No Homework and Recess All Day

10 November 2013
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No Homework and Recess All Day:
How to Have Freedom and Democracy in Education

by Jerry Mintz
Review by Hussein Lucas

 

This admirably concise survey of democratic, or alternative, education is about as good as any introduction to the subject could be, and an essential primer for those wanting to start or re-shape their own alternative/democratic schools, youth clubs or any other youth service. I'm hugely impressed by the author's boundless enthusiasm for and unwavering commitment to the world-wide spread of democratic education, his encyclopaedic knowledge and globe-trotting energy. He is also a pithy writer whose book is full of concrete examples peppered with lively and interesting anecdotes. It is above all positive in tone, shedding light with many candles rather than constantly lamenting the darkness.

Democracy in education is difficult to define, as Jerry Mintz says. His own definition is broad. Respect for and attention to the individual needs and opinions of every child seems a characteristic. Most democratic schools are small, but Jerry includes the 1200 pupil School of Self-Determination in Moscow. And there have been experiments with mini-schooling and democracy in the British state school system, such as St George in the East, Risinghill and Countesthorpe. Democracy can work in big schools if they are broken down into bite-sized chunks.

Jerry describes the striking variety of ways of organising democratic assemblies – the Summerhill General Meeting, the Iroquois Great Law, Robert's Rules of Order and Quaker moots, for instance. I share his suspicion of the consensus model, having had some experience of it myself. 'I found it to be manipulative, and it sometimes prevented minority opinions from being expressed,' he says.

There are different ways of ensuring everyone gets a voice, taking majority decisions, but acknowledging and tempering those decisions with the opinion of minorities. 'A democracy is judged by how well it pays attention to the needs of its minorities,' Jerry stresses.

In general methodology is not important, but freedom to choose is. Hylda Sims, who was educated at Summerhill, told me that some of the best teachers there were utterly conventional.

Does democracy work better in boarding or day schools? Neill said that democracy could only work in a boarding school, but Jerry believes that it can work in day schools if the community of parents is behind it. I agree with that, although at Summerhill the majority of day kids elect to board by the time they are 12 or 13. They feel they are missing out on so much if they don't.

Home schooling, which Jerry includes, also presents problems to do with the influence of the parents. How many parents, including those who send their children to democratic schools, are truly democratic within their own homes?

One of Jerry's stated aims is to put an end to the in-fighting and competition between the advocates for all the various types of alternative education and draw them under the umbrella of AERO, the Alternative Education Resource Organization. I'm totally behind him in this. While arguing about whose system is best, people lose sight of the common enemy – the totalitarian state monopolies which, in spite of the often valiant attempts of those within the system to reform them, remain depressingly the same. As Jerry says, 'It's easier for the system to change you than for you to change the system.'

He also discusses the ownership and funding of democratic schools. Some are funded by the state, some are part or totally funded by charitable trusts or businesses, some charge substantial fees. In Scandinavian countries state funding for independent schools is written into the constitution.

There is a need for alternative schools to demonstrate that they provide a more successful approach to education in its broadest sense than current factory schools do. This is another of AERO's aims.

Naturally US schools form the bulk of Jerry's attention, though he does refer to Summerhill and Sands in the UK and other schools in Israel and Russia. One chapter is dedicated to schools in Crimea and the Ukraine. It would be interesting and instructive to hear from those in other countries. The encouraging thing is that non-authoritarian educational models are being developed all over the world.

This raises the question of labels. We've had modern, alternative, libertarian, experimental, free, progressive, small, human-scale, and child-centred schools, and others which don't fit easily into that descriptive range. 'Humanistic' won't do either, because that would exclude some good religiously-inspired models, such as the Quaker and Methodist intentional community schools. Democratic, with all its shades of meaning and application, will have to do for now.

Being honest about the limits of freedom is vital, as Jerry says. If kids aren't allowed a say over certain aspects of the school, then the limits must be made clear. The kids will either accept them or argue about them, but they won't be fooled.

Hussein Lucas is the editor of After Summerhill, the book of interviews with ex-Summerhill students. He also recommends The World Until Yesterday, by Jared Diamond.

 

 

Comments  

#1 Amy 2013-12-17 22:24
Thank you for the review: I'm an educational researcher for small schools and I've put No Homework on my list of to-reads. Have YOU read *Real Teachers* by Stuart Grauer? (http://www.amazon.com/Real-Teachers-Stories-Renegade-Educators/dp/1590799704). It's a very different book but the two seem to have much in common.
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