Lesson 1 from a year of self-directed learning: democracy doesn’t work

In September 2018, as the rest of the school reported to their mentor groups to receive information about the coming year, seventeen intrepid students arrived at room B201 to start an exciting adventure. 

They were the first cohort of the Pathfinder Programme. Pathfinder is the product of a thought experiment that asked “if we had to design a school from scratch, what would be its purpose and how would it work?”.

You can read more about how we answered that question here. In essence, Pathfinder allows MYP students to direct their own learning for a year or more – both in terms of the curriculum followed and how they use their time – and thus to start plotting their own unique path in the world.

Year 1 was a huge learning curve for us. The programme of September 2018 is very different from the one with which we begin September 2019, having been constantly adapted and improved from our experiences. I’d like to share three key lessons from year 1.

Lesson 1: Democracy doesn’t work

Well I don’t really mean that, but it probably got your attention! What I mean by this is that it’s difficult to be truly democratic when there are other ends to be achieved and time is limited. 

We started out with the aim of allowing students to “establish their own learning community, deciding what is learned, how and when”. Basically, deciding everything! In wrestling with decisions usually made by teachers, they would have full ownership over their learning community, be much more motivated for it and learn some invaluable skills along the way. 

What we rather naively overlooked is that this process of making decisions and maintaining a healthy learning community is hugely time consuming. Democratic decisions do not always lead to the best outcomes and they need to be constantly revisited and reconsidered (absolutely no reference to anything going on in northern Europe 😉 

One example of this is of the student’s deliberations about how to layout the room. We’d piled all the furniture in the corner and left the decision to the students. After a day or so of discussion the room was arranged…in the image of a traditional classroom! After a week it became apparent to the students that this didn’t fit their new way of working so another committee was formed to re-think the design with more input from us teachers. Even then nobody was entirely happy and the room remained rather centralised and disconnected. 

The process itself was valuable, but it took a huge amount of time and was just one decision of many that students needed to take if they were to truly own their learning community.  Furthermore it came at the expense of an environment conducive to the collaborative project-based learning that they were undertaking.

Our mistake was to think that democracy is always the best method to achieving the specific objectives set out in an academic curriculum. I think back to a conversation I had with Jim Rietmulder of the Circle School in Pennsylvania who objected when I enthusiastically told him that Pathfinder would be a democratic programme. He pointed out that for democratic schools, democracy IS the curriculum. For us, it was more of a means to achieve the objectives of our curriculum. I now fully appreciate this fundamental difference. We learned that true democracy is not the best method if you have pre-determined objectives to achieve. 

A post-democracy Pathfinder room

Consequently, we now seek to provide a framework in which students can make genuine choices about their learning and community, but limited in range and depth. So when the 2019/2020 cohort stepped into the Pathfinder room for the first time, they found it set-up in a way that we think suits the style of their learning but will have the opportunity to make changes based on their experience (and they already have made changes!).

In this way we hope to secure the benefits of student ownership whilst also enabling them to effectively work towards the objectives of the MYP.  

Lesson 2: Traditional paradigms of education are difficult to escape

Lesson 3: Give students a stage

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