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Being 'for' something...

I am Jess, one of the founders of West Cork Sudbury School. In this blog I want to share with you, how important it has been for me to be 'for' something in my life. And that it isn't always easy, especially when everyone around you is doing something different. To be doing something that I believe in is important to me, not just because it's an alternative to something I disagree with, but rather because I am for it in its own right. Don't worry, I'll get to the part where I tell you about self-directed education, but first let me take you on the journey that lead me to believe in it:

In my early 20's I was very involved in direct action and protesting. It was an amazing and exciting time, but there was a huge amount of fear and paranoia as ultimately a lot of what happened ended up being us 'against' authority, rather than us being 'for' something. At the same time I was just finishing my degree in environmental sciences and stumbled into environmental education by lucky chance, volunteering with the Sussex Wildlife Trust. This gave me the opportunity to be 'for' something, and education seemed the logical route to take to try and create change.

Fast forward 10 years and I had become a mother of two children. We had always thought we would home educate, having been involved with home ed groups through a social centre in Brighton, where quite a lot of families home educated. But living in West Cork, we didn't feel brave or supported enough to push for an alternative which may have suited our lifestyle more: We traveled and worked at festivals; We encouraged our children to speak out and question things and as such the prescribed and rigid environment didn't seem to suit them.

After trying the second national school the opportunity came up to work in a Waldorf school in Goa and we leapt at it! We had friends in the community there and it seemed ideal to try combining our love of adventure with the desire for something different for our children and my passion for education.

Jess and Family at the Holi festival in India

At this time I was studying for a Master's in Learning for Sustainability through Edinburgh University and I was questioning if how I had worked in the past, telling people about how bad things were and expecting them to act on it, was effective. Environmental education had been happening since the 80's and not much has changed, why!? I came across systems thinking and ecoliteracy and it made me start to question the school system and prescribed curriculum and what this actually teaches. Schools teach a lot implicitly; that things are separated into subjects in the first place; which subjects are more important; and things that are taught as an add-on such as gardening and authentic communication are less important.

Our time in Goa felt like breaking free. Rather than dark mornings, school runs, pushing to get homework done, to get kids to bed in time to do it all again the next day; we had a slower rhythm, bare foot children and sunshine. Initially we intended to return for the following school year, but it felt like Neverland and we wanted to put our roots down, and energy into, where we wanted to be long term. And so the seed of an alternative school was planted.

Students and staff the first year at WCSS

There is more to this story than you'll want to read in this not so short blog. However, hopefully, I've shared enough to frame how for me, and my family, choosing self-directed education and starting a Sudbury school wasn't and isn't just about it not being mainstream school. It's what we intentionally chose for our children and for the changes this will carry into future generations.

It's about wanting my children to be educated in a way that's authentic and real for them. Where they appreciate that an education isn't being schooled, but growing a love of learning and exploration. It's about seeing the world as more than divided subjects, and prescribed curriculum, but rather an interconnected world of knowledge.

Self directed education (SDE) naturally encourages critical thinking, as children are able to navigate and control their own learning, a skill that is needed now more than ever. SDE allows children to be individuals and follow their own interests and passions, in their own time. This takes away a sense of being ahead or behind, something that can either warp or dent a child's motivation and love of learning. (I highly recommend reading the books listed below for more on the benefits of this model.)

I see my children finding what they are interested in and developing their skills. I see them being challenged by making decisions and learning to manage their own time. I see them viewing the world holistically rather than divided into separate subjects. I see them learning to communicate and meditate in a community. I see them being authentically themselves.

It's not easy choosing this path. Our school and other Democratic schools in Ireland, are islands surrounded by an approach to education that has been considered 'The Way' for over 100 years. But does 'The Way' still serve us? We're living in times of uncertainty that demands change and responsiveness. Are these skills that a prescribed curriculum teaches? If we can't change, respond and adapt to the challenges we are facing, if we can't be 'for something' different, even in the face of adversity, how is anything ever really going to change?

Jess with her son and two other students on the Gaisce bronze expedition with the school.

Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.

Peter O. Gray

Changing Our Minds: How children can take control of their own learning.

Naomi Fisher


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