From Summerhill to ELT: Promoting Democracy in the Classroom
Michelle Worgan, Spain
Michelle Worgan is a teacher at St Patrick’s Academy in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. She is especially interested in Young Learners. Having taught for over ten years she is now writing practical materials and methodology articles to complement her teaching.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter ID: @michelleworgan
Allowing learners to choose
I recently met an acquaintance who works as a secondary school teacher, but who describes himself as an anarchist. This teacher wrote his doctorate thesis on the topic of "free schools" or anarchist education, as he calls it, such as the well-known and controversial Summerhill School in the UK. In fact, this school is known as a democratic school. We have not spoken much about the content of his thesis, but at our last meeting we began to discuss teaching methodologies and he explained to me how he is trying to implement his ideas in the classroom. I thought it may be interesting to look at some of these ideas and principles and to analyse how they could be transferred into the ESOL classroom. Firstly, we need to look at some of the principles behind this kind of education.
Summerhill School freely offers on its website a list of the school’s policies and other information to aid people researching the school and I would like to discuss some of the more relevant ones.
The main idea is that education should be a happy experience, where children learn what they want to, having the freedom to live their lives as they please, as opposed to how their parents want them to. The whole education system in Spain, and more and more so in Britain is based on targets; children must pass exams to demonstrate what they have learnt, and a school is judged on its ability to get its students through these exams. In a free school, the objective is that the "students" acquire the skills and abilities required to live in the real world. Summerhill is based on a democratic community, where the students make the rules and decisions that ensure their own collective well-being. According to the school, this equips children for life much better than a traditional exam-based education.
Let's now look at Summerhill's specific policies and discuss how these principles could be implemented into ELT.
Rationale: to provide choices and opportunities that allow children to develop at their own pace and to follow their own interests.
We could partially implement this idea by encouraging learner autonomy. In recent years this has been an important part of teaching methodology. Learners take responsibility for their own learning, and the focus is taken away from the teacher, more a facilitator than a teacher. If the learners decide what is important for them to learn, they then have a greater motivation to do so. A nice quote from the founder of Summerhill about autonomy states:
"Every time we show Tommy how his engine works we are stealing from that child the joy of life – the joy of discovery – the joy of overcoming an obstacle. Worse! We make that child come to believe that he is inferior, and must depend on help." - ‘Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing’ - A.S. Neill.
Providing learners with the option of complete autonomy is probably not ideal in the language classroom, since this will turn it into a library or resource room instead of a classroom. However, providing self-access resources for learners to use in class or at home is a great idea. If you have the possibility of creating a self-access library, however small, where your learners can choose whatever activities they prefer, you are giving them the power to decide what they wish to practise. This makes learning much more individual. A learner who has trouble understanding people speaking can choose to do extra listening practice, without imposing this on the rest of the class. There should be no time limits on these activities, so that each student may work at their own pace. With children, you could do the same with readers or authentic children's books, songs, games and DVDs, allowing them to choose what they would like to do in each lesson. This ties in with the another of Summerhill's policies.
Rationale: to allow children to be completely free to play as much as they like.
This is not very practical in a situation where you only see the learners for two or three hours a week, but you could set aside a period of each lesson dedicated to free play. Play is a very important part of a child's education since it stimulates their imagination and allows them to develop many essential skills. If our lessons are devoted to only presentations and book work, the learners may well become de-motivated and they won't enjoy their lessons. This is also true for adult learners, who may think games to be a waste of time, but who need a bit of relaxation at the end of a day's work. For adults, have a few authentic board games and plenty of game-like activities that do not practise a specific structure, from which they can choose whenever they feel bored, stressed or tired. For young children, any kind of toys, from a few toy cars, or Barbie™ dolls or a box of Lego™ are fine. Try to encourage them to use English, but don't force them, and at the end of the free period, you can ask them about what they were playing and provide them with new vocabulary, which they will be more interested to learn. Another option is to allow the children to play, but guide them so that they use some of the target language naturally. For example, with the topic Food you could organise a picnic with real or pretend food (pictures will do) where the children ask for the items they would like to eat.
Rationale: to allow children to be free from compulsory or imposed assessment, allowing them to develop their own goals and sense of achievement.
In Spain, children are constantly doing exams at school. It is such a shame to see that even primary pupils do not have time to play because they have homework and exams, and secondary students are studying until the early hours instead of getting a good night's sleep. However, that is how the system works, and those of us who work in the private sector can do nothing to change that. What we can do, though, is to avoid giving them tests ourselves. Self-evaluation is becoming more and more important, and ELT publishers now often provide self-assessment booklets with their materials, for learners to complete. Even in state schools, you may have some leeway in deciding how to implement assessment, or as my anarchist friend does, allow students to use reference materials when they do their (compulsory) exams, which is probably more valid than making them memorise fact after fact. You could introduce a kind of diary in which your learners write every few days on how they feel they are getting on. This kind of reflection helps them to become more autonomous, as they realise what they need to work on, without being told by the teacher. If you are guiding a class towards taking external exams, they will need plenty of practice of these exams; however this does not necessarily have to be done as a test. It is much more useful for learners to do the exam-type questions as a group task than in exam conditions.
The final two policies are in my opinion inter-linked and so I will discuss them together.
- to allow children to experience the full range of feelings free from the judgement and intervention of an adult.
- to allow children to live in a community that supports them and that they are responsible for; in which they have the freedom to be themselves, and have the power to change community life, through the democratic process.
The latter is probably for what Summerhill is better-known. The school holds daily meetings in which the children bring up any problems or complaints they have with the community. It is a kind of court where students can be fined or punished for anti-social behaviour. In the meetings, laws are also passed or discarded. This actually ties in with learner autonomy, as discussed earlier. It is not really relevant in the typical ELT situation. However, the idea of having the learners decide on the rules of the school or class is a very common one. At the beginning of the year, the class decides what rules to impose, for example, You should always try to speak English in the classroom, and you can also encourage them to decide what should happen to anybody who does not respect these rules. The students could hold a kind of meeting every so often where any problems are discussed.
As for the fourth policy, if the children take responsibility for their own lives, or in our case, language learning, then feelings of disappointment and failure are a necessary part of that, when things do not turn out as expected. These feelings should be allowed: not everybody can be feeling happy at the same time, and if a student is unresponsive one day, they should not be punished for this. As teachers we need to understand that our students have lives outside of school in which they may have problems, and refusal to participate is not always a discipline problem.
Another part of the school’s philosophy is that the students are placed in groups according to ability rather than age. This is something that we do automatically with adults, but we tend to group children with those of a similar age. This is natural, most children of the same age will have a similar knowledge of English, and more importantly, their cognitive ability and motor skills are more alike. If we put a five year old in with a group of nine year olds, we cannot expect that child to do the same tasks as the others. However, I believe that in certain cases, children should be in a class with students slightly older or younger, if their level of English is appropriate. A Cooperative Learning approach is appropriate in a multi-level class because it enables the teacher to form groups of learners of varying abilities, a method especially beneficial to weaker students since they are exposed to language of a slightly higher level, but are assessed on their own individual improvement.
Another progressive educational establishment is the group of Steiner schools whose “ethos is to provide an unhurried and creative learning environment where children can find the joy in learning and experience the richness of childhood rather than early specialisation or academic hot-housing.” (www.steinerwaldorf.org)
There are similarities between the principles of Steiner and Summerhill, although Steiner education is very structured and tends to use whole-class teaching, presenting new material to the class, who then discuss and give their own written and oral responses. The Montessori method focuses on:
Learning through hands-on experience, investigation and research. They become actively engaged in their studies, rather than passively waiting to be spoon-fed. (www.montessori.org)
How many times as an ESOL teacher have you complained about how your learners expect to be spoon-fed? Maybe it is time to rethink our teaching methodology and consider more alternative approaches that really engage and help our learners become more self-directed and responsible for their own learning.
We can see, then, that whatever more traditional methodologies we use, some of the ideas behind alternative educational approaches can be useful in our teaching. Learner autonomy, Cooperative Learning, self-assessment, democratic decision-making and play, can all make the learning process much more pleasurable and motivating, providing our students with an enjoyable and worthwhile learning experience.
Neill, A.S, (1984), Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, Hart Pub. Co.
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