In Part 1 of this series I talked about the hidden cost of school, and then in Part 2 I talked about the hidden purpose of school. To complete the trilogy, I want to discuss solutions. I want to talk about how we can build a happier, more effective learning environment, saving billions in the process.
If it sounds impossible, just consider that it’s already been done. Nothing I write here is original in concept or application. It may (perhaps) be unique to Payatas (home to the biggest dumpsite in the country), and I don’t know of any democratic schools in the Philippines, but there are many alternative schools and inspiring people out there – the key is to bring a little bit of that back home.
Is Algebra More Dangerous Than Driving?
Part 2 of this, the hidden purpose of school, talked a lot more about how school is designed as a prison so I’ll skip over most of that. How truly odd our current education system really is, though, is seen by comparing how we learn geography, math, and other traditional subjects by how we learn to drive.
As John Taylor Gatto notes in Dumbing Us Down, driving a car is potentially far more dangerous than learning about algebra, what the capital of Madagascar is, or what happened in 1066. The most recent estimates show 1.3 million people die each year in traffic accidents which makes it the 9th top cause of death in the world. For some context, the other top 10 killers were all diseases – led by heart disease and strokes by a significant margin. Aside from diseases, then, traffic accidents are the biggest cause of death in the world – more cars kill people than bullets, bombs, and tanks.
Yet when you learn to drive there is little that you are legally required to do. It’s mostly up to you. This begins with the first choice of whether you learn (I don’t drive for example, I commute everywhere). If you do choose to learn to drive, you can do it at whatever time you choose, at any particular space suitable, learning from whomever you want in whatever method you want. You can ask a family member to teach you or get an instructor, if you don’t like the teacher you can change them, if you want to stop, you can. But if you stick with it you’ll take a test. If you fail, you can take the test again and again until you pass. After that you’re mostly left alone until a crash or a speeding ticket.
Let me be clear, I’m not advocating for massive increases in prescriptive learning for drivers. What stands out with the number of traffic accidents isn’t so much how many there are but how much safer driving is given the massive increase in cars on the road.
What’s odd is that by comparison for algebra, for rock formations, and learning the capital of obscure countries half the world away, the story is completely different. We have no choice of where we learn, how we learn, and who we learn from. We are even told what to wear. If you try to stand up you’ll get shouted at, and if you try to dropout truant officers will visit your office and threaten you and your family with jail.
For what clearly needs a good level of proficiency not to kill someone, you learn in almost entire freedom then submit to a standard proficiency test. No distinction for drivers is made from this test, if you want to go further and be a professional driver the only stipulation is that you drive well.
So here’s the question, if we trust people to learn to drive why can’t we trust people to learn other things too? I cite again the example from several of the education philosophers I’ve mentioned; that a typical 12 year old can learn the whole Elementary curriculum in about 4 months. Instead we waste huge amounts of time and money forcing kids to learn institutionally. And in the process so many fail (in the Philippines 1/3 dropout before High School and of those who reach High School 31% more dropout).
A Revolution in Education
This is why I titled this series a Revolution in Education. This isn’t about tweaking the system, it’s an entire overhaul. The fundamental purpose of a happier and more effective education system is choice, freedom. As John Holt and A.S. Neill write, their books can be summed up by two words: ‘trust children’. Children have an innate curiosity and want to learn, they copy adults around them to literally stand on their own two feet and speak complex languages that no other creature has ever managed to do in the history of the known universe. No classrooms, no authority, just a loving environment and a little support.
By contrast, one of the fundamental problems in the education system for AS Neill, the father of democratic education, was that school takes away this drive to learn, they take away self-direction to leave children dependent on authority for validation (through competition, grades, and ranking). The very architecture of school, the way the classroom is built and arranged, says that a child can’t learn from anyone but the teacher (who in turn is told what curriculum to teach).
The Most Important Factor for Success
More recently, research (such as that found in Daniel Goleman’s Focus) has found self-discipline is a bigger indicator for success than grades or IQ. In some cases twice as much. Goleman, however, advocates for teaching children meditation and breathing techniques within the current school system (he’s not an education expert). But what if we take this idea to its logical conclusion? If self-direction, self-discipline, is more important than grades and IQ, and we learn self-discipline and direction through experience and through doing things ourselves, what if we arranged school to support the experience of the student?
If you want real life examples of how this works, look at Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, all dropouts. Actually look at the biggest companies in the world and typically a dropout started it. Naturally these people were smart and self-driven, they each had their own huge slice of luck which gave them an opportunity to succeed. But listen to Steve Jobs’ commencement speech to understand his reasons for dropping out at University. By dropping out it meant he could go to whatever classes he wanted to, whatever his interests were. His University was one of the best in the world for calligraphy and so he joined in some calligraphy classes for fun. No doubt his University helped him, but not in a prescribed course, a curriculum for a chosen subject, but because Steve Jobs effectively cheated the system and chose to go to whatever he wanted. Skip forward in time and that calligraphy class was the basis for how Jobs created fonts for Mac computers and built the most user friendly interfaces in the world.
Jobs’ idea was that you can’t connect the dots going forward, only when you look back. In other words you don’t know what the future will bring, you can’t force another person to learn something because it’s useful because in a few years it might not be. None of us know what will happen next year, let alone a decade after our children first enroll in school. Instead, learn from your interests, learn about what excites you, and you can make something work from that.
Building the Revolution in Education
Almost 100 years ago that was AS Neill’s idea too, so he built a democratic school. Still going today (run by his daughter) the children choose what lessons they would go to (if any at all) and would meet each week to discuss and vote on the rules for the whole school (it was a boarding school so they also lived together). All students and teachers had one vote each, it was a community where everyone was equal, regardless of age or competence. You can read more about that in AS Neill’s Summerhill, or watch the CBBC series which gives a good look at how this works.
Not everyone can build a school, so what can we do? In some way every teacher knows how to improve school. No teacher ever goes into teaching wanting to give children standardized tests, shout at a girl for having her hair out of place, and most importantly they never go into teaching to help children pass standardized tests. This all just comes with the territory. But it doesn’t have to.
More and more parents are homeschooling their kids. Many parents and teachers have in fact started their own mini-schools, effectively homeschooling their kids together. And at the Fairplay for All Foundation we have a drop-in centre for any kid in the nearby area to drop by and learn. The idea is to allow people to learn and teach whatever they want; wherever and with whatever learning methods too (within legal bounds, i.e. no corporal punishment). In Payatas, this includes the corkboard of learning. At the start of each day the teachers write what classes they’ll teach. The kids can add to this, posting classes they want to teach too. Anyone can teach, anyone can learn. Earlier today a child taught others the five senses, another kid was teaching addition, one kid was teaching football on the streets, a volunteer teacher was doing word games with a group, while others were teaching themselves keyboard. Any child is free to go to any class (or none at all), to move around if they get bored, and ultimately to leave if they don’t want to be here
For some time the problem we have is not attracting kids to learn… its finding room for them all. Kids in Payatas desperately want to learn. Let me be clear on some things, though, this isn’t always easy (or easier). Our centre is relatively small for roughly 100 different kids who come by in a week, mostly everyday. It’s draining for the staff with the extra energy, noise and mess. Teachers need to be very flexible to adjust quickly to students and to allow kids space to have arguments and find ways to resolve those. It takes patience and time… and a whole lot more patience.
But in the long run it’s so much more rewarding; children smile and genuinely laugh for the first time in months, they learn to love learning again, teachers learn to love teaching again, and you see kids debate issues with discussion and compromise that would shame some politicians. For sure we’re far from perfect (and would appreciate help from those with experience in such types of education), so for sure we have so much to improve on. But I believe in this because I believe in the kids.
The Next Step for FFA: Volunteer or Help Build the Fairplay Centre
So now we’re looking for volunteers to teach one day a week, Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm. We’re looking for people, experienced or not, who have a passion for teaching and who want to learn more about education philosophy and to apply it. You can teach any skill, music, hobby, or traditional subject. Anything. Likewise the kids are free to go to your class and to leave if they find it boring.
And the next step for FFA is to get a bigger place. Payatas is a very crowded area and space is hard to come by. An area for kids to play and study opens up so many possibilities – not least helping children who dropped out of school (usually to work to help their families eat) study in their own time and take High School equivalency tests when ready. This will be the Fairplay Centre – a place for anyone to learn in freedom and respect.
There’s a lot to be excited for 2015 so if you want to be a part of this revolution in education get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org to volunteer and/or donate from wherever you are.
Or to donate online go here: