I want to talk in this Building Blocks Series about why people should be beating down the doors of our school. There are numerous advantages of doing democratic education versus continuing the kinds of schools most of us grew up with. These advantages are a direct result of basic building blocks. Without these building blocks, the school will not be consistent with our democratic philosophy. Without these ways of doing schooling, our students will not have the opportunity to become responsible, self-directed adults.
We are all familiar with the benchmarks of traditional schools: tests, textbooks, authoritarian “top down” structure, predetermined curriculum, similar age groupings, grading of students by teachers and time divided into “periods” (often using bells). In our democratic school, characteristics are less obvious, less familiar, and we have to look closely to find what defines our school. One of the most important factors creating the unique environment of our school is our use of time.
Time is a limiting factor in all human lives. How we spend our time and what the moments of our lives mean define who we are. There is nothing more important in education than learning about living in time. Children’s free play is a valuable use of their time. Exploring, learning, interacting with others, and figuring out how the world works are critical to child development. Often in traditional education we act as though the time spent in childhood is just a preparation for adulthood. At The Highland School, childhood is a right of children in and of itself. We cherish the time of being a child. We do not interrupt childhood activity any more than we interrupt an ongoing conversation between adults.
In traditional schools, time is structured by those in authority. Days are divided into predetermined periods beyond the choices of students. In our school, students have control over how they spend their time. They can choose whether to spend all day reading a book about trains or spending five minutes looking at a few pictures in a book. Students can build lego cities for days or spend a few minutes swinging outside. Students can sit and think about their life choices. The range of activities and the depth of explorations are in the hands of each student.
The gift of unrestricted time at The Highland School gives students the chance to become responsible. They practice from a young age making decisions about the best use of the scarce commodity that is time. As children grow older, they become more aware of the basic important attributes of time. On some days, Cleanup Time arrives just as play is at its most intense and meaningful. Coping with the frustration of running out of time at the end of the school day is an experience we all must face in our daily lives. Awareness that time goes on helps us cope. We feel the joy of knowing that tomorrow will bring many other opportunities to continue or expand our activities.
On other days, time seems to drag, nothing suits, and it can be hard to avoid the temptation to misuse time by violating others’ rights or breaking rules. The infinite possibilities in life can feel overwhelming on hard days. Unlike traditional schools, our staff members do not take away students’ responsibilities to deal with time by telling them what to do. The process of being bored, of “hitting the boredom wall”, teaches students to use their time responsibly by reflecting on their own purposes, learning about themselves, and finding a passion to sustain them. Struggling with time is one of the most fundamental building blocks of students’ growth.
In sum, free unstructured time at The Highland School is a cornerstone of the growing child’s education. Choosing how to spend hours, days, and years, gives each student the opportunity to get to know himself, to learn to understand how she interacts with the world, and how best to responsibly follow his/her interests.