Transforming Schools into Democratic Communities Ramin Farhangi TEDxIHEParis

Translator: Ramin Farhangi Reviewer: Tingting Zhong Imagine that tomorrow, you start attending school again. Try to visualize this. Tomorrow, 9 am, you have Math. You will sit, and work on some calculus problems. At 10, you have Geography. You will sit, and fill out a map of Europe with all the countries and capitals, and you will practice to memorize all of them. At 11, you have German, because your parents told you German is important. You know you'll never learn the language this way but you will sit there anyway. At 12, you have Philosophy. You will sit and listen to the teacher, because he knows Philosophy. He knows it all. Hour after hour, you will be taken from one class to another, and this is your life from now on, for the next 15 years. Sitting, repeating the same standard work that people have been doing for ages now, and that no one actually needs from you. How do you feel? Excited?! Eager to learn? For me, it is as clear as it gets. I will never invite any child to experience anything even remotely close to this. I’m done with this. Game over. I now believe that getting a proper education comes with fully experiencing a life of your own. Why? Because I feel that it's when I turned 23 that I barely started to learn some of the most essential things that anyone needs to function as a competent and responsible person in today's society. By getting out of the school bubble and living the closest experience with the real world, this ever more challenging and complex environment, in which the fittest, those who can truly thrive, are people who learned how to work with others, rather than against others, for their own personal interest. Since I got out of school, I’ve been harvesting ideas around me all the time by interacting with people from diverse generations and backgrounds. I feel that my intellectual abilities have been growing faster than ever. I’ve been learning how to deal with my emotions, keep my ego under control and develop my empathy. I’ve been building relationships of trust and collaborating with people on projects. I’ve been feeling energetic, enthusiastic and playful. Ready to do useful things, creative things, even heroic things! Now, can you see any reason why these learning opportunities should be reserved to adults only? I can’t. I think that children should have access to all these things as well, and all get a chance to grow up as superheroes. Yep! this is how high my standards are with education. So I didn’t create a school where you have Math at 9, Geography at 10, German at 11. I implemented a cutting-edge school concept, which I believe is just the right context for anyone to fully develop his unique potential. It is called the Sudbury concept. A democratic community of fully independent members, where the 4 year-old and the 44 year-old are free to live their own lives. Today, more than 40 schools all around the world are offering this educational approach, inspired from the Sudbury Valley School, a place that has been running successfully for the past 50 years. And the answer is yes : it works! and any doubt you may have now will dissolve once you take some reasonable time to look into the track records of alumni from these schools. I personally met quite a few of them... their brilliance and their maturity speaks for itself as undeniable proof. Now, imagine that tomorrow, you start attending this other kind of school. What would you like to experience throughout a 15 year long sabbatical? Think about it… Really… 15 years of uninterrupted free flow… Ok, I’ll let you think about it more at home, because it might take you a while to figure this out. Today, I’d like to focus the discussion on the democratic organizations of these schools, what children learn from it, and what could simply be the most effective way to establish a fully democratic society. In our schools, each member, regardless of age, has an equal share of the power to make decisions for the community. We hold weekly School Meetings, in which any member can participate in debating and voting on decisions that concern the school. For example, what laws should we have to guarantee an atmosphere of freedom, respect and safety for everyone? What should be our process for the admission and the orientation of new members? How do we keep the school clean? How do we spend the school money? Who should we recruit as staff members? We work on all these crucial questions together. So in democratic schools, instead of competing to earn points for an exam we learn how to cooperate on problems that genuinely matter to us. Look at Ava. Even she's been attending our School Meetings recently. The intellectual challenge may be out of reach for her, but she’s been there, intensely focused on what’s going on. At some point, she even raised her little hand, taking her first steps into her promising political life. The chairman invited her to speak her mind, and, well.. she obviously said some rather strange, off-topic things, but what matters is that to her, it was definitely serious business. She was participating, just like everyone else. So in democratic schools, instead of sitting quietly to listen to a teacher for hours, children take their share of the floor, and their voice is unconditionally valued. So they grow up with the confidence to speak their mind in front of an audience, and they develop their eloquence. Quite a useful skill to possess these days, apparently… Don’t you think? Meet Zarathoustra. Yes, it is his real name. Zarathoustra and I took a walk to the park recently. He told me about his JC experience of the day. J.C. It stands for Judicial Committee. It’s a meeting we need to hold every day to deal with people breaking rules. He said: “Ramin, I’ve been to JC today." "And it was one of these cases, again," "when someone got so annoyed with me" "that he tried to assault me." "This time, though," "I realized that it’s not only other people’s fault." "I clearly had some responsibility with this," "and I’m going to work on changing my behavior.” At this point, his eyes were glowing, as if he had some epiphany. He said: “I just had this major realization." "In our school," "attending the Judicial Committee is clearly the key" "to becoming a better person," "and it all starts with facing problems." "I thought problems were just annoying and bad." "Now, I understand how useful they are." "They are there for me to question myself," "to learn new things" "and to evolve as a person.” Thus spoke Zarathustra! Mind blowing maturity for a 12 year-old, right? Well, children and adults alike, we all feel that we’ve been growing pretty fast in our schools. We may store and forget less academic information, but in exchange, we are learning things that are deeply transforming us from within. We learn how challenging it is to live together in a common space. That in the end, each of us is fully accountable for his actions. That to solve a problem, the most effective way is to talk it out in a sincere and peaceful dialogue. That in the long run, we have all the power to transform our own selves so that we can better cope with anyone, in any given situation. This is me. I take care of the school Finances, Institutional Relations and the newsletter. I also organize Philosophy workshops, and I clean the toilets. This is one of my most crucial tasks. Clearly, the school can live without a philosophy workshop, but it can’t even survive a day with dirty toilets. In our school, we decided to take care of the cleaning ourselves which means that each member does his share. This helped us to significantly reduce our operating costs, and the cherry on the cake is that I actually like doing this job for my school. I feel useful and valued doing this, and it only takes 10min of my time each day, so I don’t feel any burden. In our school, we learn to share the load and participate in community service on ground-floor jobs in which you get your hands dirty. Meet Emile. If you had the chance to step into his shoes during one of his school days, you would live the most active day of your life. The boy is a machine! He spends a tremendous amount of time interacting with older kids, and even teenagers. He asks all sorts questions about pretty much everything in the world, and gets into actually legit debates with people. Each of these spontaneous, informal conversations he has is an opportunity for him to naturally practice his language and reasoning skills, and build his own worldview. Before joining us, Emile was seriously getting bored with school. The boy obviously needed a more challenging environment. Now, he can interact as much as he needs with people of all ages and all levels of experience. Finally, I’d like you to meet Julien. He’s currently preparing for the Economics and Social Sciences baccalaureate... on his own. He doesn’t necessarily need teachers for this. To him, it's just another silly game to hack, to get a visa to university. He's been learning much more crucial things since he joined us. Over the past few months, with some support from his peers, he’s been intensely involved in researching into Psychology, Political Sciences, Philosophy and Spirituality. And I’m not talking about classes in which you sit and listen to the official lesson. I’m talking about taking the blue pill and literally unplugging your marrow from the Matrix. This is the kind of experience Julien has been living. He sees the world differently. He sees himself differently. And when your worldview can change so dramatically in such a short amount of time, you start questioning whether everything you know is a massive illusion, and you realize that it’s only the beginning of a never ending journey to know your own self. The most beautiful voyage of all. I like to spend time with Julien because we have quite a lot in common. Recently, he took me on his little venture to Place de la République. We spent the evening debating with around 20 people about the core aspects of a healthy democracy. Julien took the microphone several times to boldly challenge the status quo. He made a compelling argument about how revolutionizing the education system is the key to make the dream democracy come true. Society is simultaneously the mother and the child of its own education system, so if children grow up in democratic schools, they will create a world of true liberté, égalité, fraternité. I don’t know about you guys, but... I’m not satisfied with the current state of things. I don’t believe that we live in a truly democratic society. But I have hope. I know we can create one. But first, we need to realize that we’re not going to achieve this by putting a piece of paper in a box in 2017. This is not where democracy is happening, folks! I believe that democracy is happening with every little choice I make in my life. The place I live in, the food I eat, the vehicle I drive, the bank I put my money into, how kind I am with others. Everything I think, say and do… all these tiny things are a vote for a certain kind of society. And I took a personal oath, that with every breath I take, I will vote for a global, democratic community of free minds. The Sudbury movement is currently gaining momentum in France, because there are more and more of us, school founders, parents and children, who believe that this is the very future of education. We committed to always trust children and respect their choices, so they may grow up worthy of such trust and respect. We stopped scaring them with stories of people becoming stupid and homeless because they didn't do their school work. We replaced them with stories of all-powerful people who create their own lives and build their own communities. We refuse to plunge them any further into some kind of Orwellian nightmare. We'd rather offer them the democratic dream. I came with two options for you today. In my left hand, you have the red pill. Take this one, and you can continue teaching Pythagora’s theorem to every single child. In my right hand, you have the blue pill. Yes, I'm sorry, at this point, they are both hard to swallow. Now, take the blue pill, and together, we can join our forces to create democratic communities in which people of all ages can grow as wise as Pythagoras himself. Which one will you choose?