Free to Learn: A Radical Experiment in Education

Free to Learn: A Radical Experiment in Education

2011, Society  -   54 Comments
Ratings: 6.90/10 from 49 users.

Free to Learn is a documentary that offers a perspective of the daily happenings at The Free School in Albany, New York.

Like many of today's radical and democratic schools, The Free School expects children to decide for themselves how to spend their days.

The Free School, however, is unique in that it transcends obstacles that prevent similar schools from reaching a economically and racially diverse range of students and operates in the heart of a city.

For over thirty years in perhaps the most radical experiment in American education, this small inner-city alternative school has offered its students complete freedom over their learning.

There are no mandatory classes, no grades, tests, or homework, and rules are generally avoided. As a last resort, rules are created democratically by students and teachers, often at the prompting of a student.

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5 years ago

I like this idea as a fill in with home schooling or structured schooling added. I think this is a necessary part of a child's social learning but is not an appropriate school for higher skills needed to go out and face life in the workforce.

Leigh Atkins
8 years ago

I don't know. I'm all for 'follow your natural talents' but I once hated maths - I didn't know my times tables & I resented being made to learn them, but once I did, I discovered a huge talent, love & thirst for maths which I'd never have chosen if my education choices had been left to my childish self.
The same goes for tennis - hated being forced to learn this boring junk - 'wait, wait, I'll get the ball', but when my compulsory term was finished, I could serve better than anyone I knew & I LOVED it.
No kid will choose this stuff & they'll miss out terribly for it. Nice ideal but it forgets to account for humanity's weaknesses - it's like communism, shame...

9 years ago

I thought it looked wonderful. I'd love for my son to go to something like that.

Matthew Lerma
9 years ago

I wish there were more schools like this. I guess we'll have to start our own.

10 years ago

As a teacher, I can see why they created this school back in 1969. Times were different and it was believed that all students learned the same. Forty four years later, we now know that you need variation, movement, interest, and yes choices when it comes to education. Classrooms are now learner centered, but they still need rules, procedures and consequences (just as in the 'real world'). This play learning that they were doing is what the students should be doing everyday after school.

A few things I noticed:

- Modeling. I didn't see any teachers, in this video, show a student HOW to do something. While I am all for trial and error, you do only get so much time with a student. If you are unable to model how to do something, teach them how and where to find the answers. They seemed to do a lot of guiding socially but are lacking guidance in learning. "I do it, we do it, you do it"

- WHY WHY WHY WHY... Are the teachers explaining to the students WHY they need to know the academics? How are you expecting a student to make a choice when they do not know the choices? For a school that teaches grades 1-8, they are teaching the foundation of education for the rest of the students' school career. Especially with Math; you have to know the basics to get to the hard stuff. They need to know why these academics we are teaching them are important and how it will help them.

- Safety? I bet those parents had to sign a wavier to not sue if a student gets hurt.

- (This is the biggest one.) VOCABULARY. The biggest struggle with learning is vocabulary. In 4th grade you start "reading to learn". How are you going to "teach yourself" if you do not know basic words or understand the concept of context clues. They have to not only know the word and meaning, but be able to read the word.

- Which brings me to reading, those teachers that are standing around could at least pick up a book and model reading to the students. There have been many times that I have been found roaming the halls in the morning with my nose in the book before class (purposely ignoring the morning "Hi Mrs. ___" and "What are we doing today"s to show how the book has drawn me in). I also have encouraged other teachers to come in during a free moment to read to themselves in my reading center. You would be surprised how "that one time coach came in to independent read for 15 mins" rubbed off on my boys. How you act rubs off on the students.

- Grades? Tests? - While I think many grades are to be subjective, I do see a need for assessments. At least informal assessments that look for improvement. If no improvement, then something needs to be done (on teacher part).

- Group discussion - I am all for discussing our problems (which 95% of conflict in students this ages has to communication and/or culture). One thing I want to point out is the overuse, it looked as if some of the students were bored and annoyed during it as if it was a repeated offense. Which I think the age gap has something to do with it. What 8th grader would want to sit through a 7 year old's "fight"? What tween girl is going to want to air her girl fight with the whole school? While group discussions are great, they should only be used for topics that will related to the whole group such as bullying or drugs. Little things should be left to the teacher to mediate a discussion with only those students involved.

Teachers (should be) engaging students to WANT TO learn what is on the curriculum by creating choices OF hands on activities that has to do with the lesson. With that said, I believe that these "free schools" would work better for high school age. One needs to build the foundation of the academics and learning before they are given the responsibility of deciding what/when to learn.

10 years ago

Because I was being picked on mercilessly in public inner-city schools, my parents sent me to a Montessori school for my 7th grade year. That year I was intimidated by the math teacher and I avoided the subject. Miraculously I somehow satisfied their quota of math hours for the year ---- yet, when I transferred back to public school in 8th grade I was WAY behind what was being taught. I had not had pre-algebra of any kind. I might as well of been held back in the topic. This planted a seed and created a pattern that lingered on from high school to college. I never got the opportunity to take higher math because I was always relearning basic skills that I was never taught well. My SAT scores barely were a 350 in math. Yet I was winning national essay contests and an arts scholarship recipient.
These parents are defining their children's strengths before the child has any say! If someone would have forced and inspired me to learn and enjoy math my life would have been different. I wouldn't have failed a few college courses and spent thousands of dollars to catch up.
You can't let your kid decide whats best for him/her!! Or else they would be eating candy for breakfast, wearing pjs all day, and playing with sticks and video games forever. SMH.

10 years ago

Ignorance and lack of structure, if anything, create less free individuals. This is an extremist approach to a very real problem and ultimately detrimental to the future of these children.

Which doesn't mean that current education standards shouldn't be constantly and profoundly revised.

The pressure to provide education to as many people as possible and to insure that a certain amount and type of information is conveyed, that we as a society consider relevant to a functioning, active and "productive" adult, created a over standardized system witch is often oblivious of an individual's inner and outer context and generates from very early age ideals of adequacy or lack thereof based merely on academic (later on professional) achievements, that eventually conditions the individual's sense of self worth by labeling him as proficient or not, intelligent or not, capable or not and ultimately successful or not. The consequences of these imbalances are quite visible in western or westernized societies and contribute deeply to the perpetuation of social inequalities.

There MUST be somewhere in between.

10 years ago

The great thing in life is balance. Some of the methods used in this school could be mixed with the traditional system, like the meeting in which the kids were given the chance to solve their problems by themselves. Of course, they also have to have enough time to play, but all of this have to be explored in harmony with a daily schedule of classes about the basic disciplines.

10 years ago

I heard someone say that he was curious about how former students of the free school had managed their lives after that. I was expecting too the doc would tell us what was made of them. The producers only interviewed some of them about their experience at the school, but didn't tell us what they were able to do as professionals.

Life is not all about what each of us want to do. We have to follow rules, and I'm afraid those kids have dificulty respecting rules. On top of that, although we should be free to choose what to do professionally, we have to be acquainted with the options we have. Who of us never heard about someone who found out to be gifted in some activity because he was stimulated by a teacher, although before that he hated or at least thought he hated that stuff? So, children have to be taught the basic subjects and stimulated to develop abilities so they can decide what they are interested in according to their capabilities. Besides that, they should learn from the early ages that one thing is fundamental in life, in all areas of interest, that is discipline, which I couldn't really find in the school showed.

10 years ago

I attended Public School in New York City and I hated it.
It was truly horrible. I wish I had attended a Free School instead.
I sent my children to Catholic School in NYC and they hated.
Uniforms, rigidity, dogmatic learning are the hallmarks of Catholic
Perhaps The Free School, goes too far in the other direction,
but the kids seem a lot more assertive, expressive, happier.

10 years ago

I'd like to know how the past pupils of this lunatic asylum have done in later years.

10 years ago

Summerhill around the same time, in England; St.Lucy's in Toronto same time, total failure, back to normal in a month. I was teaching there. Staff needed a psychologist just to sort them out.

Richard Raymond
10 years ago

Even parents who put their kids into all kinds of activities realize that kids get bored when left to do their own thing. I agree that some free time should be left to children. Any kind of school except one that teaches religious dogma is fine with me. As long as reading, writing, mathematics and critical thinking skills are incorporated in the curriculum there will be some hope for mankind.

10 years ago

Don't know what to make of this, left me feeling a tad uncomfortable.

10 years ago

This is an amazing school, I love it.

10 years ago

I'm left baffled by this. As a teacher, I find this disturbing in some ways.

This approach isn't new, although, it is an extreme version of "self-discovery". But, I think there were incidents in the doc that elucidate problems with this approach (there are many).

Several minutes into the film, a little girl (she looks about 5 or 6 years old) smacks a little boy down to the ground. It takes about a minute for an attendant teacher to come to the scene. Teachers should always have a "with-it-ness" to curtail any potential situation like this before it gets out of hand. This teacher did NOT. Once arriving on the scene, the teacher handled the situation poorly.

The idea that children can form councils to work out problems is subject to a lot of scrutiny. Children, particularly between the ages of 5-7, are very egocentric - meaning they see the world only through their eyes. They have difficulty viewing other perspectives. From a psycho-social standpoint, they lack the ability to comprehend that good - or what is "good" - is determined by socially agreed-upon standards of individual rights. This is isn't something they develop until later. One boy, when speaking about council meetings, states, "these people don't know what the heck they're doing." The little boy recognizes something that we (hopefully) also see. This approach does not work. Children lack the ability to think abstractly to solve intricate, or complex social problems. The adults should be running the show...they're NOT.

On the academic side of things...

Part of the vid shows (making an observational guess on my part) a Kindergarten class. The students are learning basic letter writing (tracing letters). Ironically, I just came from a classroom of bright Kindergarten children who have learned how to construct sentences and they have learned how to count to 500 using the University of Chicago math ed system. The kids in this vid? ...not learning nearly as much! So, that brings me to my big much higher-order learning is really going on at the Free School? I've probably answered my own question.

There's much more I could say. Issues surrounding special education... are there programs for children with learning disabilities? If the children choose their own education, how would a teacher properly discover these deficits? Also, does this school prepare, truly prepare, these kids for the rigors of the real world: where there is hierarchy, rules, expectations (personal and professional)?

Children really do enjoy structure, even though the proponents of this school seem to think they don't. The best school isn't one that is too permissive (like this one) or authoritarian. There is a happy middle and if you are an adult looking to place a child in a good school, seek out a school that insists on academic excellence and that prefers a loving, but authoritaTIVE approach (there is a difference between authoritarian and authoritative, fyi!).

10 years ago

is the entire thing with no sound??

10 years ago

Sounds like Ferris Bueller's Day Off!