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Paving The Way For Free & Democratic Schools

I went to a normal school and didn't dislike it. Actually, I quite liked it since I had great teachers and I liked studying most of the subjects that were taught. The only thing I could have done without were the art classes, as I never liked them nor was I able to draw.

But not everybody likes maths or history. Still, they have to learn them. Even though they will just end up forgetting everything when they finish school if they are not interested in the subject, or don't need it for their job. I am Italian and I can tell you for sure that, in Italy, not many adults can really say what the French Revolution was about, or are able to solve an equation, even if they attended high school. Yet they spent so much time learning this stuff; maybe they could have used this time to learn something completely different?
Of course, it is very important that children have the time and opportunity to learn and have experiences in order to be able to manage their lives after school. What is under discussion here is what and how they learn, and I am not just talking about subjects.

School is not just about being fed information; in reality, at school, we also learn how to behave, as we are told what to do all the time. For instance, we have to sit down for hours on end, we have to eat at certain times, we have to ask permission to go to the toilet, and only under particular circumstances can we talk about what we want to. We have to respect rules, roles and hierarchies we haven't chosen and can't change.

So why is it that right after school we have to become “adults”, confident enough to rely on our own judgement, able to make decisions about our lives, and become an active part of the democratic process?

This is the question Sudbury Schools considered. Named after the Sudbury Valley School, founded in 1968 in Massachusetts by Daniel Greenberg, their answer is another model of school that, in their opinion, better fits the concept of democracy.

First of all, the children have the right to be free and have the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process which creates the rules they have to respect.  This might sound chaotic, and some of you are probably already imagining children destroying schools or beating each other up all the time while learning nothing, but here's the surprise. There are lots of Sudbury Schools in the world and this is not the experience they've had.
In a Sudbury School, everybody takes part in every decision. Hiring staff, firing staff and making rules are processes in which children take part as well as adults. Children have the right to talk in assemblies and the power to make decisions, just as adults have. And if something bad happens, or there is some conflict, there are justice committees, where again adults and children carry the same weight.

Secondly, children can spend their time in school doing whatever they like - reading, playing, talking, listening to music - they really have the right to be free, and the time to discover their unique interests and abilities. The children at Sudbury Schools learn to read and write at different ages and in very different ways: being read to, through game instructions, or whatever. But learn they do, and normally the staff can't really guess when or how it happens.

I went to Ting Schule, a Sudbury School right here in Berlin, and I talked to a staff member and to a young student, who told me about her own experience. She said that she was so bored during the first year she spent in a normal school as she could already read and write. However, she had to follow the programme and do what the other students did, even if she already knew it. She felt like she was wasting her time and she didn't want to go to school anymore, until she finally ended up going to Ting Schule. She is fourteen and speaks fluent English, even if she hasn't learnt it by attending courses, but by surfing the internet. She told me how she normally spends her days - going to the library, playing, and learning science and languages. But she also explained that as there are 55 students at the school, there would probably be 55 different answers as everyone has their own interests and preferences.

And in the end, why should we be so frightened of freedom? Of children's freedom? Of course they lack experience and they are therefore not alone in the school - there are adult staff - but still, why do we cling to the idea that without adults children would not learn anything? They taught themselves to walk and talk, without anybody telling them when or how. They simply learn from their environment because they are curious. Most of the time, normal schools don't promote curiosity, forcing kids into standard programmes, often with tight times and therefore not much room for discussion, so that students feel like containers that have to be filled.

As we all know we will soon forget most of the information we studied, why is it so important to get that quota of information? Shouldn't schools prepare us for life? Well, if they should, as we live in a democratic society, school could be an area where democracy is exercised. People should feel free and responsible for their acts, rather than just obeying rules without questioning them - and be able to find their own way in life.

It's hard to believe that Sudbury Schools work, and it was for me too; but I was really surprised by what I read about them (you can find a list of books on Sudbury Schools and Summerhill – a similar project started in 1921 with similar ideas – on the related Wiki pages) and learning of the experiences which take place in these schools, and how it can actually turn out to be really appropriate for children to have the chance to follow their own inclinations.

It is obviously difficult to just throw away the model of school you grew up with, which is perhaps the only idea of school you could ever imagine. But my advice is, give it a chance. Children can be happy, free and responsible. Just as adults should be.

By Diana Calvino

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