“Thanks so much for asking. I can’t wait to come. Talking about democratic education to help people understand it is pretty much THE thing I want to do with my life!” thus Simon Robinson responded eagerly to our invitation for him to speak in Manila about democratic education.
My friend Donna and I have a ridiculously crazy dream of setting up a democratic school either in the Philippines or China or both. It seems ridiculously crazy because of factors too lengthy to explain in this article because this blog entry should be about Simon and his contagious passion for democratic education. In fact, after reading Simon’s answers to my questions posted to him on Facebook, I instantly wished I could send my children to Okinawa Sudbury. I opened coinmill and plugged in the tuition fee in Japanese yen and converted it into Philippine peso. It wasn’t as astronomical as I feared but how are we going to live in Japan? Or for that matter, how are we going to live in another country with an existing democratic school? It’s been bugging my mind these past few days but let me give way to Simon’s musings.
Simon is from England and has lived in Japan since 1997. He has worked extensively in education in Japan and England, and believes that Sudbury-model education provides the best start in life for young people. In his free time he enjoys going to the ocean with his family and drawing comics. (From the introduction of the staff from the Okinawa Sudbury School )
How did you “fall” into democratic education?
There were basically four key moments:
The first was in 1998, in my second year working as an Assistant Language Teacher in a Japanese junior high school. I was teaching a class and spotted three girls sitting together at the back who were completely ignoring my lesson. I realized I was faced with a choice: either I could insist that they participate in the lesson and they’d probably hate me and thus not learn any English, or I could respect their disinclination to participate and have a fun little chat with them instead, and then they’d like me and then maybe at some point they’d learn a little English from me. I chose the latter, and that approach has shaped my approach to education and children ever since.
The second was in 2001 when I got the chance to work at a (now closed) international school in Okinawa that in part modeled itself on Sudbury Valley School. I was only at the school for a short while but it was a fascinating experience and I learned hugely from it. I returned to working in Japanese junior high school but I now had a lot of questions about conventional schooling. Then one fateful day I googled the term “democratic education” and the floodgates opened to an intense period of reading (John Taylor Gatto, John Holt, Alfie Kohn, Grace Llwellyn, Chris Mercogliano, Jerry Mintz, and A.S. Neill, among others) and reflection on the nature of compelled learning and its effects on children.
The third was in 2005 when I spent a week as a volunteer at Summerhill School. As I said to my mother when I got back: “Finally I’ve found a school I actually like!”
The forth was in 2009 when I went along to Okinawa Sudbury School’s first public discussion meeting. For some time I had been feeling that I wanted to start a school, but I had no idea how to get started with that – suddenly here was a group of people to work with! I enthusiastically signed up on the founding committee and as staff and have been there in various capacities ever since!
Why do you want to dedicate your life to promoting democratic education?
I work in democratic education mainly because I really enjoy it – I love working with children and young people in a democratic learning environment. I really enjoy having the chance to get to know children and young people, talking with them about life and sharing my experience – in a free and respectful environment they really listen, and I’m happy to be someone they feel they can learn from. I also learn a great deal from them, though I am aware that one of my flaws is that I am not as good a listener as I want to be (sometimes I talk a little too much!) so at a personal level that’s something I’m working on.
My particular specialism is the democratic meeting process, developing and maintaining a culture of mutually-respectful discussion to solve problems (both structural i.e. how we run the school, and interpersonal i.e dealing skillfully with the inevitable conflicts that arise). I am also very interested in developing a school culture that celebrates free play and creativity, which to me are some of the highest expressions of the human spirit – people (of all ages) are at their best when they experience what they are doing as play and so get 100% involved in it, entering into a state of flow and forgetting even themselves (for more information on this see Mihaly Csikszenmihalyi’s book “Flow”).
I also really enjoy the day-to-day rhythms of the work, in particular the variety. My work is divided between talking: about theory and implementation, and addressing human relations issues in the various meetings, with parents, and also in casual chatting with the kids; and physical action: playing dodgeball, making a treehouse, organising the art supplies, and taking kids out on a trip – all of which are great fun!
And now I’ve got to a stage in my learning about democratic education where I feel I have something of value to share not just within my schools but outside in the wider community – not just working in, but also promoting democratic education. I started a blog, helped a school startup establish democratic meetings, made some presentations at APDEC2016, and I’ve recently started posting videos on social media. All these have been very well-received so I’m now looking forward to the prospect of being able to share my experience with a wider audience, both in person and online. This is all incredibly exciting, and I think this is really what all of us want: the opportunity to develop (and perhaps share) mastery in our chosen field – mine just happens to be democratic education. I’m very grateful that life has given me the chance to develop an expertise in something I love doing, and now the chance to share that expertise.
In your experience, what’s the best way to make people understand what democratic education all about, especially those who have difficulty understanding it?
There are lots of ways to explain democratic education and I’m still experimenting to find the best “elevator pitch.” One way I seem to have been using quite a lot recently is to say that we’ve all had the experience of being in a learning situation that was boring – maybe a lecture or lesson where we found it really difficult to concentrate, maybe even getting sleepy. That feeling is your brain – the learning machine in your head – slowing down, and if your learning machine is slowing down then you’re not going to do much learning! On the other hand, we’ve all had learning experiences where we got really excited and couldn’t wait to find out and do more – that’s your learning-machine brain revving up to a thousand rpm, and it’s going to learn and remember very, very well! So we should set up our society’s learning (and living – we are all learning all day every day!) environments so that our brains get to rev up to a thousand rpm as often as is optimal (i.e. also acknowledging the need to calm down for peaceful reflection and rest).
Another way to explain it is to point out something we all know: that little children are insatiably curious about everything. They really are amazing learners who master such difficult activities as language and walking without any coercion whatsoever. I explain that this instinct to investigate and understand their world doesn’t suddenly stop once they reach school age, so instead of putting them in classrooms to make them learn what and when we say (which they will learn very inefficiently because they are not curious about these things) we should instead continue to allow them the freedom to follow their curiosity and thus learn very efficiently (though in a very individual way that can’t be predicted in advance or controlled by anyone but the child herself).
Another analogy that I often use is to point out that we adults learned to use computers and smartphones in a very chaotic, informal, need-to-know basis (in school I never had any lessons in how to upload a photo to twitter!), learning from friends, the internet, or sometimes from a teacher. This process is exactly the same for children – they learn what they need when they need it in the way that suits them and the situation best. All we adults really need to do is help them when they ask for it (and perhaps if they are looking lost also make suggestions for how they might move forward).
Finally, I often point out that children, although young and inexperienced, are fully human: they have the full range of human experiences: their own perspectives and their own needs, including the very human needs to be listened to and accepted, and to be in control of their own lives. I ask adults to reflect on how they felt at a time when their perspective was being dismissed, ignored or rejected – that’s how children feel when you dismiss, ignore or reject their perspective! And I ask adults to reflect on how they felt at a time when they were forced to do something they didn’t want to do (including if it was being done to them “for their own good”) – that’s how children feel when we compel them to do things!
And this point is really the core of democratic education. It’s not really about deciding things by talking (and in some schools, voting) or granting children the right to play freely and to learn by following their curiosities. The core is that we recognise that children are fully human: they hurt and they feel joy, they get excited about some things and turned off by others, and they need to be listened to and to have control of their own lives – just like us adults! Everything else in a democratic learning environment (the play, the meetings, the school rules, the staff, the music and books and bicycles and computer games and treehouses….) all flows from that one central kernel: children are human, so we need to treat them as human: with respect, in freedom. This same point is also true of wider society: democracy isn’t about voting or governments, it’s about the understanding that the people with whom we share this world, no matter their race, gender, social status, sexual orientation, politics, philosophy, religion, life choices, and (in this particular case) age, are first and foremost people, and so we as a society need to grant them the same fundamental rights we would grant ourselves.
Of course, this is not how most of us adults grew up, so treating children with respect, in freedom, as fully human feels very new and strange, and so can be very difficult. In particular people new to a democratic approach to childhood either:
1) fear giving children control and respect and so don’t do so (which causes a lot of problems….);
2) embrace giving children control and respect so enthusiastically that they end up reversing the power-relationship so that the children are in the position of greater power (which also causes a lot of problems….).
I’ve had a great deal of practice at steering a course between these two extremes so that adults and children can live together in a genuinely equal, mutually-respectful relationship where both get what they need. I’m very happy to now be in a position to be able to share my experience to help other people achieve the same balance.
What’s a typical day like in Okinawa Sudbury for you?
There are a lot of very exciting changes going on at Okinawa Sudbury right now, but I’ll describe the day as it is at the moment, on the understanding that it might be different a few months from now!
Our school has no specific time that we require the children to arrive by, so one staff member will come in by nine o’clock (the official opening time) to open the doors for the early birds, and the other staff will come in by ten (though often earlier if they have work they want to take care of while the school is quiet). We also use this early-morning opportunity to chat informally about the school – issues we are facing or new developments we’d like to try.
At ten thirty we have the daily meeting, which is a free-to-attend-or-not opportunity to talk about the day ahead. Children and staff might announce activities they want to engage in, or trips out they want to take (e.g. to the store to get some art supplies, or to one of the local parks), and we staff will also check on any administrative issues and let each other know what we are hoping to work on today (I say “hoping to” because our best-laid plans often get derailed by the free-flow of the day – sometimes I intend to work on the treehouse and end up playing dodgeball….).
After Daily Meeting has finished, if there’s nothing we staff immediately need to do then we often take advantage of the fact that we are all in one place to further discuss problems or developments we are hoping to implement, but we try hard not to spend the whole morning simply talking (in a democratic school there is always SO MUCH to talk about!) and instead get on with some actual implementation. The mornings are a good time for this since the children often pretty much occupy themselves. However, if there is a trip out planned then often a staff member will leave with a bunch of kids and not come back until School Meeting.
Lunch happens whenever we get hungry (for staff and children alike). Sometimes lunch is also an opportunity to talk amongst the staff, though again we are aware of the danger of spending too much time talking to each other, so we’ll often instead spread out to sit and eat with groups of children.
After lunch is when the children will often approach staff with something they want us to do – maybe get out the paints, watch a performance they’ve been preparing all morning, help make a campfire, or join in their dodgeball game. After a morning spent on more work-like activities, this is often when the staff get to spend time with the children – engaging in activities with the kids builds relationships, which as well as being of value in itself also means we are much better able to solve problems together. (It also gives us staff the opportunity to observe the children at play – if there are any interpersonal problems going on then we will be much better placed to address these if we have seen it ourselves). However, other days we will get on with some other projects while the children play – as staff we try to balance these two draws on our time.
At three o’clock we have cleaning time – everybody is assigned to a particular area (which is changed by lottery every month – a fun activity in itself!) which they tidy, wipe, sweep, and on Fridays also mop. After cleaning we sit down in the main room for the School Meeting, which (unlike the voluntary Daily Meeting) everybody attends. This is where we make decisions regarding the running of the school, for example buying some new equipment, making a new rule, having a party, or allocating budget, and we also address interpersonal issues such as a disagreements or conflicts. It is also an opportunity for staff and students to share what they have been doing today (children may show the pictures they painted, and a staff might explain how she’s rearranged the library shelf), to make people aware of problems (mentioning that one of the rooms was left very untidy today) and to make any necessary announcements (“Tomorrow we’re going to the rock-climbing gym so if you’re coming don’t forget your entry fee, water-bottle, and socks!”).
The School Meeting/democratic process is one of my particular areas of interest, so I take a key role in making sure that the meetings are respectful, constructive and working effectively to solve problems and reach decisions. In particular I keep an eye on efficiency – although it’s important for the discussion to evolve and everyone to have a say, the children get discouraged by very long meetings so I want to keep the process short enough that they willingly engage. We recently agreed on a guideline that we try to keep the School Meeting to half-an-hour or so.
Once School Meeting is finished the children may start up another game, a group may leave early to go to the local park together before heading home, and all the children leave the school by five o’clock, our official closing time. After School Meeting is another time of the day when the children have relatively few requests from us, so we staff usually get on with some admin matters or have an informal meeting to discuss an issue or reflect on the day. Once a week we sit down for a formal Staff Meeting. This is also the time when we schedule any meetings or chats with parents. Around quarter to five we try to make sure we are in the main room to say hi to parents and goodbye to kids as they leave. On a not-to-busy day we may leave shortly after five, though there is often SO MUCH to talk about (and do…) that we often find ourselves staying later.
And that’s pretty much how we spend our days at Okinawa Sudbury School!
Here are some links to articles from Simon Robinson’s blog:
Initial Thoughts on APDEC
Real Learning Comes from Curiosity