Student-centred education, where pupils have their say about what they learn, is gaining momentum around the world. It encourages teachers to think outside the box about their relationship with their students. Students making up their own rules may sound like a recipe for mayhem, but the staff at the Summerhill School in the south of England say it has a positive impact.
Summerhill was founded by AS Neil in 1921 with the idea that children should be free to decide what lessons to go to – or even decide not to go to any of them at all.
Leonard Turton, a teacher at the school, said: “If someone else controls your time and your actions, then you are not developing as an authentic person, as an authentic learner. And if you watch children over a period of time here, they do make choices that are really good for them at the time.”
At Summerhill, creative arts and manual skills like carpentry have the same status as academic subjects like maths and science.
Pheobe Hotoph, a student at the school, said: “Well at state school it is a lot different. You get every lesson after one another. The people at state school are a lot different, they care about themselves a lot more, but here it’s like we care about one another because we are like a big family.”
Some children are boarders, and others are day-pupils and the ages range from 6 to 18. But children aren’t admitted to the school after the age of 11 because freedom so often goes to the heads of children who aren’t used to it.
Zoë Neill Redhead, the daughter of the school’s founder AS Niell, said: “Almost everything you see in education is turned upside down on its head when you come to Summerhill. The core philosophy for Summerhill will have to be freedom for the individual, and that would include whether you are adults or pupils.”
But freedom doesn’t mean anarchy at Summerhill. There are a huge number of rules and regulations here. The difference is that they were formulated collaboratively by the whole community. The weekly meetings are where everything is discussed – and voted on. Everyone has a vote – and no-one’s vote counts for more than anyone else’s.
School-leavers Summerhill go to universities, or find jobs, just like everyone else. But achievement isn’t everything. As AS Neil said, “we would rather the school produced a happy street cleaner than a neurotic scholar.”
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At Reggio Emilia, in the heart of the Italian countryside, is a nursery school that has won international recognition as the best of its kind in the world. This nursery school in the north of Italy caters for pre-schoolers from 3 to 5 years old and uses the “Reggio approach”, pioneered by Italian educator, Loris Malaguzzi.
At this school, children learn to express themselves in a stimulating and friendly environment.
Said teacher Laura Rubizzi: “Our children don’t always fit into primary and secondary schools very well because they are able to discuss, to ask their teachers for the information they need. But they socialise easily, work together and respect the rules, even if they are very autonomous.”
Parents play a big role here, organising various different activities. Today these teaching methods have been extended across 20 other nurseries in the region.
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At the Rishi Valley School in India’s Andhra Pradesh state the atmosphere is one of peace and serenity. There, the teachers and students explore their inner and outer worlds. It’s all part of the Krishnamurti philosophy.
Tanuj, the junior school coordinator, said: “Yoga is one of those disciplines that sort of develop the mind, the body and the spirit, so for us this sort of fitting well with the philosophy of Krishnamurti where the idea of being able to develop a certain quietness.”
Khrisnamurti founded the Rishi Valley School in 1926 with some very specific aims. The secretary explained: “Krishnamurti wanted the school to produce good human beings. Good means: non-sectarian of mind, with a global outlook, concern for environment, concern for others.”
The 360 students range from 8 to 18 years old, and lessons often revolve around the natural world.
Sita, the English teacher said: “I am an English teacher and I felt this tree has been there for a long time, so I wanted them to see the changes that have happened, so I am trying to use the five senses to draw something out of them and then later I’ll use it to do some return work around the tree.”
Pupils here do not compete between themselves – the youngest of them don’t ever receive marks for their work.
A student called Prateek, said: “We are given a lot of freedom and when I mean my freedom as in we have a very friendly relationship with our teachers, it’s sort of informal in a way but also it’s formal when we come to class, we can ask our teachers questions whenever we feel like it.”
Most pupils leave here at the age of 18 to go to universities in various faraway cities.
Siddhartha, the school’s head teacher, said: “The point is not to make children feel that they are different from the world, it’s important to see for them to understand that they are the world, that’s another thing that Khrisnamurti often said : you are the world.”
Contemplation at around 6pm is the last class of the day.
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