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The “Chaos” factor in schooling


I have been asked to address this gathering because our little “alternative” school, Fitzroy Community School, has got into the news for regularly achieving NAPLAN(1) results within the top one percent of the nation. This is achieved without selecting students at enrolment, including all of our students in the NAPLAN tests, and operating on a budget no greater than the average state school.

A common general impression of alternative schools is that they are more “chaotic”, that is, less subject to wall-to-wall regulation and a tightly structured timetable. The organisers of this forum, the Next Wave Festival, are interested in the importance of “unstructure” in education.

There is of course good and bad “chaos”. There is overt chaos in some countries, which makes headlines in the world news. Australia, on the other hand, is regarded as an orderly sort of country, a great place to migrate to. But there is chaos here too: on a personal and interpersonal level. We have chaos in our relationships, chaos within our psyches, record levels of youth depression. What is wrong with the way we raise our young?

There is a widespread illusion, shared by parents and teachers. It is glibly assumed that we raise children at home and skill them at school. This was true in the early days of schooling, when families were large and extended, and schooling occupied only a few years. But since then both home and school life have changed – dramatically, qualitatively. Families are now nuclear and tiny. Schooling has, by default, become the extended family, and now lasts for thirteen formative years.

So, why did Faye and I start our own school? Basically, we saw the young school beginner, the little child, as a very expressive, open, adventurous little soul. Then we looked at school leavers, and we saw a comparatively depressed person who’s very weak at self-expression. In some cases you’re lucky to get a whole sentence out of them. So something happens during those 13 years, and we thought, we don’t want it to happen to our children.

After the counter-culture of the late 60s, hippies’ children were ready for school in the mid-70s. In those days, there were about 20 new alternative schools in Melbourne and we put our own kids in one of them. But there was a bad chaos factor there that really spelt the end of the main wave of alternative schools.

Within the alternative school movement, it was considered democratic and organic to let all parents contribute to the running of the school. But, alas, the parent body could never agree on anything! All the energy was diverted into adult-adult agonising about school philosophy. The “alternative” school movement died a natural death – from exhaustion – within a few years. And we thought, oh dear, so where are we going to send our children now? We had never intended to start a school ourselves.

We lay awake and thought, we like the idea of alternative schools, but they’re not going to survive the endless internal conflict of the all-in parents’ committee. We decided, well, we’ll just design one ourselves, and we’ll say to people, look, here’s an alternative school, here’s how we’ve designed it: if you like it, you’re welcome to join us; if not, well good luck somewhere else.

Since then, as a school community, we’ve never looked back. Everyone knows what we offer; it doesn’t change from committee meeting to committee meeting. The parents make suggestions, some of which we use, and several aspects of our school are the fruit of parent input. But if we don’t want to do something that’s being urged upon us by a parent, we just say no, we don’t agree with that, or it’s too hard, so that’s the end of the matter.

This means that there’s not an atmosphere of intrigue within the school, people going around not trusting each other, plotting manoeuvres for the next committee meeting. We are blessedly free of that kind of tension within the school.

So how did we design the school? How was it going to be different from other schools? We started up a school in which sustaining the child’s spirit is the first priority. We don’t have to create that spirit, it’s already there; we only have to not crush it. I’m not talking about people beating children or anything as overt as that; just the sheer boredom of having your experience tightly controlled for 13 years has a very crushing effect.

So we made up a school where personal confidence and interpersonal communication were the most important things. Constructive self-expression is firmly supported all through our school, but it is most importantly established in the early years.

If there’s a disturbance in the class, we don’t say, ‘You naughty child, you stand in the corner’. We say, ‘This was going to be a maths class but apparently something else is happening’; so we put the maths aside and say ‘Ok, well what’s going on here?’ Everyone joins in the conversation and the little children say all kinds of weird and wonderful things about what’s going on and how to get things going again. But they develop; intelligent conversation becomes a feature of their daily lives. They learn problem solving; they learn conflict resolution. And as a result, they become more expert at solving their own problems.(2)

We say to the parents, look, we don’t promise to teach them anything from the official curriculum during the first year, because we want them to make this their school; we want them to establish themselves as key members of a community in which everybody is somebody. And then you find the children make themselves at home and are very comfortable. There is no need for teachers-versus-students crowd control. It becomes an extended family.

And it was as much a surprise to us as to anybody else when we came out way high on the NAPLAN; generally within the top 1% of Australian schools. We’re not even an expensive school – we don’t cost any more to operate than a state school, so how do we explain these results?

Well, all we can really do is to say how we run the school, and then let you judge for yourself what produces those results. We spend less time in class than anybody else. Wednesdays there are no classes at all. Other days, most children have a free period which is completely unstructured. They can do things on their own, or with others. We’ve got tools in the back yard and bits of wood and they make things – completely unsupervised – and so they learn to enjoy making things and doing things and discovering themselves. We don’t mind how eccentric they are, we don’t have a model of ‘child’ that each one has to be transformed into.

So other schools are naturally interested in our outcomes, and say well, how did you do it? And we say well, much less time in class, unstructured periods and so on, and lots of camps and excursions; but that’s all a bit scary for most other schools so they simply don’t adopt our successful measures. Unfortunately, that’s how it is. They can’t let go of the total control mentality.

We strongly believe in the idea of making a space in our school for the human spirit to have room to move and to operate. I think it’s a mistake for us educators, and for legislators and bureaucrats, to think they know all about what we need, and to smother us under wall-to-wall regulation. I think that’s a big mistake and we pay for it.

For example, we ban children from climbing trees, presumably to avoid broken bones. But we’ve ended up with a society with record levels of youth depression. Whoops – we overlooked something somewhere, didn’t we. So there must be other human needs besides safety and control.

We think it’s a mistake to think we know everything about human nature and completely fill the schedule with top-down prescriptions. We like the phrase the hidden curriculum. (We didn’t invent that; it was presented to the world in the early 70s by Ivan Illich.)

Children spend so much time at school during those formative 13 years that it’s a major factor in who they become. Not only the home, but also the school is raising the child. And that’s what we wanted to take responsibility for, our hidden curriculum. That means that apart from the official subjects on the curriculum, which of course we do take care of, we concern ourselves with how we are forming these young people.

Adult example is by far the most powerful influence on children. So school lifestyle issues become important. How are decisions made? How are people treated? Are children treated as people too?

I’d just like to end up now with one recent experience. I know that an anecdote is not a valid argument for or against a whole system. But I am claiming that what happens in my anecdote is typical across the mainstream school industry. And it is relevant to the internal chaos that I mentioned at the start of this talk.

Faye and I are semi-retired – our son, Tim, is now our principal – but we still get asked to do the odd thing, and like I said, we have many camps. Faye was asked to take the senior girls (12 year olds) on a mystery camp recently. That’s an example of “good chaos”: mystery camps; they don’t know where they’re going until they get there.

There were 7 of these girls, and Faye asked me to come along because there weren’t enough seats; I was a chauffeur basically. We went to Anglesea, where Faye has a batch. Faye takes the girls into the sea. They’re all good swimmers; we let them swim every week since tiny tots, so they’re all very comfortable in the water.

We’re driving back from the sea, the girls are still damp, and there was this river – if you know Anglesea, there’s this very calm sort of river which is made of sea water – and the girls all went up onto the bridge, they climbed up on top of the wooden handrail, and they jumped in. (We know it’s nice and deep, and has no obstructions.) So they jump in, squealing with delight and so on.

I’m not much of a swimmer myself (I wish I’d gone to my school). Anyway, I went up onto the bridge and I looked over the side, and there were the seven girls, all treading water, totally oblivious to the fact that they were out of their depth. They’re just chirping and chatting and carrying on. When they’d had enough of that, they just swam to the bank and came up to jump off the bridge again.

Ok, so next day, same routine – they go and swim in the ocean, then on the way back they all want to jump off the bridge again, but this time there’s a whole lot of canoes approaching, about 20 of them. It’s a secondary school, and there’re two kids in each canoe; and they’re all rugged up with these lifejackets and crash helmets. I don’t know what the crash helmets were for, because the canoes were going slower than walking.

But anyway they’re sitting there, all very subdued, and there was the teacher with her lifejacket on and her crash helmet, and she was looking at us as if to say ‘How dare you squeal and jump and have such fun and make yourselves so much at home in the water?’ And all these secondary kids were sitting there very uptight – obviously they’d been lectured about all the safety concerns.

Now here’s the sad truth. Those kids are not going to grow up and say, wow, we just love getting out in nature and jumping into it and exploring it. It’s not going to happen, sadly. That’s the hidden curriculum. Unfortunately their hidden curriculum is against adventure and exploration and confidence. Our girls were very polite – they politely waited for the canoes to pass underneath and then they jumped in.

Now I was asked to make a provocative statement at the end for you to talk about, and here it is. I haven’t said anything provocative yet (ha ha), but here’s the statement:

Let educators start their own schools (which is almost impossible under present controls) and let parents choose the school for their child.

Thank you. Philip O'Carroll

1. The National Assessment Program for Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN).

2. People ask how our students get on at large secondary schools, where the culture is more impersonal and the pressure to conform is stronger. At first, we were worried about that, too. But once we started sending them off to secondary schools, we were amazed at their achievements. No dropouts. A totally unexpected ratio of our graduating students became the “class captain” in their secondary school (6 out of 7 in one year). What we learned is that conventional primary schooling is not the best preparation for conventional secondary schooling; but that learning how to think rationally, to problem-solve, and to communicate effectively, was a better preparation for any new circumstance one finds oneself in.




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