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GIFTLearning Faculty Spotlight: Chris Mercogliano’s focus on democratically-run, free-school education

Chris Mercogliano, a faculty member of the Graduate Institute for Transformative Learning (GIFTLearning) and a prolific author, has published a number of books that explore democratically-run, free-school education. Through his books, Chris shows himself to be one of our foremost observers of children’s lives: his insights are vivid, detailed, and profound. His writing integrates his direct experience of children with a deep knowledge base to offer unique lessons for those who care about children.

Here is an interview with Chris on Democratic Education, which is followed by a list of his publications.

What is Democratic Education?

May 19, 2014
An Interview With Chris Mercogliano
by Yong Shian Phoon

Yong Shian Phoon, who also calls herself Heather, is a Malaysian graduate student at the University of Hong Kong. She is completing a Masters thesis on democratic education, and I (Chris) was among a number of educators that she interviewed as part of her research.

Heather: What made you want to become a teacher at the Albany Free School in the first place?

Chris: I wanted to be a teacher because I really like kids, and I enjoy helping them learn things they didn’t know before and watching them grow happier. The reason I chose the Albany Free School was because the school was trying to help children in the inner city where the public schools are pretty bad and where kids need people who care about them and refuse to leave them behind. And then I saw so many little miracle happening that I never left. I also stayed because I had the freedom to teach in ways that make sense and I didn’t have to follow anybody else’s script.

H: So would you say this is one of the benefits of a democratic school, being flexible and not having to follow a specific curriculum?

C: Yes! What I especially loved was that I only had to work with children who wanted to learn. I didn’t have to deal with all the resistance that you often get from kids when learning is compulsory.

H: What is your definition of a democratic school?

C: First I should tell you I’m not crazy about the term because it’s strictly a political one. “Democratic” refers to a system of government in which people share the power. I think children being involved in making decisions, and negotiating rules, and solving problems is an important aspect of a school, but it’s only part of what goes on. Then there is the other part where children are learning and doing all kinds of things that don’t have anything to do with governing the school that the term doesn’t really address. And so now you have schools around the world that call themselves democratic and yet have quite different educational philosophies. There are some democratic schools like the Albany Free School, or the Brooklyn Free School, or Summerhill, or Sudbury Valley where students have complete freedom to choose what they want to do each day and there is no set curriculum that they have to follow, but there are many others where this isn’t the case. Then to add to the confusion, many people call mainstream public education “democratic” because it is available to everyone and students supposedly have an equal opportunity to succeed whether they are rich or poor.

H: I understand. That’s exactly what I experienced when I was trying to do research on democratic schools because in the academic world there are different ideas about what a democratic school means.

C: It’s why I prefer to say that my school is a free school that is democratically run.

H: So you are very much against a compulsory curriculum with a set content that has to be taught to every student.

C: That’s right, for me it’s not so much a philosophical issue as it is that children simply learn better when the motivation is coming from the inside because they are interested in what they’re learning. Also, every child is born with a different temperament. Some children are more willing to do as they are told. But others are strong-willed; and when you force them to do something they don’t want to do, they push back and start hating whatever it is you’re making them do. You can really do damage to their potential for learning.

H: So if there are quite a lot of different types of kids in the world, do you think all schools should be democratic or should some operate in an authoritarian way?

C: No, I don’t think there’s any need for schools that make kids learn and act in a certain way. Children are born so hungry to learn. They already have all the motivation they need. But the mainstream educational model is based on the false idea that all behavior is shaped by rewards and punishments, and also that there exists an objective body of knowledge in the world that everyone has to know in order to be an educated person.

This doesn’t mean I think all mainstream schools are bad. Many of the teachers are good people who care about kids, and they do everything they can to make what they are teaching is interesting. But the standardized testing is making it harder and harder for them to do things creatively. Especially in schools for poor children, there is no freedom for the teachers to do anything other than stick to the curriculum and get the students ready to take the high-stakes tests at the end of the year.

H: What do you think are the most important benefits of democratic education?

C: It helps children to become autonomous people and to develop a very deep sense of who they are and what they want in life. Free school graduates believe that every problem has a solution and they have the confidence that they can figure things out for themselves. And so when there are obstacles in their way they will keep trying different solutions, and asking for help if they need it, until they reach their goal.

Also, free school kids will always have the feeling that learning is very exciting, you know. To them learning is a part of life, not just something that happens in school. And you do it simply because you enjoy it so much. This is because they were never performing for rewards, and they weren’t punished for making mistakes. The motivation was always coming from them.

You really see a difference between free school kids and mainstream kids when they get to college. A lot of mainstream students have a hard time at first because suddenly no one is telling them what to do and when to do it. Many of them fall apart emotionally because they don’t have that sense of autonomy that free school kids have. Free School kids know how to manage their time and filter out the distractions.

Another benefit of democratic education is how much more relational it is. The relationships between students are much more complex, and children also learn that adults are just people. Sometimes they are good; sometimes they are bad; and you form relationships with them just like with anyone else.

H: Can you tell me a bit about the skills that you think are required to teach in a free school?

C: It’s important to be relaxed and to be flexible because in a free school everything isn’t planned and many more things happen spontaneously. So it’s pretty important for the teachers to be able to go with the flow and to be open to not really knowing how a situation is going to turn out. Also, teachers in a free school don’t have all the automatic authority and control like in mainstream schools, and so it’s important for them to understand children really well and to have good relationship skills.

H: That’s the reason why I wanted to conduct research on democratic education, really, because it’s so human.

Publications and overviews

Chris is a skilled storyteller. In A School Must Have a Heart and Other Essays on Education (The Oxford Village Press, 2014), you can read about a wild three year old who learns to trust; a group of five-year olds bringing wishes to a fire breathing dragon; and, 7- and 8-Graders from Albany New York so enthralled by Harriet Tubman that they follow her escape route and then meet with then Senator Hillary Clinton to ask for Tubman’s unpaid back pay from the Civil War. This is a book that will delight, sadden, surprise, and educate you.

Making It Up as We Go Along: The Story of the Albany Free School

Making It Up as We Go Along is the story of the Albany Free School, a school based on real freedom, real community, real democratic principles, and real affection between teachers and students. There, for over twenty-five years Chris Mercogliano taught a never-ending variety of children, kids of all ages from every race and social class, from those with developmental and behavioral problems to the so-called “gifted.” Thanks to this ongoing experiment in education, one of the longest running of its kind in America, Mercogliano has come to understand how children learn and, above all, how important autonomy and authenticity are to the learning process.

Teaching the Restless: One School’s Remarkable No-Ritalin Approach to Helping Children Learn and Succeed

Chris Mercogliano worked with so-called hyperactive (ADHD) children for many years at the Free School in Albany, New York and developed numerous ways to help these students relax, focus, modulate emotional expression, make responsible choices, and forge lasting friendships, all prerequisites for learning. In Teaching the Restless, Mercogliano uses the stories of six boys and three girls to share valuable lessons, offering a way to work with these children without assigning them labels or resorting to the use of stimulant drugs like Ritalin.

In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids’ Inner Wildness

“With deep insight, Mercogliano shows how our society is suppressing children’s creative energies. But he also brings a positive message, showing how we can help young people break through conventional restraints and pursue their passions. This is a beautiful, searching, and inspiring book.”- William Crain, author of Reclaiming Childhood: Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement-Oriented Society

How to Grow a School: Starting and Sustaining Schools That Work

This is not your typical how-to book. This is because author Chris Mercogliano firmly believes no two schools should be alike, while it is the nature of how-to books to dish out formulas that readers are expected to follow like recipes. “How to Grow a School” doesn’t contain any recipes. Instead it is an exploration of the art of the possible, a reference point, a confidence builder, a troubleshooting guide, a tool.

Above all, it is an attempt to demythologize the artificial construct known as “school,” which, like the Wizard of Oz behind his curtain of illusion, has inflated itself into something mysterious and foreboding. “It is time to throw back the curtain,” writes Mercogliano, “so that all may see how simple and basic is the process of educating children, and so that we can reclaim it from the jealous hands of experts, bureaucrats, and academicians.”

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