I posted this video a while back, but now there’s a subtitled version. Definitely worth watching if you haven’t yet!
I went out for a drink with a friend in a Tel-Aviv pub, and got into a discussion about democratic education and disadvantaged social groups.
My friend works in a democratic school and is doing research on democratic education. She recently visited my school, Sudbury Jerusalem – her first real live encounter with a Sudbury school. We were at an outdoor bar on Tel-Aviv’s famous Rothschild Avenue, and it was the middle of the night. On tall wooden barstools, across a long and narrow wooden table, we sat drinking an Irish stout as she recounted her visit.
My friend loved what she saw at Sudbury Jerusalem and saw in it a place that truly lives the ideals of democratic education. But she also raised a concern: that Sudbury schools are too unusual to attract many families from disadvantaged backgrounds. All I could do is nod sadly.
Needless to say, Sudbury schools are open to people of all backgrounds. But Sudbury schools also completely reject traditional ideas of education – curricula, evaluation, adult guidance, etc. – approaching schooling from a radically different direction. It’s difficult for most people to understand, and seems to only attract few families from low-income backgrounds.
When you first tell people about schools like ours, the reaction is often one of shock and disbelief. “So they don’t have to take any classes? How do they ever learn anything? But children need structure!”
Other democratic schools can answer, for instance, that “students have a mentor who helps them identify goals and follow through on them.” This calms a lot of people down.
Sudbury schools, on the other hand, can only answer that the children learn to be responsible for their own time and identify what they want to do and how to do it. Continue reading Democratic schools and social gaps
What are the main ingredients of a democratic culture?
On August 25th, I’ll be giving a workshop and lecture in Greifswald. At the EUDEC conference in Freiburg, my host and I grabbed two plastic chairs and sat down in a sunny spot for a short interview, some of which is now on the fine poster ad you see here; at one point he asked me a question I haven’t heard too often: what are the main characteristics of individuals who are part of a “democratic culture”?
A democratic culture, as I understand it, is a kind of culture that develops within a group that makes decisions democratically; democratic culture makes democracy more than just a decision-making process – instead it becomes a way of life, something you notice in all kinds of interactions between people.
I came up with four main points:
- Communication at eye level (as opposed to talking up or down to someone) – regardless of age
- Respect for all other individuals
- Willingness to listen, even when confronted with a view you disagree with
- Willingness to reflect on one’s actions, recognize mistakes, and learn from them
To me, these are the things that people have to have in order to keep a truly democratic culture alive.
Without equal communication, respect, and willingness to listen, the discussions that are the bread and butter of democracy are impossible. Without a willingness to reflect, they’re pointless.
What do you think are the most important ingredients of democratic culture? Leave a short comment below!
The role of staff at Sudbury schools can be difficult to understand, and easy to misunderstand. I’ve heard that staff “aren’t allowed to offer classes” or even “aren’t allowed to express their own opinion.” But it’s not about being forbidden from doing this or doing that – what it comes down to is being authentic and respectful.
“Where do you work?”
“At Sudbury Valley School.”
“What do you do?”
-Hanna Greenberg, The Art of Doing Nothing
I was recently reminded of a discussion we had, more than a decade ago, when starting Sudbury Jerusalem.
The topic of the discussion was whether Sudbury staff are allowed to offer classes, and it’s one of the few discussions from the founding process which I still remember vividly today.
We were sitting in a co-founder’s airy living-room, spread out on several couches and stools, and we talked well into the night. It’s no wonder – the role of staff comes up again and again anywhere where people who went to more traditional schools are trying to wrap their heads around the Sudbury approach. Continue reading Thoughts about: the role of staff in Sudbury schools
Democracy is about allowing people to participate – even if only a minority takes an active role most of the time.
I’m often asked how many people really participated in School Meetings at Sudbury Jerusalem – as if it’s less democratic when fewer people choose to participate. But actually, low participation at meetings can be a sign that democracy is working well.
When we started Sudbury Jerusalem, for a few weeks we had a School Meeting every day.
Most of the proposals, at first, came from those who had been in and around the founding process – mainly staff and children of staff. I was a student and a co-founder, and one of the most active participants.
It took months – dozens of Meetings – for the process to become so established in the school’s culture that many other students made proposals. In parallel, as time went by, fewer and fewer students regularly took part in School Meetings. Continue reading Politics is not for everyone – even in a direct democracy
Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of serving as interpreter to John Moravec, in his talk about the Invisible Learning project, in Halle (a town near Leipzig.) I had never done this before, but once I got into it it went pretty well.
You can judge for yourself – you can watch the talk (mainly English with my attempt at German translation) online:
I came across this piece on English-language Germany news site TheLocal.de:
Family puts kids in charge for a month
A German author and his wife put themselves to the biggest test of their lives last year by handing over the family power to their two children for a month. The biggest challenge? Managing the budget. Continue reading Parents swap roles with kids, discover humiliation of parental attitude
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.
Peter Gray, my favorite education blogger, has recently written two posts I can highly recommend:
- “The Many Benefits, for Kids, of Playing Video Games”
- “Video Game Addiction: Does It Occur? If So, Why?“
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.
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.
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
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).
- 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. [↩]