on anybody’s mind. Many were now content with finding a compromise we can live with for a while and continuing to look for the best solution.

The truly amazing thing happened during the next session of Assembly. By the time we got to finally voting on the membership proposals, there were some six or seven different proposals on the table, some divided into 3, 4, 5 sub-proposals. We voted, and voted, and voted, and voted, well into lunch-time. Due to the system we use, members of the Assembly were instructed to vote on each sub-proposal independently of all others; that is, the question was only if that part is something you’re in favor of, regardless of whether or not other parts you want together with it should pass.

As the voting went on, an odd pattern emerged – Assembly passed no more than one sub-proposal of any proposal. We ended up with six different bits and pieces, not all of which were intended to work together, few of which were intended to work alone. Council took the day to check if there was any contradiction between them, but when we left the meeting, everyone – both sides – seemed okay. Nobody left in anger or tears. Nobody said they’d leave the organization (as some had threatened to do). And when Council went over the decisions, it found no contradiction whatsoever. The full package of decisions had to be ratified in the next plenary, and it was carried unanimously.

Give democracy time and attention, and it will deliver.

Photo by Monika Wernz.

 

One more thing: Or is working on spiffing up EUDEC’s semi-official YouTube channel, EUDECmovies. Subscribe now, there’s going to be a lot of material from the conference over there pretty soon!

Will work for money

This is not a post about the IDEC@EUDEC conference, nor about my likely-dead iPhone.

Yesterday, after about 23 hours in a bus, we arrived in Leipzig, back from the terrific IDEC@EUDEC conference in England. We both still had (and have) a bit of a head cold or flu, which was going around at the conference and hit me a few days before the end, so we were altogether extremely exhausted upon arrival. We decided to spend the day in bed, watching movies and shows and napping occasionally, holding out until nightfall for the real sleep.

When we finally did go to sleep, Sabine was feeling nauseous, and so she put a bucket with a little water next to the bed in case it was needed. We slept like two large stones.

When we woke up some time before noon today, I noticed a tall lamp was lying horizontally on the floor. Soon after, however, Sabine held up my iPhone by its charging cable, dripping with water from the bucket. It had just spent some unknown number of hours in the water.

The iPhone is now drying (in a box of rice), now and for another day and a half, before I risk trying to turn it on. But it’s not likely to recover. I’m relieved the combination of power cable and water bucket didn’t do any further damage, really.

I’m sad that my dear iPhone is (probably) dead. I use it a lot, I haven’t had it for all that long (just over a year), and most of all, I can’t really afford to replace it right now. I recently bought a very good new laptop, one I expect to use for a few years, but which depleted my bank account and then some.

I’m living beyond my means, on bank credit, and that’s what this post is really about.

Don’t get me wrong. My debt is tiny, so small it should be insignificant. But it’s not, because I live on a very low income, and small sums seem pretty big when you live on a low income. And the reason I live on such a low income is that, due to my studies and activism, I haven’t found time to make money. My main source of income is the federal German student support program – which is a pretty good deal, considering it’s only around a dozen hours of painful bureaucracy a year, for which I receive just enough money to live at a reasonable standard of living.

For the past few months, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the big role money plays in, basically, everything that goes on in the world. I don’t have any big conclusion to share on the global issues, but on the personal level, it has already become clear to me that I will have to find a way to seriously increase my income if I want to live a fulfilling and active life. That’s not to say that I like or favor the monetary systems of the world as they are today. I rather don’t. But as long as the world is organized the way it is organized, and as long as I insist on living in a city, using the latest technology, and trying to change things in the world of people, money is going to be vital.

This isn’t all that bad, because there are always things I enjoy doing (even if I only enjoy them a little) which I can get money for. I just stepped down from EUDEC Council to focus on my studies and finish my degree, and that’s what I’m going to do from now until the end of February, but after that, I see a whole world of possibilities spread out in front of me.

The most obvious option is to work for EUDEC. As I’ve mentioned, EUDEC is working on hiring a paid coordinator, to make sure things work smoothly without relying too heavily on volunteers. I’m probably going to apply for that position, and if it works out, it would be a real dream job (and a good deal for EUDEC, I think).

Another obvious option is translation. I’ve done translations occasionally, I know several translators, and I know that if ever I need to just find any work I can find, translation will always be possible. The downside, as all translators know, is that the stream of work can be less than steady, leaving you without an income for months at a time, sometimes.

One other thing I’ve already done occasionally and would enjoy doing more of is public speaking. I was thinking of doing a speaking tour in March or April 2012, just after I finish my studies, trying to cram in as many talks as I can in three to five weeks. It would give me a financial boost, a chance to work intensively on my speaking skills, and an opportunity to get to know new people and new places.

What do you think? Is a speaking tour a good idea? Any reason it might be more trouble than it’s worth? Do you know of someone who might want to invite me to speak around that time?

Any input appreciated.

 

Photo by Monika Wernz.

Tales of sun and cloud cover

Leipzig in summer.

Whew. Over a month without a post. And what a month it has been!

Summer is finally here. Summer in Germany is something altogether different from summer in Israel, as I learn anew every year. Winter in Germany is something altogether different from Israel’s so-called “winters”, too. And it all comes down to sunlight, for me.

In Israel, the sun is omnipresent and a real health hazard. It is just too fracking hot most of the year. Here, on the other hand, I desperately miss the sun all winter, and as soon as it’s out I feel like I have to jump on the opportunity and expose my skin to its incredible warmth, the warmth that reminds me that it’s not so bad, the light that reminds me that the world isn’t all that grey after all.

Now, summer here isn’t as reliable as it is in Israel. In Israel, summer is summer. Sunlight, nonstop, every day, all day. Here we get summer rains (an oxymoron to me) and even full cloud cover – in June!! Very strange. But this makes me appreciate the sunlight even more. After waiting for it all winter, summer can be coy, making me wait again. I get suspicious. Has global climate change hit us so hard already? Did the BP oil spill knock out the jet stream like I read it might? I watch the skies. Like a Stark, I know winter will come again, sooner or later. I dread it. Then the sun comes out again and everything looks different.

I have an Egyptian friend and (language-learning) tandem partner – he wants to know Hebrew and I want to know Arabic. He always says he doesn’t want to talk about the conflict, but we end up on that topic every time we meet. Last time we had lunch, the sun was shining bright, and I noted that when the sun shines, I think the Middle East is headed towards peace and prosperity like never before; when the sky is grey, I’m sure Israel is on the brink of fascism or civil war and dread what might become of all the people I love.

Well, we had grey skies and rain for the past few days, and I’m still getting over the accompanying sense of impending doom, but today the sun is shining. The StuTS is behind me, but busy times are still ahead. This weekend two very good friends of mine are getting married (congrats, F&B!); I’m trying to finish an old term paper, practice for Spanish class, and get preliminary reading done for my degree thesis; and, of course, I have to prepare the EUDEC Assembly for this summer.

Time flies when you’re too busy to check what time it is. I might try to write more this month, but maybe not such heavy long posts, and likely little or nothing about Israel/Palestine. The situation there is getting more complicated by the hour and I haven’t been following closely enough to make informed comments lately. Fortunately, there are plenty of other, less despair-inducing topics out there…