Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Go Fish!

No, not the card game. I occasionally use this phrase—he or she needs to go fish—as metaphor for what some so-called problem children in elementary schools should be allowed to do.

My source for the phrase is Daniel Greenberg’s Sudbury Valley School (1, 2, 3), which is located on a ten-acre estate in Massachusetts. One of the essential features of the school is that the children, ages four to nineteen, are free to do whatever they want, including fish all day in the property’s pond, instead of attend classes. Indeed, classes are offered only at the request of students; education in the formal or traditional sense is entirely optional. The other essential feature is that large areas of the school’s social and operational behavior, including the hiring and firing of staff, are regulated by democratic vote.

Precursor to this type of school is the much older Summerhill in England (1, 2, 3), founded by A. S. Neill and now run by Neill’s daughter. At Summerhill, though, traditional classes are regularly scheduled, albeit optional, and somewhat more control, including the hiring and firing of staff, is maintained by the owner. Grades, exams, and standard diplomas are absent from both schools. Students who seek higher education are responsible for taking and passing high-school equivalency and college entrance exams.

Whatever one thinks of these two schools—and the opinion is not devoid of emotion—they have proven successful in educating students, or rather, as the proprietors are more likely to say, the students have educated themselves.

Sudbury Valley boasts that eighty percent of its graduates have gone on to college. It also has challenged several chestnuts of the educational establishment, such as the age at which children should learn to read and the length of time required to learn elementary-school arithmetic. Students at Sudbury have become competent readers as young as four and as old as eleven, with some early readers never continuing to read much after that and some late readers becoming voracious at the task. And six years of elementary-school arithmetic was learned by a dozen nine- to twelve-year-olds in twenty contact hours over twenty weeks.

The significance of the fish metaphor is that it represents the peace and quiet of getting completely away from the stresses of modern life, but, more specifically, it represents freedom from one major source of stress in young children’s lives: the coercion of compulsory, government-run education. It also represents a reprieve from the nagging coercions of adults, whether they be parents or teachers.

The guiding premise of both schools, best stated by Greenberg when asked by a new student for advice about going to college, is: “You can do anything you want to do.” You can, in other words, play cards all day, cook all day, take walks, read books, ask staff for a lesson—or fish. The causes of so-called problem children vary, but many are just plain bored of sitting at a desk in a classroom and are sick of having adults lord their size and power over them.

The choice of “doing nothing,” which is “nothing” only in the eyes of adults who think young people should be sitting in traditional classrooms, enables children to relax and become more at peace with themselves and others. When they are ready, they can, if they so desire, choose to pursue other forms of learning and eventually think about what they want to do the rest of their lives. One boy at Sudbury Valley who fished nearly every day for several years became interested in computers at age fifteen. At seventeen he and two friends founded a computer sales and service company; he then went on to college and a career in computers. One boy at Summerhill who had never attended classes taught himself in his last year at the school to pass the university exams.

Equal dignity, or equal respect between adult and child, is what both Sudbury Valley and Summerhill offer their students. That is probably the appeal and success of the democratic meetings for which they are well known. Every member of the staff has only one vote, while the students run the meetings. Empowerment is not too strong a word to describe the effect this has on the students at all age levels. Self-directed, self-responsible young adults are what both schools produce.

Know any children who cannot sit still in a traditional classroom or who are always getting into trouble by being disruptive? My answer to those in charge is that for some of these children the answer may be: let them go fish.


Utbildning said...

"Go Fish!" is a great suggestion. It is just a little bit sad that our modern and urban society don't allow kids to literally go fishing... and that is why "go fishing" nowadays is merely a metaphor that few kids can comprehend.

David said...

We cannot blame our modern and urban society. Sudbury Valley School's reality of "go fishing," equals freedom: freedom of choice, freedom of action, freedom to bear the results of action -- these are the three great freedoms that constitute personal responsibility. This, I'm positive, is something kids certainly can experience, enjoy, profit, and comprehend. If we permit them to do so.

It is not our modern and urban society that don't allow kids to literally, or even metaphorically, go fishing. It is our society that is wrongly directed and does not allow them that.

David said...

“Doing nothing,” in Sudbury Valley School, is what "teachers" do.

"The staff, by being attentive and caring and at the same time not directive and coercive, gives the children the courage and the impetus to listen to their own inner selves."

"Why not let each person make their own decisions about their use of their own time? This would increase the likelihood of people growing up fulfilling their own unique educational needs without being confused by us adults who could never know enough or be wise enough to advise them properly."

See: "The Art of Doing Nothing" by Hanna Greenberg. or

David said...

see also:
Learning to Not Teach, by Jerry B. Harvey

~ David

David said...

What it Takes to Create a Democratic School (What Does That Mean Anyway?)
by Mimsy Sadofsky.

"Note: I was asked to speak, in a plenary session, at the International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC 2008), in August, in Vancouver, Canada. This article is adapted from that talk.

The topic that I was asked to speak about tonight was 'Sustainable Democracy: Creating a Stable Culture in a Democratic School.' Yesterday, while I was here at IDEC talking to people and making other presentations, I began to realize something that I already knew but didn’t have a way of putting into context. Other people who are here have been talking to me about the same thing. The problem I and others are having is, simply, what do we mean by democracy? In particular, what do we mean by democratic schools? An especially poignant moment for me was when an acquaintance said, after chatting with the incredibly charming group from Korea that is here, that Korea is reputed to have 200 democratic schools, but there is not a single one where children are free from a pre-set curriculum. What do they mean by democratic schools?..."

"...First of all, as I said, no one knows what the words 'democratic school' mean. I could experiment by asking a few of you what the phrase means to you, but I’m not sure it would help that much because I think the ideas would all be so different that we’d just be more confused. So I’ll pretend I don’t think that you have different thoughts than me, and I’ll tell you what I think the essential features of such a school are.

First, a democratic school must embody what we call in the United States inalienable rights – they’re listed in our Declaration of Independence: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. are considered the inalienable rights for American citizens. I think that a lot of the free world at this point considers these to be inalienable rights, although it is expressed quite differently in different cultures. Any government in the world, hopefully, but certainly any government of the students in a fully democratic school, is maintained and established in order to ensure those rights. In addition, systems of justice also are established to ensure that everybody in the community has equal rights. That’s not an easy jump. It’s easy to say we want people to have rights, we want democracy, but to understand exactly what the democratic government needs to do, where the government comes into play, is often hard. However, once you find a society, of whatever size, trying to live within the rights we feel all people should have, it becomes quickly clear that a justice system is necessary.

For me, democracy also implies a really solid determination to treat each human being with complete trust and respect and to ensure the dignity of that human being by not ever, ever condescending to them. I don’t think that’s what everybody means when they talk about democratic schools so I thought I’d get that idea out on the table. I think many schools and groups haven’t sorted through this, and haven’t really gotten past the, 'Oh yeah democracy, that’ll be wonderful,' stage...."

~ David

David said...

I'm sure you'll enjoy this story:
My Daughter’s Thoughts on Economic Policy,
by David Henderson.
~ David

Jerry Kirkpatrick said...

Delightful story, including all the comments!

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