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Step 1

Overview

The purpose of Step 1 is to give a small group of students the opportunity to experience an approach to learning that is more democratic than the norm. From a professional perspective it is designed to answer the question: “What happens when a small cross-section of high school students are given just a little more control over their learning?”

This Step is the most significant because it starts the transition to democratic learning, and it eliminates age segregation and timetabling. Age segregation and timetabling are the two most stifling practices of autocratic schools. Serious reform efforts require that these constraints be removed.

Step 1 is not new. The methods it applies are already being used successfully with programs for students at risk. Step 1 simply makes this type of program available to students who are not considered to be at risk. Much of what is presented here as Step 1 derives from a pilot program called CHIP that operated in a secondary school during the first semester of two consecutive school years.

A school board trustee once said, “If you want to see the students we are failing, just take a ride in a police cruiser on a Friday night.” To this the head of the school board replied, “Yes, but if you want to see how we recover these students, then visit one of our alternative programs.”

It follows that if we know how to recover students at risk, then we know how to prevent them from becoming at risk in the first place. Step 1 applies this logic.

The redesign process presented here begins with high school students, but successful alternative programs in elementary schools have demonstrated that democratic reforms can be introduced with younger students. Existing alternative programs at both levels are generally seen as ends in themselves, but they need to be seen as first stages to fundamental reform. Educators running alternative programs at both levels in the same community may decide at some point to amalgamate their programs to more fully implement the democratic model.

The Mechanics of Step 1

1.  A one-classroom pilot program is operated as a school-within-a-school in a community secondary school. Students in the program are expected to adhere to all of the rules of the main school when they are not in their classroom, and they can participate as usual in all of the extra-curricular activities offered by the main school.
2. The pilot program accommodates approximately 25 students. Ideally, these students will represent a cross-section in age and ability of the main student body. The Sudbury Valley School referred to age mixing as its secret weapon and Step 1 seeks to develop this advantage as much as possible.
3. The pupil-to-teacher ratio is roughly 25:1. Two teachers are assigned to the program. One teacher is on duty in the mornings, the other in the afternoons.
4. Students choose to take the program. There is no formal application, but selection depends on students commitment to learning and to them having a genuine desire to explore a different approach to learning.
5. Students do not have control over what they learn. They are required to obtain the same number of ministry-defined course credits as they normally would, and they might even be required to take the same final exams as students working for the same credits in the traditional program.
6. Students are given considerably more control over how they learn. They operate as self-directed learners who plan their own days, which in itself is a great learning activity. Students decide which of their courses they will work on at any given time. They also decide how long they will work on it, the way they will work on it, with whom they might work on it, and how to integrate the learning involved with their courses.
7. The students work collaboratively in organizing their classroom to best suit their needs.
8. Teachers work as facilitators. For them, the primary curriculum is not the content of the courses the students are taking, but rather what some people are calling 21st Century learning skills, the skills needed for self-directed, life-long learning. The development of these skills will help the students to achieve the results they want from their course work.
9. The teachers assigned to the program play a critical role and they need to be thoughtfully chosen. They first of all have to believe that the democratic learning model needs to be thoroughly explored. They need to like young people and to have a strong desire to help them personally. They need to be excited about their own learning and have a wide fascination with the world at large. They need to be able to accept not having full control over students, and to work in an active environment where many different things are happening at the same time. The two teachers involved need to respect each other and work as a team.
10. For quiet work, students can make use of space other than their classroom. They might use the library, a study room provided for regular students with a spare in their timetable, an alcove, a foyer, a student lounge, or the outdoor campus.
11. Department heads in the main school help to provide resources for the program. They may also provide support in other ways. In effect, they are required to serve competing programs and must learn to do so impartially.
12. The main school administrators are also the administrators of the pilot program and they must maintain an overall healthy learning environment free of hostility between the programs.
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