Freedom at school: is it possible?

This is the speech I presented as a panelist at the International Youth Conference in Krusevo, Macedonia this past September. Let me know what you think! 🙂

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Hello everyone and thank you so much for having me on this panel today!

I’d like to start my speech by sharing with you a bit about myself and my personal experience with education.

I was born in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Sofia. My younger brother and I were raised by our mother alone, who albeit educated as a nurse worked several jobs to provide for us. Despite this we suffered through many lengthy episodes when we were so poor, our neighbors had to give us food.

Although I started working at 15 as a cleaner of rich people’s homes and was pressured by constant financial insecurity until recently, poverty does not define my life and my education. Privilege does.

What privilege you may ask? I was lucky to have a mother who valued education deeply. Who read to me before I could even speak, and spent all her spare time helping me get ready for school, and who always expected the best from me. This meant I learned to read and write before I even went to school where my primary teacher always praised me in front of classmates and fellow teachers. Later my teachers volunteered to tutor me in preparation for high school exams. When I set off to create fundraising initiatives in 3rd grade, or start a nonprofit in HS, the adults around me supported me. When years later I decided to apply to colleges in the US and wanted to go to Harvard, everyone told me I could do it (turns out I couldn’t :P).

I used to think that my achievements and my success were the fruits of my acute intelligence, hard work, and persistence. I was first challenged to reconsider how I think when a friend in college helped me realize that my success wasn’t mine only. That the scholarship money I had received to study at the 4th best liberal arts college in the US probably came from the profits made through the exploitation of Chinese laborers working their asses off for 14+ hours a day for minimal pay. As I took my first class in Sociology of education, I began looking at my experiences at school in Bulgaria through the prism of “educational inequality”. People like me are exceptions that simultaneously prove the rule, and make it invisible. Poor people who gloriously manage to climb up the ladder of education and achieve social mobility serve to perpetuate the myth that if you work hard, you’ll be a success. A myth, created to mask the reality of social inequality legitimized and naturalized in the classroom.

I continued to think about and study social inequality for the rest of my time in college. I studied at a US college where more students came from the top 1% of the income distribution than the bottom 60%. This really helped put things into perspective in a global sense. I started seeing inequality not only in who gets to study where and what resources are allocated to them, but also HOW and WHAT they are thought.

You see not all schools are created equal, to paraphrase Orwell’s immortal words. Most schools have an invisible agenda- what sociologists call “a hidden curriculum”: they aim to shape the working class and low income population of a country into obedience and to prepare them for their role in society. As scholars Whitty and Young write in 1976: “what pupils learn in school is not primarily the ‘overt’ curriculum of subjects like French and Biology, but values and beliefs such as conformity, knowing one’s place, waiting one’s turn, competitiveness, (…) and deference to authority’. The hidden curriculum teaches pupils ‘the way life is’ and that education is something that is done to them rather than something that they do.”

Now, there is plenty of research (Bowles and Gintis, 1976) that has documented and analyzed this phenomenon in various parts of the world, but let’s briefly discuss how this played out during my schooling in Bulgaria. The first school I attended from 1st to 7th grade was a neighborhood school, off the performance charts, on the periphery of Sofia where most students were lower or middle class. There- as, dare I say, in most schools in Bulgaria- you could pass with high grades as long as you showed up, and weren’t a troublemaker. In comparison, the high school I went to was one of the top most elite schools in Bulgaria. Most of its students were middle or upper class sons and daughters of businessmen, university professors and other types of well-educated public figures. The school had many problems of its own, but was quite honest about its mission to create the intellectual elite of Bulgaria and that was clearly reflected in how we were thought. There our teachers talked to us with utmost respect in the plural, calling us by our surnames, giving us freedom to choose at least some of our assignments, and paying attention to regularly provide us with opportunities for creative work and expression. While in most school talking back or challenging the authority of the teacher was seen as utmost disrespect, in ours it was welcomed as long as you could provide good argumentation that showed critical thinking. When it came to discipline, instead of calling your parents or punishing you, administrators would sit down with you and discuss your behavior, believing in your ability to change your ways.

As you can see, the two schools I briefly sketched had quite opposite approaches in the way they taught and disciplined their students. The first which represents most of the schools in Bulgaria acted to create obedient, disciplined students who would join the labor force with appropriate attitude, and basic skills. They would not protest against not having any say about what happens in the workplace, nor receive intrinsic motivation from their work because they consider this the norm. My classmates and I, on the other hand, were taught to think we were the ones who will be in charge of society one day. It wasn’t merely enough for us to show on time and be passive recipients of knowledge. Our future roles of managers and bureaucrats required that we were raised as creative, independent and critical thinkers who are not afraid to challenge authority and do so in the “right” ways.

“The hidden curriculum” of schools maintains, reproduces and legitimizes social inequality and immobility. It teaches people subordination and hierarchy (which some argue was the explicit function of education originally). Yet, all of that is hidden behind an official promise for equal opportunity and meritocracy.

Now, I’ve talked about privilege and poverty, the hidden curriculum and fake meritocracy. But what is it that we can do and how do we do it?

I founded Immersion Academy Bulgaria as a response to the lack of innovation in foreign language teaching and a way to use foreign language as a platform to develop critical thinking.

Immersion Academy was a full-immersion program that took place in July in a mountain resort in Bulgaria. Twenty-four youth aged 14-25 partook in the Academy for its full duration of 18 days, while two groups of 9 adult learners each joined the program for 7 or 10 days, respectively. A major accomplishment for the academy from the start was the fact that it brought together a uniquely diverse group of program participants. Learners came from over 25 locations in Bulgaria, represented several minority groups, had different faiths, languages, and interests. The program also welcomed a young person in a wheelchair who had previously been refused access to education, as well as three Syrian refugees, and an intersex activist.

The Academy had three main goals. First, we strived to create an engaging learning environment in which participants would significantly improve their English proficiency skills by communicating entirely in English. Second, we aimed to support the development of critical thinking skills by modeling how to evaluate ideas and question one’s own thinking, as well as how to consider different perspectives, access and evaluate information, and create and communicate effective arguments. Third, we wanted to support our participants in their process of self-empowerment and promote the ideal of active citizenship and change-making through diverse forms of leadership. Not just a particular type of leadership- this is important.

What can be done to make sure students don’t hate school?” aka “How to make schools less oppressive?

Our educational philosophy based on the work of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire was based on the idea that learning is a collective effort. When quality learning happens all participants in the learning process are changed- “teachers” and “students” alike. To that end, our team abandoned the traditional hierarchy between teachers and students. Instead we had Facilitators and Participants. The difference here is not merely linguistic- in our educational process Ps were responsible for their own learning and had a major role in shaping what happens in each class, what topics get to be discussed. Facilitators were merely more experienced learners who provided guidance and targeted support on both individual and group level.19247807_1800834849944128_5420330494739980071_n

That resulted in very high participation, as well as student engagement and empowerment. Our youth and adult participants took ownership of their learning, and towards the end of the program some groups were entirely led by Participants instead of Facilitators. Once they felt comfortable with our untypical classroom culture, Participants took turns acting as Facilitators themselves, leading discussions and offering media resources and exercises for their groups to collectively reflect on.

The lack of hierarchy played out positively outside of the classroom, too, whereby our adult learners reported being fascinated by how much they had learned from the youth. A way we stimulated this peer-to-peer and intergenerational learning was by structuring time for “Participant-led workshops”. Every day we had several interest-based workshops led by Participants which also offered another platform for leadership development. Workshops ranged from yoga, drama, sports to Lady Gaga dance workshops, bracelet making, twerking for beginners, Kurdish folk dance and more. Here again we wanted to celebrate each individual’s talents and skills, as well as our community’s diversity.

Is there space for freedom in school?

You can already see how we made space for freedom by removing hierarchy in the classroom, and allowing our Participants to be in charge of the curriculum. In the last week of the 18-day youth program our Participants worked on producing Final projects that reflect their learning. They were asked to select an issue of their interest, research it, and design some kind of an intervention. They had freedom to decide on the topics and format of their presentations, but were given guidelines to ensure all projects met some basic criteria for critical thought and design thinking which they had gotten practice with through previous projects during the program. It was absolutely amazing to see the diversity of projects, the creativity and the commitment of Participants who worked late into the night for several days prior to sharing their work with their peers.

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How can students quit being students and become lifelong learners?

I visited a classroom at a language HS in Sofia around Christmas to present IA to students and get their feedback. I asked 11-graders to tell me about their interests: what do you care about? With few exceptions, the 17-year olds could hardly name a single interest or passion they held. They were so bored, so demotivated, it was as if life was sucked out of them. For many HS students you meet in Bulgaria “learning” is like a dirty word they want nothing to do with. They are so traumatized by their experience in school and by being viewed as objects, they are ready to do anything, but stay at school. Even the high performing students pretty much hate school because they feel they are held back or miss sharing their excitement for learning with their peers.

People are naturally inquisitive.

Every child has a deep thirst for learning and exploration. To me, if school does one single thing, it should be to create and nurture a love for learning, and not to kill it. Think about it: if technology allows us to have access to as much information as it does, the value of schooling is no longer in the transmission of facts and information. Instead, the value of education is in teaching young people HOW to learn and HOW to learn and think critically.

Our team had a training for 40 teachers at my first school and mostly talked about the importance of teaching critical thinking. This idea was very alien to the teachers present. They kept asking us how they can teach critical thinking when they had so much material to cover already. Just teach students to ask questions. Why did this event happen? How does this math principle relate to other things I know? Why should I even care? Research shows that students retain information longer, if they make connections, if their learning is relevant to them.

During Immersion Academy one of our groups watched and discussed music videos during a lot of their class time. Participants selected their favorite American pop songs which they would listen to with subtitles (which was great for their language development, btw), and be uncritical to the messages of the video and lyrics at the beginning. Then the facilitator would ask them open questions guiding them to critically examine the content and its persuasive power. And gradually Ps would begin noticing things by themselves, and develop the language to talk about it. Why this pedagogic example is so great in my opinion is that 1) students have freedom, 2) the learning process is fun and relevant to them- this is really important because it destroys the notion that learning is something that happens only while you are at school, 3) they gradually develop their thinking with the scaffolding of the Facilitator, and 4) they acquire transferable skills that they can apply in other situations too.

How can education contribute to Peace?

Our project was based on our understanding inspired by Paulo Freire that a lack of war does not entail peace. Peace cannot be present where some opinions and life experiences are legitimized, while others- rendered invisible or prosecuted. In the short-term the transformative experience of attending Immersion Academy helped our participants to gain skills and confidence to connect, learn and work with diverse groups of peers, to take responsibility for their own learning and actions, as well as to respectfully listen to and share different perspectives. Additionally, the program challenged youth and adults alike to critically assess their prejudices against others, practice empathy and approach social issues creatively and critically. We believe that these, together with other skills and qualities developed through our curriculum, are critical to Peace in the multicultural world we live in. Moreover, our project contributed to peace in the long term by showcasing that it is possible to create egalitarian, democratic, non-hierarchical and non-homogenous learning (as well as residential) communities.

As I hope I’ve managed to convince you, Immersion Academy wasn’t merely a language school, it was what one participant called “a school of life”. And I think all schools should be that.

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