By Hope Wilder
edited by Kevin Currie-Knight
I was sitting at the dinner table recently with my cousin, age 12, when my uncle said, “Did you know your cousin Hope is starting a school?”
“What kind of school?” asked my cousin, who attends a fairly traditional, “good,” public school.
“Well, first off, kids can do whatever they want as long as they follow the rules of the school. There are no tests, no grades, and no classes unless you ask for them. The kids have a voice in deciding together with the adults what the rules are, how to enforce them, and how to use the extra money the school has.”
My cousin gives me a skeptical look. “That’s definitely *not* a school. But it sounds awesome.”
The first reaction many people have is that what we’re doing doesn’t fall under the meaning of the word, “school.” Since I heard of Sudbury Valley, I have been fighting people’s preconceptions of the word “school” by arguing that free learning - without teachers, tests, curriculum - is actually a legitimate education. Now I’m wondering if I shouldn’t bother, and just start looking for another, better, word.
In all my travels last year, I went to democratic free schools, Sudbury schools, homeschool resource centers with classes, and homeschool resource centers that follow an “un-schooling” philosophy, as well as Agile Learning Centers. If you dropped in to any one of them, here’s some of what you’d find: playing Minecraft, climbing trees, elaborate pretend games of make-believe, strumming guitars, conversation, jokes, and endless good-natured debates.
I began to believe that the word “school” didn’t really matter as a label- it was the light in the kids’ eyes that mattered. I began to realize that I didn’t care if something was called a “homeschool resource center” or a “democratic free school” or a “self-directed learning center”- as long as I saw the light in the kids’ eyes.
Colloquially, what makes a school a school?
Most people would say, teachers, classes tests. We don’t do those things, and neither do the other self-directed learning places I described above. Yet most claim the label “school,” possibly because that’s the most convenient word to mean “a place where children go every day and learn stuff.”
But in its original Latin, the word “school” originally meant something more like “place for leisure and discussion.” A school was where people went to exchange information and learn, either from wise people (think Socrates), and sometimes, from each other. And the word “student?” It meant simply ‘someone who studies.” There’s nothing here about a set curriculum, professional teachers, or a building you go to called “school.”
So what, legally, makes a school a school today?
To be a legal school in our state of North Carolina, we would have to pass some inspections, administer tests at the 3rd, 6th, 9th, and 11th grade levels, and keep attendance records. Students MUST attend 5 days a week at 5 hours per day to be legally enrolled. If students miss more than 10 days of school without being excused by the principal, the sheriff is required by law to be notified. The IRS requires proof of "scheduled state or national curriculum taught by qualified instructors." Fat chance of us proving that- lack of enforced curriculum is in our bylaws. Lack of enforced curriculum is the whole point!
With a legal definition, it’s a far cry from schools simply as a place you go to learn things. Today, schools must be segregated by grade level, tests are regularly given, curriculum is not up to the school’s members (not to students, and usually not to teachers), and kids have to go.
This mandatory attendance requirement, for instance, has always bugged me. I don't want to be at Pathfinder more than 4 days a week if I can help it- that helps my sanity and health, so why not let families make the same kind of choice that I want? Besides, where is the consent in mandatory attendance? No government without the consent of the governed: that’s Danny Greenberg’s definition of a Sudbury school. I would add: no government without the voice of the governed.
We also tend to think of schools as top-down structures, a place where expert administrators and teachers make the rules, and where students’ job is to follow those rules. We know what is best for you to learn, how you should learn it, how long it should take, and how you need to prove to us experts that you’ve learned it. At Pathfinder, we want our space to be different. Everyone figures out what they want and need to learn and set about learning it, sometimes on their own, and sometimes with help from others. Everything is voluntary and learning happens organically, and everyone's voices are heard in a participatory democratic process.
If that doesn’t sound like a school, what do we call the kids who come here? And the adults who work here? “Students” and “teachers” isn’t right for what we have in mind, where everyone can learn from each other and no one has arbitrary authority over anyone else.
What are students? Students are people who study. What do students study at Pathfinder? They can study anything they’d like, and in so doing, I’d argue that they are studying life. Studying doesn’t have to take place while sitting at a desk with a book and paper and pen (though it can if the learner prefers it). It doesn’t need to be proved by paper-and-pencil tests graded by a teacher.
The word “learners” has is more promise. Learners are people who learn. Does that imply that adults don’t learn? I should hope not. At Pathfinder and places like it, anyone can learn from anyone, and anyone can teach anyone. Most people think "reading and math" when they hear "learning," and we will be learning from all the varied rich experiences life offers. Besides, if everyone can learn, maybe it’s not the best label for “the children who are come here regularly.”
My current favorite substitute for “student” is “member.” I like the idea that the under- 18 members of Pathfinder will be participatory, active culture creators, who can enjoy benefits and make decisions along with adults. They will pay membership fees, and will make decisions about how to use the space and the materials that come along with membership. We're a members-only club!
What about “teachers” then? In most schools, teachers tell students what (and how) to learn, and the students follow instructions. Pathfinder won’t have such arbitrary power distinctions; any authority here must be earned and consented to. Clearly, the adults are in a different position than the kids; after all, they get paid for a reason. But we think they aren’t so much “teachers” (though they can be, as can the kids), as “staff.”
And what do we call our organization? “ It’d be great to call ourselves a “school,” and we will for now, but at times I think the word’s meaning has strayed too far from the original meaning. Maybe we’re a learning center, a learning community, or something else. We’re not entirely sure yet what to call our space. We’d welcome suggestions!
Schools, students, teachers - what’s in a name? All these names are loaded, and that’s why we at Pathfinder don’t want any part of them. What will we call the young people who come here? Or our organization? That remains to be seen.
For more logistical details on our choice to not be a "private school," see our Project Details section.