Thursday, 10 March 2011

Learning not Teaching

For most people schools and teachers go together like a horse and cart - which is actually an apt simile because that particular teaching combination is as outdated as is the transport combination.

While many (in particular former pupils) refer to their school experience as being in prison - the educationalists Rebeca and Mauricio Wild go further and refer to schools as concentration camps.

These views may be extreme - but they merely highlight the fact that a change, and a transformation has occurred in humanity which has left most educational systems far behind.

So what is the alternative to schools with teachers?

There are a number of models more fitting for today's word, one example from a school in Europe is shown below:

Here is an extract of how they work:

“The harmonious development of children is a natural and consequently a slow process. Our task therefore is to create appropriate conditions for this development but not to accelerate the process. If however we as adults can manage not to disturb these inner processes through our impatience but instead to supply the necessary sustenance, then the children learn to stand on their own feet – and thus learn never in their lives to be dependent on external leadership.” (Rebeca Wild).


The work of the School is based on the fundamental understanding that children (and therefore adults) are by nature beings who are guided from within as to how to learn and to develop. Small children learn and investigate their surroundings out of their own initiative, they test and practice new experiences with pleasure and stamina, develop these and thus never cease to extend their development. Because the child engages with its environment and thus learns in the most efficient and sustainable manner, the need is therefore not the direction of the accompanying adults. The most important understanding here is that the child acts out of its own motivation, at a time which it chooses for itself as being the most appropriate.

For this to occur, it is essential that the child’s basic needs – in particular for loving attention – are met independently of what it does.

This continual process of natural learning forms a sensitive system – which can be profoundly disturbed by adults who teach and who determine what should be learned and in which time-frame. If this can be avoided, then each person is able to learn and develop throughout their life in a rhythm or their own development – in the qualitative way already described. We contend that the autopoietic (self-actualizing) nature of all living systems is an expression of living processes which we strive to respect in our work at the School.

- Learning as a spontaneous activity

Autonomous learning can only take place as a self-directed activity. In this School nothing is taught – instead of which a multi-faceted environment is made available in which spontaneous discovery, understanding and engagement can lead through emulation to the acquisition of linguistic and cultural forms of behavior. Individual learning takes place simultaneously from each other and with each other, in exchanges within the mixed age groups and the accompanying adults. This opens up many-sided natural situations, in which social learning can take place; in this way each child gets its own space in which it can express and communicate its own personal and social experiences. The prepared, relaxed environment fosters a creative approach to individual problems and tasks and enables each child to be “normalized” (M. Montessori), meaning to be able to deal profoundly with its surroundings with its entire personality in a balanced way. Bearing in mind the present rapid social changes with their constant challenges, learning in such an environment is vital; particularly today when the development of key qualifications such as independence, creativity, networked thinking and the ability to work in teams are essential. Pressure and judgment of achievements are therefore excluded, insofar as the children’s own understanding takes precedence over the demands of any external authority. In this way the inner urge of the child to explore is not overlaid with a desire for praise and acknowledgement.

In order to provide the suitably prepared environment for each of the varying developmental stages, there are three mixed-age groups at the School. Entry level (3 – 7 years), primary level (7 – 12 years) and secondary level (12 – 15/16 years).

The prepared environment:

In our prepared environment we offer a wide range of learning, play and experience – in both internal and external areas allowing for a wide-ranging, self-determined life and learning. The rooms are themed and varied to suit the respective age groups. The way in which we have arranged the areas and the accompanying of the adults owes, amongst others to the influence of the development psychologist Jean Piaget, and his work concerning the importance of the various developmental stages. E.g. at the primary level there are rooms which offer didactic material for languages and mathematics, cosmic learning, materials for the senses, for play and role-play. A kitchen, workshop, creative room, etc. These areas are open to all and serve to complement and arouse the children’s interest. The adults prepare the facilities for group activities in the various areas, whereby the content and range are designed to suit the various age groups.

Accompanying the children:

Here in the School an environment is offered in which the children have a free choice according to their needs to choose when and how they may be active and where the whole personality and its spontaneous interest is respectfully accepted and protected. The adults unconditionally take account of the basic need of the children for loving care, physical contact and warmth, so that they can submit themselves to their surroundings on a secure basis. This requires of the adults an absolute trust in the developmental potential of each child. The emotional state, activities and interests of the children are thus respected, and accompanied with interested participation – however without challenging, motivating, leading, evaluation and rewarding. Instead, the adults must above all be present, and through their presence display loving support – and that also when a problem or conflict arises, to keep it in awareness without attempting to provide any solutions. The children are not left alone, and have the possibility to find their own solutions and paths in relation to the various situations – with the appropriate measure of accompaniment and support. At the same time the adults put in place firm boundaries, which permit a relaxed living together. It is an essential task of the adults to maintain these boundaries which must remain constant – however completely without making the children feel threatened or chastised.

In order to allow children to develop themselves from within without fear, they require not only the security of knowing that the adults will not disturb their childlike behavior on account of their adult expectations, but also the basic security to be protected against any active dangers.

Basic rules or guidelines which regulate the living together need to be put in place so that e.g. no-one needs to be afraid of being exposed to physical or verbal abuse from others.

Further basic rules require e.g. that all materials once used be returned to their places, and that every child has the right to follow its own chosen work without disturbance. Beyond that, the adults accompany the children from the start of their schooling to work out new rules together during the weekly meetings, rules which make their common life together more comfortable – in other words to practice the making of rules.

Assignment of levels

We include children and youngsters from the ages of 3 to 15 and beyond. Their assignment into levels is carried out in accordance with their developmental stages as described by Piaget – which only approximately correspond to the assignments in regular schools. This assignment is regarded by us as a framework within which each child is treated in accordance with its individual qualities and determines when it should move from one level to another. The continuity of this pedagogic basic attitude in all of the age levels is thus a constant component of our work. If required each child has the possibility of returning to a prior level, so that it can grow into the next stage in accordance with its own measure. For this reason, it is envisaged that the children begin in the entry stage (children’s house) and subsequently change over to the primary stage.

- Entry Stage (Children’s House, age 3 to 7):

In the Children’s House children aged 3 to 7 find a multifaceted prepared environment. Materials for movement and role-play – work areas, puppet corner, building corner, musical instruments, books, games and Montessori materials, etc… - all are available in the internal area. The external area is equipped with various games and climbing frames, vehicles, animals, sand, water and other unstructured materials. The children are free to decide if they want to remain inside or out – and are accompanied in all areas by an adult.

The adults, in association with the children ensure that at this age the pre-operative phase (according to Piaget) is passed through. The varying qualities of the surroundings – how something feels and behaves – smells, sounds, etc. – are experienced through feelings, emotions and through movement. The children form order and disorder in how they deal with objects – and in parallel learn to extend their linguistic potential in expressing their experiences and emotions. All form of expression are therefore strongly characterized by an I-relating and by magical imagining. At this stage the purpose of all doing is the doing itself and is not linked with any concrete goal. Through such experiencing, the children build up their understanding of these objects. Maria Montessori developed a wide range of materials, through which such qualities which the children develop in their free play and usage with mainly unstructured materials can be experienced in isolation: in this way the children learn to assimilate and name their experiences. On the basis of many such experiences, according to Piaget the children gradually build up a basis of understanding of concepts such as length, weight, volume, etc. as well as starting to get a grasp of numbers.

In the Children’s House, materials for dealing with writing and numbers are also made available which allows children to learn using all of their sense and to become familiar with the cultural techniques of reading, writing and calculation.

This free symbolic play is thus fully respected as being a natural activity of the children. In such a way, experiences are made and worked through, surroundings are taken notice of and linguistic and cultural usages are practiced. In their role-play, the children additionally collect many experiences of social intercourse.

The mornings in the Children’s House are structured in such a way that a range of activities (breakfast, music and dance, history) take place daily at the same times. This gives the children a reliable ritualized structure in their own timelessness, around which they can orient themselves. The activities are announced by the adults and can be taken advantage of by means of the children’s own decision.

Transfer From the Entry Stage Into the Primary Stage:

From their sixth birthday, the children are able to visit the Primary Stage in as much as they wish to and to take notice of what is on offer there. As soon as they are seven, they count as Primary Stage children and have the obligation to take part in the weekly school meeting. If they wish however – they can always return to the Children’s House and be active there. The parents however, are required to attend an induction meeting for the Primary Stage.

Primary Stage:

The Primary Stage is for children from 7 to 12. In this environment the children find both familiar and new things. They continue to be able to play freely indoors and out. For this we have many materials available which relate to all of their senses. The exercise facilities outside are an invitation to many experiences, such as sand, water, building materials, a place for fire and a small vegetable garden, etc.. There are also animals such as goats, which the children help to look after. At the same time the children have access to many structured materials which were not available in the Children’s House: wide-ranging learning materials for languages, mathematics, nature and technology, history of culture, religion, music, working areas, library, a genuine kitchen in which they are able to cook, communal games, games of dexterity and logic, construction materials, etc.

The children now find themselves in the concrete operations phase, which is characterized by spontaneous dealing with concrete objects and free experimentation without foreseeable goals and results.

The experiences made so far are thus combined and further developed. The children enhance their imaginative capacity – without reference to concrete objects.

It requires countless experiences to discover what can be altered and what cannot be, if things done can be undone, etc., and to put all of these experiences into an appropriate context and order.

They formulate their own regulations, test them repeatedly with each experience, and thus gradually learn to approach general principles. Even though they increasingly consider things in their heads, meaning that they carry out things in reality as well as think things through, it is important that they themselves are able to have certainty about the concrete matters with which they deal.

Now the children build on the basis of their many experiences with concrete situations using half-abstract materials. Maria Montessori developed many of these types of material, so that these children – even when dealing with mathematics and language – by handling and understanding materials – remain connected with concrete situations.

General rules dealing with word-usage, grammar, maths etc., are not learned by heart and thus presumably applied in an abstract way, but are developed and understood by the children by means of their handling of the materials. In this way genuine structures of understanding are built up; as a consequence of many such experiences – a capability for abstract thinking can be developed in the subsequent stage of development.

In the Primary Stage (grade) rule-play is important, in which the children build-up rules from amongst themselves, discard some, discover new ones and increasingly expand their prior experiences with rules.

These experiences are then applied during the weekly meetings, because here the children make their own agreements – change rules, discuss problems, etc.

In the Primary Stage the children have the possibility to take part in various offers, courses, projects and excursions. They are able to freely choose any of these – and to take part for the agreed length of time.

Towards the end of the Primary Stage, there is an additional possibility to do practical work in workshops, shops, enterprises etc.

Transfer From the Primary Stage to the Secondary Stage:

In accordance with the structure of ordinary schools – from the fifth school year the children belong to the Secondary School. The transfer-time to the secondary stage starts from the 12th birthday – as long as the child decides to do it.

The actual transfer to the Secondary Stage with its specific characteristics – occurs on the 13th birthday. The responsibilities of the new stage are discussed and written down in a discussion with the child – and a tutor is selected by the child, a tutor who from now on becomes the child’s contact person.

At this time the parents are obliged to attend an induction meeting for the Secondary Stage.

Secondary Stage:

From the time of their entry into the Secondary Stage, the pupils have their own area – which is accompanied by an adult – and to which the children of the primary stage are not admitted - the pupils however continue to have access to the inner and outer areas of the Primary Stage.

The pupils can now shape their area in accordance with their own needs, and can always make use of that area – an area in which amongst other things – a computer with internet access is made available.

While the children are in the Secondary Stage they begin to undergo puberty – a time of great bodily, mental and spiritual changes – a time which is also associated with a repeated need for a safe place in which to rest. At the same time it is the developmental phase of formal operations – in which the ability matures to form abstractions, plan and carry out systematic operations and to reflect on all of these. General rules which had been worked through in a concrete manner in the Primary Stage – are now becoming clear, so that e.g. mathematical formulas can be worked through. Here the pupils can always return to the concrete materials used in the Primary Phase.

All of this is accompanied by a strong need to communicate. The pupils work amongst themselves – and also with the adults – in order to find out what is their role as human beings in society – and also to plan their own biographies.

Each pupil discusses their activities, plans and experiences, etc. with their tutor – and the pupils themselves take the initiative in working through various themes in the form of courses, visits from experts, etc. organization, rules, main themes to discuss etc., are agreed with the appropriate adults – whereby an open and transparent climate – in which all feel able to create and discuss agreements and contribute as equals- is of the utmost importance.

While small-scale practical work in workshops etc., was already possible in the Primary Stage – now the pupils can – following discussions with their tutors – take part in longer practical work in the various work-areas, language-visits and excursions.

For their time at the Secondary Stage, the pupils are obliged to keep a diary concerning their activities, plans, reflections etc. These dairies are such that the tutor can look at them at any time and thus they serve as a basis for agreed discussions between pupil and tutor.

The pupils are also obliged to take part in the weekly plenary meetings of the Secondary Stage, where plans, problems and organizational details for the mutual planning of the daily program are discussed.

The Time After the Secondary Stage:

All pupils who have gone beyond the Secondary Stage are allowed to return to the prepared environment if they so wish. For example, a room is made available to the youngsters to make use of between their working life, travels etc. There they can relate their experiences and reflect upon them – or they can prepare themselves for school or professional examinations.

3 Autonomous Learning as Opposed to Teaching and Examinations.

The learning materials and possibilities offered by the prepared environment of the School take into account the learning content of any required educational programme.

The time-frames and the presentation order of the learning content however are customized to the individual developmental plan of each child.

The method of free choice is based upon respect towards the development of each individual – which is steered from within themselves – and also on the conviction, that truly sustainable learning occurs only on this basis – and gives the children the ability – at any time in their life – to meet their own needs.

“To learn how to learn” has to come before filling a catalogue of content.

The children always have the freedom to allocate their time according to the needs of their learning activities, so that they are able to stay with an activity as long as it is important – without delaying any group or being forced in any way. Such a learning process without needing to keep in step with others requires a different “teacher role” – and thus excludes teacher-centred instruction. Instead, the adults need to be able to observe, to accompany and as a result to be able to carefully prepare the environment accordingly.

An observation-record of all children is maintained, which provides a clarification about their activities. In case there are any children who leave out complete areas of learning – we have the possibility to explore the reasons for this by means of reflection in the team – and also by seeking background information during parental discussions – and thus possibilities are developed through which new approaches are found for the child to access these areas.

Marks, tests and certificates are not part of the School procedure. Instead, the accompanying adults prepare reports on the basis of the observation-records, reports in which activities in the various areas – emotional, social and cognitive development as well as other aspects are described.

These observations also act as a basis for parental discussions, in which the situation of the respective child is addresed. The parents are in any case encouraged to visit the School in order to keep themselves informed about the personal development of their children.

Parent evenings take place at regular intervals, at which special themes, the situation in the group etc., are discussed.

At the end of their time at the School, the children can, if they so wish – apply to take the external high-school final examinations or they may try for other types of school final examinations. They are in no way pushed to go for such external examinations at this time – but they may decide freely themselves – and they would be fully supported by the School to prepare themselves for such examinations. The option to return at any time to the School – opens up the possibility to decide to take such examinations at any time in the future – after various experiences may have led to a choice of profession, so that there is a guarantee that an appropriate decision only needs to be made when it is right for the pupil – according to its own estimation.

4: Organizational.

Entry assumptions / Modalities:

What is decisive for the acceptance of children by the School is the willingness of the parents to become involved with the practical details of the learning environment, and to engage in an appropriate relationship with their children in their family situation (Parental Contract). Following on from this is the requirement to take part in the various functions (parental discussions, parent evenings, parental observation during learning activities, induction-events).

Where the parents live separately – the parent with whom the child does not live (in so far as this parent is contactable) must accept the choice of Kindergarten/School for the child – and must be willing to take part in parental functions.

We do not consider our work as comprising any special method which is only appropriate for special children, but as a basic assumption by the adults to respect the developmental needs and life-processes of their children – which inevitably has consequences for the life of the family together. From this arises yet another induction-assumption, namely that subsequent siblings follow their elder children into the School.

Each year places become available in the Kindergarten and in the school for beginners. Only in exceptional cases are children accepted who have already taken part in regular schools, and then only up to the age of seven.

It is generally understood that children who begin in the Entry Stage (Kindergarten), afterwards continue onto the Primary Stage. This means that priority places are made available to these children. Children can commence at the School at any time of the year – entry is not limited to any particular school-entry point.

Our work under the conditions which have been described – is open to all children, i.e also for children with special needs (disabilities).

The Pedagogic Team:

The team comprises a number of accompanying adults. All of the adults are available for the children on five mornings per week. The adults are intensively engaged with the background to their work and with the practical requirements of the pedagogical process. Experiences and problems are discussed during many team-meetings each week – the prepared environment is structured and developed further, activities and projects are prepared and planned, etc.

Organization of the School-Day:

The children are taken care of by the School between 7:45 (with flexi-begin until 8:45) and 12:30 from Monday until Friday. In the case of excursions and time-intensive projects etc, these time-limits may need to be extended.

Change of School:

A change to a normal public school is certainly possible. If a change of school is required (e.g. on account of moving house), parents are requested to give plenty of notice.

Because the methods of the public schools differ in very many ways from our work, any change of school will necessarily require a considerable adjustment by the child. We are however convinced that a child who is capable of self-organizing and of individual learning, who is confident in dealing with new situations and of approaching any problems will manage such a change well.

Organizational Form and Finances:

The School founders and directors lead and administer the project and make all essential decisions in the spirit of the concept together with all of the members of the pedagogical team.

The financing of the School is managed as follows:

- Parental contributions.

- General contributions.

- Donations

- State/Governmental payments.

School Fees:

The school fees are paid in accordance with the national laws regarding school fees. In the case of parents who are unable to pay the full amount, individual solutions to solve the problem are sought, insofar as the budget permits.

Parental Services:

In addition to the voluntary parental involvement there are required parental services which need to be delivered (e.g. cleaning, garden work, the supply of materials).

5. Pedagogical, psychological and neurobiological bases for our work.

1) The inner structure of the child by Maria Montessori, 1870 – 1952, medical doctor and educationalist.

2) Sensitive phases Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, 1896 – 1980, developmental psychologist.

3) Guidance from within Hoimar von Ditfurth, 1921 – 1989, professor of psychiatry and neurology; Humberto R. Maturana, Francisco J. Varela, 1946 – 2001, biologists.

4) Autonomous development Emmi Pikler, 1902 – 1984, medical doctor.

Our educational concept is based upon a consequent further understanding and development of the empirically based pedagogy of Maria Montessori, who already more than half a century ago displayed an absolute confidence in human beings’ inner power of growth as well as of the vital importance of adults accompanying children with awareness in a suitably prepared and relaxed environment.

The understanding which she formulated based on her own observations, that human growth follows a pattern of inner development which has been created by the evolutionary process. Children therefore follow this development plan in accordance with their own rhythm. Nowadays her work has been scientifically confirmed. The sensible phases which have been observed on the basis of her work, have also been compared to opening “windows” by neuroscientists, which allow the child to acquire abilities which move its development forward with much lightness and intensity.

Jean Piaget described a framework in which such phases emerge through a number of developmental stages, where the fulfillment of needs creates a stage which becomes the basis for the next phase. What is important here is his finding that children only develop their ability to think in abstract logical and reflective terms from the age of twelve. If this adult way of thinking is expected of the children too early, then they become swamped and thereby their natural development becomes blocked.

A further aspect of these developmental processes is that of inner guidance. Hoimar von Ditfurth made this point in his book “The Spirit Did Not Fall from Heaven” by giving an example of the original organic cell. The most important quality of organic life apart from reproduction is maintenance and growth by means of interchange with its surroundings. Therefore it was necessary for evolution to develop a means of making decisions, which allowed the cell to take up important materials / information from out of the extra-cellular chaos, and to expel any unnecessary or poisonous substances / information. This took place by means of a semi-permeable membrane. In this way all life-maintaining and development fostering measures were guided from within from the very beginning of organic life - thereby we are able to observe the first instances of intelligence on earth.

In the same way the scientists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela maintain that every living system, whether a single cell or a large combination of cells (human beings comprise exclusively such combinations), generate themselves and continually create and transform on the basis of external changes, and that this process determines the progress of evolution; they coined the phrase “autopoiesis” (auto = self, poiein = create).

Learning is not a copying and an inner representation of the environment, but a dynamic between inner and outer, during which the compatibility between the way in which the organism works and the environment needs to be maintained. Systemic biology calls this structural linkage, which means a mutual structural transformation of both the environment and the autopoietic unit.

Emmi Pikler (medical doctor and director of a baby orphanage in Budapest) described the total development of the motor functions as a modality whereby babies and children are able to develop in an autonomous way. Her concern was to respect this autonomy and to support it by means of a prepared environment. Nursing, nutrition and direct attention were regarded as those areas in which children are completely dependent on the adults. If this is carried out in a loving form and with caring attention and cooperation, then the children are able increasingly to expand their autonomy in these areas . In addition, because in these situations their need for attention becomes fulfilled, they are able to “carry out their work” in the intervening periods and therefore to develop their own autonomy.

Beyond the above mentioned aspects, the work of Rebeca and Mauricio Wild is of fundamental importance for our approach.

More than 25 years ago in Ecuador the Wilds began to create a non-directive environment based on the concepts described above. This environment developed into a kindergarten and school system and more recently into a centre for further education (autodidactic network).

Our personal involvement with the pedagogic approach of the Wilds has been a major contributory factor in forming our educational concept of the School. We regard this concept as the basis upon which we develop our own experiences which then inform the nature and understanding of our ongoing work and growth.

“We only have the world which we create with others, and it is only love which enables us to create this world.”

(Humberto Maturana / Francisco Varela).

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