by Aaron Browder, Open School staff
May 28, 2018
How can we really know what is best for another person? As far as I can tell, the only way is to give that person the freedom to decide for themselves.
Traditional schools, by denying students free choice, have no way of discovering what is best for kids. All they can do is guess, based on their preferred ideologies, what is best for kids. And they are almost certain to be wrong.
As long as schools deny students free choice, they can never learn anything about kids, and they will never be able to serve them or meet their needs.
A recent article in The Guardian, What would the ultimate child-friendly city look like?, laments that most modern cities are inhospitable to children — they are not designed with children in mind. Kids can’t walk to their friends’ houses, or to the park, because the streets are too dangerous to cross. There is now a movement in many places to redesign cities and create spaces which are more child-friendly.
What if we applied this sort of thinking to schools? Every school, presumably, has been specifically designed as a place for children. And yet schools are generally not, in my estimation, child-friendly places.
Most schools are places where children are controlled nearly every minute of their days, where their individual needs are not considered and their voices are not heard, where they are shamed for their mistakes, and where they are never free to quit, even if they are not learning anything or are overwhelmed with anxiety.
We created schools because that was the answer we came up with to the question, “Where should we put children?” We created a curriculum because that was the answer we came up with to the question, “What should we make children do?”
These are the wrong questions to ask. Not only do they assume that we can know what is best for others without asking them, but they assume that the answer will be the same for everyone.
The problem is not just with standardized state-controlled curricula. Even alternative schools like Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia have their own curricula, their own answers to the question, “What should we make children do?” The decision of what the children will do with their time and what kind of character and skills they will build is decided by parents, when they choose, based on their own personal educational philosophy, which school, and therefore which curriculum, to apply to their children.
Compulsory education and curricula are both dangerous because they stifle the feedback mechanism of individual choice. Alice may hate her school but not be sure why — it could be because she’s not interested in the subjects taught, or because her teacher is mean to her, or because she needs to run but is cooped up inside all day, or one of a thousand other things.
She may even develop anxiety or depression as a result, but be unable to do anything about it, because no matter how bad it gets, she has to suck it up and keep going to school. And neither the school nor her parents will ever know that anything is wrong.
If a school or curriculum were optional — if students were free to take it or leave it — we would very quickly discover which schools and curricula are successful in meeting the needs of kids. The broken programs would die, and educators could finally learn something about children.
Let’s grant that kids in our society need to be in some kind of school, because their parents need to work, and our cities have not been designed for kids to roam freely. How can we create a school environment that preserves the feedback mechanism of individual choice, in order to ensure that the school is meeting students’ needs?
First, each student must be granted full autonomy — freedom of movement, freedom of association, and freedom of activity. Even if they can’t leave the school grounds, their agency is preserved if there is space at school for them to get away, to be alone, to read a book, to be with friends, for as long as they like, even for days or years at a time. The school must not be allowed to infringe on this most important right.
Autonomy means that kids are allowed to move through the school grounds freely, and interact with anyone of any age. They are allowed to pursue any activity they like, as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of anyone else. They have the right to be left alone, even from staff.
If the staff want to create a space, an activity, or a class for students, the students must be free to refuse it. There can be no rewards offered for participation, nor any penalties for refusal. This is the only way the staff can discover whether their offerings are truly meeting the needs of the students.
Second, the school must involve the kids in all decisions that affect them. This is most commonly achieved via a democracy in which each child and adult gets one vote on all matters concerning the maintenance of the campus and community.
The purpose of school rules is to protect the school members and property. But how can you be sure that the rules are successfully protecting the kids unless you ask them? Kids must have an equal voice and vote in deciding the rules of the school.
The purpose of the school campus and materials, as well as any programs the school offers, is to serve the students. But how can you be sure that the campus, materials, and programs are serving the students unless you ask them? Kids must have an equal voice and vote in deciding how the school budget is spent and how the physical space of the campus is set up.
These ideals are a reality in Sudbury schools. Sudbury is the only model of school that has been developed so far which preserves students’ freedom of choice, and which guarantees that the school will be truly child-friendly. This is the only model of school that is capable of learning about children and successfully meeting their needs.