Saturday, July 11, 2009

Summerhill revisited

The pianist and I were part of a group in the 1960's that embarked on establishing a progressive school for elementary children based on a Scottish educator's school, Summerhill. The essence of the schooling theory of A.S.Neill was that education should ,rather than be coercive, be provided at the initative of the child. The theory proposed that education was a natural outcome, provided the environment promoted enthusiasm and play as a major part of the programme. Our two young school age children were enrolled. We initially had a jewel of a principal who was a prime mover and brought her teaching concepts from the Berkley campus, of course. Unfortunately we lost her and her drive,and never found another who could implement the concept. We waited for the fun and playtime to end and the teaching of the three R's to begin, insinuating itself in place, when the intrinsic enthusiasm for these skills arose. Two years elapsed and that blessing never occurred. Continuing play and fun were the order of the day. This was the 60's, and remember, flower power and freedom were the Zeitgeist. Our demographic was carefully selected to include a mix of income groups and ethnic heterogeneity, consistent with our philosophy. No subsidy was provided us, due to the "uniqueness" of our quest. My teacher friends thought we were crazy. We had monthly meetings among all the parents and the teachers that went on endlessly about goals and objectives , the iniquity of assessments and the issues of simple order and hygiene that took second place to freedom of expression. We probably thought we were "avant garde" but in retrospect we were "rear bedraggled". Interestingly enough if you analyzed the parents in this "forward" looking group, they were virtually all from highly regulated, success driven, ultra formal educational environments. Why does that not surprise me now? Fortunately our kids caught up quickly when we gave up the utopian idea and moved back to regular school. I think the secret to success of any school, including Summerhill clones, is the capacity of the teacher and that was the downfall of our experiment rather than the concept. My daughter,who was a teacher in BC, was enthused about a teaching innovation with some of these elements called the Year 2,000 Programme, now abandoned. She was involved in its implementation and promotion but was sorely disappointed when it was disavowed by the teachers and government. I can't help thinking she was colored a bit by her Summerhill experience.

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