Gabriela Solomon is a trainer and course teacher at the Alternative University. She is passionate about education and a travel enthusiast. She has always dreamed to travel around the world and now she’s gone on an exciting journey: from UK to Belgium, from Holland to her final destination – Brazil. On her way she visited the Self-Managed Learning College in Brighton and wrote us about her experience and her lessons there.
I knew about Brighton only because one of my friends studied Medical School there. It has the sea, the Brighton Pier and a lovely summerish air, but I didn’t actually think about going until I found out about the Self-Managed Learning College – SMLC.
The core programme of the SMLC is for young people aged 9-16 who choose not to be in school. The Self Managed Learning approach provides young people at the college with a structure within which they can plan, organise and carry out learning activities. At the beginning of the week the learning group gathers and, for example, a 9 year old gets support for figuring out his timetable. Then, the staff and the teachers make their timetables. The student is at the heart of the learning process. (For real this time, not only in speeches.)
I arrived in Brighton in a chilly morning and Ian (the initiator of the College and the chair of its Governing Body) picked me up from the station. I started to chat eagerly about The Alternative University, “autonomie in invatare” (self – directed learning) and my recent visit to Summerhill. He started explaining a bit more about the college and their work and I understood I need to be quiet and absorb as much as I can from his experience. I read about his independent inspection report on Summerhill (when The Office for Standards in Education – OFSTED were threatening to close the school) and we were introduced by Fred Garnett – an enthusiastic supporter of The Alternative University and an expert in the world of self-determined education.
Ian has worked in Business Schools (as a CEO, a Head of Division and as a Senior Research Fellow). He has published over 100 books, articles and papers on organisational change, learning, strategic management, leadership, management development, self-management and cross-cultural management. He has been using the Self Managed Learning approach for more than 30 years with adults and from 1999 he started applying the same process for young people.
When I entered the College, the smiles were contagious. The kids were doing arts, playing the drums, working on their English skills, figuring out how computer games work and a lot of other stuff. On their timetables I saw English, Geography, Music, “Hunger Games”. And there was also a ping-pong competition going on. The College is open daily from 9.00 to 13.00; in the afternoon and in the weekend, the students spend their time outside the college and engage in sports, language lessons, music lessons and leisure activities. A student that comes here for the first time is asked five important questions. They are about his story (what happened in his life until now), his dreams (who does he want to become), his passions and his goals. The advisors also ask how will he be able to assess his goals. How will the student know he arrived at the end of the journey? The first week is not about studying, it’s about finding a direction. The whole College is not about education, it’s about a happy life and an enjoyable career.
I heard stories about Arts Awards and about exams passed with very high marks; I saw Sam’s TEDx speech – Our antique education – before actually arriving at the College. But the interaction with them convinced me that we (the ones speaking about alternative education) are on the right track. One of the girls does not want to go to University (for the moment). Her parents are both entrepreneurs, so she wants to learn about business. She is allowed to do that at 15 and she is reading about international changes that might affect her business in the future. When did I first learn about SWOT / STEEP and external factors influencing the organisation or the business? Not at 15, that is for sure. At some point, I was passing by their music studio and stopped to peak for a while. The same girl was playing the drums and another boy was happily dancing with her music. I asked the teacher for how long she was studying drums. He said that she isn’t actually studying drums, she just picked it up.
As the SMLC website explains: “The Self Managed Learning approach provides a structure within which learners are encouraged to take control of their own learning. This approach has three elements at its core: the Learning Agreement, the Learning Group (which is supported by a Learning Group Adviser) and the Learning Community.” After the learning goals are identified, they are written in the Learning Agreement; this helps putting the attention of the learner on what he wants to learn, and what he needs to do to learn it. The Learning Group has 6 people and the Learning Group Adviser; they are part of the staff and they support students in planning, organising and monitoring their work.
I also took part to one of the meetings of the Learning Community. I was voted in and then the conversation about the day started. It was brief and funny and they agreed as a community to repaint one of the rooms. The room has a name and they each shared opinions about how Brian (the room) would want its walls painted.
There are a lot of differences between the model at Brighton and the model at Summerhill, but my conclusion is the same. If you use rules and punishments to make sure children are educated, you end up having children that creatively escape the rules and hate school. If you give them freedom and choices, they will make their own rules and they will be happy to learn and come to school.