The grooviest conference I’ve ever attended, the Asia Pacific Democratic Education Conference (APDEC) fulfills and goes beyond my expectation of a mind-expanding, horizon-broadening experience. Set in the middle of a lush forest in the Holistic School, Miaoli in Taiwan, everything from start to finish is out of the box. We sleep on mats and sleeping bags on the dormitory floor and participants volunteer to wash dishes. The convener, organizers and delegates dress up like they’re going to a beach party, giving the event a loose, casual vibe. Everyone is passionate about education whether they are teachers or students who launch stimulating dialogues.
In usual conferences, people who want to present something need to get their papers approved, with prescribed number of words and format, prior to the date and plenary sessions are scheduled beforehand. In APDEC, the keynote talks are in the morning and instead of break-out sessions in the afternoon, they have what’s called Open Space where anyone can sign up and share what they want whether it’s through a workshop, presentation or discussion. It could even include building a cubby hole with found materials, making mandalas, tightrope walking and dancing in the rain.
A worldwide pioneer of democratic education, Yaacov Hecht from Israel opened the conference. Before starting the first democratic school in Israel in 1987, he went through abandoning the school system that didn’t know what to do with students like him with dyslexia. He dreamt of building a school for people like him, saying, “Outside of school, I was a success. In school, I was a failure.”
Yaacov believes that traditional schools act more like museums for the past rather than places which prepare students to live in the future. He challenges everyone to ask the question, “What kind of education will develop the future of our society?” Answering this entails paradigm shifts that upend the way we think, see and act. For instance, most of the math taught in schools is from the past. Do we know the challenges of math today and the possibilities of math in the future?
Imagine a shape that represents all knowledge and picture a small box within which represents the knowledge learned in schools. Life inside the box can get very crowded. It’s hard to see the uniqueness of each individual. Imagine further that inside that box is a pyramid where the weak are at the bottom, mediocre at the middle and the excellent are at the top. According to Yaacov, we view the universe in pyramids. When we meet a new person, we form an opinion based on his background and classify him accordingly within the pyramid. “There is a pyramid in each one of us,” Yaacov confessed, “There’s a pyramid inside myself. I need to work a lot to get the pyramid out of myself.” Magic happens when you find what makes you and what makes other people around you unique.
How does one concretely change the face of education? Through Yaacov’s magical efforts, the Israeli government supports the development of democratic education. The last Minister of Education hailed from democratic schools while thirty democratic schools in his country are funded by the government — a miracle, a magic trick that we, from other nations would like to learn to conjure.
Over lunch, my Chinese friend, Lucy and I discuss questions we’d like to ask Yaacov if we have the opportunity. We grab the chance immediately as we walk through the jungle path back to the conference and ask him about the stronger tradition of democracy in his part of the world compared with the more limited experience of Asian countries. He said that we should search for something in the past that demonstrate how democratic values were upheld and use that to convince people that this has roots in their history and is not an alien concept. We then ask him how affordable can democratic education be when they tend to cost more because they are usually private ventures. He cites how economically accessible it is in Israel because of government funding. Before we knew it, we were talking about how APDEC can possibly happen in mainland China and the Philippines.
One can build an interesting study out of this short conversation: How Israel’s model of publicly supported democratic education can be adapted to China and the Philippines considering the differences in cultural, historical, political and governance conditions. After talking to Yaacov, I felt this man has the knack for planting radical ideas in the minds of people and empowering them to push for reforms – a skill that comes through years of experience leading a movement.
“All it takes is a few crazy people,” he declared. I volunteered, “That’s us!”
Here’s the link to Asia Pacific Democratic Education Conference (APDEC)
Here’s a link to a website recommended by Jaacov that’s a great resource for those teaching or studying history Big History Project
Sorry for the late posting. I didn’t realize all I had to do to get good Wi-Fi connection here in the midst of mountains was to take my laptop to the administration area instead of working in the dormitory.