Book coverBy Ricardo Semler


Ricardo Semler is the author of Maverick! and The Seven-Day Weekend and the founder of Semco, Latin America's fastest-growing company, where the employees decide when they will work, what they will do and how much they will get paid. The Semco Foundation is now considering how to apply the same principles in education, and has recently started a school called Lumiar, in Sao Paolo, Brazil.

The school opened in February 2003 with 24 students aged between two and ten – Lumiar uses the word students rather than children or pupils – and has almost doubled in size in its second year. It intends keep growing until it reaches 110 students up to the age of eighteen. Three quarters of the students are offered grants covering between 25% and 100% of the fees.

The school is open from early morning to late afternoon and students attend for as long as they want. Regardless of age they are entirely responsible for their own education; there is no coercion or constraint. This at first seems astonishing, particularly in view of the fact that that some of the students are as young as two. However, on reflection it becomes clear that even conventional educators often allow children to learn independently and to choose what they will do when they are two years old. It is only when they get older that adults start deciding for them.

At Lumiar students, from two upwards, have the time and opportunity to discover their interests, talents, and personal approach to learning. They are completely responsible for determining the course of each day and what studies they will pursue, if any. They are free to decide whether they study independently, with a mentor, or with a small group. They live in an active, energetic community, filled with books, committees, computers and passionate people, and those passionate people say this creates a need for exactly the kind of knowledge and skills that are most in demand in the post-industrial information society of the twenty-first century.

Semco gives powerful reasons for developing a new kind of school: the present system is anachronistic, they say, and tinkering with it will never be enough; the web has made text-books out of date; the role of the teacher is obsolete; school management is too dominant; the lack of democracy disempowers future citizens; the amount of knowledge retained is negligible; parents deliver children to the system and are then barred from it; children suffer unnecessary discipline and rules they don't understand; students learn to memorise, not to develop learning skills; drugs, violence and a blasé attitude are results of a top-down system and a lack of love; vacations, rules, buildings and classrooms are obsolete; uniformity is a fundamental value in schools, in a world that now values differences.

Because our current society is changing so rapidly from the industrial age to the information age, it is hard to determine what specific knowledge anyone will need in the future. Lumiar focuses instead on goals of self-awareness and personal responsibility. The number of areas of knowledge being pursued in a productive manner in the world at large is so vast that it is impossible to try to expose anyone to all of them. It is a matter of prejudice, says Lumiar, to pick out a tiny set of subjects and label them as more important than others.

In spite of the common view that people in general are ignorant of democratic principles, children are not usually allowed to experience any of these principles in their everyday lives. In conventional schools students have no rights, they do not participate in meaningful decision-making and they have no freedom of self-determination. Such schools are in fact models of autocracy, in direct conflict with democratic principles. In a democratic school like Lumiar, people of all ages become deeply committed to democratic values because they are experiencing them in their everyday lives.

Complaining about the unethical behaviour of the youth of today is a universal pastime. However, ethical behaviour, says Lumiar, depends on the ability to choose a path and accept full responsibility for that choice and its consequences. Ethics begins from the proposition that a human beings are responsible for their own actions. In traditional schools students are denied responsibility for their own actions: they are obliged to follow imposed curricula, obey rules that they do not accept and submit to discipline when they fail to conform. The result is that they learn to lie, to deceive and to be dishonest. At Lumiar, by contrast, the students learn responsibility by choosing their own curriculum and playing important roles in the running of the school.

The worst result of conventional schooling, according to the Semco Foundation, is that it frequently makes the students hate learning, and even hate the very knowledge that the school tries to transmit. At Lumiar the learning process is a great pleasure; children learn by playing, following their own curiosity.

The huge poverty and economic inequality in Brazil have resulted in an increase in violent crime and, consequently, deepened the enormous gap between rich and poor. The elite have been locking themselves in closed condominiums, protected by security gates and gunmen. Their children go to expensive private schools where they are protected from any contact with poverty and the country's general social problems. Poor children, when they do not have to work, go to utterly inadequate government schools. Democratic schools that unite children and adolescents from different social backgrounds will be a major step towards a solution to this problem.

Lumiar therefore has a social mission as well as an educational one. The Semco Foundation hopes to spread its ideas throughout all the schools in Brazil. If it succeeds it will surely have enormous influence throughout the world.


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