Richard Fransham is a former teacher from Ottawa, Canada. He taught all K-12 aged children at school and at summer camps. He initially taught PE and then became a maths teacher. Later, he taught computer programming and multimedia courses at the high school level and teacher computer literacy courses at a faculty of education.
As a youth rights advocate, Richard is the co-founder and lead volunteer for the Ottawa Public Education Remake Initiative (OPERI), and Uniting for Children and Youth (UCY). He is also an active member of Unschooling School, Child Health Is Planetary Health, and the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO). His primary interest at the moment is supporting young people in an effort to establish a Youth Rights Day.
As a student, I hated school. I didn’t know it at the time. I thought I was just inferior to the kids who appeared to be thriving with it. I viewed it as simply my lot in life. At that time, we broke for lunch at exactly noon and I was clock watching by five to the hour. It was excruciating, that last five minutes that seemed to take an hour until I finally made a game of it. At exactly five to twelve I would hold my breath and see if I could last ‘til noon. Of course, I never made it, but the recovery would take me through to lunch and freedom. A couple of times I got myself in trouble for making strange noises in class as I burst grasping for air, but it was all worth it. I attribute that self-directed training in school as by far my greatest takeaway from all those years of schooling. When I now go swimming with my grandkids, I impress them with how long I can stay under water.
As luck would have it, I was born into a family of teachers. It is what we did, just like the children of coal miners become coal miners. So I mindlessly became a teacher and I hated it too. I quit three years in to go travelling and to clear my head. After a year away, I returned to the classroom determined to make a go of it, but within a couple of months the feeling that something was dreadfully wrong had again instilled itself. I was full of self-doubt thinking the problem was me, and then in the spring of that school year I stumbled upon George Leonard’s book Education and Ecstasy. I read it late into the night and the next morning I handed my principal my letter of resignation asking to be relieved of my duties as soon as possible. Like so many students are made distraught by conventional schooling, I was a distraught teacher and now I understood why.
George Leonard left me feeling vindicated. I was a misfit for good reason. He summed it up beautifully with the opening lines of his book. “Teachers are overworked and underpaid. True. It is an exacting and exhausting business, this damming up the flood of human potentialities.” I wasn’t out of the woods, however. The seasoned old teachers demanded to know, “What’s the alternative?”, and I didn’t have the answer, so I was seen as just a complainer. But actually I was one of those unimaginative, indoctrinated people John Gatto refers to in Dumbing Us Down:
“It is the great triumph of compulsory government monopoly mass-schooling that among even the best of my fellow teachers, and among even the best of my students’ parents, only a small number can imagine a different way to do things.”
Paradigms compete and the dominant ones do what they can to keep serious contenders out of sight, but Leonard had opened my eyes and I was launched on the search for a practical new paradigm, a search that took me decades to complete.
In Education and Ecstasy, Leonard provides a scenario of an educational paradigm that is not unlike Sudbury Valley School, which happens to have been founded the same year Leonard published his book – 1968. At the time, I didn’t dare discuss it with others for fear of provoking more of their disdain, but also because of how foreign it was to me. I regarded it as far too idealistic.
For over a year, I studied and contemplated, and cycled across Canada on a mini-Forrest Gump quest to find myself, all the while beginning to understand that it was not just the education system that was inhumane. Our whole colonial, competitive, materialistic way of life was killing us and I couldn’t see a way to make a living that did not contribute to it. Resigned to changing what I could and accepting what I couldn’t, I returned to teaching, but my search for the alternative continued.
By the mid 1980s, I had become to vocal proponent of the democratic, self-directed learning model applied by Sudbury Valley. Peter Gray published a noteworthy study of its graduates in 1986, and in 1987, Yaacov Hecht’s school based on self-direction became the first to be called a Democratic School.
It was not until the early 1990s, however, that I became fully convinced that self-directed education is the wave of the future, as Peter Gray declares it to be. During those years, a fellow teacher and I had initiated The CHIP Program in a secondary school. It created a school-within-a-school with twenty-five grades ten to twelve students who stayed together all day. The students had to become self-directed to the point that they had control over how they learned, but not over what they learned. The school still required them to obtain credits for four mandated courses, but the single greatest impediment to school learning had been removed. The students were freed from the bells, freed from the formal scheduling that divides the school day into fixed chunks of time for specific courses, and it made an immense difference. Relationships became robust as everyone was challenged to create a community of learners where students and teachers practiced democracy. Being together all day allowed everyone to get to know each other as human beings, not as just mark driven math, English or geography students or teachers. There was an absence of tension, the emergence of happiness, and a growing sense of wellbeing that sealed it for me. Through CHIP, I gained lived experience with democratic, self-directed education to the point described by Arundhati Roy:
“The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.”
I no longer owned the idea that self-directed education is the solution to numerous pressing problems. It owned me. I now knew irreversibly that we can trust young people to be the architects of their own learning. All doubt was gone.
My journey to this point constituted a long process of scraping away the behaviours and misconceptions of a flawed world view. I compare it to the struggle that people steeped in white privilege need to undergo to regain their humanity. Some complete the journey far more quickly than I did, particularly today with the rapidly expanding body of literature and media about self-directed learning, and the ease with which it can be shared through technology. Others, such as the successful “A” students who sailed through school, many of whom now run our schools, may take much longer, or never, complete the journey. There will be those who are unable to bring themselves to even embark on the journey as it involves the considerable pain of admitting that much of what they have been doing through their “successful” careers has actually been damaging to young people. Even those young people who appear to be well-served are alienated from themselves in the way described by Shailesh Shirali speaking at the Krishnamurti Foundation conference held in February 2021.
It is a rare person who can suddenly flip-flop from an old paradigm to a new. For the vast majority it takes time and so it is appropriate to refer to what is happening in education at this time as progressive education. The new attention being given to experiential learning, deep learning, flow and the importance of play all suggest a progression towards the non-coercive end of the education spectrum found in schools like Sudbury Valley. Progressive education is therefore not to be seen as an educational model onto itself, but rather as the progression towards a new paradigm.
I saw Leonard’s scenario as idealistic largely because I had been indoctrinated with the idea that I could not trust myself – that if I did not do as I was told, I would amount to nothing. Amounting to something meant obtaining a university degree, and I didn’t question the curriculum that universities required schools to impose on children and youth. I knew I would never have applied myself to learning the material of which I had no interest if I had not been strongly coerced by teachers and parents to do so, and without a university credential I would never be able to get a job where I would hear students whine, “Why do we have to learn this, sir?”
In much of the foregoing, my lack of critical thinking skills is evident. Thinking for myself was not encouraged in school, nor was the real world brought to my attention. I’m not making excuses for myself when I say that my schooling handicapped me. Evidence is mounting that it is damaging millions of young people daily. The biggest challenge for the current state school systems is to create the political will to embark on a common sense, methodical transformation of our schools to ones that respect, trust and empower young people, to ones that cultivate the best in humanity, as opposed to moulding them into commodities for an economy that is driving us to catastrophe.
I subscribe to the idea that today’s youth are the generation we have been waiting for. It is said that the worst people to assign to cleaning up a mess are the ones who created it. This would mean that we need to defer to youth to lead the way to a more promising future. Youth-led, adult supported change is what Zineb Mouhyi advises in her talk at the 2021 AEROx mini conference. It requires the elimination of powering over others as democratic schools strive to do.
Roger Hart wrote about treating young people as equals in his UNICEF publication titled: Children’s Participation: From Tokenism to Citizenship, which includes his famous Ladder of Youth Participation. In a 2019 article titled: How Philanthropy can Support Youth-grown Environmental Solutions, Charles Orgbon III, the founder of Greening Forward when he was 12 years old, presents Hart’s ladder and makes the case for youth led, adult supported change. The essence of the top rung of the ladder is contained in this quote attributed to Queensland Aboriginal activists in 1970:
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
We have come some distance since the days when adults could get away with saying, “Children are made to be seen, not heard,” but there is a long, hard road ahead before young people gain equality. The underlying message when they ask, “Why do we have to learn this stuff?” is still, “Because we say so,” no matter how we try to frame it. The strengthening voices of groups fighting for social justice, like Black Lives Matter, will speed the process of establishing equality for children and youth, and it will be a major challenge for school systems based on authoritarian rule to answer the call for a new paradigm.
Neighbourhood schools have the potential to be the backbone of a compassionate, democratic nation, and they are not totally failing in this regard. To a degree, they serve as community hubs that unit people and celebrate diversity. They are places where friendships are made both by students and parents. They give young people living in poor family conditions a safe place and some sense of belonging, and they provide meals for under nourished students. While there are widespread, genuine and dedicated efforts to provide for students in these ways, the authoritarian, competitive, age-segregated and rigid timetable constraints of schools work against them.
The packaged courses that schools provide for students are also not all bad. There are all sorts of teachers who students say brought a subject alive for them. These teachers could continue to offer their courses in democratic learning environments. The big difference is that students would consent to take them. In conventional schools, access to these teachers and courses is restricted by timetabling limitations and age segregation. By eliminating formal scheduling and re-imaging how to manage school resources, all students could be given access to the teachers and curriculum they want to undertake. A study of democratic schools will spark the imaginations of people in conventional systems who believe schools need to be fundamentally different from what they have been for roughly the past two hundred years.
I agree with Zineb Mouhyi that:
“The only way we can transform our education system at scale globally and rapidly enough is through youth-led, adult supported action.”
These actions need to take into account the speed with which people are ready to adopt change. Students, parents and educators of state-run schools have been heavily indoctrinated with conventional school practices and they will need varying amounts of time and scaffolding to make the transition.
The Uniting for Children and Youth website presents three ways that schools can begin to accommodate students who want more control over their learning. They are the Free Learner concept, the 20% Proposal, and the school within a school (SWS). All three can be offered as choices within a community school where the choices can be made equally visible and accessible to all students. This is the way to create a level playing field for those who want something different.
Many of those who are new to progressive education had no idea of the large community pursuing different approaches to learning other than school as most know it. Often it is with great relief that they discover it after feelings of isolation and confusion, the kind of relief I felt when I read Education and Ecstasy. My message to everyone is, don’t be shy. Inform others of the options that are out there. Consider it an act of kindness.