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
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 participated in a panel at IDEC 2010 titled “Democratic Schools: Where are they Heading?”, moderated by Yaacov Hecht. AERO filmed the discussion and posted it (and other workshops) on the AERO blog.
Below (after the jump) is the part with my thoughts about the future of democratic education. I talked about EUDEC, the power of networks, collective outreach, and suggested we should be emphasizing that democratic education is a human rights issue. Let me know what you think. Continue reading [Video] Democratic Schools: Where are they Heading?
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
I spent most of the day at the IDEC conference in Tel Aviv, and will be going back tomorrow. The first day has already brought up a whole lot of really interesting issues, but I want to address just a small one right now. I want to respond to a claim made by Yaacov Hecht of the Israeli Institute for Democratic Education: that the big secret to Israel’s success in democratic education is the mandatory military service. Continue reading Contra Hecht: A Likelier Success Story for Israeli Democratic Education
Language Log recently had an interesting post about a study that found that happy people tend to have more substantive conversations. I was reminded of the kind of conversations we had in Sudbury Jerusalem. I’ve written about it before (for example, in The Secret Weapon) and I thought I’d bring up the connection here. As the Language Log post explains, the study doesn’t say whether it’s substantive conversation that increases happiness, or being a happy person that increases substantive conversation.
But it’s interesting to think about how this relates to democratic schools. My experience is that a democratic school is a good place for substantive conversation. In Sudbury Jerusalem, I was a student who rarely had any classes and spent much of my time socializing, talking. It was a place where the general atmosphere is happy rather than depressed. I noticed that in school, we talked a lot, and had a lot of really good conversation, and I never considered whether it’s just because people are often in a good mood (I, by the way, often was not in a good mood, despite a lot of conversation — maybe that’s why). I also never considered that this might be why people are often in a good mood.
I don’t know, but I had other things in mind. The school democracy itself, it seems to me, encourages a culture of talking things through. It’s what we would try to do in School Meeting and in committees, and it’s often what we would do to solve conflicts before resorting to a Judicial Committee complaint form. And the other side of things, the personal freedom, simply gives people more time to talk. There’s always conversation going on all over the place, and it makes sense that when you get to talk with people a lot, you eventually get to deeper, “substantive” conversations.
But maybe the large amount of conversation in democratic schools is caused by something else. Maybe it’s the nature of the school as a community in which people operate freely in the same spaces, together; the school is a very social environment. This is also something that probably contributes to the general happiness of the population. Actually, considering that more social environment are probably causes for both happiness and for conversation, maybe this is the causal link behind the study’s findings. People with more social contact are happier and have more substantive conversation (as compared to people with less social contact.) It definitely makes sense to me.
Democratic schools are often accused of being elitist, available only to a privileged few. It’s something I’ve heard again and again, in Israel as well as in Europe. This argument is mostly flat out wrong. Sometimes it’s good old circular logic: the Israeli Ministry of Education used the elitism charge for years as a reason not to give my school funding (which it is entitled to by law), because the school charges tuition. The main reason to charge tuition was, of course, that the school had to fund its operations without government assistance. But there is some truth in saying that democratic schools’ students are privileged. Continue reading Privileged? Yeah.