This excellent TED talk goes along the lines of what I’ve been thinking lately regarding Israeli politics and Israel/Palestine politics. Talking to the other sides is crucial in all conflicts, on whatever scale, internal or external — in a school, in a town, in a state, or between states. “Otherizing”, as Lesser calls it, is the seed of continued conflict and violence.
Here’s a great piece from the Huffington Post by Steven G. Brant: “Waiting For “Superman” and How Design Thinking Can Make Us the Superheroes We’ve Been Waiting for”. (via Mike Sadofsky)
It’s a bit long, and apparently it had been in my inbox since October until I finally read it last night. Still, it’s worth reading, and once I started on it I couldn’t stop until I was done.
Brant points out that the thinking behind “Waiting for ‘Superman'” and most attempts at “fixing” education is based on the assumption that the system is designed right, just not working right at the moment because of some part of it being out of order. Instead, he suggests looking at the basic design and fixing that first. Best of all, he points to Sudbury Valley School as the model for how education should be designed for the current age.
It’s great to see this in such a well-known, mainstream liberal place as HuffPo.
The piece also has a bunch of videos, mostly about SVS, which I haven’t had a chance to watch yet.
Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle has made a nice little video about Den Demokratiske Skole in Roskilde, Denmark:
I’ve had the pleasure to know the founders/staff and the fortune of spending some time in the school (it was pretty funny seeing Christina and Niels with an English voice-over rather than just talking English!)
I could quibble about some details of how the school was presented but it was mainly just nice to see positive media coverage of a Sudbury school.
This excellent essay by Peter Gray has been making the rounds. I have nothing to add — read it!
It is sad to see, in our age-graded society, that many if not most children and adolescents have few opportunities to get to know and to interact regularly with children who are much younger than themselves. If we want young people to grow up to be compassionate and caring, we need to allow them to exercise those capacities; and to do that we need to break down the barriers we have erected to keep young people of different ages apart. We are designed by nature to learn to be compassionate by observing and caring for littler ones while we ourselves are growing up.
This New York Times article came to my attention via Facebook (Thanks, H.B.!):
Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits
By Benedit Carey
As you can imagine, I read the whole thing on the spot. I fully recommend the entire article, and it’s not long.
I’d like to comment on a few things in the article. I’ll quote them in the order they appear:
Science and the school system
“We have known these principles for some time, and it’s intriguing that schools don’t pick them up, or that people don’t learn them by trial and error,” said Robert A. Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Instead, we walk around with all sorts of unexamined beliefs about what works that are mistaken.”
Take the notion that children have specific learning styles, […] In a recent review of the relevant research, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of psychologists found almost zero support for such ideas. “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,” the researchers concluded.
[…] many study skills courses insist that students find a specific place, a study room or a quiet corner of the library, to take their work. The research finds just the opposite. In one classic 1978 experiment, psychologists found that college students who studied a list of 40 vocabulary words in two different rooms — one windowless and cluttered, the other modern, with a view on a courtyard — did far better on a test than students who studied the words twice, in the same room. Later studies have confirmed the finding, for a variety of topics.
These paragraphs (emphasis mine) show a recurring theme of the article: the school system has not been learning from science. This is, indeed, “striking and disturbing”. But I can’t say I’m surprised. In my encounters with “education sciences” in Germany, I have to say I did not get the impression that they are very scientific. As my friend Sören Kirchner of tologo often remarks, they seem to be more in the business of reinforcing a philosophy than that of empirical science. Because “education sciences” are wedded to the traditional school system (in Germany at least, the educational sciences faculties are where accredited teacher training takes place) they typically seem rather unmotivated to produce true criticism of the beliefs that drive the traditional system. The truly critical — and I am glad to know a few such people in the faculties of a few German universities — are the exception, not the rule.
The traditional school system has stuck to the same basic paradigm since it was conceived during the Industrial revolution. Society is deeply invested in that paradigm, since the vast majority of us have been through that system, and rejecting the validity of their assumptions about learning means rejecting the validity of how we spent many (unpleasant) hours in childhood. Making that kind of concession is not easy. At this point, improving education is a matter of revolution, not evolution.
Context, relevance, context!
“What we think is happening here is that, when the outside context is varied, the information is enriched, and this slows down forgetting,” said Dr. Bjork, the senior author of the two-room experiment.
Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time.
I will have to remember this next time someone tells me that students in a democratic school won’t learn anything properly because they aren’t forced to stick to a topic for 45 minutes in a static context. This research strongly suggests that the constantly changing, dynamic atmosphere of democratic schools is a terrific boon for learning. This seems right in line with the thought that having a relevant context is crucial for learning: when you learn something because it is interesting and relevant to you at that moment, you learn it better. Classrooms have a hard time providing that kind of context. A school where students explore things freely allows that relevance to happen all the time.
[…] cognitive scientists see testing itself — or practice tests and quizzes — as a powerful tool of learning, rather than merely assessment. The process of retrieving an idea is not like pulling a book from a shelf; it seems to fundamentally alter the way the information is subsequently stored, making it far more accessible in the future.
Tests are a learning tool? I guess you really do learn something new every day! I wrote a little about testing in July, and indeed as most people do, I treated testing as mere assessment. I stand happily corrected.
In one of his own experiments, Dr. Roediger and Jeffrey Karpicke, also of Washington University, had college students study science passages from a reading comprehension test, in short study periods. When students studied the same material twice, in back-to-back sessions, they did very well on a test given immediately afterward, then began to forget the material.
But if they studied the passage just once and did a practice test in the second session, they did very well on one test two days later, and another given a week later.
It’s good to know that testing can actually help you learn things, but if this is their usefulness, this is not reflected by the way they are treated in schools and universities. I can only emphasize what I’ve said before: the importance of exam grades must be abolished. Then perhaps tests can be useful. Making test grades important only encourages the kind of learning that gets forgotten.
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In Germany, I have often heard that maintaining state control of the school system and its curriculum is important for maintaining democracy. This argument is used against the idea of private schools and homeschooling: if people can teach children whatever they want, the argument goes, religious fundamentalists of all kinds will raise the next generation for intolerance.
In Israel, this argument has now been turned on its head: Ha’aretz reports that “The Education Ministry has cut most of its budget for the intensive civics classes for 11th and 12th grades, and the regular civics classes for 10th grade, and will invest the sum in the teaching of Jewish studies.” Who needs to teach democracy, equality and civil rights when instead you can push a religion that is now being used by popular religious racists to promote and support the practice of killing children?1
The good news for Israel is that it has a larger proportion of democratic schools than any other country in the world. 2 These schools will be far less affected by these cuts, and moreover, students in democratic schools finish high school with years of first-hand experience in democracy. The bad news is that a major reason it’s so easy to start a democratic school in Israel is that the system is designed to let in religious schools with essentially no requirement that any particular topic be or not be in their curriculum. There are many more religious schools than democratic schools, and I’m willing to bet few, if not none of them, use that freedom to promote democracy and fight intolerance.
Totalitarianism cannot rise without having a firm control over education in some way or another. The governments of Germany — ridden with national guilt as they have been for the past 60 years — use their tight grip on education to promote democracy; but having such central control makes it possible for shifts in the opposite direction, like the one we are seeing in Israel right now. Wherever intolerance is fostered we must speak out against it and fight it. But a democratic state is always at risk of electing intolerant leaders, and in case that ever happens, we had better make sure those leaders don’t have the power to indoctrinate the young generation. As we say in EUDEC, democratic education is a sensible choice for democratic states.
- I certainly do not mean to equate Judaism with this sort of racism. My family is full of terrific people who happen to be religiously Jewish and are at least as disgusted by this racism as I am. However, the mainstream in Israel does seem to support a rather nationalistic view of the religion, and the linked article reveals some very disturbing things. [↩]
- I did not have the time to find a source to cite for this datum (a quick google search was not enough). I have, however, heard it many times; specifically, I recall Ya’acov Hecht saying that by sheer number of students in democratic schools, Israel has more than any other country in the world — even much bigger ones. There are about 30 democratic schools in Israel, which has a population of about 7 million. I know of no comparable situation in any other country today; the Netherlands had a similar proportion of sociocratic schools (which are a similar thing) but I understand that their numbers have gone down drastically in the past five years. [↩]
Students at democratic schools are given control and responsibility over how they use their own time.This is simply respect for their autonomy. But one could also think of it as training for one of the biggest challenges of our age. More than ever, we are bombarded with choices from all directions. This is no secret. However, of all approaches to education, only radically democratic schools (like Sudbury schools) seriously address the issue. Continue reading Only autonomy prepares you for autonomy
The term “democratic school” has always seemed problematic to me. It’s problematic because democracy isn’t really the point. Democracy is a tool for creating something else: a community where free learning is possible, as much as such a community is possible. All democratic schools should be run by a democracy, but not every school that is run democratically is automatically a democratic school.
A democratic school is a place where students are responsible for how they use their own time. It is a school which does not try to encourage students, explicitly or implicitly, to take classes and tests. It is a place where people are treated with respect, and know they can expect justice to be served when someone disrespects the community or an individual.
It just so happens that certain styles of democracy serve as excellent tools for upholding freedom and respect. However, it’s very easy to get it wrong, which is why Sudbury schools are very insistent on getting it right. These schools set up very well-defined democracies, because democracy is only good so long as it does not overreach — it has to be there to protect students’ freedom in the present, without presuming to know what choices are better for their future, or infringing on the privacy of their feelings.
Incidentally, the word “republic” comes from the Latin res publica, meaning “public matter”. This hints at a very important idea: the polity (the state, the city, the school) is a public institution, and is something you keep separate from private things.
Sudbury schools use a Judicial Committee which focusses on whether school laws were broken (not on why, or what the individual is going through personally). Some in the free school movement express uneasiness about this seemingly severe approach to justice. However, anyone who has spent some time in such a school knows it is a good thing. Judicial Committee deals with the public aspect of disputes — disrespect of community decisions in such a way that bothered someone enough that they fill out a complaint. This process ignores the personal aspects completely and intentionally.
However, it leaves plenty of room for individuals to address these aspects on a truly personal level. And these are things that come across better when they’re truly and sincerely personal (like talking about problems at home, or about issues one is having with the school or with people there). The judicial process may not directly address the problems that lead people to break community decisions, but it does help others see the problem, which allows them to deal with it. And on the upside, it respects people’s privacy — sometimes you don’t feel like telling just anyone about how you feel.
There are other benefits to separation of the public and the personal. When the community has accustomed itself to this habit, democratic meetings work better — being warned by the Chair is a technical issue, not a personal thing you have to get annoyed about; you can argue strongly against a friend’s motion without them taking it as an insult; every member of the community can apply their thinking to the process as much as they’d like without constantly worrying about the conclusions being taken the wrong way.
When a democracy protects the community’s interests and the individuals’ interests while keeping them separate, that democracy can create a democratic school. It can create a place where students develop freely and learn to direct their own learning and gauge their own success. It empowers students to determine their own direction and participate vigorously in community life.
None of these things are automatic, and protecting them is half the secret of success for those democratic schools that have succeeded.
I’ve been wanting to post but been a bit busy. I’m at a meeting/workshop of Sudbury schools in Berlin (at the TING School) and something has come up here that is probably worth writing and thinking about a little: meetings, conferences, and workshops need a schedule — but not necessarily too much of a schedule.
At this workshop as well as some others I’ve been to, the organizers decided not to make any kind of schedule in advance. Within democratic education this isn’t necessarily a problem — we’re used to making decisions in a group and discussing things to death, and democratic education is strongly connected with the notion of being free to decide, for yourself or within your group, what you do. But it’s not necessarily productive to spend the first two or three hours of an all-too-short weekend on planning how to use the rest of the time. After all, the weekend doesn’t have to have the perfect schedule. It doesn’t have to have sessions on every single topic on the participants’ minds. It just has to have a good schedule that covers a few key subjects; after the first session, people will know one another and be talking and talking and talking.
Which brings me to the bit about not having too much of a schedule. I’ve noticed in conference and workshop after conference and workshop that after a few sessions (workshops, lectures, or whatever), great discussions develop that are actually hindered by the restrictions of the schedule. Of course, nobody was really forced to attend sessions in any of the conferences I’ve been to, but the existence of sessions on other interesting topics means people end up going to sessions about something else instead of continuing their conversation.
Scheduling democratically at the beginning of the meeting doesn’t solve this problem. It just means the sessions that are encroaching on spontaneous discussion have been planned collectively, rather than centrally. The only solution I’m aware of is Open Schedule. I first experienced Open Schedule at IDEC 2005 (also in Berlin), which was an amazing event. During the organization of EUDEC 2008, we decided to replicate the system, and it worked well. It’s a very simple idea. You start with an empty schedule spread across a large wall, divided only into time-slots, and optionally for the available rooms. Then participants can just come up to the schedule and pin up sessions they would like to have. They pin up the sessions in time-slots when they have no other plans, meaning nobody has to worry about coordinating the schedule to avoid conflicts — it just happens on its own. Open Schedule also means when a discussion begins during one session and some of its participants want to continue it, they are free to set up an extra session for it.
Of course, Open Schedule is not necessarily the best model for all events. But for conferences with a range of topics, it’s an excellent way to balance between individual mobility, variety of topics, and limitations of time. It’s a system that lets the participants self-organize in a really good way. Not a perfect way — good is better than perfect.
I’d like to share some thoughts about why democratic schools should not have even a little bit of curriculum or mandatory guidance. Imposing even a single mandatory class, even just a mentorship or a morning meeting, is disrespectful towards students, and signals that the school does not take self-directed learning seriously. Sometimes, motivated by fear, parents attack this notion, demanding more guidance and railroading to make sure their children get where they want them to go. Every school responds in a different way. Only a clear “no” — the typical Sudbury response — makes sense, especially considering what democratic schools are for.
People, especially parents, always ask why the school can’t guide its students a little more actively. It is not that the guidance itself is a bad idea — in fact, I would say it’s vital that guidance be available in the school to those who feel they need it. But forcing guidance on students, even “just a little”, even just implicitly, by making some form of educational activity mandatory, is a signal of distrust. It’s saying, “we trust you to decide what to do with your time, so long as we have some influence on it”, or in other words, “we trust you entirely, except that we actually don’t”. It’s not only a mixed signal, it’s implicitly disrespectful, patronizing and demeaning — even if the guidance itself is presented by people who are respectful towards the students, and even if it’s done in a respectful way. Continue reading No Curriculum, Ever