“Schooled” – film on alternative schooling system

The Sudbury Valley School system, started in Massachusetts in 1968, is one of the more pre-eminent and well-known forms of alternative school systems in the world. In the core of the Sudbury Valley system is democracy in education: students and staff are all given the right to vote on issues in the school that affect them – from school lunches to changes in rules. There are also no compulsory sessions, classes, or subjects; instead, the students take their own initiative in deciding what they want to learn, when and how they want to learn it (much like unschooling, just with a structural base). Age groups are mixed and often the students also act as teachers to their peers.

The Sudbury Valley system is in place in North America, some parts of Europe, Israel, and Australia, though it hasn’t really taken off elsewhere. This could be due to different cultural and societal expectations on the purpose of schooling and education. Imagine if Malaysian students were allowed to decide what they wanted to learn, and didn’t have to do exams if they didn’t want to! I would personally love it, but the rest of the country may degenerate into confused chaos as it’s completely the opposite of what we’re used to.

Part of overcoming such barriers is to experience the Sudbury Valley system for ourselves. If we’re not lucky enough to get to visit a school, though, there is another way: watching the film Schooled.

Schooled showcases the journey of Fred, a school teacher facing plenty of problems both in his personal and professional life. To resolve his crisis, he goes out to discover alternatives, and stumbles upon a Sudbury Valley school. The sheer difference of systems shocks him into reevaluating his perspectives and goals.

The film has received positive feedback from the Alternative Education Resource Organisation, the key worldwide organisation for alternative and democratic schooling, as well as other educators and past Sudbury Valley students. Screenings have been held around the US, Australia, Sweden, and Canada.

To celebrate its launch, the people at Schooled are offering special discounts and free offers for every DVD sold on Wednesday, October 15 (Launch Day). The DVD normally costs $25, but for Launch Day there will be a 20% discount as well as a choice of goodies related to alternative education or to Hollywood.

I haven’t had the chance to see the movie yet, but if I do I’ll post a review. This should be interesting – there have been a lot of films about teachers and schools, but not many (if any) dealing with a real-world alternative system. Will this increase awareness and acceptance for alternative systems? Let’s see.

(thanks Erin!)

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Interesting changes afoot

So it seems that there are quite a number of interesting changes to the Malaysian education system, following the Ministry of Education’s blueprint:

1. A holistic, less exam-oriented primary school curriculum. I like this idea. The early childhood years are highly formative and children should be given the opportunity to explore all facets of life and learning, instead of already being indoctrinated into exams (well, no one should be indoctrinated into anything period). I like the six focus areas – communication, spiritual values, humanitarianism, ICT & science literacy, physical health, and personal development. My only worry is that a certain type of moral value or belief will be pushed through this curriculum (as has happened in the past) – but if this goes well we would definitely have more well-rounded kids who are able to adapt to life’s challenges creatively.

2. Greater focus on vocational and technical education. Vocational education gets a bad rep in Malaysia – it’s usually seen as the pathway for those who failed. However, there is a lot of value in vocational education, and a lot of skills and knowledge required to survive – mathematics, science, logistics, logic, creativity, and so on. To make this successful, we need to increase awareness and respect for vocational education, and transform it from something undesirable to something worthy of exploration – like the apprenticeships system in Australia.

3. School-based examinations instead of central examinations. This could be interesting. On the one hand, this gives greater freedom and flexibility for schools to develop their own curriculum and testing methods, and experiment with alternative teaching styles. Alternative schools systems (like Waldorf and Sudbury Valley) will also be able to thrive as they don’t have to “teach to the test”. However, some schools may not be able to adjust, or end up pushing a very non-productive method of testing. The Ministry is considering looking at more semester-based assessment and reducing exams, which to me is a good idea – instead of putting all the pressure on one week’s worth of work, let people work at a more gradual pace and relax a bit.

4. Allowing schools to administer the International Baccalaureate exams instead of the SPM. Now this is a VERY interesting development. The IB tests, which are internationally recognised, and also of a higher level than SPM (I believe they are closer to STPM), demand a stronger grasp of knowledge but also a greater sense of creativity and critical thought. This is not an exam you can teach to. Schools that administer IB tests need to adjust their teaching styles to allow for fuller, more holistic learning. Hopefully this will become the impetus for schools to stop worrying about grades, and do what they’re there for – education.

The NST also has a report on a pilot project to test career aptitudes of primary school children. The idea is that they will be tested at Years 5 and 6 to see what career paths suits them. I really DON’T like this plan. The kids are 11 and 12 – they haven’t even completely developed their capabilities yet! How can you push them towards a certain future when they’ve hardly lived their lives? As it is, asking young people to decide their entire lives by 18 is too much – people change and new opportunities come up all the time.

Kids are overtested already. There’s no need to make them decide their future now. Give them some time to experiment and get to know what they like.

Question about starting schools in Malaysia

What rules and laws govern the formation of schools in Malaysia? Do those same laws affect private schools?

For instance, if you set up a private school, are you required by law to administer the KBSM/KBSR curriculum? Do your students have to take UPSR/PMR/SPM/STPM?

What if you wanted to set up an alternative school – for example, one following the Sudbury Valley model? With the Sudbury Valley model, national curricula and standardized exams would go against everything the model stands for – democratic, student-centered education.

Would you need to get approval from the Government before setting up such a school? How and where would you get funding?

Once Upon A School: Get Inspired

As part of his TED Prize (the award given by major ideas conference TED to 3 prominent people to have one wish come true), author Dave Eggers talks about his project 826 Valencia, a writing and tutoring center for young people staffed by professional writers and educators, housed behind shops of very unusual nature – the one at Valencia was a “pirate’s goods” store. Originally the storefront was a way to circumvent zoning laws, but it became a good draw (and made money for the center), and soon the project spread to various other tutoring centres+shops across the US and the world.

(click the picture below to see his video on TED)

Dave Eggers talking at TED

Eggers’s wish is for more people to get involved with their local schools and engage their students into learning. To achieve this, he and the people at TED have started Once Upon A School, a website where people can pledge ideas for school engagement and read stories of those that have done so.

Once Upon A School

Some of the ideas include hands-on tutoring for maths and science and companies partnering with classes to provide real-world experiences (much like the KaosPilots), while a couple of projects already running include M.U.S.I.C., which brings pop music into the classroom, and ACE, or Awareness for Communities about Energy, which trains schoolkids and community members about energy-efficient living.

My story about doing a Life after School talk at my old secondary school also made it onto the website. Read my story and share your ideas.

What other ideas do you have for getting involved with your schools? How can communities and schools engage each other?