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Can Self-Directed Learning Work for Underprivileged Children?

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A mural at Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School. Medill News 21/Flickr (Medill News 21/Flickr)

This is the first in a two-part conversation with author David Gribble. After teaching in both conventional and democratic schools in England for more than 30 years, he visited nearly 20 other schools around the world that promote self-directed learning and recorded his observations in two books (“Real Education: Varieties of Freedom” and “Lifelines”). This conversation focuses on how underprivileged children fare in such environments.

David Gribble spent the majority of his teaching career at schools that offered students a great deal of freedom, coupled with responsibility for governing themselves. Over the years, he watched many children, with a range of personalities and talents, flourish in such settings. But the students at his schools were predominantly middle class and enjoyed considerable freedom at home, too. Could less privileged children (especially those accustomed to strict hierarchies at home or in society) also learn to make sensible decisions and govern their lives wisely if given the chance to direct their own learning? He decided to find out.

He first visited a couple of schools that turned the reins over to students who had previously been written off as unmanageable, and came away impressed (they are among the case studies in his first book, “Real Education: Varieties of Freedom”). Then in the early 2000s, he studied four more schools that had developed organically in response to specific social problems affecting highly marginalized populations.

He paid extensive visits to three of the schools, and relied on personal recollections, film footage and various documents for the fourth, which had existed as a wartime emergency in the 1940s. All four catered to low-income children; many had been abused or neglected, and some were living on the streets. They had all, in some form or another, received consistent messages that they were inadequate. Some accepted this verdict passively; others rebelled, sometimes violently.


The conventional wisdom is that such children require strictly controlled learning environments. But Gribble’s investigations led him to a very different conclusion: If the goal is to uplift children and help them develop their capacity to lead happy and fulfilling lives, he says, then non-authoritarian education is not only helpful in such cases — it is often essential.

What follows are some of his main takeaways from the two schools he researched in the United Kingdom and the United States. Part Two will focus on what he observed at schools in India and Thailand, as well as what he concluded from all of these places.

Learning to Govern Themselves

The Barns Hostel, in rural Scotland, was presided over by a Scotsman named David Wills. He had begun his teaching career as a harsh authoritarian, but had a revelation while working at a colony for delinquent boys. He noticed that students behaved much better around staffers with whom they had developed an affectionate bond, and concluded that affection created a desire to please and made coercion unnecessary.

He decided to make unfaltering affection the cornerstone of his approach at his next posting as the head of the Barns Hostel, a residence and school that served 50 otherwise unwanted boys, ages nine to 14, who had been evacuated from Edinburgh during World War II. Many had been deemed “unmanageable,” and half had police court records.

In lieu of punishment, Barns operated on a system of “shared responsibility,” designed to minimize both misunderstandings and resentments. Although lessons were mandatory, the rest of the rules were made by the students themselves, and transgressions were handled by peers imposing what they considered a reasonable and appropriate consequence -- for example, a disruptive student might have been asked to remain in another room until the desire to be disruptive faded.

"Boys from Barns school going on an outing, possibly the seaside, or large area of water." (theirstory/Flickr)

In areas where the students had authority, it was absolute. “It is better to limit the children’s responsibility to something very small, if that authority is absolute,” Wills wrote, “than to get them a wide but vague sphere of control with the danger that you might step in one day and veto a decision which they have made.”

The first arrivals, accustomed to being at the bottom of their classes and having to endure regular beatings, took advantage of the lack of punishment and behaved wildly for several months before settling down. Because self-government was a new concept to these children, it was introduced gradually at first, so they could first learn what was necessary “to ensure a contented and smooth-running community,” as Gribble puts it. (Once the student culture was established, it was absorbed more quickly by later arrivals.)

By the second year, there was no longer any need for adults to get involved with disciplinary issues, Gribble says. Eventually, the children even managed to run the hostel capably for several months when Wills was called away.

Wills and his teaching colleague tracked the boys’ progress, which was sometimes striking: For example, one 11-year-old was noted to be truculent and “offensive and aggressive in the extreme” a month after his arrival; a year later, he was described as “a very happy, attractive, cheerful little boy.” The boys also thrived academically -- the average increase in reading age was 1.6 years per 12 months, and in math it was two years per 12 months.

Given the magnitude of the boys’ problems, it was inevitable that there were still “outbreaks of rage or distress,” Gribble notes. Wills believed that children needed to remain in a supportive environment long enough for their gains to be consolidated and stabilized. A follow-up study showed that, of the three-quarters of the students who were removed against the advice of the staff and went to live and/or study in unsupportive environments, many relapsed and had enduring difficulties. But the students who left when they appeared ready continued to thrive, with just a few temporary setbacks.

Marginalized Students Start Their Own School

In the early 1970s, Chicago’s Puerto Rican community was plagued by gang warfare, poverty, drugs and other social problems. Its students were accustomed to people in positions of authority treating them -- and sometimes explicitly telling them -- that they would never amount to anything. So a group of Puerto Rican high school students decided to become their own authorities, and founded the Doctor Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican High School.

“We’re trying to help people to take control of their lives, and live their lives with dignity,” said Marvin Garcia, the school’s principal at the time of Gribble’s visit.

The school fostered a supportive atmosphere that emphasized egalitarianism and mutual trust among faculty and students -- even gang animosities were set aside while on the premises. The school was thus able to blossom into a focal point of the community, with which it was tightly integrated.

The students themselves drove the curriculum but shared overall control of the school with teachers and community leaders. Everyone had a genuine voice: Two school meetings per week were open to all, and anyone could propose agenda items (one of the meetings was chaired by a student). The classroom work varied from highly structured lessons to free-ranging discussions and independent projects, but even the structured sessions offered considerable freedom, and teachers played more of a facilitator role.

The staff also didn’t shy away from engaging with students on a deeper level -- “the students’ own personal difficulties are acknowledged and the staff do all they can to help,” Gribble wrote. The school shared its premises with the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, whose social programs included child care for parents attending classes. Many of the youth told him that the school felt more like a family than an institution.

In turn, the students were encouraged to turn that support outward, by engaging in the public sphere and applying their learning to improve society. They participated in community actions to raise awareness of important issues such as HIV/AIDS, for example, and actively lobbied Congress to release Puerto Rican political prisoners. “They’ve become agents of change,” as Garcia put it.

All of this helped to give the students two much-needed elements: a sense of purpose and self-confidence. The effects then spilled over into their learning -- one teacher recalled children arriving with a reading age of 10 and “learning fast as soon as they understand that they can.”


Part two of this two-part conversation with David Gribble is available here

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