Uyboco: Summerhill

I FIRST heard about Summerhill School around a decade ago. The school was founded by Alexander Sutherland Neill in England in 1921. Its distinct feature is that students go there and can do anything they want, as long as they do not impinge on other people’s freedom -- the maxim for this being “freedom, not license.”

There is no required curriculum, no exams, no grade levels and no grades (unless so desired by the student perhaps as a means of feedback).

Their website proudly declares: “Summerhill is a school of personal choice, where students must decide each day how they will use their time… they can play, they can involve themselves in a variety of constructive social situations, they can be by themselves to read or daydream, they can engage in self-directed group projects and activities, and they can choose to attend formal lessons… each day the children define themselves by choice and action… this is a profound experience that leads to a strong sense of personal and responsibility and self-knowledge.”

Summerhill is the first of the free school movement, which has spread to many parts of the world. It is a “free” school not in the sense of being free of tuition or fees, but in the sense of being democratic.

The school practices self-governance in which everyone has one vote, whether student, teacher, staff or administrator. Everyone participates in a weekly meeting to discuss and vote on any current issues. The community itself creates their own rules and they can also vote to remove the same rules, if later found to have unwanted consequences.

For example, students voted on a rule to remove bedtime (Summerhill is a boarding school where students and teachers live on-campus), but they later voted to reinstate it when someone complained that he kept waking up due to the noise that other kids made.

The beauty of this system is that children are taught at a very young age to direct their own lives and to be responsible. Contrast this to the standard educational system where adults make most of the decisions and all kids do is to follow and conform to what the “older” people want -- for example, decisions as to what to study and what to learn, how fast they should be able to learn, for example, one year for algebra and another year for geometry and then another for trigonometry -- which may be too long for some and too short for others.

How about kids who want to learn how to draw or animate? How about those who want to learn about raising farm animals? How about those who want to learn how to print shirts, or how to grow a garden, or how to fix broken plumbing, or build a treehouse, or be a world-class poker player?

Who decided that children HAVE to learn Math, English, Science, Filipino, History, and so on, and to what degree? I remember when I was teaching before at this school in Manila, I saw some of my students studying their chemistry notes. I looked over their notes and was surprised because the difficulty level was as if they were chemistry majors and not high-schoolers -- and most of these kids would not even take chemistry-related majors or careers. What’s the point?

Children, when properly motivated to learn, can pick things up very quickly. Some kids approached a teacher and said they were interested in learning math. So the teacher said okay and set some conditions (like attendance in classes, and so on) and everyone agreed.

In a few months, they were able to finish several topics. When this teacher met with a friend who taught in a regular public school, he shared the experience. The public school teacher was surprised.

He said, “How did you finish in a few months? Those topics that you mentioned comprise our entire 6-year curriculum!”

Neill himself wrote, “You cannot make children learn music or anything else without to some degree converting them into will-less adults. You fashion them into accepters of the status quo – a good thing for a society that needs obedient sitters at dreary desks, standers in shops, mechanical catchers of the 8:30 suburban train – a society, in short, that is carried on the shabby shoulders of the scared little man – the scared-to-death conformist.“

A school must facilitate the child’s natural inclination to learn what he wants, and not force the child into dreary conformity on what the school thinks the child ought to want.

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