This book is an update on the alternative school movement, which includes home schooling and some charter schools. Most of the activity is in this country, but there are several examples overseas. These schools are based on a foundation of three basic principals: Freedom, Community and Democracy, which somewhat explains the title.
Their concept of freedom in the school setting indicates children are not only naturally curious, but natural learners. They believe if children are allowed to pursue their own interests within an appropriate structure, the students will progress faster with less resistance to education and learning. They also assert the only way a child can learn to be a responsible adult living in a free society is if they practice making decisions as a child, rather than having all their decisions made for them by adults. This experience in freedom helps children learn cause and effect, and the consequences of their actions. These are vital lessons a person must know in order to be a free and responsible citizen in a free country.
The author insists that freedom is not a license to forego responsibility. For a bonafide free school, responsibility is essential and must be part of the child's perspective of freedom. In his outline of several failed schools that did not know the difference, he explains how students were totally out of control, and the only lesson they learned was how to party and avoid responsibility. These were not free schools, since the students remained slaves to their passions.
Another important principle in the alternative school movement is the idea of Community. Any time you place several people together in one place at the same time, a sense of community will develop automatically. The author asserts it is important for the founders of a school to create a community with a culture that is positive and respectful of the rights and responsibilities of all the members, both staff and students. If this is not done properly, a school may have secret or self-serving agreements and understandings dominating the culture, and consequently feel unsafe.
The author admits the concept of Democracy is frequently misused in our society. It seems the definition of the term Democracy has become so slippery it is often used to describe "all things warm and fuzzy." The concept and term of Democracy is central in the alternative school movement. It is used in the sense that there must be respect for all members of the community, and that students have a significant say in both their own education, and in the operation of the school. In some schools, the students have as much or more say in the operation of the school than the adults. In other schools, the staff might reserve key aspects such as hiring and budget, but the students are expected to exercise responsibility in all other areas. Meetings with everyone invited are central to decision making in a democratic school.
The author believes mainstream education makes several fundamental mistakes that are contrary to normal child growth and development, and at variance with the assumptions of alternative education. The first difference is he sees mainstream education as authoritarian. The author sees children in mainstream education as being told what to do, what to study and when, and how to act at all times. He believes this results in children frequently having subjects forced on them before they are ready, thus, the children are unmotivated and taught in a way that suits the teacher rather than the student. He points out that most children learn best experientially, while most teachers are oriented to auditory learning, that is, sitting in a chair quietly and listening. This means most mainstream children are taught in a way that is difficult for them to efficiently absorb. On the other hand, alternative schools focus on what the student is interested in, and work hard to present the material to the student when they can best absorb what is being taught.
He also questions compulsory attendance laws. He believes this results in some students having subjects forced on them before they are ready, and others being forced to wait even if interested and motivated to learn some specific knowledge. The result is a teacher in a mainstream school desperately trying to motivate a class with a large percentage of the students having no interest or motivation at the time. For example, some students want to learn to read at a very early age, but are often told they should wait until the first grade. Others might not be developmentally ready until the age of 8, but are forced into reading, and when unsuccessful, are labeled ADD, or learning disabled, etc. They are forced into remedial education, which is often a dead end. The author believes a lot of problems many students have in school can be avoided by simply tailoring presentations to the student's level of readiness, which is a main focus of alternative schools
This book is relevant to the network of Emotional Growth/Therapeutic schools and programs for two reasons.
First, to understand early CEDU, which was founded in the late 1960s, a person must understand that a major influence on the CEDU model was the influence of the above alternative school principles. This is rarely mentioned, because after about 1990, everything about CEDU was re-explained through therapeutic terms. For example, the early CEDU alternative school concept of community was re-explained as a variation of milieu therapy. Or, their alternative school concept of students taking responsibility for each other, the functioning of the school and the democracy in alternative schools, was re-explained as a variation of Positive Peer Culture. But, during their early history through the 1980s, CEDU insisted they were a whole child education school, and insisted they were a school rather than a therapeutic institution. For that reason they resisted hiring therapists, and associated with education associations such as the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), rather than emphasizing attending psychiatric and psychological associations. What CEDU seemed to have done was to develop an alternative school, consistent with the principles the author presents in this book, and then modified it for the most rebellious and out-of-control teens. After 1990, they redefined it using psychological terms and concepts.
The second reason this book is relevant to the network of Emotional Growth and Therapeutic schools and programs is that for some students, placement in an alternative school might prevent problems from spinning further out of control and resulting in the necessity for a highly structured placement. For example, if a student's main problem seems to be rebelling against the authority of a mainstream school, a home school or alternative school might respond better to the student's interests, eliminate the cause of the rebellion, and prevent the need for a more intensive intervention later.
Whatever the reader thinks about the philosophy of the alternative school movement, this book is a good survey of what these schools are about in an easily read format. Even if you disagree with them, it is helpful to know what these people are talking about in providing an alternative to standard education.