But how will they learn to read?

When my son was less than 6 months old, we were given a cloth bag full of books by the health visitor. Bookstart had a parent guide explaining how important it was to read to your baby and so we diligently started – even though he couldn’t sit up yet and we had to hold the books away from him so he didn’t take a chunk out of a tasty corner. Everywhere we went we were surrounded with books and told how important reading was.  The local Surestart centre hosted playgroups where they went to great effort to recreate books like Dear Zoo and the Hungry Caterpillar with puppets and toys, and of course every session ended with a story, read from a book.  Princess Charlotte (aged 2) had just started an exclusive nursery who boast that with them ‘children embark on the first stages of learning to read, write and to understand simple numbers with the minimum of pressure’.

The message couldn’t be clearer. It’s never too young to start introducing literacy. Fun, tactile and chewable though the books may be, reading them rather than eating them or ripping them up is an adult agenda which it’s unlikely many pre-verbal babies would seek out for themselves. We are obsessed with getting children to decode text – you can buy flash cards for your baby and books on how to teach them to read before they can use the potty. When I looked around schools for my son (who was three at the time), a focus for all of them was their reading strategy, they had phonics groups in reception, parent volunteers listening to reading every day and colour coded books to bring home each night. We were given lists of key words which the children should have learnt to read in the summer before they started reception (when my son was still 3), and told how crucially important our eager participation in this great project of learning to read would be. It is as if, as a society, we are all terrified of the prospect of a child who does not learn to read – and in order to avoid this we resort to intensive coaching in literacy, right from the start. No one appears to question the mantra that earlier is better, both for reading to a child, and a child learning to read themselves.

So when we decided to turn down the place in the excellent local primary school where my son would have started ‘a gentle phonics’ group at the age of 4 years 7 weeks, in favour of self-directed learning and home education, it was hard not to feel worried about reading. So much so, in fact, that I recently found a book buried at the back of our bookcase, ordered in a frenzy of anxiety as we turned down the school place – Teach your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons.

I never did teach him.

The year when he was four instead passed playing in the bath, visiting Legoland, doing drama and storytelling, running round the park, playing Plants vs Zombies, learning to swim (also without lessons) and doing whatever else we felt like doing. The year when he was five passed in much the same way. And six. And seven. And there was still no sign of any interest at all in learning to read. In fact he didn’t even want me to read to him. I worried a bit, that he would never see the point in learning to read. By this point the majority of schooled children we knew were reading. A few had already moved onto Harry Potter and chapter books. Other parents raised an eyebrow when they realised he couldn’t read at all. They seemed to be in a different world to us, we were still playing with Duplo and play dough if the fancy took us, and our days meandered and flowed, filled with play,  more play, and long baths which soaked the bathroom. Sometimes it seemed that he couldn’t even read his name, he didn’t recognise those pre-reception key words like ‘and’ or ‘the’. He started playing Minecraft, where every block is labelled with its type, but he didn’t read any of the words.

Then one day we were in the car and he looked out the window. ‘Does that say Zombie?’, he asked? It was a sign and it said Zone. From that moment on he started reading words around him. Stop. No. Tesco. Car Park. Way Out. Exit. M&S. Way In. Go. I got quite excited. I ordered some Dr Seuss books and he was able to read Hop on Pop, almost entirely by himself. He got quite excited.

Then he seemed to get tired of all this reading and certainly of the excitement and backed off. He didn’t want to read any more books and he stopped reading words when we were out. I backed off too. A few months passed. Then he saw some books in a charity shop and asked to buy them – they were level 1 of a Ladybird Reading Scheme. They had level 2 and 3 as well, and one level 4. We went home and he read all the levels 1 and 2 and 3, and then 4. We had finished the reading scheme. He seems to work out the words from the start and end and a bit of guessing, rather than using phonics. I downloaded some Learn to Read apps, he played them about twice.

What happened next? We didn’t read every day or buy more progressively difficult books. We had lots of books around. We sometimes pointed things out, like that ‘ph’ makes a sound like ‘f’. He started reading more complicated signs when we were out. ‘Please don’t walk on the Grass’, ‘Children under 8 must be supervised at all times’, ‘Emergency Door release’, ‘A different kind of January blue ”,‘First Train from Platform 2’. I pointed out words to him sometimes, and sometimes he pointed them out to me. The world was suddenly full of things he could read.

Advances came in leaps, suddenly he seemed to be able to read longer words. He picked up picture books at home and read them aloud to all of us. He read the instructions on packages of food. One day he could read enough to cook brownies from a packet, following the recipe on the back and measuring out the oil and water. He got interested in the Beano comic and found he could read it himself. He read trivia questions and board game instructions. He would read words by dividing them into pieces and identifying the parts he knew, ‘that’s like the start of ‘bread’’ he would say when trying to decipher ‘breakable’, ‘and then the end of ‘table’.

The whole process so far has taken about a year. He’s still learning to read. Last week he said to me that he could work out new words from the others around them and that he knew an unfamiliar word must say ‘daughter’ because of the sentence it was in. He reads silently now. He can read paragraphs, sentences and instructions.

It wasn’t magic and it didn’t happen overnight. The process was him piecing together information that he had and making new connections, then pulling in new information and resources from the world around him when he needed it. He has never read for the sake of learning to read, or because someone has set him a task of reading – he reads because he wants to, or because he needs to find out what information is in the text. So for him, reading has always had purpose and meaning. He has always read with expression and vigour,  even when he could only read a very few words. He has no experience of the monotonous drone of the child completing their required pages of reading homework.

It has been a magical process to watch, however, and for me the most important part of it is that he has felt good about his reading ability throughout. He was 8 before he learnt to read at all and 9 before he had any degree of reading fluency, but he had no concept of himself as a ‘late reader’ because in his world there is no such thing. We said that children read earlier, some read later, just as some learn to swim or ride a bike earlier and some later. Learning to read has been truly joyous and self directed process of exploration and figuring things out, as he wanted to and needed to.

​Learning to read and write, without being taught: Jessica’s story

We were given permission to republish this post by Unschooling parent and teacher, Mel Caden from the Monkey Mum blog.  Read more of Mel’s thoughts on learning without instruction here: monkeymum.blog

This is Jessica.

She is 6 years old and has never been to school. She has never had a reading or writing lesson in her life, yet she is a fluent reader and a very competent writer. No-one has ever sat down and taught her. Instead, driven by her own motivation to communicate through text, she has taught herself: discovering her own strategies, finding joy in experimenting with language, and feeling a profound sense of pride in becoming more independent.

Some people believe that children can’t learn to read without being taught. Jess is proof that they can.

From a very young age (probably before she could even talk) one or other of us parents has sat (or laid) with Jess in the evenings to read stories. As a baby, we’d choose the stories for her – picture books or board books – but as she grew into a toddler, she’d choose the ones she wanted to hear herself, from the bookshelf or the boxes we had scattered around the house. She would often choose the same books, night after night after night. She would listen, and learn the stories; she learnt the rhythm and the sounds of the spoken words; she noticed if you accidentally read something wrong or missed out a page, and she would pull you up on it. She wasn’t technically reading the printed words on the page, but it was all groundwork, and it was all her own.

When she was about three, she started to play around and have fun with the text in her favourite books. She’d place her thumb over the last word on a line, so that I couldn’t read it, and would giggle when the sentence ended up making no sense. She would ask me things like, “where does it say crash, mummy?” and she would point to words that started with the same letter as her name, and ask what they were. She would trace along the lines with her own finger, moving it faster or slower, and would whoop with delight when I changed pace to match her as I read aloud. Over those 2 or 3 years, she went from passively listening to stories, to being able to recite whole picture books by heart, to experimenting playfully with text and language.

Around the same time, she began to recognise a few words by sight, like the big ASDA shop-front sign, which she’d also spot on food packaging, and like the titles of her favourite books and TV programmes. I knew that she was recognising them because of their characteristic visual appearance (the bold, capital, green letters of ASDA, for example), but alongside that, just like with the learning of her picture books of by heart, she was creating associations (albeit likely subconsciously) between the way words and letters looked in print, and how they sounded when spoken.

Because she seemed to be fascinated by words and letters, we picked up some alphabet cards, and I blu-tacked them to a cupboard over out kitchen table, where we sat every lunchtime to eat together. I can’t remember how the game started, or who initiated it, me or her, but she ended up asking for this game every day. While we ate, I would point to a letter, stuck on the cupboard, and she would say its sound. I started easy, the J in her name, the M in mummy, the S the looked like a snake. She’d ask me for more. One day, when she knew a few of them, I moved them over to a strip of wall beside the cupboard, to get them out of the way, and so began ‘the tower’ of letters she knew. From them on, each time we played we’d build the tower of alphabet cards as high as we could, up the wall, and almost to the ceiling eventually. It was her game, her motivation. It was her asking to play.

At about 4, she began asking if she could read the bedtime story, instead of me. By this time, she was familiar with so many picture books, and knew many of them word for word. We changed how we managed bedtimes (we had a 3 year old and a 4 year old that we had been reading to together) so that Jess could be afforded the time and patience needed without frustrating Amy. She would choose a book, one that she knew inside out, and as she turned the pages of the book, she would tell the story. At first, she would do it from memory, some of her wording was different to the words on the page – she was retelling as best she could remember, rather than actually accurately reading the words. But I let her, because I could see the value in her sense of achievement and independence, and I could send the damage I would do if I were to stop and correct her. And besides, even we adults don’t always read things accurately, or we skim read and fill in the blanks. At that stage, technical accuracy was less important than the pride and self esteem I could see that she was getting from being the reader instead of the listener.

As time went on, she began to pay more attention to the actual text on the page. She would often spot when her own remembered words didn’t match up with the words on the page, and she’d look at the text more carefully, sometimes figuring it out from initial letters, sometimes asking me to read it instead. At some point, she stopped asking to be the reader, and wanted instead to go back to being read to again. And of course that was fine – we went back to all snuggling up together with me in the middle, reading. We followed her lead and went with it.

It was also around this time that she started to want to type words into her tablet. She’d ask me to type “surprise eggs” into YouTube, or she’d ask me to type in the name of whichever creature she had just created in an app. She started playing Minecraft, and asked me to help her write signs, or name her worlds. For a long time, I was her tablet scribe, which at times seemed endless and relentless and frustrating (for me and her!).

Playing Minecraft was one of her big motivations in learning this new-found skill. I’d join her in her world, from my own tablet, and we’d build together, sometimes working on the same structure, sometimes creating our own separate ones. She’d ask me about the names of the items in the inventory. She would read my signs I wrote around my Minecraft house… bedroom, bathroom, upstairs… ones she could easily figure out in context even if she couldn’t decode the whole word through its letters. She began to write in the in-game chat – things like “hi” or “hello” and of course, things she found funny like “poo” and “wee”. And I’d write really simple lines back, simple one-syllable words, that I knew she’d be able to figure out: “look up”, “take this”, “I love you”.

Soon, despite the fact we sitting on the same sofa, we were chatting back and forth through text on in-game chat. Jess would often tell me off if I said something out loud instead of writing it. She loved it.

She started writing more of her own Minecraft signs, to explain what something was, or to welcome you to her shop, or to label different people’s aeroplane seats with their names.

She started playing on Roblox and also on Minecraft minigames servers. She loved the games in which she’d be given a category and have to either build something or design an outfit to fit that category, which would then be put to a vote. Time and time again, I was called on to read the category to her, so she could compete. And I’d grit my teeth and read it to her, for the 29th time that day, trying not to sound exasperated. Then, one day, on Roblox, she suddenly found a way to do it without me. She would look at the word (winter, for example), and even if she couldn’t understand it, she’d type the letters into the search bar on the clothing inventory, and see what came up. The array of clothing in the results would give her all the clues she needed to then figure out the word. Suddenly she was independent.

With books, she had begun to enjoy hearing Mister Men and Little Miss books. She’d previously loved the Biff and Chip series, but had been looking for something different, and Mister Men books seemed to hit the spot for her. She loved the humour; she loved the layout and format, and she loved the fact that there were words that she hadn’t heard before, like nincompoop and calamity and curious. She suddenly found joy in exploring a whole new range of vocabulary  (something that’s conspicuously missing from any phonics reading scheme). At some point (the first time I remember it was on a short car journey) she started to read the books to herself, in her head.

Back online, she grew desperate to chat to other players in-game. Both on Minecraft servers and in Roblox games, she watched the chat. I never managed to get the hang of Roblox, but she didn’t need me. She played role-play games and would write her messages to other characters in the game: the shopkeeper, the school teacher, the baby she was adopting. Suddenly her ability to read words and sentences exploded, and she was writing messages back and forth in full-on dialogue.

By this time, we had set up a Skype account, to allow Jess to talk out loud, across the ether, to her friend that she often joined online. It wasn’t long before she started writing messages on Skype, too.

Offline and away from gaming, throughout those couple of years, she also began to add words to her drawings. Simple names came first, then speech bubbles and signposts. As she grew and her ideas and her stamina and her patience developed, her drawings became more like comic strips, with multiple speech and thought bubbles, leading on to cartoon-strip sequences, with some text in each picture. When she was 5, she had been given a DanTDM graphic novel as a gift. After asking me to read it to her in the beginning,  she had confidently read the rest of it independently, and I’m pretty sure this was a big part of the inspiration behind her comic-strip drawing style developing.

Jess is now 6. She loves to draw, but almost every drawing has some writing on it: a speech bubble, a thought bubble, a signpost or a caption. In her mind, there is no distinction between drawing and writing; they are two sides of the same coin – a natural progression in communicating the idea that is in her head, onto paper, to show others. She sometimes plays online games for hours, always socially, communicating with fellow team-members, competitors or role-playing playmates. She recently whispered to me (proudly but not boastfully) that she’d just read a whole chapter book in one go. And most recently, she brought her tablet to me, to show me the most amazing story she had typed into a book on Minecraft – a wonderfully crafted suspense story, complete with beginning, middle and end, of two sisters stranded in a haunted forest, and the horror that befell them.

One day recently, Jess asked me, “How did I even learn to read? Who even taught me?” And honestly? There’s only one answer I could ever give her… “You taught yourself. You wanted to be able to read, so you figured out ways to learn. No-one taught you.”

Of course, to her, it feels strange. She doesn’t remember the particular steps along the way. Her progress in learning to read and write was never a part of anyone’s laid-out plan. She was never told, “let’s learn about full stops,” or “great, now you can read 12 sight words,” or “you can’t read that book – it’s too babyish/too hard”. Instead, she was given the time, the space and the opportunities to pursue it as she wanted; as she needed. When the desire or the need arose, she seized it and never looked back.

Nobody else ever taught her to read. It wasn’t someone else’s teaching success. This was all her own accomplishment, her own achievement.

One that I hope she will always feel proud of.

Visiting Paris Schools

Schools with no lessons? No adult imposed curriculum or rules? Schools where children have an equal voice to the staff and make real decisions about how the school is run – including hiring and firing the staff, and how the budget is spent? It’s hard not to have visions of breaking windows and Lord of the Flies, no matter how many books and articles you see saying this isn’t the case. In order to see what they are really like our whole family (me, my husband and our two always unschooled children) went to visit two schools in Paris. France is experiencing somewhat of an explosion in democratic schooling right now, there are already three democratic schools in Paris alone and at least 31 over the whole country.

Paris is just a train ride from London where we currently live and I speak French, so it was the obvious place for us to investigate schools. Our visits were brief  – just a few hours at each school – and so these are just my first impressions.

Sudbury School Paris was our first call – a bilingual school. The only English language Sudbury model school in Europe that I know of and it’s in France. Their school meetings and judicial committee are in English, but the students mostly speak both English and French.

We were late to arrive due to everyone sleeping in after a very long day travelling from London the day before – however this wasn’t a problem as they have a relaxed start to their day and students do not have to arrive at a set time.  When we did get there we entered immediately into the main room of the school  It’s a small school in a space which has been thoughtfully divided so that in one (very) large room there is a sofa area, a dining table, a kitchen, bookshelves, a play area with blocks and games and even a bunk bed for naps.  Space is not divided into ‘adult’ and ‘student’ spaces, school polices are on bookshelves in the main room and children were playing video games in the only room which could be described as an office. We noticed immediately how calm it felt.  Each student was getting on with their life and learning, two little boys were playing board games and building roads with Kapla blocks, another student was playing Magic the Gathering with a staff member, whilst others were playing Roblox and someone was working through a curriculum. Students cooked food when they wanted to, or ate ready prepared food from home. There are no set meal times. One boy left to go and buy himself food – students can leave if their parents have given permission, the older ones alone, the younger ones with an adult or an older student. By the door there was a list of possible outings with bus times, and a list of who can go out alone and who needs to be accompanied. The staff were interested and engaged and available and really friendly and welcoming. They talked us through how the JC worked and showed us their recorded outcomes which really helped us to envision the process, although that day there were no cases so we didn’t get to see one.

Before we knew it we had been there for over two hours, had downloaded a new coding game and played a board game with frogs and logs. We’d built a bridge and watched Finding Nemo. When we left to get lunch, we could see everyone carrying on towards the afternoon. The sense of well being and contentment stayed with us as we caught the bus to the Jardin de Luxembourg and spent the afternoon on the circular zip wire in the crisp cold park.

L’Ecole Dynamique was another pleasant surprise in a different way. We almost missed it at first, an unobtrusive door in a large building. Inside the atmosphere was quite different because rather than one big room there are several smaller ones. However it still felt calm and focused, with children, adults and one baby spread across several rooms, some playing video games, some watching TV, some eating, some playing and some chatting. Each room has the equipment for something different – a music room has a keyboard and drum kit, the movement room has exercise equipment and crash mats, the cinema room a projector, the quiet room had books and places to relax. There’s a mezzanine with a dolls house and more Kapla blocks. Over the road was the new art and crafts room, with carpentry equipment and pottery. In the common room the children were chatting or playing on tablets which they bring in themselves. One boy cooked himself steak and spaghetti, and then cleared up after himself. Soon after we arrived one of the staff members left with several of the younger children for an all day nature walk which happens every Tuesday. There’s no outdoor space but they can go to the nearby park every day if they want to. In the short time we were there my daughter announced that this was her school and she wasn’t leaving, and my son downloaded a new app which one of the boys was playing.

I’ll leave it to my husband to sum up how we felt on leaving Paris. Those are how schools should be, he said. We’ll be going back.

Find out more about Sudbury School Paris here: www.sudburyschoolparis.org and Ecole Dynamique here: www.ecole-dynamique.org

Christmas wishes

Wishing everyone who has supported and followed us in our journey this year a very Happy Christmas. It’s been an incredible year, we can’t believe how much interest our project gathered so quickly, it just proves how much need there is in the UK for more educational choices. It’s been a steep learning curve for the founders too, from working our way through the Sudbury Valley School planning kit box of resources to visiting EUDEC and Gent, running a camp and discovering just how many hurdles there are to founding an alternative school. But we’re in a stronger position than ever, fully armed with information we need and a clear vision for the school we want to create. Keep following us in 2018, we’re busy planning lots more interesting events to help you learn more about our school and will be announcing more details about our plans as we make them including the all important questions of fees and location. Here’s to hoping we won’t be saying ‘what if’ in Kent for much longer and our children will have a school right here where they are truly free to learn.

Learnings from Eudec

The European Democratic Education Conference, 2017, seems like a lifetime ago now but it has taken the last two months to fully process everything we took away from it.  For those of you unfamiliar with Eudec, it is a yearly event held in Europe, bringing together democratic schools and projects, as well interested individuals from all over Europe and further afield too.  The conference is incredibly intense, where enthusiasm runs wild and is both utterly infectious and impossible to contain. In fact it was almost impossible to remember that democratic education is not widely known about in the UK.

I’m not sure I have experienced ‘community’ quite like it.  Days are filled with back to back workshops, discussions, speeches, film screenings and more.  The term like minded people has never been so true for me as it was in this setting.

We took so much away from the experience, I want to summarise just some of what we have learnt that will most certainly help us on our amazing journey to start this school.  Lets start with the first speaker:

Frances Alvo

What a start to the conference this was for us.  Frances attended Sudbury Valley School and her talk was titled – Exploring the concept of passion while living the Sudbury model.  When you spend so much time researching, reading and by most people’s definition obsessing over Sudbury like we have, it’s very exciting to finally meet and hear from someone with first hand knowledge, someone who actually attended and graduated from the school.  The time we spent talking over things with Frances afterwards was also very helpful.

Frances talked about not finding a passion during her time at Sudbury. She immersed herself in the school and was involved in the governance, later becoming the Judicial Committee Clerk.  It is clear that she gained a great deal from this as well as her overall experience at SVS but it wasn’t until later that Frances realised that although she hadn’t – like lots of students – found a particular passion, that was okay because actually what she had learnt was to be passionate.  She is now obviously passionate about lots of things in her life, she is ready to take life as it comes and be happy while choosing paths that speak to her at the time.  This expressive, articulately spoken, driven young woman is clearly a great advocate for democracy in education and of course Sudbury Valley School itself.

Three of us attended Eudec.  If there had been any less we wouldn’t have been able learn and engage in what we did. The timetable of events (most of which put on by the attendees themselves in an open space format) was so full we had to split up and tackle different things at the same time as to not miss out.

Here are some of the titles of talks, key note speeches, open space discussions and workshops that we were involved in and my brief thoughts on the ones I attended;

Peter Gray

Self Directed Education as a worldwide movement: WHY THE TIME IS NOW !!!
Peter Gray’s book ‘Free to Learn’ started me on this incredible journey.  Joining us live via video link from his home office, Peter Gray’s plea for help on his mission to start a worldwide movement for democratic education was as passionate as you would expect.  Why the time is right, right now, was broken down into four points and he expanded on each but these are the outlines:

  1.  Increased toxicity in schools  
  2. Never has there been more evidence of the outcomes of Democratic Education
  3. Never has it been easier for children to self educate
  4. The Workforce emerging needs individuals with skills that traditional schools are not succeeding in but that Democratic schools are

Peter Hartkamp

Beyond Coercive Education – A plea for the realisation of the rights of the child in education.
This talk was based on Peter Hartkamp’s book titled as above, which I highly recommend, debunks common myths surrounding coercive education.

Henry Redhead

Summerhill School
Henry Redhead gave an insightful and witty view of life at Summerhill, stating that the social and emotional well being of the child comes first and academic learning comes after and often later.  He discussed in quite a bit of detail the schools experiences with the UK inspection process with both OFSTED and the Independent Schools Inspectorate.  This has been invaluable to us as we prepare to register as an independent school.

Sociocratic Schools

Very interesting session discussing the organisational structures and ways of setting up sociocratic schools and how they work in practice.  Although we are not going down this route, the ways in which they come to unanimous decisions was incredibly thought provoking and there are definitely lessons to be learned.

Why is democratic education so white and middle class? – What can we do to change this?

This discussion was one that I was keen to participate in. Although I feel we still didn’t reach an answer, headway was made. Having others from around the globe involved in the discussions made it valuable in a way I hadn’t expected. Micheal Greenberg often discusses the individual world views of others and this discussion showed how true his statements are.  – The differing views from varying countries on this issue were plain to see. The outcomes and thoughts often similar but actually the journey to get there incredibly different. We concluded that ‘social class’ and the link to household income was the most obvious answer to why but that didn’t answer the question as to what we can do about that when so many countries including the UK object to providing funding for democratic schools. Derry Hannam made a point which stuck with me. He said “ There is a direct correlation between class and learning outcomes in every country…. EXCEPT Finland, where private education is illegal”. That says it all to me!

Phoenix Education Trust

Building A Democratic Education Movement in the UK!
This only highlighted to me even more the importance of the Phoenix Education Trust and how hard they are working to bring around a real change in our education system. You can check them out and follow the UK’s voice for Democratic Education here: www.phoenixeducation.co.uk

Q & A on Sudbury

Lead by staff from 5 different Sudbury Model Schools.  Kezia found this open space to be one of the most helpful and got lots of insights to both theoretical and practical issues and thoughts.

Derry Hannam

Creating democratic learning communities within state schools
This was one of my favourite talks of the week. Not only was it an absolute pleasure to get to know Derry and his wonderful wife during the week but his experience, story telling ability and true passion and devotion to democratic education for all is absolutely inspiring. He spent his time as a teacher defying management and the status quo by introducing democracy into his classroom and all but throwing the national curriculum out the window. Management soon left him alone when the reality of the results of his efforts began to show! After that you can add; Head Teacher, OFSTED inspector, Advisor to the European Council and UK government and Consultant to his repertoire. Oh and how could I forget the beautiful tunes to entertain us one evening on his new Irish flute! Derry has been very generous with his time, encouraging us and answering lots of questions.

Claudia Reneau

Differences between Unschooling and Democratic Education
Being a long term unschooler and luckily for us – as the talk was in French – a French speaker, Naomi went along to this. This certainly contributed to our thoughts and discussions on a subject that we have been talking about since the birth of the EKSS project. If you haven’t seen, Naomi has summarised her thoughts on our blog recently here: Democratic Education: Unschooling at school?

Paris is always a good idea” – Audrey Hepburn.  She wasn’t wrong, although as I boarded the Eurostar on our way to the European Democratic Education Conference I had assumed I would see more of Paris than just the conference site itself.  It was so exciting that I hadn’t wanted a break from it at all.  Nearing the end of the week however Kezia and I went for out for dinner only to find this stunning park just across the road. I for one can’t wait for the next one!

Democratic education: unschooling at school?

August 2017, and my unschooled daughter and I arrived in a scruffy hall of residence in the outskirts of Paris for EUDEC. The European Democratic Education Community conference. Eight days of talks, workshops and discussions over green mint tea gave me the chance to really think about the difference between democratic education and unschooling, and a few of my reflections are here. At this point I know more about unschooling than democratic education – but most people who write about the comparison seem to know one better than the other. Perhaps it goes with the territory.

I’ve noticed that most discussions which contrast unschooling and democratic education focus on two key differences, depending on who you ask.

Many unschoolers will talk about attendance,  saying that in a democratic school children are not free to leave at any time and are obliged to attend each day and therefore it can’t be anything like unschooling.

Democratic educators concentrate on another aspect. They describe unschooling parents as always present, constantly looking for resources and experiences which they think might interest their child. They say that this is very different to democratic education because the parents, rather than the children, have responsibility for the learning process.

What I hadn’t properly appreciated before and what Eudec 2017 really brought home to me is that democratic education is about living in a community. It’s about conflict resolution, about how you balance the needs of the individual with those of the community and how to effectively make decisions in a group. In many ways this is the ‘curriculum’ in democratic schools. It’s essential learning – in most democratic schools you can’t be suspended for poor academic performance or not attending classes (if they exist at all) but you can if you refuse or are not able to comply with the democratic structures of the school. It doesn’t make sense to talk about democratic education without acknowledging the community as the context.

Whenever a community comes together, conflicts emerge. Different people want different things. So very quickly the question arises; how can we balance the needs of the individual to live their life as they choose with the needs of the community for its members to peacefully coexist and not infringe upon each other?

Various democratic schools attempt to resolve this tension between the needs of the individual and the needs of the community in a variety of ways – some have school meetings, others school circles. Some have judicial committees, others mediation groups and ombudsmen. Some have all of those things. Some have extensive rule books, others function with no rules at all. Some use voting whilst others make decisions by consensus. Myriad solutions to the fundamental question of how to set up systems and structures which enable children and adults to manage their own communities.

Contrast this with unschooling, where the tension is resolved rather differently. Commitment to any community is generally valued somewhat lower by unschoolers than the preferences of their individual child. If a unschooling family is experiencing conflict within a group, frequently they will leave the group. If a child is behaving in a way which harms other members of a group but wants to remain in the group, the unschooling answer is more parental presence and partnering. This means that individual unschooling parents are the authority who decides what behaviour the community can manage and when intervention is required; rather than a collective meeting of children and adults. They also decide how the child should be stopped, or at least how they will try to stop them.

School meetings are where students and staff make decisions about how a democratic school should work and what the community expects from its members. There is no equivalent structure in the loose groups which comprise unschooling communities and typically nowhere for concerns to be openly discussed. Children are not involved in a process of managing conflict in the group because ultimately that responsibility is in the hands of their parents. It’s a very different way of managing the needs of the individual and the wider community.

Learning and pedagogy, you might have thought, would be where unschoolers and democratic educators agree without question. No forced curriculums, no standardised testing, learning through living and meaningful activities chosen by the child. But no, there is a subtle difference in how unschoolers and democratic educators view learning and the ideal environment for learning. In many forms of democratic education, the motivation and autonomy of the child is extremely important and they need to demonstrate that they really want to learn something before others will invest time or money into helping them do so. They may have to fundraise to buy equipment that they need. Dan Greenberg writes about children asking him repeatedly if he would teach them maths (and him finally agreeing to teach them using a highly traditional approach with an old fashioned textbook and homework). In contrast an unschooling parent will provide abundant resources for the child to learn from and will not expect the child to either contribute to those or stick to the interest for longer because of the expense. A rich unschooling environment means one with a lot of options available, free of any opportunity cost to the child.

In many forms of unschooling there is also a favouring of incidental learning over intentional learning, for example parents whose children want to improve their reading are typically advised to focus on other things and dissuade them from focusing directly on learning how to read. Some unschoolers reject the term ‘self-directed learning’, arguing that their children do not direct their learning but rather learn as a by-product doing things they find enjoyable.

It is true that in many democratic schools there is no curriculum, and advocates for democratic education like Peter Gray argue that children learn best when they are engaged in activities which are meaningful for them and of their choosing, whether this is sand play, astronomy or Minecraft. But intentional, self-directed learning is valued alongside incidental learning, and the very intentionality is nurtured and encouraged.

Relationships between children and adults are central to both unschooling and democratic education. Unschooling parents often talk about the close relationship they have with their children and how fundamental this is to unschooling. However, some democratic educators would argue that it’s possible that this very closeness means that a child cannot be free to make their decisions. An adult who is interested in and engaged with the child but is not their parent relates to them in a different way. Democratic educators see this as freeing for the child who no longer has to factor their parent’s emotions into their choices – and in fact early pioneers such as AS Neill thought that children needed to be removed from their family for terms at a time in order to be able to learn freely. Unschoolers try hard not to pressure their children but the very nature of the parent-child relationship means that the child is highly attuned to their parents’ preferences and emotions – and when unschooling, children spend a lot more time with their parents than without them.

Another aspect of this emotional involvement is that unschooling parents often want to avoid their children feeling distress or difficult emotions, partly because they feel it so intensely when their child is hurt. There’s a focus in unschooling on keeping children comfortable and safe, which is of course important – but in order to experience life fully, children need to learn that they can venture outside their comfort zone without disaster occurring. An ideal learning environment feels safe and also contains challenge and novelty, even if this causes discomfort at first. For when parents consistently try to avoid a child feeling upset, anxious or angry, the child can learn that these emotions are frightening and to be avoided, which leads to restricted life choices. The sense of safety ultimately needs to come from within the child, born of self confidence in their ability to cope, rather than from the environment around them being carefully constructed in order to remove any possible stressors.

As we left Eudec 2017 (with my daughter saying she’d like to come back for her holidays next year) and caught the train back to London, what really stayed with me was how passionate democratic educators are about spreading their ideas to wider society, talking about increasing democracy in government schools, how we truly create a community of equals, whether democratic education is a social justice movement or whether it simply creates a new class of privileged young people. The focus on looking outwards, on improving accessibility for children whose parents have little money, for children designated as having special educational needs, for those who are let down by society gives it a dimension which I have not seen in unschooling. It’s about educating children beyond our own, about changing paradigms of education and challenging preconceptions about what ‘an education’ actually means.

And that’s what would make me say that no, democratic education is not unschooling at school. To say so misses much of what is unique and important in both. Unschooling as it is currently most often described is about parents trying to meet the needs of their individual children and it isn’t possible to transfer that to a school setting. Whereas democratic education is a child engaging in self-directed learning in a mixed-age democratic community, and it isn’t possible to do that at home.

Visiting Sudbury School Gent

Sudbury School Gent

As part of the process of preparing ourselves to open our school we are visiting as many other schools based on the Sudbury model and other democratically run schools as possible.  Last week my daughter and I made a visit to Sudbury School Gent.  Despite being short the visit was really interesting and we both enjoyed soaking up the atmosphere.

Despite the language barrier and both the site and people being completely new to her my daughter felt comfortable and at home really quickly.  I think it helped that it felt very much like our house, lots of relaxed spaces with different things to do and a wonderful atmosphere of peace, happiness, mutual respect and personal responsibility filled every room.  The first question she asked was what are the rules, knowing how a Sudbury school works she was keen to make sure she didn’t break any rules out of ignorance.  It was also interesting to see she picked up on the idea of responsibility really quickly and tidied things away after herself, not something she is usually in the habit of doing at home.  She also got her first certification for using the trampoline which required her to understand and agree to the trampoline rules.

We sat in on a couple of Judicial Committee (JC) cases. One of the concerns parents and children raise most often with me when thinking about our proposed school is that the JC seems very punitive and that it might be scary for children to have complaints raised against them.  If you have been used to parenting in a gentle way without the use of punishments I can see why this would at first feel very alien to you.  What we both witnessed however had no sense of ill feeling and blaming.  Everyone was very civil and respectful, listening to each others points of view and explaining their side.  Those charged with breaking a rule were very accepting and agreed that it was fair and justified.  Most importantly everyone walked away friends, one of the most important aspects of the JC is that it clears the air.  Everyone is heard and everyone is treated fairly so there is no need to harbour a grudge, it restores peace to the community.

Find out more about Sudbury School Gent here: www.sudbury.be

Learning languages

One of the questions asked at camp was if children aren’t introduced to things like a foreign language as a subject how will they spontaneously discover it as something that can be learnt about? The subject of course could be anything and the answer is in a myriad of ways because we are surrounded by so much information and others carrying out their activities all the time that we cannot escape becoming aware of other things.
One of the most common ways you become exposed to a language of course is by travelling and we’ve just come back from a family holiday in Belgium. We could have prepared for the trip by rote learning a few ‘key phrases’ that might have been useful or not and might have been retained after the holiday or not. On the ferry over my kids did ask me what a few of these phrases are in case they wanted to play with other kids they met, so that idea was already on their minds.
But what impressed me the most was not what words of Dutch they learnt but how being surrounded by others speaking different languages made them think about what a language is. My 6 year old daughter asked how does everyone know what words mean in a particular language and where did the words come from originally? Why don’t we all speak the same language? And why does any particular word mean what it does and not something else? After a pondering discussion about these fascinating questions inspiration struck and she decided to make up her own language and proceeded to write up a dictionary of words with little drawings to indicate their meaning.
Learning language, play dictionaryIt doesn’t matter that these are not real words and that she didn’t learn a real foreign language in Belgium her game was in trying to understand the very nature of language and by creating a play model of her own language she was getting to the heart of what is a word, what is its meaning, how do you convey it to someone else and isn’t writing wonderfully useful for these purposes. The game might end there now we’re back home or she might show a friend one day and continue it in another game and the idea might spread through her friendship group, it doesn’t matter because it’s not the only time she will come across and be intrigued by the idea of language.

Photos from camp

We all had a wonderful time at our summer camp.  We thought it would be nice to share some of the best photos from the week.  If you have any stories or other photos you’d like to share please add them in the comments or forward them to us at office@eastkentsudburyschool.org.uk.  We’d also love to make next years camp even better, complete our survey to let us know what you thought.