Inventing a school that meets real needs
The following is adapted from a conversation with author and educator Satish Kumar, founder of the Small School in Hartland, England, director of programs at Schumacher College, and co-editor of Resurgence, a magazine that promotes spiritual well-being, holistic science, and creative living. Green Teacher editor Tim Grant asked Kumar to talk about how he went about starting a school that reflects his educational philosophy.
When I started the Small School in 1982, my son was nearing the age when he'd have to face a journey of more than an hour each way to a state secondary school 15 miles from our village -- a commuter's life at age 11. I had left an urban community in order to live in a rural community, and sending my child back into urban culture was not what I wanted. Nor did I want his education to be overly academic and exam-oriented.
About 30 of us from the village gathered to talk about education in general and that school in particular. The school had 2,000 children and a minimum of 30 students in each class. Apart from the problem of size, there was a lot of bullying and smoking there. By the end of our discussion, the parents of nine children were courageous enough to start a school of our own. Over the next six weeks, I raised the money we needed to buy a Methodist chapel that was for sale in the village at a good price. Seven months later, we opened the smallest school in the U.K.
We designed the Small School curriculum to have three parts. One third would be academic and intellectual, including science, mathematics, English, and French. One third would focus on imaginative themes such as art, culture, music, and painting. And the last third would be more practical and ecological, including physical training, environmental education, and manual work such as gardening, cooking, and woodwork.
We decided to teach about three basic things that every person needs but few schools address: food, clothes, and housing. In my view, a school that does not teach children how to do the dishes is not a good school. If children can cook and serve food and do dishes with respect, love, and care, they can look after trees and animals with love and care, they can look after their parents with love and care, they can treat their neighbors with love and care. So our teachers and children turned a kitchen into a classroom.
We also decided to teach the practical skills of spinning, weaving, mending, designing, and making clothes. A number of our children have since turned out to be great dressmakers and designers. As for housing, hardly any schools teach children how to make a foundation, build a roof, install plumbing and electrical wiring. At the Small School, we do teach these skills. Many of the ideas that we implemented I learned from Mahatma Gandhi, who introduced cleaning, gardening, and cooking to basic education in India.
Mainstream education is based almost entirely on classroom learning. We wanted children to learn not only about nature but from nature, and to learn from nature, one must be in nature. We decided that at least once a week our classroom would be outdoors. The nearby river, woodlands, and birds would teach us how nature does things. We soon realized that when you learn from nature, you can learn anything. You can learn music by listening to birds singing. You can learn how to paint by studying the colors of butterflies. Georgia O'Keeffe learned to paint by closely observing flowers.
A school shouldn't be just a knowledge factory; it should be a community of children, parents, and teachers who work, celebrate, and develop ideas together. But for that to happen, the school must be modest in size. We grew from 9 students to 15, 20, and then 40, the maximum number we could handle. For every 8 children, we have one full-time teacher. We also have many local people -- craftsmen, musicians, artists, writers, poets, painters, and gardeners -- who volunteer to teach classes lasting from two hours to a full day each week. To cover tuition, we ask parents for a small donation rather than charging a fee. If someone wants to contribute produce instead of making a financial donation, or help on school repair or gardening, that's fine.
Since 1982, about 300 children have gone through our school. We find that they are very self-confident and have many practical skills. For my son and daughter, it is no sweat to cook a meal for 10 or 20 people, or to mind the house, tend the garden, and manage the compost heap. Our aim has been to equip children not only intellectually, but also spiritually, physically, emotionally, and practically.
They have no problem getting into universities -- they can handle exams as well as other students. My daughter got a degree in philosophy at the University of Durham and then worked to save enough money for an 18-month trip to India. Now she's in Spain, teaching English and translating Spanish literature. My son went to university in London, where he earned a degree in communication studies. Afterwards, he wanted to travel the world. But having learned about greenhouse gases and climate change at the Small School, he didn't want to fly. So he got a job on a yacht and sailed to the Caribbean, hitchhiked around Central and South America, and later sailed to New York City and back home. He later built a boat.
Many children who went through the Small School are doing similar things. They work in organic farming, woodland management, or dress designing. They work for nonprofit organizations or they work overseas on sustainable development projects. or McDonald's or Mitsubishi or other big companies. You can work for the United Nations. You can work for nongovernmental organizations. You can create your own nonprofit group or start your own business. Green job opportunities are emerging in renewable energy, organic farming, ecodesign, and other fields. I think we need to overcome this fear -- which many parents have -- that if we send our children into environmental alternative education, they are going to lose out. They are not! They will be happier and more fulfilled.
Conventional education assumes that children start not knowing anything and that we must use books filled with knowledge to put information into them. We view a child as like an acorn. Just as an acorn can become an oak tree, a child is very capable of becoming a fully developed human being. The job of a teacher and parent is like that of a forester or gardener, to support, encourage, protect, inspire, and provide.
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Human Scale Education is a grassroots English organization devoted to restructuring large schools into smaller ones, gaining public funds for small alternative schools, and encouraging parental participation. Its 3 times yearly newsletter, Human Scale Education News, reports on the activities of its members, from 'eco-kitchen' building to schoolwide theatrical productions. For more information: www.hse.org.uk
In the United States, the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) offers resources to support 'self-determination in learning and the natural genius in everyone,' whether in small schools, home schooling, or higher education. AERO publishes the quarterly Education Revolution magazine, maintains a useful Web site, organizes conferences, and offers summer programs centered around farming, astronomy, and peace-making. For more information: www.edrev.org
For those ready to go a step further, Unschooling.com, a Web site published by Home Education magazine, presents articles and networking tools for people interested in self-determined education, encouraging children's independent and critical thinking, but not at the expense of following others' agendas. -- Chris Dodge
Reprinted from Green Teacher (Spring 2004). Sub-scriptions: $26/yr. (4 issues) from 2045 Niagara Falls Blvd., U-7, Niagara Falls, NY 14304; www.greenteacher.com