Small schools, loosely joined


Complaining about any existing system is usually futile and always frustrating. I try to focus my energies on developing alternatives and trying these out. It’s what we’re doing with our Commons initiative and what we should be doing with education.

My first formal education experience was in a one-room school. It was a wonderful time for the the three of us in Grade 1, and we got to see what was happening in the other grades. I don’t remember being bullied there, but I do remember being bullied later in elementary school when we moved to a modern school, with separate classrooms for each grade.

School in Albert Canyon BC circa 1962

Robert Paterson has written about the one-room school and how it was a trusted space for learning:

None of these schools had more than 50 students. Most had closer to 30. They had a wide range of ages and abilities. In practice, the teacher acted as a learning facilitator. Much of the teaching was done by the older students who helped the younger ones. So while the teacher was an authority figure, she was not the sole talker. Most of the teaching was in the form of a series of conversations between the students themselves. She did not claim to know everything either and called on the wider resources and knowledge in the community to help if needed or pointed the child to the library.

As Rob notes, the design of the school empowered the children in their learning and made them all teachers as well. John Gatto, interviewed in Flatland Magazine, explained that the one room school was too empowering and therefore dangerous to the established elites:

The one room school had a mixture of six or seven ages simultaneously. Everybody got the same work but the teacher didn’t teach. The teacher only taught a few kids, who taught a few kids, who taught a few kids. There was this tremendous powerful interdependence, where terrific confidence of talking to people older than you was developed in the course of the school day. There was concern for people younger than you. There was responsibility. It was almost a cost-free institution, and it worked splendidly, but it had to be eliminated because it doesn’t subordinate the professional staff. There are no principals, or superintendents, or assistant superintendents.

Gatto goes further in the Seven Lesson Schoolteacher, “But total-schooling as we know it is a byproduct of the two “Red Scares” of 1848 and 1919, when powerful interests feared a revolution among our own industrial poor. ”

I find the argument in favour of the one-room schoolhouse quite compelling. I believe that the model is highly suited to our networked information economy and will actually address some of the problems that those who advocate for “back to the basics” or “no child left behind” complain about.

I propose small schools, loosely joined:

  • With access to the Internet a one-room school would have to reach out to the rest of the world and not be wrapped in the confines of the industrial school. Schools would have to seek out partnerships and not be isolated islands.
  • Communities of learning online could be developed to link learners in several schools and even in different countries.
  • No teacher would be able to “master” the subject matter, so teachers would become facilitators of learning, which is what they profess to do anyway .
  • Small schools would be integrated into the community and there would be a sense of ownership by the community, not the education system.
  • Most children would be able to walk to school, therefore eliminating busses, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and encouraging exercise.
  • Children and parents could have more than one school to choose from.
  • Sales of industrial school buildings could be used as financial capital for the transition.

The one-room school, grounded in its community but linked to a world of learners, is a model that deserves to be tested.

11 Responses to “Small schools, loosely joined”

  1. Karyn Romeis

    The downside to this is the lack of sporting facilities – unless those loosely joined schools can come up with something between them, which takes a fair amount of co-ordination. I have known several people who home-school or who belong to co-operatives, and have always felt that, while there is a lot that they can do (swimming, ice skating, walking, running, climbing), team sports present a problem.

    I realise that my view is likely to be unpopular, since I notice that many people have adopted a cynical view of the value/relevance of team sports, but I also notice that a fairly large percentage of those are not particularly fine examples of glowing good health and vitality. I come from a sporty family and a sporty nation, and have a high regard for the value of physical endeavour, teamwork and healthy competition. In fact, I would offset a lot against the assurance that my sons would have the opportunity to participate in such activities several times a week, if not daily.

  2. Harold

    In New Brunswick schools [education is a Provincial responsibilty in Canada] school sports are competitive and only the elite get to play. American football is the high profile sport.

    In secondary school, the children get one 9-week block of physical education each school year. We augment this with extra-curricular sports, which we pay for. In our case, it’s competitive swimming three days per week and Tai Kwon Do twice a week. I think that opting out of school would probably improve fitness levels around here.

  3. Kevin Carson

    In fairness, Karyn, most of the student-spectators at schools with organized team sports are also not likely to be “particularly fine examples of glowing good health and vitality.” Most high school team sports are focused on the prestige of the school’s athletic program, and grooming fodder for the college farm systems, not on the benefits of participation to average student-athletes.

    A partial answer might be reversing the trend toward programmed, adult-supervised leisure, and a return to the kind of informal neighborhood pick-up games that were common in the days when most socialization was informal, self-supervised, and outside of school.

    One of the worst aspects of modern publik skool culture is the barracks society atmosphere, and organized leisure is only one aspect of it. To the list we can add the encouragement of careerist values among the little resume-builders, the tendency of excessive homework to encourage the belief that the only worthwhile goal is one assigned by an authority figure, and the atmosphere of snitching encouraged by zero-tolerance, D.A.R.E., and the like. Put all these things together, and the schools are teaching the behaviors needed to function in a bureaucratic anthill or a police state.

    The government schools were originally created to fulfill factories’ needs for “human resources” trained to cheerfully obey orders from people behind desks, line up on command, and eat and piss at the sound of a bell. They serve a similar function today, but adapted to the white collar toadyism of the modern corporation.

  4. Karyn Romeis

    Kevin: you seem to see things in terms of absolutes when it comes to state education. While I agree that there are problems, particularly in terms of relevance, I don’t for a minute agree that they need to be anything like the boot camp you describe. It is possible to find ground between total lack of adult supervision and the sausage factory.

    While the theory of your pick-up games has traction, even the sportiest of kids seem to prefer to wedge themselves in front of some sort of screen, playing virtual games and consuming junk food and fizzy drinks for hours on end. While there is some value in the games (don’t get me wrong), this does not engender good health. There needs to be balance. We cannot abdicate our role as adults in the lives of these children. To simply allow them to take the line of least resistance without encouraging and guiding them to fulfill their potential is not going to be doing them any favours in the long run. As adults, we attend performance appraisals, a two-way discussion where we, together with a line manager, can identify areas of excellence and areas of potential development, thus being encouraged to engage in lifelong learning. At my sons’ school, we have similar meetings on a three-way basis: child, tutor and parent, where goals can be set and past performance evaluated. The child’s own voice has as much validity as either of the adults and the trio is seen as a team working towards a common goal. I set store by these meetings and hold my sons accountable for their stated goals. That’s part of my “job” as long as they are minors and my responsibility.

    It would be wonderful if everyone always strove to be the very best that they can, but the harsh reality is that this is not the nature of the human population of this world.


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