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Re-opening schools without Re-imagining them would be a waste of the opportunity for a fresh start that the pandemic has given us; especially when even before covid19 our schools were failing to deliver the Education 4.0 that was needed for a world shaped by Industry 4.0.

Our Discover Centers (we don't want to call them "schools" because they are nothing like what we recognise as schools) will feature:

1. Student-led learning

Children are biologically wired to learn in order to survive in their environment: They pick cues from people around them (adults and children), they ask questions (children are born scientists) and they experiment.

The path that these curiosities take arises from their circumstances and defy convention and standardisation. The role of the center is to provide social and physical spaces to enable the child to pursue their curiosities in a way that is safe for themselves and everyone in the community. (see also this example of unschooling during covid19)

Social spaces are the various interactions with the other children and adults in the center, with the parents, and (less often but no less important) the community around the center.

Physical spaces are things like an outdoor and indoor play area, arts/crafts studio, a kitchen, a garden, a library, thematic spaces (music, carpentry, electronics, etc) and unstructured open spaces.

The child (or more often, a group of children) decides what they want to do, explore and learn. 

2. Adults: Facilitators, not Teachers

The role of the adult is not to be a teacher in the sense of being an expert in a subject following a preset curriculum (which anyway doesn’t make sense with truly child-led learning). Instead, it is support the children and facilitate the learning process (which is something that “good teachers” in the conventional system do) and ensure a safe (physically and emotionally) learning environment.

Not only is it unnecessary for them to be experts, it is actually better for them to not be experts — because one of the best ways for adults to inspire self-driven learning in others is to role-model it themselves.

This doesn’t exclude the possibility of a teacher-as-expert physically in the center: just like a conventional school might invite a speaker for a guest lecture, our centers can invite an expert — for an hour, for a month, for 1 day a week for a year, or even indefinitely — for whatever way that works for their learning journey. But it would very likely be much more interactive than a “guest lecture”.

3. No subject-based curriculum

Subject learning in isolation of other subjects is not a real world situation. All of us who have been to school and studied subjects will vouch for this fact. There is a lot of time lost in learning subjects that some of us are not interested in learning, and certainly nowadays that can be self taught. More important is to learn how to apply different compound subject knowledge to our lives. Curriculums have become deeper and wider not necessarily because we need all that knowledge all the time, but that they might be needed by someone at sometime. In the model of the current school system, it’s hard to allow for personalized learning (at best we allow selection of a few subjects for O/L and streams for A/Ls) which result in bloated curricula that try to be everything for everyone. Both these together has resulted in many children spending time struggling with subjects they are not interested in learning and can’t see useful application outside. They are forced to learn them because they are there in the system and because they will be tested. This is valuable time, that the child could use in mastering something that interests them. (e.g. Space travel: the history of it, the science of it (physics, chemistry, mechanics, biology) the lives of the people, the purpose, the politics, commercial space travel, the economic status of countries engaged in space travel etc etc ) / (Operas; Origin and history, anthropology, human anatomy, training and discipline required for mastery, opera music, stage design, acoustics, event management, costume design, art and culture etc)

Instead of subject based curriculum, there is immense and infinite opportunities for compound learning.

4. No Exams

As described earlier, the exams never really served anyone (except enriching the exam boards). Learning outcomes are witnessed through through increased competence with engaging with the world — usually via projects where children design, develop and implement. (e.g. performing a play/concert, running a charity or small business, championing a cause, building a machine, Engagement with the local community, etc)

This is anyway how outcomes are measured in ECE and there’s really no reason that can’t be extended to schooling as a whole (although it won’t necessarily be easy)

5. Collaborative rather than competitive learning

Learning is an inherently social, collaborative process — but the individualistic nature of formal education (where we test what each child has learned, not what the community has learned) coupled with increasing competition means that many children are pushed to compete — “how can I learn better than others” rather than “how can we learn better with each other”.

This individualistic focus is also evident in the current “remote teaching” where a house with several children is a challenge (for needing a device for every child) rather than an opportunity (because the children have more opportunities to work together than a single child in a semi-lockdown environment)

Self-Directed education works well with collaboration —children can still pursue interests individually when they wish, but they experience early on the benefits of a collaborative approach.

6. No age segregation

The idea here is that children has an innate ability to learn from each other and more experienced children (often but not necessarily older) are very impactful teachers as well as it benefits them by building confidence in nurture and care. Less experienced children are more comfortable to ask questions and provide counter challenges to another child than an adult. This way, every interaction enriches each the learning experience of every participant.

And as the roles of experienced-inexperienced can change based on context, the power dynamic are more likely to be egalitarian. Together with the stronger sense of community, this will reduce incidences of bullying

7. No traditional classrooms (teacher in front, students in rows)

The three features of No teachers, No age segregation and No subject learning makes a traditional classroom obsolete. Instead, these centers have are a variety of learning spaces — labs (e.g. kitchen, garden), libraries (books, computers), play (games), etc.

Depending on what children have decided to spent their time in a given week, they will block the spaces they need based on their availability. At times, the learning can be happening outside the premises, in third party spaces such as a concert hall, a museum, the zoo, rain forest, nature trail, a football camp, a cricket camp to name only some possibilities.

8. Students participate in governing the center

Instead of a Chief Administer of school setting up codes of conduct, ethical and moral standards of school and discipline and the teachers and some selected students (“prefects”) policing the children to adhere, each child has a voice in how the center is run. In fact, each child, staff member and parent has a vote.

The basic guidelines will be agreed upon by the majority with care and consideration of the minorities who might oppose a certain guideline. The center governance team will comprise students, facilitators and managers. A council that has students with an equal voting power will sit once a week, to resolve conflict and find solutions for the day to day problems they face. This is the space where children learn to negotiate, resolve conflict, practise mutuality, engage in community and its governance: important life skills for work and life as adults.

9. Restorative Justice

In contrast to the retributive justice system in place in conventional schools, we will make use of restorative justice. The students are full participants of the process (each student has a vote equal to an adult, and restorative circles usually comprise 1 adult and several students) and as they are a community the justice focus is on repairing harm and restoring relationships. BTW Conflict Resolution is also an essential transversal skill, and the only way children can learn that is by gaining practice in resolving conflict (and dealing with the aftermath when they are not resolved well)

10. Micro school (small community)

Although democratic schools can scale to large sizes, a great benefit is that it can be successful even at small sizes — especially for those who want to make a fresh start rather than within a conventional school — we only need 15~20 young children (5~6 years old) and very little start-up capital and can expand facilities (especially for more mature students) as they grow to a size of 35~45. This also doesn’t require a lot of infrastructure as a residence can easily be repurposed as a school.