Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Would You Go This Far?

The NY Times today ran an article about the Manhattan Free School.

Readers, would you send your kid(s) to a school like this? Why or why not?

My answer is no. Now, it could be that the article was badly written (it wouldn't be the first time), but it's really not clear what the kids gain from attending this school. What do they know at the end of the year that they didn't know at the beginning? What experiences have they had? It could be a long year of nothing in particular.


  1. PsychMom says:

    The article is light weight, and doesn't get at the philosophy well enough. It's kind of odd to send a kid to a school if what you're really wanting to do is "unschool", which is what it sounds like. I just read the "Unschooling Unmanual" this weekend and found it inspiring, but it is very much based on family being the center of a child's world and the learning occuring within a family context. You can't unschool and then send your kid to a building to be with other people and kids all day long. That sounds to me like dumping.

    I would say the school my daughter attends is closest to the Reggio model..with a curriculum that is student driven to an extent, but still has too much rigidity and traditional school trappings for my liking. They come out knowing stuff at the end of the year, but increasingly I'm saying ....."so what if she knows that"

  2. My thoughts are similar to PsychMom's. I don't know much about how these schools work in practice (and the article didn't add much to that knowledge), and I'm interested to know more. But my first impulse is to find the unschooling idea more appealing than the "free school" idea.

    One of the great benefits of any kind of homeschooling is that your child is not being institutionalized, and so can be treated more as an individual. Or, put another way, the institution of the family is much more capable of creating an enriching environment and of modeling humane values (including intellectual development) than a larger institution with more kids and less parental involvement.

    I do wish there was some way to have the offerings of a more traditional school, but without the element of compulsion. Right now, my kids' favorite parts of school are their foreign language and musical instrument lessons -- both of which are "extras" that are entirely voluntary and that they chose to do themselves. If the traditional subjects were presented more as options rather than as mandatory, I don't think they would just choose to play with Play-Doh for thirteen years.

    There are a lot of aspects of traditional schooling (about the teacher's role as authority figure, behavioral rules, etc.) that wouldn't bother me if the kids' presence in any given class was meaningfully voluntary.

    I don't how such a system would work, logistically, if it could work at all. But tossing ideas like that around is part of what blogging is for . . .

  3. PsychMom says:

    OOoo Chris I like how you think...That is saying exactly what I'm feeling about school too. If there was even a partnership between teachers and students, let alone parents and teachers, the concept of school would be a lot more palatable for me.

    The assumption that kids would sit like lumps unless a teacher guided them galls me. Teachers turn kids into lumps, by having them on routines and schedules where they don't get to think about anything except what they're told to think about. And the pace of it all...it numbs me. I can't imagine what it does to a kid's brain.

  4. I find the comments on this site very compelling and astute, both for this post and others I've read. I'm not sure what to think of the free school concept. I don't think I'd send my kid there, but I don't know what other options these parents have or why they chose this for their children. The pace of work in my daughter's first grade class is very fast and the work is quite boring from what I can see. I took it upon myself to let my daughter's first grade teacher know that my daughter isn't all that keen on worksheets and not to be surprised if my daughter can't be cajoled into doing them with the traditional carrots and sticks that the public schools here employ. I also told the teacher that we'd be taking a "measured and selective approach" to the homework (translation: "We don't need no stinkin' worksheets"). I told my daughter that we decide what we do at home, not the schools. Hey, it's the school that said they wanted me to be a partner in my child's education, right? I guess they meant a silent partner but that doesn't wash with me. Last time I checked I was paying for the schools...so yeah, I can see how a parent might get to the point where they feel that playing with play-doh all day long is a better choice than the "insert facts produce standardized test scores" approach. As for college, there's a seat for every butt. With decent SAT's and some nice recommendations, these kids can probably get into some nice schools. Or, they can go to their community college for two years, figure out their course in life and waltz right into a four year college for their last two years of school. Maybe "free school" is the right school for some kids and families.

  5. Hi Kim, PsychMom here..

    It is stimulating to contemplate that there are actually alternatives to the monotone put out by schools. Good for you for protecting your child from homework and for making rules about what goes on in your house.

  6. This discussion reminds me of the old Ann Landers advice, which she dished out to wives contemplating divorce. She told them, "ask yourself -- are you better off with him or without him?"

    At this point, I feel that my kids and I are better off with their current schools than without them. The kids are basically happy, they're learning some academics, and they're enjoying the company of the other kids. Of course, that could change. Stay tuned ...

    With the "free" school, it's not clear to me why it would be better than unschooling. Partly, of course, that could be the fault of a badly written article.

  7. I remember that Ann Landers advice and I, too, think that my kids are better off in school than any other alternative I can provide at this point. Maybe the "free school" is better for some families than unschooling because they can't, for whatever reason, be home with the kids. Does the "free school" amount to more than a babysitting service for some families? I don't know. I do get the feeling that the article wasn't exactly comprehensive on the subject of the "free school."

  8. Young Curmudgeon here..

    I love the convesation on this blog, but don't have time to contribute like I'd like to.

    I have been reading about the Sudbury Valley School, which I think most people would lump in with the free schools.

    I have found the following thought provoking in this research:
    Peter Gray's "Feedom To Learn" blog: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn, see for example "The Natural Environment for Children’s Self-Education: How The Sudbury Valley School is Like a Hunter-Gatherer Band" http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/200809/the-natural-environment-children-s-self-education-how-the-sudbury-valley-s

    Also Sudbury Valley School's website has a FAQ and articles. http://www.sudval.org/ And you ask would I send my child there? Sudbury Valley's philosphy includes the idea that all knowledge is equally valuable and as such tends to downplay what most consider IMPORTANT to counter act culture and parents: http://www.sudval.com/05_parentsandschool.html#03

    So, no, I would not send my child there.

    Peter Gray argues that kids learn many things better from other, more advanced, older, etc, kids than adults. But I really want some adult guidence in my child's life. It is all those other children that makes Sudbury Valley supperior to unschooling, at least in some people's minds.

  9. Interesting, YC. I wonder how other people on this site feel about the idea -- which a mainstay of progressive education -- that kids learn a lot from other kids. It's something that has never quite rung true to my experience. I can see it being true of certain social skills (though I think sometimes the social skills kids learn in schools are worse than no social skills at all; see here), but as to more traditionally academic skills, I guess I'm still a skeptic. I just don't remember learning much that way in my own childhood -- but, of course, I'm just a sample of one.

  10. Young Curmudgeon here..

    "I wonder how other people on this site feel about the idea -- which a mainstay of progressive education -- that kids learn a lot from other kids."

    What it was like for me, mid to late eighties, middle school and high school. Mostly typical school. Grade/Age segregated classes mostly. Ninth Grade English, US History is taken 11th grade, etc. Teacher decides it is important for the kids to learn from each other and so introduces "group work." Of course groups are assigned, because otherwise the four smart people in the class would form a group and not help out the others. I hated it, I hated carrying other people. I hated going to class, knowing that the teacher had no interest in teaching and I wasn't going to learn anything from the slack jaws in my group.

    There were two problems with the approach I suffered. 1) I was usually at the top of my group. So I was expected to give, but who was I supposed to learn from. The other smart kids? No they had their own groups. 2) It was taking place within a culture that . . . did not really support mutual learning. We spent years listening to a teacher and I was good at learning that way. We still had grades. We still had class ranking. Kids teaching kids was a bolt on with no understanding.

    But I was also in Boy Scouts. A great deal of the learning that takes place within Boy Scouts is from the other children, the other scouts. The older scouts teach the younger scouts how to built a fire, pack a pack, choose a space for a tent, etc. It can be very child led. And then as you learn, you get to teach the next scouts behind you. But is is not one tenderfoot trying to teach another tenderfoot, it's the scout with some experience teaching the tenderfoot.

    One of the differences between Sudbury Valley, and presumably other free schools, and traditional schools that, allegedly, supports kids teaching each other is mixing of ages.

    My freshman year of high school, I got involved in my high school's drama club. I worked on the set and lighting, and everything I learned that year in drama was from seniors. The adult in charge dealt more with the director and the actors; she didn't spend time telling me how to set the lights to get the effects desired or how to paint the set or ....

    So I think it is possible for kids to learn quite a bit from each other but it is hard to see if all you get to see is a typical age stratified school.

  11. PsychMom here..

    Our school engages in multiage learning activities that seem to work really nicely, but teachers are still the leaders. Older kids are expected to be role models and provide expertise to the younger kids. It's seen as an adjunct, not a principle way of gaining knowledge. It's an environmental experience that I think benefits the kids.

    I have read Peter Gray's articles about the Sudbury schools.....but I'm not convinced that groups of children should be left to their own devices and for us to call that "education". But then again, I guess it depends on what you value as an education. I'm leaning away from a traditional academic education orientation in my thinking these days too because I think the world is changing in a really big way and I have my doubts about the value of the old school model now. But the options I see out there are not better...I have not found a model yet that offers a sustainable childhood.

  12. I think my kids would do very well at Sudbury Valley.