Goodness can flower only in freedom. It cannot bloom in the soil of persuasion in any form, or under compulsion, nor is it the outcome of reward. It does not reveal itself when there is any kind of imitation or conformity, and it cannot exist when there is fear.J. Krishnamurti The Whole Movement of Life is Learning
Our recent visit to ALC Mosaic in Charlotte, NC was an opportunity for looking deeply at what it means to bring freedom to education. Can we challenge ourselves to contemplate what it means to have freedom in our lives, in our minds, and in our experiences? Can we live beyond imitation and conformity? Can we learn to be free? What would that feel like, what would that look like in education? ALC Mosaic is dedicated to exploring these questions on a daily basis. Many of the values of the school flowed in alignment with the teachings of J. Krishnamurti, but have taken on their own vitality within the ALC community.
Upon our arrival at the school, we were greeted by Tomis Parker and his 4-year old son, Huxley. Huxley was confidently embracing the school’s early childhood policy that ‘clothing is optional’ and approached us sporting no pants. I must admit, this was the most unique and authentic welcome we have received at any of the schools we have visited. In many ways, the school felt like a home where the children were free to be themselves and comfortable embracing who they wanted to be. At one point during our tour, Huxley told his father the tour was boring. Tomis acknowledge Huxley’s feeling and then shared his own feelings, that he liked sharing with others about their school. Huxley then asked, “So you feel excited giving the tour?” We all smiled and Tomis nodded affirmatively at Huxley’s sincerely curious and emotionally intelligent inquiry.
The four of us then proceeded to walk to see the new slide that had just been added to the playground that day. The children were giving it a test run, lining up, and managing themselves to take turns sliding down. Even Tomis stood in line, waited his turn, and gave the slide a go. There was some discussion among the adults as they observed the slide and the way the children were using it. They commented on how to take care of the slide and talk to the children about using it. Their observations were openly discussed and in the moment. They wanted the children to explore the slide and learn for themselves how to play on it. Children will fall and get hurt now and then, it is natural, it is part of life and learning. The presence of the mentors around the slide wasn’t overbearing. There was a sense that they were keenly aware of the children while allowing them to freely explore and enjoy the slide.
As we continued to chat and walk around the campus with Tomis, I asked him to explain about the school’s philosophy on self-directed learning since many schools have their own interpretations and ways of creating a self-directed experience for students. He helped clarify the difference between self-directed learning and self-directed education. In self-directed learning, there is still a curriculum and underlying agenda from the teachers or authority figures that dictates what the students will do, but provides some freedom within that. For example, a class may have a project that all the students will do such as helping the community through a service project. The students can choose what they would like to do or how they want to do it, but the overall direction and project requirements are still set by adults. At ALC, they look to create more of a self-directed education in which there is a movement away from the notion that the teachers know best and that the students can truly direct their own learning without those same constraints that are present within other self-directed learning methods. There is a supreme trust in the child and their capacity to learn. It is a movement away from the feeling that teachers and authority know what is best and a chance for us as humans to realize our own inherent potential and wisdom. Tomis captured this in an insightful statement when he commented that, “Relationships are based on having power with them (children), rather than over them.” Education equips us to navigate change. It is not only what we learn, but the process by which we learn in an organic way.
When we imagine “a school,” most of us will envision a place of learning for children. At ALC Mosaic, they have created a space that is not only dedicated to children, but the greater community. There is a space on the second floor which is designated as a parent cooperative space. This space has meeting rooms, a beautiful kitchen, work spaces, and a cozy, welcoming atmosphere. Parents will often offer workshops for students in their areas of interest or expertise. There is another room downstairs that is a classroom during the day and transforms into a space for community activities, such as yoga classes, in the evenings. The school has become a place where people of all ages can engage in self-directed education. One benefit of this setup is that it blurs the lines between what it is to be a child and what it is to be an adult. Children get to see adults working and see their world first hand… rather than wondering about that mysterious place called “work” that parents go off to everyday. It also reflects the strong sense of community that the school supports. We never stop learning and growing, even after we graduate and become “adults.” If we support the idea that our children need a space to be free to learn, we too should have that same value for ourselves.
I wanted to share one more provocative thought that Tomis spoke to us about… another one of our commonly presumed values regarding the way children should be educated. He challenged us to think about the idea of a well-rounded student. I remember this phrase when I was in high school and how important it was to be a well-rounded student when you apply for college. You had to demonstrate how you were engaged with and successful in a variety of areas. It wasn’t enough to have been a star athlete, you also had to be a star student; it wasn’t enough to have won the science fair with an outstanding project, you also had to be the editor of the yearbook, the president of the Spanish honor society, play an instrument, and of course, be a star athlete. Looking back, all that sounds quite unreasonable and just plain stressful for a teenager. As adults, how many of us live in such a well-rounded way? To idealize this well-rounded student can stifle the opportunity to engage deeply in that which is meaningful and unique for each individual student. Can we take some time to consider this concept of “well-roundedness” that we hold so highly (and tightly); can we wonder about our own conditioning regarding this wide-spread assumption.
To conclude, I am jazzed to share the gesture of ALC Mosaic. Tomis “called a friend” to help with the gesture and asked mentor Nancy to embody the essence of the school for us. Her uninhibited, vibrant, expression of jazz hands distinctly captured the playfulness and energy of the school and the experience we felt while being there. We are so grateful to Tomis, Huxley, Nancy, and everyone at ALC Mosaic for having us and sharing about their inspiring school!