Hitchhiking Across the Matrix

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As Wednesday’s keynote speaker, Simon Hulshoff held our attention from the start through clips from movies with existential and philosophical undertones: Matrix, iRobot, Truman Show and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  You wouldn’t know if you are living in a matrix, whether you are awake or dreaming or in a TV show and what is the true meaning of forty two.

The youngest speaker at the conference, Simon from the Netherlands is a representative of and project manager at the European Democratic Education Community. His journey towards democratic education has been dramatic since he spent years doing things without knowing why and ended up in depression.  He looked at alternative schools around but none, he believed, treated the student as an equal.  When a democratic school opened in his area, he talked to the teacher and realized how different that teacher was from everyone he met before.  He attended the De Koer Sudbury School where there were only fifteen students and was happy from then on discovering the marvel of taking firm control of his own education and life.

“Democracy is a living thing,” he said, “You have to improve it, find tools to make it better.  You are only limited by your imagination.”  He pitched an idea to the audience: random democracy to solve the problem of lack of representation.  Pick a hundred fifty people and give them the responsibility of governance.  There would be periodic updates and switches to avoid corruption; nobody would know who they were.

Somebody in the audience fired out a query, “Would it work within a heterogeneous society as well as with a homogeneous society?”  Jaacov commented that ideas such as these should not just be talked about but tested in a community.  Peter Gray said that a form of it already exists in random jury choosing in America.  The topic set off some minds buzzing.

During these past two days at the conference, a torrent of ideas and stories shared by speakers and participants have been coming at too fast a rate for me to document everything in detail so may I just list them here as snippets so as not to forget:

  1. The conference takes place in the Holistic School in Miaoli, Taiwan. It’s been operating as a democratic school for twenty one years.  Matt has been teaching English there for eleven years and said that one of the challenges is that there are times when only two people show up for class because students are not required to attend class.  But those who show up really want to be in that class.
  2. A student experienced being beaten by bullies in a traditional school. His mother moved him to the Holistic School where students can attend classes only if they wanted to.  He ended up not going to class for four years and spent his time exploring the forest around but in his fifth year, he started going to class and discovered his interest in dance.  The mother is attending the conference while her son went to participate in a dance event.
  3. Simon Robinson, a teacher at the Okinawa Sudbury School talked about rewards and punishments are neither good to use because they only lead to temporary compliance. Instead, talk about the real reason why the behavior is a problem. When talking doesn’t work, keep repeating the explanation.  If that doesn’t work, come up with creative solutions.
  4. A twenty-one year old filmmaker, Adler Yang who graduated from a Taiwanese democratic school premiered his documentary, “If There is a Reason to Study” which was fodder for thought-provoking talks late into the night. We had to be shooed out from stage. Quite impressive, his name card describes his role as “Independent Researcher/Social Architect to actualize cradles of sustainable, healthy, sincere and self-actualizing societies.”
  5. A Taiwanese couple quit their jobs to homeschool their seven-year-old daughter. They said that they decided to “reduce their desires” so that they can live a simpler life and focus on their daughter’s education which is the investment they believe in their hearts they should make.
  6. When she was fourteen years old, a Japanese woman recounted that she attended a conference on alternative education and since then felt drawn to that field and decided to travel the world and visit alternative schools. At first her parents wouldn’t allow her but she managed to persuade them.   She travelled and found self-directed and autonomous communities.  I’d have to wait for another time to get the next parts of the story.
  7. A seventeen year old Korean student challenges us to question how humans got disconnected from nature. He feels alive when he is in nature and dead when he is away from it.
  8. In an Open Space led by teachers in democratic schools, this point was made, “You do not teach what you know. You teach what you are.”  Students will pick up your attitude towards life.  They are looking for the human being in you – how do you think, how do you handle yourself, who you are as a person, not as a teacher.
  9. A teacher asked his students, “What kind of teacher do they want?” They said they don’t want teachers.  They want artists – people who have a passion for something and who would share their passion with them.  For example, somebody who thinks math is an art and practices math as an art will treat it differently than somebody who is just teaching it as a subject rather than an “art.”
  10. Every day, reflect about what you felt happy about and what you struggled with. It’s important to say it aloud, not to keep it to yourself but instead share them with your colleagues so that people can learn from the experiences together.
  11. The Geumsan Gandhi Middle and High School in South Korea uses a mentoring and no-grade system. The students plan their own lessons and evaluate themselves.  Traveling solo for a month is part of the coursework as well as writing their life story and doing internship.
  12. In India, when schools switch to learner-centered methods of education, the levels rose by 40% within one year.

More to come in the next few days!

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