Students making up their own rules may sound like a recipe for mayhem but in a report by euronews, the staff at Summerhill School in south-east England argue that it can have a considerable and positive effect.
Founded by AS Neill in 1921, Summerhill was formed to encourage and foster individuality, allowing students to exert free will over the lessons they attend, and the ones they don’t.
According to a teacher at the school, ‘if someone else controls your time and dictates your actions then you’re not developing as much as an authentic individual nor as an authentic learner through the lack of exploration. If you watch children over a period of time here, you’ll see that they will make choices in relation to what will have the most beneficial outcome, for both themselves and their fellow students.’
At Summerhill, creative arts and manual skills like carpentry have the same status as academic subjects like maths and science. Students are also treated equally, so whether they are boarders or day students, aged 6 or 18, each student has an equal voice.
‘The core philosophy at Summerhill School centres on offering each individual complete freedom, almost everything you see in conventional education is turned upside down’, according to head teacher, Zoe Neill Readhead.
But freedom doesn’t mean anarchy at Summerhill. The school revolves around two conditions: a freedom licence and a weekly meeting whereby misbehaviours are explained to all students, who are then able to discuss and vote on a constructive outcome. Everyone has a vote − students and teachers alike − no one’s vote counts more than anyone else’s.
While academic achievement is still prized, it is not paramount; as AS Neill stated, ‘we would rather the school produced a happy street cleaner than a neurotic scholar’.
Summerhill may be perceived as radical, a place in which students are given free rein and responsibility over their own learning. While the ideas and practices used at the school may seem far-fetched, the notion of a freedom to learn is being used in many other, real-world examples with some intriguing results.
Google and 3M are firms globally recognised for their contribution to innovation and continued passion to raising consumer expectations. But this hasn’t been by chance; creativity is a unique commodity that Google and 3M have paid close attention to, nurturing it and embedding it into their company’s culture.
How? They too chose an alternative approach, one that also embraced the freedom for individuals to learn. Both organisations allocated specific times during employees’ working weeks to focus on new ideas and projects. Employees were given full autonomy to decide what they wanted to focus on, who they felt was the most appropriate team to work with and were able to independently design a plan of how they would pursue and research their selected topic. Although each organisation is a distinct entity with separate differentiators, the freedom offered has in both scenarios led to many of the innovations that we use day-to-day.
Empowering individuals to innovate is not a new concept, for 3M staff have been encouraged to spend 15 per cent of their time each week on new projects. Without it, we may never have enjoyed the invention of the Post-it note.
More recently, Google went one step further − 5 per cent more in real-time terms − giving staff 20 per cent (one working day) a week to creatively pursue new ideas. And while this seems like an overly substantial investment, the short answer is, it paid off. If they hadn’t taken this approach and gone against the industry grain you may be using a different mailbox. The commitment to freedom philosophy is responsible for over 50 per cent of Google’s new product developments, including Gmail and Google News.
That’s all well and good but how can this be applied in UK state schools?
Google, 3M and Summerhill School all serve as inspiration for teaching professionals and schools up and down the country to experiment, test and adapt new approaches. Change doesn’t have to be radical but rather progressive.
Where am I going with this, I hear you ask?
Imagine learners are allowed to decide which classes they attend, the resources they use to learn and choose who to collaborate with − would anarchy ensue?
A learning-to-innovate day could be the ideal test-bed to trial an alternative teaching approach. While students are distracted by the novelty of the day, teachers are able to experience first-hand how learners react to autonomy, how well learners demonstrate independent thinking and how they work collaboratively, as well as the level of maturity they demonstrate given this new lease of freedom and responsibility. Insight from this can enable teachers to design small lesson plans to test further how well students react to alternative methods in order to build best practices.
After all, as academics, we’re all familiar with the phrase ‘If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants’, made famous by Sir Isaac Newton. The school environment offers a unique opportunity for us to test alternative methods of improving teaching and learning, so while this doesn’t have to be as radical as the example offered by Summerhill School, there are many techniques used there that can be embedded into state schools, and built on incrementally.
This is one of a series of alternative teaching method articles that we’ll be releasing, and it would be great to get your feedback and comments so please do leave a reply below or tweet @LearnersCloud.
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