"How do children learn the benefits of sticking at things?"
When we really care about the things we’re doing, not only do we not need to be forced, we can’t be stopped! Our aim is not to push people to stick to things they don’t like, but to help them find the things they love and feed and nurture those passions when they emerge.
Of course, there may be times when for whatever reason young people want to drop something they have started. If it is entirely their project and their process, then it is their choice. However, if the project or process involves commitments to others then ‘giving up’ is not so simple.
It is a common misconception that freedom to choose means freedom to do whatever you want whenever you want. This is simply not the case. Young people are free to choose what commitments they make and we try to support them to make these choices consciously, but once a commitment is made, we expect young people to honour it even if that is difficult.
At a broader scale, being part of a community where everyone has a real say and a real stake supports a form of commitment we value highly; commitment to collective life. Of all the things we hope that kids might stick at, caring for themselves and others and taking responsibility for their part in our world is perhaps the most important.
When a young person has enthusiasm for something they will stick at it without coercion and learn the benefits from that process.
"If children don't have to do anything they don't want to, how does this equip them for life in the 'real world'?"
Banana Mountain is a real world. All schools are real worlds. Childhood and adolescence are not merely preparations for adulthood. Wherever they are, whatever type of school they attend, young people are living now and the quality of their lives and qualities of the environments they inhabit matter now. It is critical for the well being of young people, society and the world that we start to think in this way.
Our focus on the present is not a negation of the future. We want young people to have great lives now and great lives as adults and we don’t accept that there is any contradiction between these two aims. Quite the opposite. It is our belief that the best way to prepare young people for the future is to treat them as real people with real rights now, enabling them to practice the skills they will need to thrive as adults, including making decisions and taking responsibility for them.
This does mean young people make real decisions about what they want to do and what they do not want to do. It does not mean not having to do anything they don’t want to. In a democratic community people have to do all sorts of things they might not enjoy. However, unlike in normal schools, the motivation to do these things is not reward or punishment, but care for their community and shared responsibility for how well it works.
We know that schools teach children that their days are going to be mundane, repetitive and boring, and prepare them for an unfulfilling adult life of more of the same. When children have choice and control over their time, they are free to innovate and develop towards a more satisfying adult existence. Of course there are things they will be obliged to do such as tidying up, taking care of their environment and community, and fulfilling commitments they have made. Maybe this kind of education better prepares them to be the change they want to see in the world, which is what I want for my son.
"How do young people integrate to higher education not having had formal education as a child?"
First and foremost, higher education is not the be all and end all. For some people it can be a very important experience, but for others it's neither intrinsically interesting nor necessary to achieve their ambitions. Ultimately we won't judge our success on how many of our young people go on to further education or university but on how many of our young people go on to live meaningful and satisfying lives.
For those that do want to go to college or university, all of the available evidence suggests that graduates of schools like Banana Mountain have above average success at gaining entry to the university of their choice and generally don’t struggle to adjust to formal requirements.
In fact, in comparison with graduates of formal schools, young people who are used to being in charge of their own learning and whose decision to attend further education was conscious, active and self-motivated often seem to find the dynamics of further education quite familiar and easy to adjust to. At university, if you don’t do the work, no one will tell you off, you just won’t succeed. For students coming from traditional schools this can be quite a shock. For students coming from democratic schools, this is the norm.
I have two grown-up children who were educated in this way and have already gone on to higher education. I have observed that not only did they not have a problem getting into the college and then University of their choice, they are both getting top marks and thoroughly enjoying the experience. I think the education they had has been very beneficial to what they are doing now.
"What if my child is not interested in reading or math? How do I make sure they have the basics?"
Literacy and numeracy are important but for us the real ‘basics’ are not reading, writing and maths but developing caring, empowered relationships with self, others and the world. By far the most complicated things in our environment are people, including ourselves. Knowing how to relate to and collaborate with others and developing and maintaining healthy relationships with self are perhaps the most basic, fundamental skills of all.
Of course, words and numbers are central in our culture. It is precisely because they are so central that Self-Directed young people learn to read, write and do maths to the standard necessary to function fluently in our society without needing to be forced. If you want your children to know the history of the monarchy you may need to force them, but you don't need to worry about reading, writing and maths. Whether or not they are intrinsically interested all young people will reach a point in their lives where these skills are necessary to their interests or ambitions, and at this point learn them.
This is confirmed by our own experiences, research on literacy and numeracy in 'unschooled' young people, and by the many democratic schools around the world which have no obligatory lessons and turn out students who are reliably literate and numerate. Partly because of the requirements of our accrediting body and partly because our community is international and mobile and it's important to us that young people can transition smoothly into whatever environment they find themselves in, we will take a slightly more formal approach and commit to working towards the literacy and numeracy goals set out in relevant national curricula.
A critical difference in our approach is that exactly how this process takes place is up to young people to decide. For some, it may look like the lessons which take place in traditional schools. For others, this learning might take place in the context of real-world projects which young people are excited and passionate about. For others, online platforms may be most appropriate. For us, the relationships young people have to literacy and numeracy are just as important as the subject matter. This means working in dialog to find the methods and context which best suit unique personalities and needs. There is no one size fits all
Children generally will want to learn enough numeracy and literacy skills to do the things they want to do. This will provide the motivation and then the teachers are there with support and encouragement. Kids that struggle with these ‘basics’ at Banana Mountain would likely have been struggling with ‘basics’ in mainstream school too, but it's very likely that in that context, their strengths and intrinsic value would have gone unrecognised.
"Well he's just going to be a drop out if you continue sending him there, it's not a proper school."
While it can be argued that mainstream schools do work well for some students, it cannot be disputed that for many young people they don’t work well at all. The truth is that the idea that attending a ‘proper school’ gives a guarantee of success in life is simply wrong. Many young people fail, many ‘drop out’, and still more quietly endure an experience that is deeply damaging to both their present and their future.
Attempts to explain or address this state of affairs usually start from the assumption that if a young person struggles in school it must be because there is something wrong with them. Even in the light of a growing crisis in children’s mental health, the total failure of the education system to make any impact on inequality, and the huge numbers of young people who fail by the systems own standards, we still blame young people when it doesn’t work, rather than having the courage to ask ourselves if maybe there is something problematic about the way we’ve been organising education.
I apologise for my tone of exasperation. I am exasperated, but not with the people people who ask such questions. Given the continuous messages we receive about the absolute importance of traditional schooling and the dire consequences that await anyone who deviates from the norm, your concern is totally understandable. I'm exasperated with the people who have power in education - politicians, policymakers, educational leaders, and researchers - who at best have lacked the imagination and guts to ask difficult questions, and at worst have used the lives of children as fodder for their own careers.
If a proper school is a place where a young person can become miserable, demotivated, and disconnected from the joy of learning, and then be told that the reason they feel this way is that there is something wrong with them, then Banana Mountain is not a proper school and doesn’t want to be. What we are is a place that is committed to caring for young people as they are, not as we think they should be, to creating a learning community where everyone can thrive, and to living and learning joyfully now as the best preparation for the future.
We take it as confirmation of our approach that young people love being part of our project and attend because they want to, not because they have to. However, one might legitimately ask whether a focus on the present really prepares young people for adult life? More research would be great, and we are actively working to enable that research to take place both at Banana Mountain and elsewhere. However, even with no further study, evidence from other contexts makes it clear that Self-Directed young people are certainly not destined to grow up to become ‘dropouts’:
In a survey of graduates of Sudbury Valley School (USA) researchers found that around 75% of students went on to higher education.
A recent study of ex-students of Ojo De Agua (Spain) found that at the time of contact 91% were either satisfied or very satisfied with their lives, and 90% were either working, studying or combining both.
My own research into ex-students of Self Managed Learning College (UK) found that 85% of ex-students had gone on to further education and of those who didn’t all but one were engaged in work they loved.
I have observed that my democratically educated children and their friends have been able to enjoy wonderful childhoods and then, rather than ‘dropping out’ have in fact ‘dropped in’, to become model students in higher education and responsible and hardworking employees. I really cannot see that mainstream education would have served them better.