If you are new to non-traditional schooling (meaning anything other than the traditional public and private schools), then you might not know about Summerhill, a school founded well before its time in 1921. At Summerhill, students make the rules and can choose to go to class (or not). Discipline is a community affair, with everyone in the school having equal power; a teacher cannot overrule a student, and an administrator in the traditional sense simply doesn't exist.
Summerhill turns 90 this year and its graduates were asked to reflect on their experiences. The people reflecting range in age from 84 to 26, and while their thoughts are not resoundingly positive, they are overwhelmingly wistful. Consider:
"I suppose the downside is that I didn't have the confidence I saw in some people who knew their education was as good as anybody's. But Summerhill gave me a different kind of confidence, to like being myself, and I see now that is a very big thing."
"People outside thought we'd find it hard to earn a living, but among my peers are professionals and academics, as well as batty artists like me."
"Living in a small, inter-related community "means you have to take responsibility for your own actions, and that means everything from the clothes you wear to how you treat others. All that decision-making can be hard at times. Neill's bottom line was that you could have freedom, but not if what you did interfered with others' freedom."
"I went to lessons when I was small, but when I reached 10, I stopped and spent a couple of years climbing trees, swimming, knitting, playing with friends. Then when I was 13, I decided I wanted to do dentistry and needed to learn, so I began lessons again. I had to work hard to catch up, but classes at Summerhill are very small, so you can get a lot of individual tuition. I left at 15 and at college I had to work even harder. But I'd had valuable years of freedom and after three years of intensive study, I got the same marks as those who had been at that college for 13 years."
I skipped many of the stories and quotes in the article, but you get the idea.
I love the concept of totally child-directed learning, but I do hesitate a bit. I think for some kids it is perfect; they know what they want to do and are motivated and focused. For others, it is a bit too much freedom; what would you do if your kid decided that their decision was to watch TV all day, every day? Could you stand by and watch that happen, patiently waiting for them to decide to do something else, like, say, learn how to read?
I am far too type-A to be that hands-free, but I love the concept of Summerhill, and I believe as a student I would have done really, really well there, as would my Kid (unless there was TV. Then maybe not so much). I do believe that kids should have a loud voice in their education, but they lack the experience, and I believe they require guidance to make good choices in their education.
Still, warts and all, I would have liked to have spent part of my childhood at Summerhill. Maybe in my next life.