This was originally written as a proposal for a free school in our surrounding area, but we thought it could also serve as a helpful outline or guide to how free schools function. Obviously, this is not a strict rule book – and not all free schools operate like this. Think of this as more of a guide for free schools as we see them.
Trying to define how a certain free s-chool would operate before it starts is a little difficult, because by its nature a free s-chool is based off of the needs and wants of the community and individuals that comprise it. However, below is a rough sketch of how a free s-chool operates differently than a S-chool,* and then some of the basic principles that have encompassed free s-chools in our experience.
*John Holt defined a “S-chool” (big S) as a place where learning is done onto a student and a “s-chool” (little s) where individuals do learning for themselves.
Some Main Differences Between Free s-chools and S-chools
1) Your typical American S-chool is not a place of democratic learning. Almost all decisions, from finances to who teaches what, are made from the top down – an elite (mostly unelected) few decide the vast majority of things for everyone “under them.” Free s-chools are generally, at the very least, democratic. How this is accomplished varies. On occasions, free s-chool participants will elect members to accomplish or head up different tasks (organizing, outreach, financing, etc.). Other times, most things are decided in a “general assembly” format. Some free s-chools operate as collectives or cooperatives. Of course, these different methods are sometimes mixed and matched.
2) S-chools are compulsory (at least until the age of 16), and almost all S-chools give out rewards and punishments. This is a method of control over the learners. Free s-chools do not attempt to coerce, bribe, or force their participants to attend or learn. They are places of voluntary association and effort, where learning is not driven by force or rewards – but by the learners’ desires and wants.
3) S-chools typically use a technique that Paulo Freire calls the “banking-method” of teaching. The teachers view the information or subject as theirs and the learners as banks where the teachers must deposit their information. The teacher tells, the student learns and memorizes, and that is “learning.” Generally students are taught that this is the only way to learn (or the “real” way, or the “most efficient” way). Free s-chools attempt to help learners via how they want to learn. If they choose the banking-method (in the format of lectures, movies, etc.), that is fine, but because it is their choice to do so. Other ways of learning that free s-chools often employ are “problem-posing” methods and do-ing based methods. More on how free s-chools can accomplish this below. What is important here is that learners have control over how they learn.
4) Within the same idea, what learners choose to engage is up to them. S-chools dictate: “this is what you must know, and you must learn these things in this order.” Free s-chools serve the interests of what the individuals and communities want to learn (and teach). They can work with learners to figure out what they want to learn, or offer different courses of action, but they are not necessarily the beginning and ending of all learning. Free s-chools do not attempt to make distinctions between learning and living, learning does not happen in the s-chool and living does not happen outside of the s-chool. Learning and living are one in the same; learners engage information and topic on their own accord, within their own pace, and for reasons of their own choosing.
5) In S-chools, there is a very distinct and unequal teacher-student dichotomy. One is viewed as the authority and the other is the obedient; one is the knowledgeable and qualified and the other is not. Free s-chools serve as a place where everyone and anyone can be a teacher and a student. Distinctions can be held at times if the two groups agree to accept those roles (for instance, if someone offers a class and other learners take it). Free s-chools are places where there are not forced hierarchies between students and learners and where it is recognized that everyone is a teacher and a learner.
Some Purposes, Goals, and Tasks of Free s-chools
1) The facilitation of learning and teaching via a free s-chool can happen in many ways – and free s-chools often don’t have complete control over all of these. Free s-chools are regularly the organizing tool for many of these avenues, however. For instance, the free s-chool may help organize, spawn, or facilitate a learning outlet (in this case, let’s use the example of classes). However, the free s-chool is not the governing body over said classes – and a class does not need to happen with express consent from the free s-chool. If a member/participant decides to teach a subject in a class format, and other members decide to take the class, then that is fine. Free s-chools that work in this way often try to help organize the body of knowledge of what’s happening at the free s-chool (some examples: through a pamphlet, news-letter, etc.) and can try to help stimulate more (offer lecture series, film screenings, “question boards” from members, etc.). However, some free s-chools do organize all classes and workshops, etc. It depends on the level of control, organizing, and centrality the free s-chool wants to have.
In the above paragraph, we used the example of classes. However, it should be noted that classes are not the only way to accomplish teaching and learning. It is our opinion that many free s-chools get bogged down in the idea of offering classes. In reality, free s-chools should recognize and encourage that learning happens in many ways and under many formats, including (but not limited to): classes, workshops, field-trips, discussions, playing, sitting and thinking, socializing, doing, working, reading, tutoring, mentoring, and many more. Learning about a subject does not have to be over a long period of time in a class-format. Maybe learners want only a brief introduction, and that will satisfy their curiosity, or maybe they only want to go over the subject a couple of times in the same format, and then decide to seek it out in their own ways. Again, what is important here is that it is a decision made by the teachers and learners together (sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously).
2) Free s-chools often recognize that a lot of learning and do-ing happens outside of the free s-chool. For this reason, it is important for free s-chools to make contacts with other institutions or organizations so that the two might work together. This can include activist, art, sport, S-chool, science, work, and other organizations. The purpose of this is to get members involved in actions and other do-ings within these other organizations through the free s-chool. Learning through do-ing has been a very important aspect of free s-chools.
3) Because of this, a lot of the locations for the free s-chool activities are not centralized within only the free s-chool center (if it has one). There are differences, which can depend on the wants of the free s-chool community and the space it has access to. Sometimes most of the classes/workshops/etc. take place in the free s-chool “center,” other times they take place in other designated areas.
4) The learning and teaching that happens within the free s-chool is dependent on what both the community and the individuals of the free s-chool want and need. Free s-chools don’t implement mandatory learning requirements on its learners. Generally, they recognize and help foster an environment of self-directed and group-motivated learning.
5) While we have found that this is not always a definitive rule, it is something that we have found to be extremely important and is much to our preference: free s-chools should be anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-all other forms of oppression.