DSM: Article about SVS

Marko Koskinen (marko@vapaus.net)
Tue, 20 Mar 2001 23:54:52 -0500

Hi everyone. I wrote my first article in the series of three articles
that I promised to write for the Finnish Youth Co-Operation "Allianssi".
If you have time to read it, I gladly welcome all corrections and
suggestions (and praise if you see it worthy =)



Stolen Childhood

Our compulsory education system steals every child thousands of hours of
their time giving them almost nothing in return. Is there any reason for
such theft? Could our schools be different? Could attending a school be
actually fun?

I'm sitting in a house in Worcester, Massachusetts, surrounded by a snow
storm. It's almost nine a'clock in the evening. What should I write? How
could I shortly tell what I've been trying to tell for the last five
years of my life? Maybe I just say it straight and see what comes of it.

Our education system is totally out of date. It doesn't currently serve
anybody, but rather functions as an end in itself as a coersive
institution oppressing young people. So there, I said it. Now I only
need to justify what I just said. And that's easy…

First I want to stress that every teacher does his/her best all the
time, usually in very hard environment and that the teachers aren't to
blame but rather the system. I want to say exactly what I just said,
that our education system is out of date, it's foundations, theories
about learning and teaching, are totally behind it's time, actually
they've never been up to date. Our schooling system functions mostly on
the same principles that the medieval cathedral schools functioned. Sure
many things have changed, but the changes have usually been cosmetic and
forced by the changing culture.

Our school system was never ment to enchance learning, individual
freedom or human rights. It was made to keep the people in order and
discipline, it was made to level the people, enchance the industrial
revolution. Schools have nothing to do with equality in nowadays'
society. Institutions have a tendency of staying the same, generation
after generation, the educational system is a perfect example. John
Taylor Gatto writes about the questionable history of our education
system in his recent book, The Underground History of American

Well, what's wrong in the education system then? Let's play a little bit
with numbers. How long would you suppose it would take to study
comrehensive school mathematics, if you were really interested in it?
20, 30, maybe 50 hours? How many hours does the school spend to "teach"
it? Mathematics is being teached about 3 hours a week for nine years,
making a total of 3 x 40 x 9 = 1080 hours. 1080 hours (!!!) when you
could've studied all that in may 50 hours or so if you really was
interested in it. So the efficiency ratio is 50/1080, giving you less
than five hours from a hundred of efficient working hours! In a week
there's around 30 hours of school and there are about 40 weeks of school
a year and the compulsory school lasts for 9 years. When we count
together also all the other subjects "taught" whose efficiency ratio is
probably close the same as in mathematics, we end up finding out that
the school steals 30 x 40 x 9 x 0,95 = 10260 hours of their childhood.
10260 hours, that are of no use for the students. Is it any wonder then
that the schools are full of bullying, learning disabilities,
concentration problems, ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), ADHD
(Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and a lot of other things,
when the students are totally made numb with boredom with subjects that
if they were interested in them, they could learn in a fraction of the
time that they are forced to wear the school bench. Oh yeah, I forgot
the homework…

I could also calculate how big a partition of waking hours of a high
school student the school steals, but I could assume that you who have
been taught more than thousand hours of mathematics, could count it
yourself… Is there any reason for such theft? First argument probably is
that if nobody went to school, nobody would learn anything. Second
argument could be that children must surely be taught the basics so that
they can survive in this world and can choose different things in their
life. Third argument could be that if they had no basic education, they
couldn't get to the higher education. Fourth argument could be that if
people weren't forced to learn many different things, they could never
know what they really wanted in their life or what they are gifted in.

The reason for me to come here across the big sea, was to see one the
schools that have proven all these four arguments and many more false at
once. Sudbury Valley School, that has been in operation since 1968, has
proven that without any coersion or even offering of classes, the
students of the school have been successful in their lives, they've been
able to get to higher education, they've learned many different things,
e.g. all have learned to read. There's a comprehesive study made of the
former students and their careers that clearly shows that the students
have not only survived but have been successful and in no case has the
lack of formal education been an obstacle for higher education. By the
way, in Sudbury Valley, it only takes about 50 hours to learn all the
comprehensive school mathematics.

The school functions as a democratic community, where there are at the
moment about 200 students aged 4-19 years of age and 11 adult staff
members. The students are obliqued to attend the school for five hours a
day, five days a week. This is the only "coersion" and even that is
forced by the state laws. It doesn't seem that the students are forced
to be there though, because many students spend a lot more than the
required time at the school. When at the school, they can do whatever
they want in the framework of the rules decided together, nobody tells
them what to do or where to be. A common principle among the staff is
that they don't even propose what the students "might want" to study or
do and even if they did, that wouldn't really make much of a difference.

The school is governed by a weekly school meeting, where every student
and staff member, regardless of age, has one vote. The meeting decides
about all the issues concerning the everyday life from budget to the
hiring and firing of staff.

The purpose of the staff in the school is to be available if somebody
wants to have lessons in some certain subject, e.g. in mathematics, s/he
can ask any staff member for them. The staff members also take an "adult
responsibility", e.g. judicial responsibility of the school and they
also work to hold the structure together and stable and bring with them
the adult experience. Adults usually also have different kinds of
special assignments that the school meeting has decided to have and
voted them to take care of those. No classes are usually organized
unless someone asks for them, so everything happens from the initiatives
of the students. The school has no curriculum or just certain subjects.
Everything is possible, but nothing is mandatory.

In democratic governance there usually is some kind of institution that
enforces the rules. In Sudbury Valley this function is taken care by the
Judicial Committee, which consists of students of all ages and one staff
member. If someone brakes a written rule that has been decided by the
school meeting, anybody can file a written complaint. JC processes daily
the written complaints and investigates the possible "crimes". If the
defendant pleads "guilty", the JC decides a reasonable consequence for
that person and the consequence usually is related to the offence made.
E.g. for littering the usual consequence is to take care of one day's
trash. If the defendant thinks the consequence is unreasonable s/he can
bring the issue up at the school meeting for further discussion.

So what do the students then do at the school, if they aren't guided to
do any "traditional" schoolwork? Guess? What do children and youth
usually do when they have the freedom to do whatever they want to do?
They play, discuss, watch television, play video games, surf on the
internet, play and listen to music, read books and magazines, draw, make
crafts and pottery, cook, play chess, basketball, snowball fight, cards,
ski, organize excursions, listen to stories, write plays, dance, develop
photographs, and every now and then they get into something so much that
they want lessons in it. What would've you done with all those thousands
and thousands of hours that you were stolen?

Another reason for me coming to see this special school was that we're
planning, with a small group, to start a similar kind of school in
Finland. At the moment the nearest similar school is in Denmard, the
Naestved Fri Skole, that I visited a year ago. Other similar schools are
in operation at least in Australia, Israel, Canada, England, and of
course in United States, but the interest seems to be growing rapidly.
In United States, a general dissatisfaction with the public education
has led to big popular movement. At the moment there are about two
million homeschoolers, who have decided to educate their children at
home and more are coming, also the more informal Charter schools have
become in eight years highly popular getting more than 250'000 students.
In England there can be seen a similar movement forming. When does this
movement hit Finland? Hopefully as soon as possible.

Marko Koskinen

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