Free to Learn?
Free to Learn takes an intimate look at the daily lives of students attending The Free School in Albany, New York. For over thirty years in perhaps the most radical experiment in American education, this small inner-city alternative school has offered its students complete freedom over their learning. There are no formal rules, no mandatory classes, no tests or homework and decisions are made democratically by students and teachers.
Free to Learn invites us to reconsider our most romantic ideals and our deepest concerns about education, as we follow a handful of children at this unique school on a journey, unescorted, to meet the challenges of hope, acceptance, loss, friendship, conflict, and the difficult task of deciding, for themselves, what to do with each day.
The film focuses on the day-to-day life of the school, following children as they help cook and serve lunch, shoot their own movie styled after The Lord of the Rings, attend small math classes, argue, argue more, resolve small conflicts with the help of the teacher, resolve larger conflicts in an all-school Council Meeting, trek through the woods, observe a bat as it trembles and then takes flight, fix windows and walls they've broken, watch a sudden downpour through the school's windows, and mourn the death of their goats in a fire.
I felt, in the discussion that followed the film, like the "defensive conservative public school teacher" - ironic, given that I occasionally feel, in the world of teacher-blogs, like the "defensive liberal public school teacher." I'll be honest with you: some of the defensiveness stems from my own deep ambivalence about the purpose of education. I believe in what I do and why and how I am doing it. Another part of me questions all the assumptions on which my ideas of teaching rest. These two ideas lie in tension in my heart, a tension which allows me to question, reflect, and ultimately grow. I don't have any final answers; please don't read this thinking I'm arguing for one way of doing things or another, I am really just thinking out loud.
I can only begin with what I saw.
I saw some really powerful moments. One thing the school does well is to create a community where kids are empowered to resolve their conflicts, make decisions about things larger than themselves, and deal with their emotions. For example, anyone in the school can call a "Council Meeting" if they have a conflict with someone else, have attempted to resolve it in at least two ways, and need the community's help. Chloe - a firecracker of a girl, around 8 years old I would guess - calls a Council Meeting because Max is bothering her. The kids gathered in a circle on the floor, three students were nominated as moderators, and the school voted on a moderator for the meeting. That student then called on other kids and adults who raised their hands to speak. Chloe explained her side of the problem. Max vehemently denied hitting her with a stick. Someone else asked Chloe what her goal was in calling the meeting. Chloe asked Max to apologize. Max denied doing anything wrong, but then apologized in the lackluster way that kids often use when forced to apologize.
This is where most schools - and parents - would have ended the meeting, and it's where the real power of this kind of meeting begins: the community did not accept Max's false apology. Someone actually asked him why he was apologizing for something he didn't do. Another child reported having seen what really happened between Max and Chloe. Chloe and Max both shared some honest feelings about what happened. In the end, Max apologized again and promised not to bother Chloe again, and this time, it was clear the sentiment was genuine.
I saw kids being honest and forthright in communicating with each other about their emotions, more so than many adults ever manage. I saw adults asking questions that helped the conversation between the children go deeper. More importantly, perhaps, I saw younger children contributing, older children contributing, the community solving its problem using the insight of all generations.
I can learn from this. I have held class meetings to discuss problems before; although they often yield genuine insight and some students leave seeing things differently, these meetings have rarely solved any problems. I wonder what would happen if I allowed students to call these meetings - or if I held them at regular intervals and allowed students to put items on the agenda? I wonder what would happen if we set a few ground rules, then allowed students to moderate?
I saw the school meet to figure out how to respond to the death of their goats in a fire (possibly arson) in their barn. In the end, they sang songs, built a shrine, and comforted each other. How many schools would have hidden the fire and the goats' deaths from the children, never giving them a chance to experience and deal with grief? Some children cried, some sang, some comforted others beside them, some built crosses, some lit candles, some sat silently; all saw that living things die, that people respond differently to death, that grief is a part of life, that there are healthy ways of channeling it.
More provocative are the school's ideas about how children learn, how to structure a school environment, and what is important for children to get from school. From what the movie showed and comments by the filmmakers afterwards, each school day begins with a meeting where teachers suggest things they could teach that day, and students suggest things they want to learn, and the school agrees on some structure for that day. The teacher-student ratio, including interns, teachers, and volunteers, is something like 1:5 (sometimes lower!), so there are lots of adults around, doing interesting things, working with kids who want to learn some particular thing. And kids do choose math! They choose filmmaking. They choose pottery, tree-climbing, woodworking, poring over a book with a friend. The idea is that kids have a natural desire to learn, learn best when they are ready for and fascinated by a particular subject, and that by offering interesting opportunities and freedom, teachers can meet students where they are and teach them what they want to know. And I saw some of that occurring in the film.
I also saw so-called teachable moments lost. As the students wander through the woods, the filmmakers pause for a moment on a spiderweb. A million thoughts about spiderwebs, about beauty and evolution and patterns and spinnerets and tensile strength and, again, beauty, rush to my head. Questions. I see the moment, the filmmakers see the moment, but the children don't ask anything about the spiderweb, the teachers say nothing about spiders, and the moment passes. I strongly believe from my own experience and what I've read (Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, and others) that children need time to "just be" in nature. Just because no child asks about spiders right at that moment doesn't mean they won't ask later, or ponder on their own, or pick up a certain book because they remember something about that spiderweb; some learning takes time in steeping. Nevertheless, I saw a moment pass, and I saw lots of other moments pass, unremarked, in the film. If I had been the teacher talking to the children about the bat they found in their barn, I would have talked a little more about bats, encouraged them to ask deeper questions, perhaps offered some books about bats. Likewise with the spider, likewise with the rainstorm.
A lot of people in the audience were school-haters. One woman even said she went to public school her whole life "and probably doesn't remember anything from it!" Bullshit, and polarizing, too. Public schools aren't working for a lot of kids - there are far too many people in this country who would say they hated every minute of school, and lots more who vaguely disliked it. But there are other kids who don't hate school, some who love it (I did!), some who like it much better than being at home.
Everyone thinks about schools through the lens of their own experience as a child. Musing, now... what was my experience? I loved school. In middle school and high school, though, school ruined certain things for me. I went through a phase when I no longer felt a lot of joy in reading, though I hid that fact rather well. I saw other kids who did not perform quite as well in school get more out of certain books than I did--they hadn't forgotten their reasons for reading. Something about the way calculus was taught pretty much ended my formal math education. I got back my love of reading, and am working on regaining my natural curiosity about math.
Today, there are many things that I prefer to learn in formal settings; being in a class, with a teacher, frees me from a lot of insecurity about not knowing or failing or asking stupid questions. I want to pay someone to teach me to play the guitar, no matter how many well-meaning friends offer to teach me informally. I want to attend a kayaking clinic the first time I go out, so I can ask all my questions and not hold back friends who are way ahead of me. There are other things that I learn best by grappling with on my own; this week I've been teaching myself the basics of CSS as I try to build a new template for my blog. Certainly, in all of these cases, I will learn most at that moment when I am most motivated and truly ready for the material.
Yet, there are many things that I would not have picked up on my own - even as a voracious reader and generally curious person - that I am so thankful someone told me to read. I am about to mention John Stuart Mill, and he is the perfect example. I seriously doubt that I would have read much philosophy on my own steam. My professors made me read Mill, Aristotle, Hobbes, and the rest. Half the time, I hated it. I remember a good deal of it, though, and it informs my thinking. Sure, if I'd waited to read it until deep philosophical questions drove me naturally to the material, I might have remembered more - but would that ever have happened, really? I can go back and re-read if and when I want to know more, but that initial introduction to the material enriched my life.
John Stuart Mill wrote about "experiments in living" being valuable to all people, and worth protecting. That is how I feel about education; we ought to allow experiments in teaching to occur, and whenever possible we should look at how they work and for whom they work. Public schools collect some, albeit limited, data on what happens to our students after they leave us. According to the filmmakers, the Free School doesn't really collect any information of that sort. That's too bad. Yes, it's hard to agree on how to measure "success" - but you have to at least ask the question!
Supporters of the free school movement challenge a lot of traditional assumptions about the purpose and nature of schooling. Many in the audience tonight argued that public schools replicate a capitalist system which is fundamentally flawed. A less-extreme version of that argument - which I heard from my friend A. - is that "public schools prepare students to be employees, private schools prepare them to be employers." Sometimes I fear this is true of the way my school is structured. Our kids are getting really good at compartmentalizing knowledge, obeying instructions, walking in lines. It's a chilling thought.
My kids by and large come to school seeking to get ahead in the system as it is today - or at least, that's what their families want for them. I can give them that. There are certain things most people would agree you ought to know - we quibble over the details, sure, and everyone doesn't need to know every bit of it, but there is some stuff about history, math, science, and literature that it helps to know if you want to have a voice in the conversation. I'm not a huge fan of the Core Knowledge curriculum, but I don't disagree with the idea that people with power and money in our society share a certain body of knowledge.
I can't count on my kids picking up this stuff as they go along, from their parents or life experience. It would do them a disservice to deny them access to this - well, the jargon is "cultural capital" - just because they didn't happen to ask me to teach it to them.
The filmmakers interviewed some graduates of the Free School. Although they all seemed happy, in retrospect, to have had an alternative education, they each described a period of feeling ashamed of the things they didn't know, of feeling stupid. How incredibly painful that must have been!
After the film, I talked to a man whose children attend the school, whose wife also teaches there. He and his wife have come to the conclusion that there are certain ways that the school is holding back their daughter, and certain things they will just have to teach her at home. He agreed with me that there are things most people agree it's good to know. He and his wife value the experiences she has at school, and they fill in the missing pieces of her education at home. I don't know if I've ever met anyone so comfortable with the idea that his child's real education will happen at home, and that school is for something else, for play, for social learning, for exploring. Most people are more than happy to take their kids to school for education, to the doctor when they get sick... Anyway, he invited me to come visit the Free School - and if I ever get the opportunity, I probably will.
Where's the middle ground? How can public schools respond to the different timetables children bring to learning? How can we impart strength, individuality, independence--to the thousands, hundreds-of-thousands, millions of children in our schools? How much do we worry about making sure they learn a certain body of information, how much do we allow them to learn a few things really well and the rest whenever they're ready? How much time should we allow for emotional and social development? How do kids learn to participate in democratic decision-making?
If you're still reading, you deserve an award. And I would love - love! - to read your comments.
Update: Thanks to Up the Down Staircase for the link to the Albany Free School. A group of educators and parents in Brooklyn is in the process of starting the Brooklyn Free School. Both these schools refer to the Sudbury Valley School and Summerhill as models. Here's the website for AERO - the Alternative Education Resource Organization.