10 February 2015

Freedom, Schmeedom: Need support is what matters

The following is a post I composed for the democratic education community. For those who are not familiar with democratic schools then you should understand that this movement was known as the "free school movement" in the 60's and 70's. While the name has waned in use there is still a tendency in the schools discussions of what they do to refer to freedom. The post: Talking about freedom may be hurting more than its helping our schools. Democratic schooling has a long rhetorical tradition that has touted “freedom” as a central feature of its pedagogy with many schools including “free” in their names as a marker for it (such as the Village Free School in my area). As a psychological researcher who has done one of only two scientific studies that suggest that democratic schools actually get a measurable and valuable outcome that has never been found in mainstream schools, I contend that the rhetorical gloss of “freedom” obscures more than it clarifies the most educationally important feature of democratic schools. The “freedom” rhetoric is dangerous to the success of democratic schools in two ways. Internally, within schools that are attempting to create “freedom” for children, the term is likely to mislead the community about what is necessary for them to succeed as an educational environment. And it is also likely to mislead parents who are considering democratic schools as an option for their children. The internal problem arises because freedom has a variety of meanings and can be used to defend a variety contradictory positions. For example I refer you to cognitive linguist George Lakoff's book Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America's Most Important Idea which is an exploration of the use of the word freedom in political discourse in the United States. One of the main points is that the extremes of our political field use the same term but mean opposite things with one side emphasizing “freedom to” do things while the other side emphasizes “freedom from” other things. This inherent flexibility leads to a situation in which both sides of a debate are using the same term to mean opposite things and the decision making that follows may devolve into mutual accusations of insanity and a contest of wills instead of authentic consideration of the best interests of the community as a whole. The external problem arises from the same inherent flexibility in the term but hinders effective communication with outsiders who are attempting to figure out what to expect from an institution that would become a major influence on the development of their beloved child if they enroll. In this case the same problem with misunderstanding arises but has another level of complexity with negative outcomes for the school. Independent of whether parents share the same understanding of the term they may in either case disagree that “freedom” is what their child needs. I suggest abandoning the rhetoric of freedom and instead adopting a more scientifically respectable approach to helping everyone understand how education happens in democratic schools. Specifically I suggest that democratic schools adopt the idea that primary human needs are the foundation of education and that democratic schools are especially good at supporting the primary psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. It is also advantageous to point out that no mainstream school has ever been shown to support those needs while two scientific studies published in peer reviewed journals show that democratic schools do. You will notice that autonomy is one of the needs. This is why there is a kernel of truth in the freedom rhetoric. Autonomy is defined as the perception that you are the causal and volitional source of your own activities. Autonomy support is the provision of circumstances that enables a person to have that perception. In the United States and much of the Western world that will mostly look like having choices, while in Asian countries it may not. Thus for us Americans it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking about our autonomy as “freedom.” But this is a mistake because of the slippery slope of ambiguity that the term brings with it. The fact is that the three needs are interdependent and what may look like “freedom” may inhibit relatedness or competence and inadvertently end up being need thwarting. Autonomy support is a very clear set of behaviors. Plus there is a clear opposite, control, that can be described with similar precision. This means that democratic schools can provide parents with a guide to the specific behavioral supports for psychological supports they can expect to see. The schools can also refer to the behavior guidelines to be specific about what makes them special as an educational environment. Support for primary human needs is the foundation of education and democratic schools are one of only three models that have evidence showing they provide that foundation. My new book presents a policy that directly acknowledges primary needs as the foundation of education. Adopting that policy might be a way that democratic schools could clarify for themselves and the world-at-large how they can consistently deliver on the promise of providing an effective environment for education. My crowdfunding campaign for the book ends on Saturday, February 14th, 2015, so, please, check it out: http://igg.me/at/parents-dilemma
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