Saturday, 6 May 2006

A different approach to school

by Karyn Romeis

I came across this post [my post: What if everything we think about school is wrong?] via Stephen Downes's OLDaily. Watching the video, I found myself thinking, as my kids would put it, "Just no!"

When I put up the post, I did not make much comment except saying that
The kids in the film are articulate, intelligent and well informed. If all students graduating from Fairhaven School are like them, I don't have problem sending my child there.

When Stephen picked up my post, his comment was
"A wild animal, as opposed to a caged animal, knows chaos and can adapt to it." These words conclude this video, well worth watching, about Fairhaven, an alternative democratic school. A lot of my own thoughts are captured here. For example, "Learning is what happens when you're doing something else." And I like the thoughts, expressed here, about how being forced to learn leads you to allow yourself to be forced into other things later in life. Albert Ip also quotes some comments - this one struck me: "The world is not run by democratic process, and you usually CAN'T do what you want to do..." Well, yes, most of the world is undemocratic. But this is the problem. And we will not counter this by silently acquiescing to authoritarianism, either in our schools or in our lives.

Karyn did not agree:
So I'm going to have to continue to differ from Stephen on this one, although I'm sure if we had to have a debate about it he'd open a can of whup-ass on me.

Karyn based her view on three points:
parents and teachers have a greater breadth of experience and a perspective that only time and, well, experience can provide. I acknowledge that these are going to be flawed adults, but as far as possible, they should have a child's best interests at heart. From this vantage point, surely they are better positioned to know what a child will need to know in order to tackle what experience has told them life is likely to have in store?

I encountered a school run on similar lines several years ago, and met several of its existing and past students. They generally seemed inadequately prepared for "real life". Their academic results were mediocre, their sporting ability was all but non-existent, they lacked drive and ambition. They seemed kind of, well, woolly - a bit granola-and-birkenstocks-and-we-are-one.

This kind of harks back to Jeff Utecht's post about people not knowing what they don't know (although admittedly he was talking about teachers, but I think the principle holds). If they don't know what they don't know, how do they know what knowledge will prove beneficial?

So Karyn believed that the curriculum (what needs to be learnt) is better dictated by adults who know better. Her objection is also based on some interactions with some students who have gone through the "same" process. Finally, reflecting on the first point again, people just don't know what they don't know.

Upon reading this, I did a bit more research into Fairhaven school. This is the school website which points to an article in Washington Post. Here I found some interesting details about the school.

Class is small, if we may even call it a class for obvious reason. However, it seems that those attended the class learnt a lot in the same time compared with traditional classes. Some others are as quotes from Washington Post's article:
Students come and go when they want. The only requirement is to spend at least five hours at school between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Many roll in after 9 a.m., some close to noon. Those who fail to sign in pay a 50-cent fine.
Meetings are central to a school without a principal or headmaster. A student judicial committee convenes daily to enforce a thick rule book established collectively by students and staff.
Fairhaven relies on the threat of boredom to spur student creativity.

Let me just bring myself back couples of hundred years. I don't believe the concept of curriculum existed then. Education was for the privileged only. I don't believe the teacher (if I may still use the term) would have much power over the students. Is that pretty much the same in Fairhaven where students are given the power to determine the outcome for themselves?

Back to Karyn's concern, first I don't agree that her experience with some other students who were "educated" on similar lines is a valid reason here. Obviously, Fairhaven has rules, just not the traditional ones! As Washington Post puts it: "A student judicial committee convenes daily to enforce a thick rule book established collectively by students and staff." which sounds very much similar to current western systems which depend on previous cases.

We have our best interest in our children, so obviously we want to give them the best we can. However, I also see from my own daughter that during the teenage years, she is learning to be independent and is rebelling against MY ORDER! She knows that I have the best intention for her, but she just does not want to do it my way and wants to discover for herself. Is Fairhaven's way better? I would say it depends - depends on the child!

Our children do not know what they don't know. We don't know what they will face in the future as well. In a way, as an adult, I am equally uncertain about what kind of skill will best equip my daughter to face the new challenge when she becomes as adult. Unknown is very scary. May be that's why I let the days go by without really doing anything to help prepare my own daughter. I tried and only managed to send her to the "best" school I can find for her. As I said before, I don't know whether I am making the right decision for her!

Adults have experience which is built by mistakes we made, or stories about mistakes other have made. One of the thing a school can do, at least, is to provide a "safe" environment for our children to make non-life threatening mistakes which can became their experience. May be Fairhaven is really the school I want to send my daughter to.

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