Eric Nicolas Schneider

My first close encounter with democratic schools was at the IDEC (International Democratic Education conference) in 2005 in Berlin, and I was very pleased by what I saw. I was particularly impressed by the young people, who were balanced, eloquent and thoughtful in their expression. I understood this to be the shining result of a freedom from dominating environments, and of key principles like 'the freedom to decide what I want to learn today' in democratic schools and 'the freedom to choose how we learn' at alternative schools in general.

I have crossed a variety of worlds of learning, and I am committed to nurturing what I call 'Learning that Matters in the 21st Century.' That is why I took the opportunity of asking a number of seasoned democratic educators, 'Do children learn about sustainability in your school? Is your school concerned about the creation of more functional societies?' and the answer was, 'No'. Honestly, this surprised me. I thought that the philosophy and the lives of people supporting alternative learning environments would go hand-in-hand with activities to do with creating alternative societal models and futures. It appears that it does not. And yet, obviously, young people who can choose what they want to learn naturally decide, 'I want to learn how to create a better world!'

During the last five years, we have been conducting polls among young people in Germany asking three questions: 'What do you consider to be the greatest threats for humankind?', 'Who do you believe can contribute best to solving these issues?', 'What is your hope or dream for the future of the world?'

Young people are very aware. They share the same serious worries about the future – societal disintegration, escalating environmental collapse, wars – but it is plain that these are a long way from being recognised as priority learning issues. A variety of factors play a role. One reason is that the issue is too complex, too big, too abstract; our minds and attention are rather tuned to the horizon of our garden fence and the distance of a spear throw. Another is that we have little insight into the true data – all those crisis issues are out of sight, and we have not experienced them personally.

Then there is the lack of examples of successful solutions, and the fact that there are few allies in the cause. And finally, human beings have never really been well-trained in actively questioning and transforming the status quo.

I went on to ask the democratic educators, 'Do you consider it possible to offer informal study and learning opportunities on sustainability and positive change?' And they said, 'If the kids like it.' Now, this felt good. After all, this is about democratic schooling, where nothing meaningful is ruled out. My experience is – yes, kids do like it! But there is a need to address the issue, and to have access to solutions.

Here it becomes a bit tricky, because the world-wide sustainability movement is still invisible to most. But it is huge, and very mature. It is a priority in the United Nations, and for many government departments, and we are now in the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014). The paradigm has changed: this is not about development per se but much more about peace and sustainability, about responsible lifestyles and active citizenship, about societal transformation.

UNESCO and state school systems around the world are addressing the challenge of integrating this into their curricula and school culture, but note: no leaders or change-makers have ever acquired their competencies in classroom lessons. Lessons can provide information, but what is needed now is a long learning process, self-guided, experimental, interdisciplinary and project-oriented. It must be a creative, hands-on experience, and will include personal development. The contribution to this aim from our organisation, PNYV (Positive News, Youth Views), is the advocacy of Informal Sustainability Learning Environments, or ISLEs.

ISLEs do not offer short lessons that fade away an hour later; they permanently transform the school into a space that embodies and breathes the spirit of positive change. This may involve the creation of an International School Peace Garden, which can trigger creative participation of the entire school community, leading to studies of local life-zones, action projects, dialogue with experts and responsible decision-makers. Another ISLE might be a Positive News Board with success stories from around the world, with portraits of inspiring people, key principles and ethics, practical lifestyle tips, first hand data on the status of the planet. Access is important – access to the local community, to global and national campaigns, to youth online communities. Children can create a Treasure Map, visualising their region’s positive actors, or can create a Local Positive News publication.

Practical action and real impact are very relevant. They are not just learning resources, but instruments of change. They facilitate young people’s effective engagement in their community, detecting, addressing and solving problems in co-operation with local governments and groups, for integrating citizens and for presenting their efforts in the media. Examples include environmental restoration, organic food production, intercultural community-building, green technology, international development support, Fair Trade, petitions and campaigns for the implementation of UN resolutions. Last not least, these are extraordinary learning opportunities nurturing a lot of valuable competencies for life.

Of course, the freedom from strict curricula offers alternative and democratic schools with particular opportunities for this kind of activity. We are planning to go to the 2006 IDEC in Sydney to create an extra space, an ISLE, for sharing some remarkable examples world-wide and discussing perspectives of sustainability learning. We are planning to set up free, online, multimedia, live cyber-sessions with outstanding peace and sustainability innovators. And of course, we want to use the online conferencing for enabling schools around the world to follow, join and contribute to IDEC.

So, 'if the kids like it', maybe some schools will turn into 'Greenhouses of the Future', the just, peaceful and sustainable future that the world’s younger generation hopes for.

A movie of that title is now causing waves in Germany’s education landscape. It shows state schools that have done away with 45 minute lessons and blackboard teaching, that have pulled down one class-room per year in order to create open learning spaces. It shows the entire 9th grade doing nothing but theatre for a period of 6 weeks. It shows thirteen- year-olds self-organising their individual learning plans per year, organising and cleaning up their learning spaces – very confident students that thoroughly enjoy going to school. And they excel in PISA, the international student assessment. We are speaking of mixed, average background schools, not elite families.

I still see our federal minister at Germany’s Summit on School Reform, sitting between the filmmaker and a principal. She was speaking to an assembly of 1,500 school principals. 'If all our schools start to run on into the afternoon, we must not just teach the same things twice. This will not be the same but twice as bad. We must change to a new culture of learning, with space and time as second and third teachers – and these people show us the way.' To make this true, the ministry is forming a partnership with a great civil society organisation that is installing counselling agencies, and with a youth-led agency nurturing youth participation through future workshops in schools nation-wide.

Finland is worth a story, too. They are the world champions in PISA, and decision-makers and educators around the world are listening attentively to what they have to say. To enter university for teacher training you have to pass a three-step test focussing on personality. Less than 15% pass. Teachers work in teams. When students encounter difficulty, they receive strong individual attention and support. The teachers are and feel responsible. The national student council can veto any new education law they do not appreciate. And if students have an idea for a new curriculum they can receive state support for testing it throughout a school’s entire student generation.

We are not just planning for the IDEC in Sydney. We are planning to create cyber-sessions which will include state schools from all around the world, to help to gain new insights, to share, to participate and to interconnect – for learning together for a positive future.

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