Learning in Freedom
Translated with permission from the Süddeutsche Zeitung, 25th July 2011, the largest German national subscription daily newspaper.
Supporters of democratic schools from all over the world meet in England
When she set out for England she might have been slightly hoping to meet unworldly nutcases, says teacher Vivian Breucker. In a park on the edge of Dartmoor Sands School set up a big conference about democracy and education, the International Democratic Education Conference, IDEC in short. For the participants it is about a change of paradigm. In 'democratic schools' there are no marks and no setting. Everyone learns what they want to learn in the way they want to learn it. Decisions are made by adults and students with equal rights, rules agreed in common provide the framework.
Are they all just nutcases?
The teachers have to fight against prejudice.
If it was all just mad ideas Vivian Breucker might have been able to carry on as a state education official. Now, after the conference, however, she feels confirmed in her opinion that school must be rethought, from top to bottom, on a basis of respect and freedom. She is going to start a democratic school in Berlin with other people who feel the same way.
The discussions and lectures ran for a good ten days in every corner of this beautiful place in south England. Things were buzzing in an old mansion, in the conference tents and under the old cedar trees. When the IDEC was founded nineteen years ago there had been only a handful of people present, but this time there were 400 teachers, educationalists, parents and pupils from all over the world. Germany was particularly strongly represented, with seven schools and several groups founding new initiatives. There were also representatives from countries that one would not have particularly expected - South Korea, Taiwan, Croatia.
The conference set up active participation - democracy is to be lived. Everyone was invited to offer workshops or seminars. The timetables were soon filled with events which ran on into the evening. Someone who had just been a participant in a seminar might the next moment be introducing his own projects. Or his questions: 'How can we get more democracy in state schools?' was the question for one group of teachers who had come to the IDEC from the Brandenburg Education Ministry - a question which was enthusiastically taken up by the German participants, for many school founders have already had problems with the requirements of the state governments. And now Brandenburg was actually sending its own teachers!
The Brandenburgers were advised to network, to take small steps. There was also a helpful lecture from Derry Hannam, educationalist and school inspector from England, who had compared 260 state schools with each other. Result: if students were seriously involved in decision-making their academic performance improved, they played truant less often and there were clearly fewer exclusions.
At Sudbury Valley School he had experienced the way pupils can naturally assume responsibility. The educationalist had been shown round the building by a pupil. When he came into the extremely well-kept music room, Hannam began to play the piano. He had to stop at once, said the pupil. But he could get a 'licence' if he played a few pieces to a member of the music corporation. 'Who could that be?' 'Me.' When the boy was convinced that the visitor treated the instrument with care, he added him to a list.
What happens when rules are broken was presented by the students from Summerhill, the English boarding school, which in the seventies had been criticised by its opponents as chaotic, even in Germany. What happens when a boy keeps on kicking a ball against the wall during a quiet time? Or a girl does not tidy up? Or someone else steals a pair of shoes? The students acted a meeting. The chair questioned the participants, handed out warnings, fines and small chores. The student who had taken the shoes had to go barefoot for a day. Everything happened extremely quickly, the long experience of the ninety-year-old school was obvious. The opposite of chaos.
When individual development and freedom is so highly valued, it is almost inevitable that people think outside the framework of the school. Ian Cunningham, a Professor from Brighton, speaks about how self-directed learning can benefit business. He has already worked with a number of large enterprises. Yaacov Hecht, educationalist and visionary from Israel, tells of his 'Education Cities' project, in which a whole town becomes a place of learning; in Israel there are already ten towns taking part, and also in Puerto Rico, the site for IDEC 2012, local communities are involved. Hecht objects to the fact that today's schools only develop a fraction of talents that people have. 'That leads to a lot of students being labelled as bad or average.
One schoolgirl says she would like to have school every day
All this is discussed, and this means that the IDEC is above all a place for intensive exchanges. It is taken for granted that age-groups mix. When 14-year-old Diego from Puerto Rico says that he would like to start his own school, nobody thinks it is a joke. Instead there is an almost pious silence while the eloquent boy describes his plans.
In fact the students themselves are the best advertisement for this kind of learning. They organise the events, lead workshops and perform shows. They say how shy they were when they arrived, and how different their life is today. When a girl from Summerhill is asked how many days in the week she would like to have school, she answers unhesitatingly, 'Seven.' But self-critical voices also have a place. An ex-student from Sands School thinks that people are too concerned about their own affairs. 'We must get more involved, in politics, in the protection of the environment, in social questions,' she says. Someone makes another demand - that democratic education should benefit significantly more students.
At the end the participants go home feeling stronger. They need the support, because their ideas are often opposed. Nevertheless, many of the vague ideas of the past have now turned into concrete projects. The movement which once began with few supporters, is finding a central place in society.