Educator Book Club discussion

Free Schools and Free School Ideology - what is it all about?

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message 1: by Gea (last edited Aug 25, 2016 12:50PM) (new)

Gea | 2 comments I just finished reading the book, Free Schools, Free People (Ron Miller); it traces the history of the free-school movement, what the free school movement stands for, and some of the pioneers of the movement.

I think that the free school movement made a big mark (in history) on the way learning/education/schools are understood. Yet, very few people - including those who are in the field of education - know much about 'alternative' ways of learning (IE learning outside of public schools) such as free schools. Does anyone have any thoughts on this? Or, for those specifically in the education field, how much did/does your training address these kinds of issues?

message 2: by Cameron (new)

Cameron | 7 comments Hi Gea. Interesting topic.

I actually met Ron at the Alternative Education Resource Organization's annual conference a couple of months ago after having participated in a discussion based course about the history and theory of educational alternatives. I quickly learned at the conference the great breadth of ideologies and methodologies that are represented under the umbrella of 'alternative' education.

As a recent graduate with a degree in Early Childhood Education, I see that we are doing a disservice initially in teacher education programs. It's quite telling that in colleges across the nation, the school of education is often known as the easiest one in the entire university. It's not only more lax on entrance standards, but also regarding course load and complexity of content.

This is problematic for many reasons. The main problem I see here is that we're oversimplifying a terribly complicated, multifaceted, dynamic, and theoretical vain of knowledge. Students are generally not challenged to formulate their own ideology through dialogue, nor are they encouraged to ask questions. I personally feel that future teachers must question the very institution of schooling, and even the definition of such words as 'teaching,' 'learning,' and 'knowledge.'

Before we require such a breakdown of one's own assumptions in regards to schooling, we might not see the drastic changes we're hoping for. Instead, teachers enter the classroom with an inchoately developed philosophy of education, and end up falling back on the types of educational assumptions that they were taught in their academic career. As you can clearly surmise, relatively nothing will change. Rather, the system will remain stagnant.

I speak from experience when I say that it's easier not to undergo the process of questioning nearly everything you thought you knew about educating. I went through college largely ignorant of the philosophical implications of the field, and of the great variance of opinion as relates to the need and the structure of education. About a month after graduation, I read AS Neill's Summerhill, about a democratic free school in England that has been around for some 80 years. My ideological rug was effectively yanked out from under me at this point. I was forced to leave all my assumptions at the door and enter the process anew, not knowing the difficulty that lied ahead.

In the months that have followed, I have learned more about myself than anything. I can look back at lessons I was doing and realize that there existed no ideological underpinnings for said lessons. In addition, I hadn't ever questioned my priviledge as a white, heterosexual, middle class male. Having never been critical of the ways power structures are tipped in my favor was indeed a hard pill to swallow. However, going through this mental breakdown, or dissection of my previous, ungrounded assumptions, so to speak, I will only be a better teacher, in whatever capacity that might be. Without a good idea of where we come from and what we believe, I'm nervous that we'll continue to perpetuate the dehumanizing education that we see all over the world, especially in countries that aim, above all else, to make a buck.

A word of dissenting opinion of alterntives. There was an interesting discussion at the aforementioned AERO conference about access; specifically, the issue of diversifying free, democratic, and other alternative education settings. I think this is one of the looming problems facing alternative educators that has yet to make much headway, as evidenced by Kozol's departure and split from the movement with his caustic criticism, Free Schools. There are those out there, specifically a number of non-white folks, who feel as though the free school movement would be a direct counteraction against one of the major tenets of the Civil Rights Movement - that of free, public, empowering education for all Americans.

Unfortunately, the system that we have now is clearly one rampant with racism, classism, and sexism, and is one which treats children as inputs into an economic model of production. In that this is the viewpoint of our lawmakers, the students are not taught in an empowering way. Rather, they are dehumanized, stripped of any real political, social, or cultural relationship.

I think we, as progressive educators, must do our part in shifting the paradigm of education to one rooted in the joy of learning, the power of education, and the possiblity of self-direction and, in turn, self-accountability.

I will offer you one more piece of experience that I think might be of value. After reading Summerhill and realizing the need to restructure my understanding of what is truly my passion, educating and learning, I found that it is very difficult to find a comfortable place within the system. In fact, I didn't teach in my first year of eligibility as I feared I would do a disservice to the children. Complacence is not no longer an option once one has realized the need for a cleansing of the self.

Ideas like these are threatening, and for good reason. Once you begin down the path of student-centered, inquiry-based, freedom-imbued educational settings, a great deal of money and control is lost by some pretty major people. Thusly, the resistance is great from all directions.

Once you begin to see the flaws inherent in the structure of current system, the floodgates seem to open wide. Indeed, as Freire might have seen in his dealings with dialogical education of the poor, once self-empowerment through education begins, it's a hell of a juggernaut to deal with.

In short, prepare for your outlook on life to change.

I'd suggest books, but there's so many. If you, or anyone, for that matter, is interested in some suggestions, I'd be glad to throw some out. Cheers and thanks. Cameron

message 3: by Corbin (new)

Corbin | 2 comments Throw some out, indeed!

message 4: by Cameron (new)

Cameron | 7 comments Corbin wrote: "Throw some out, indeed! "

This took a really long time to get to you, but I hope it helps nonetheless.

I was first introduced to free school ideology with AS Neill's Summerhill: A New View of Childhood. I read it near the end of my studies in the University in Early Childhood Education, and it totally pulled the rug out from beneath my feet. Summerhill is sort of the beacon of hope for alternative schools, not because of its specific methodology (or lack thereof) but becuase of it's resilience. It's been around since 1917, and has maintained a fully democratic structure as its basic tenet.

I found John Taylor Gatto's Dumbing Us Down to be a really influential book. In it, Gatto outlines the "hidden curriculum of schooling," which is historically based in the Industrial Revolution. Especially scathing is his description of seven things we teach in school (bad things, naturally) which he delivered as a speech upon receiving NY State Teacher of the Year. At the end of the speech, he announced his retirement from public school.

Deborah Meier wrote a nice book called The Power of Their Ideas, which I recommend. She founded the Central Park School in 1974, in East Harlem, and thus has a wealth of knowledge to share.

For a more distant historical basis, check out Rousseau's Emile. A somewhat romantic and antiquated look at education, it nevertheless helps lay a foundation for appreciating the child as a complete being in her or his exploration of the world. Of course, John Dewey's Democracy and Education is a must read in my opinion. Relatively dense, but really worth getting into.

Depending on your interests, there are hundreds of books out there that deal, in some way, direct or indirect, the ideas that have contributed to alternatives to traditional schooling. Of these, there are books by Rudolf Steiner (whose ideas form the basis of Waldorf Schools), Maria Montessori (who you probably know).

In a different vein are the critical pedagogues. The most influential book I've ever read is Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. His colleagues and those who have followed in his footsteps include, but are not limited to, Peter McLaren, Henry Giroux (another favorite), Ivan Illich (Deschooling Society), Joe Kincheloe, and others. Bill Ayers has written some really powerful books, namely (for me) To Teach.

For a look at critical pedagogy through an explicitly feminist standpoint, bell hooks is amazing. She writes about many things, not just education, but I've yet to be disappointed in anything she's written. I might not agree wholeheartedly with everything, but I am nonetheless affected having read it. Also, Jeanne Brady's Schooling Young Children: A Feminist Pedagogy for Liberatory Learning was a great read. It was highly critical and yet highly praiseworthy of Freire's theoretical framework.

There are a number of critics of current popular educational ideologies that I've found to be of interest. Neil Postman is not only insightful, but also hilarious at times. Herbert Kohl has written some really interesting books, specifically I Won't Learn From You and Other Thoughts on Creative Maladjustment. Alfie Kohn has an extensive bibliography of books about all sorts of things, though I'm only familiar with his work on rewards, punishment, and competition in schools. Over the past decades, Jonathan Kozol has written about a dozen books that really give insight into the humanistic price that we're paying in having the system we have in place. He reminds me, each and every time I'm reading him, that we're not only dealing with Pedagogical theory (which we are) but also with human beings. Many times, the human beings that are oppressed in the most damaging ways by the system, as Kozol reminds us, are the poor, the non-white, and the forgotten. He does his best to see to it that we never forget that we're dealing with human beings, specifically vulnerable children.

In addition to these, John Holt has an extensive bibliography which, from what I have gathered, has been key in legitimizing and adding a theoretical basis to the homeschooling movement. His How Children Fail and How Children Learn are possibly his most well known, and I found them quite interesting.

Beyond this, I've found a few others of interest. William Doll wrote a book called A Postmodern Perspective on Curriculum. Additionally, Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences is interesting in its entirety.

As I said before, there is a wealth of reading out there that, while it may not come right out and holler for alternatives, provides yet another facet of the argument against schools as they exist right now. I've found that, in conversations with colleagues and doubters, that it's nice to be able to approach the argument (or discussion, depending on the parties involved) with a variety of angles. The aforementioned can give a fairly holistic criticism of traditional schooling, from a gender, cultural, economic, political, physiological, philosophical, racial, social, and spiritual standpoint. The combination of these criticisms, along with books by Steiner, Neill, Meier, Mary Leue, Jerry Mintz, Chris Mercogliano, etc...who have written about the successes of alternatives, make for a pretty strong ideological foundation.

Again, sorry for the tardiness, but I've been in Ecuador and internet is spotty and generally not free. I hope these suggestions find you still hungry for knowledge and interested in joining the movement to better our understanding of learning, teaching, and pedagogy.

Enjoy. Cameron

message 5: by Daniel (new)

Daniel (ziwolff) | 8 comments Don't know if my book would help in this discussion, but it offers an historical look at how folks have learned -- both inside an doutside the classroom. Here's the Kirkus review:

STARRED) Wolff, Daniel

HOW LINCOLN LEARNED TO READ: Twelve Great Americans and the Education That Made Them

A riveting, original examination of education inside and outside the classroom.

What makes this work particularly captivating is that music historian Wolff (4th of July, Asbury Park: A History of the Promised Land, 2005, etc.) doesn’t focus primarily on the book learning acquired by a dozen Americans, from Benjamin Franklin to Elvis Presley. Rather, his interest is in how they learned—that is, the life experiences that helped transform them into the figures they became. Taught to read by his mother at home, Abraham Lincoln received little in the way of formal education. His unquenchable thirst for knowledge and constant search for new ideas led him to read widely on his own, notes Wolff, who quotes Lincoln declaring, “I remember how, when a mere child, I used to get irritated when anybody talked to me in a way that I could not understand.” Automotive pioneer Henry Ford, on the other hand, had little patience for books (“they mess up my mind,” he wrote) but loved to work with his hands, which in turn led to a lifelong love of engineering. Helen Keller excelled, the author convincingly argues, because she was allowed to create her own curriculum with teacher Annie Sullivan. John F. Kennedy, a poor student in prep school, learned how to be a leader by forming an on-campus club of rebels and iconoclasts. Wolff delves into the education of other prominent figures, including Andrew Jackson, W.E.B. Du Bois and Rachel Carson, but also looks at such lesser-known Americans as a slave named Belle and Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, a Native American schoolteacher in the 19th century. Their stories attest that learning doesn’t just happen in a schoolhouse, and life itself may well be the most effective teacher of the most important lessons.

Well thought-out, well-argued and thoroughly engaging.

message 6: by Corbin (new)

Corbin | 2 comments Thank you so much, Cameron. I've been looking for a list like this. You've obviously delved well into the tomes. Now that I know what you've read, I'm interested in what your DOING. Are you working in Ecuador? I have lived/taught overseas a bit myself. I am in Portland, OR for the next few years while my daughter learns to walk and talk. But then, who knows. I still think about overseas again. I'd especially love to check out South America.

Be well!
Corbin Smith

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