Power to the students: a creative education

Reimagining the school system.

Art by Chloe Callow.

Schools stratify us, generating division and comparison in an environment where competition shouldn’t and doesn’t need to exist. From a young age we’ve been sorted into categories such as high achieving and low achieving students, well behaved and naughty, essentially good and bad. These comparisons have been reinforced by reward systems and teacher treatment. Because of this, curiosity and creativity has been lost and competition thrives. We need to fundamentally look at the way our schools are structured and ask what purpose they’re serving. Brazilian pedagogue and philosopher Paulo Freire reflects on current educational models within his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968). 

Paulo Freire developed the Banking model of education as a way to theorise how education presently functions. The first aspect of this model is that the student is seen as an empty receptacle, to be filled with knowledge from the teacher. In this way the student becomes a reproducer of recieved. It strips them of their own reality and understanding of the world and binds them to their teachers’ perspectives and goals. This is reflected through the ongoing focus of attaining high marks, an internal impulse many of us have developed from the conditioning we experienced in primary and high school. Sticker charts, merit awards and school ranks instilled in us an idea of what was valuable. I remember receiving merit awards for colouring in a picture or neatly copying the letter ‘a’ over and over again in kindergarten. In both of these actions I remember being bored out of my mind wishing we could be doing or learning about something more exciting. But we were encouraged to be neat, to all produce the same thing, and this behaviour was rewarded.

Between the ages of 5-12, the last thing I wanted to do was sit down for most of the day and re-write the letters of the alphabet. At a time when our minds and spirits are firing in so many different directions, we were bound by the rigidity of school bells and school rules. Constructing imaginary worlds at lunch time with my friends was far more interesting than the books we were reading in year 2. Anyone could join in and we were all a part of creating this make-believe narrative. This type of imaginative play was so beneficial to my development, I only wish we had more time for it. In Rutger Bregman’s book Humankind, he says that “according to the World Health Organisation depression is now the number one global disease. Our biggest shortfall isn’t in a bank account or budget sheet but inside ourselves. It’s a shortage of what makes life meaningful. It’s a shortage of play”. I believe that we are all innately curious beings and seek to understand the world around us through play. But I think this desire has been suppressed as our goals were based on graded numbers. The question I often grappled with in school was whether I was learning to achieve a mark or because I was driven by natural interest in the subject. Often it was both, I just wish it was more of the latter.

In school we didn’t get a say over what or how we learnt things, instead, information was presented to us with an expectation that we would immediately believe it. In response to this, Freire advocates a new model called the Problem Posing education model ‘which accepts neither a well-behaved past or a predetermined future but roots itself in the dynamic present and becomes revolutionary’. Freire describes how from the outset; the teacher’s efforts must coincide with those of the students in order to engage in critical thinking and the pursuit for mutual humanization. Their efforts must be imbued with a profound trust in people and their creative power. There is nothing more powerful than people pursuing something because they want to pursue it and not because they’ve been told to. When there are no assessment guidelines or rules, students can take their own path of understanding.

There is a school in the Netherlands called Agora which is doing just this. There is no hierarchy, no Vice-Principals or faculty heads (only coaches), no homework or marks and no classes or classrooms. The students have autonomy over their own learning. Agora was created in 2014 when Drummen decided to create a new type of school. Crucially in the design process it was students who were consulted about what the school would look like and how it would be run. Philosopher and economist Rutger Bregman visited the school and described the school’s interior mentioning the “colourful chaos of improvised desks, an aquarium, a replica of Tutankhamun’s tomb, Greek columns, a bunk bed and the front half of a sky-blue ’69 Cadillac”. There are no typical classrooms in the school and there are no year levels. Instead, students, with the help of a coach, come up with their own individual plans of what they want to study, explore or work on that day. Every student can pick their own unique project to work on. Rafael, a fourteen-year-old boy at the school, loves computer programming. He’s been doing work for a company website. When asked whether he should be getting paid for this kind of work he replied “what and lose my motivation?”. The students at this school are driven by an intrinsic sense of purpose as they are able to follow their own lines of thought and passions. The coaches help students create their own daily maps but then it is up to the student to follow through with them. Sjef Drummen tells his staff “don’t ask me if this is a good idea. Do it for a week and ask the children if it’s a good idea. Because what I don’t do is manage people, they can do that themselves”. This radical model of schooling flips the power to the students, giving them the tools and sense of independence to trust their own thoughts and curiosity.

A strong sense of community and collaboration is integral to the school, with Drummen reporting that cases of bullying are low. Some people may think that bullying is just an ugly yet innate part of human behaviour and that we need rules and punishments to prevent it in schools. However, sociologists have found that bullying is most likely to arise in total institutions. Sociologist Erving Goffman described the features of total institutions which include: a system of formal rules which are enacted by an authority; rigidly scheduled activities; activities are carried out by everybody at the same time; and everyone in that institution is subject to a single authority.

It is these very characteristics which are present in many state run systems today. If we can build environments that are free from rigidity and conformity, we can create a more collaborative and happier world. Which is what Agora sets out to do.

This type of schooling is preparing kids for a society where creative, engaged and autonomous thought is the priority. It sits in opposition with the way the system is currently modelled which prescribes standardised testing requirements in order to receive government funds. So we’re challenged to ask the question, what is the purpose of schools? Have we become obsessed with school rankings, good grades, a good job and ultimately a good paycheck ? Schools like Agora oppose this concept as they focus on a students personal freedom trusting the child to pursue and learn what they want. Children and young adults have the capacity to direct their own learning with the right guidance. So, we should endeavor to rethink the way our education system works. Is it pushing and pressuring students to pursue a certain set path, in the pursuit of a good salary? Or could it focus on the sense of purpose and joy that arises out of following our own curiosity?

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