Tag Archives: democratic education

A Guide For Developing, Starting, Or Learning About Free Schools

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.
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A Proposal For a New History

“In [the student] comes, this curious, patient, determined, energetic, skillful learner. We sit [the child] down at a desk, and what do we teach [the student]? Many things. First, that learning is separate from living. ‘You come to school to learn,’ we say, as if the child hadn’t been learning before, as if learning were out there and learning in here and there were no connection between the two. Secondly, that [the child] cannot be trusted to learn and is no good at it… In short, [the student] comes to feel that learning is a passive process, something that someone else does to you, instead of something you do for yourself.”

-John Holt, The Underachieving School

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