Out of the box
Alternative education as I see it is primarily about trusting the children and young people and involving them in their own education and life choices. It is about being part of a democratic community that respects boundaries but allows freedom both mentally and physically. It breeds respect by giving equal respect to all whatever their role within the school or college. Perhaps most importantly, because it gives physical freedom from the constraints and limits that inhibit the majority of mainstream providers, it allows young people to feel they want to learn and often to learn more.
Classrooms within the majority of mainstream schools have 4 walls, 1 door (maybe 2 if they also have a fire exit), a few windows and lots of desks. Although forays into the local community may be undertaken a few times a term, it is only after the teacher has completed pages of risk assessments covering everything from the number of children and staff to every risk both possible and impossible that is known to humankind. What is best for ‘your class’ is decided by those who think they know from an office on the sidelines. Today’s teachers are given not only box-like classrooms, but also metaphorical boxes into which they are expected to fit themselves, the young people and the curriculum; their success is measured by how much learning they can force into those little boxes.
Can this allow real learning? Can it allow for a true flow? Can it follow imagination and creativity in the way that children and young adults want and need? Are the young people really involved in the classroom or are they sitting looking out of the windows and being reprimanded for daydreaming? Are they thinking that maybe, just maybe, today they will be asked not just what they think is the answer to a question but what they feel?
I know from my fourteen years teaching in mainstream schools that there are many amazing teachers who try to discover and use the child’s needs and wants to guide learning. Many of them lead trips in their own time or buy resources (paid for from their own pockets) that will keep children ‘entertained’ in class for fear that boredom will set in or chaos arise and there will be criticism from the senior leadership team. They do truly think of the children as individuals, and they manage to do so in spite of not only having thirty to think about but also being restricted by expectations set by others.
But are these expectations needed? Is this constant striving for goals set by the politicians and civil servants necessary or does it box in the teachers just as much as the young people? Do teachers have to make sure that every minute is filled by learning as defined by others?
I have tried to teach in many different ways throughout my career. I have often found that those with supposed ‘challenging behaviour’ are wonderful young people who are rebelling against limits, either real or imagined, which have been imposed by the educational institutions they attend. Many of them no longer attend mainstream schools because of their own perceptions of school, or because of others’ perceptions of them and their ’learning needs’.
What can be done to change this?
The first thing is to teach teachers that it is ok for the young people to lead the learning. The syllabus may say you have to teach Romeo and Juliet and look at how Shakespeare used the iambic pentameter, the history and so on. So it has to be done, but the play can be made real. If the young people are to really get inside such a play it has to matter to them. Let them tell you and their friends what it means to them, focus on the ‘juicy bits’ such as the fighting and death scenes. Let the pupils challenge your knowledge and learn with them. Most of all, have fun!
The best experience I ever had was when I working with young people with physical and learning disabilities. I had built a sensory market place for them to explore, and they did not just explore it, they destroyed it. They tore up the fabric, licked and tasted the fruits, crashed into my carefully crafted display – and they laughed. They showed me that amidst apparent chaos comes learning. Those students took the two-dimensional opportunity I had given them and made it their own 3D adventure, exploring everything they could reach and communicating new and exciting ideas in their own inimitable style.
Strangely that session was commended by OFSTED, which shows that often we as educators limit ourselves (or allow ourselves to be limited) by perceived expectations, just as the young people labelled with ‘challenging behaviour’ perceive school and learning to be fixed and limited.
Go on, try it. Take a conventional idea, give it to the young people and sit amongst the chaos and whirlwind and feel the learning happening.
Then tell those who constrain you to throw away the box – because the young people will make their own education, and it will be bigger than any box that those in authority can suggest.