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Five Lessons From a Rural School in Thailand

Editor's Note: Today, Marvin Blunte filmmaker of 6 Weeks to Mother's Day, shares some of the things he learned while teaching at a school in rural Thailand.

By guest blogger Marvin Blunte

Like many students, I grew up in a traditional school system. It wasn't until my mid 30s, when I visited a school in the Thai jungle, that I began to question the education I received and education practices in general. My first day at this little school, called Children's Village School, I wandered around taking photos. While most of the students in the village were in class, one instead followed me around relentlessly. At one point in the day, the one English-speaking teacher in the village approached me and asked how I was doing. I responded that all was well, and then apologized that the student was skipping class to follow me.

She smiled and responded, "He is in class. He is studying you. He likes your camera, so he naturally wants to learn what you are doing. This is a Summerhill school. The children are free to study what they choose."

My first reaction was disbelief, but the longer I stayed, the more I realized that this little jungle school was way ahead of the curve, and I started doing research.

Children's Village School opened in rural west Thailand in 1979 as the country's first democratic school. Its opening signaled a firm and somewhat controversial departure from the country's rather rigid one-size-fits-all education system. The school credits the inspiration for its democratic education approach to A.S. Neill's Summerhill School in England.

0M7A8491_a.jpgChildren's Village founders Pibhop and Rajani Dhongchai felt that since not all children are the same, there was no reason all schools should be the same. They also noticed that the current government system didn't make any accommodations for abused or poverty-stricken children, leaving them behind. This centralized system did an excellent job of keeping its impoverished citizens uneducated and powerless. Taking the Summerhill concept one step further, Children's Village doubled as an orphanage/boarding school for the country's most underprivileged, hence the "village" part of the school's name. At the heart of the school's democratic ideals is the student council, where students can air grievances and vote equally with teachers on village issues.

My initial exposure to the school inspired me to return the next year to teach a photography class. This led to a deeper understanding of the school and its purpose. Here are 5 lessons I learned while teaching at this school.

1. People naturally learn what they like.

Adults and children alike tend to gravitate to what interests them. As adults, we hate to be forced to do anything, so it's no wonder that children feel the same. Forcing children to study something they hate most likely has the opposite effect of that desired. Getting a good grade on a test means nothing if the student is turned off from the subject forever. Applying something as radical as the Summerhill system in all schools may not be the answer, but educators must engage students and figure out when to push and when not to push. It's difficult to put a fun or interesting spin on something like calculus, but it's not impossible, and putting stress on a child to learn something they dislike isn't the answer, either. Educators must strive to find an appropriate middle ground.

2. Children have a strong sense of justice.

An integral part of the social system in Children's Village is the student council. Here, students air grievances and vote as equals with each other and adults on village issues. They learn early that the concept of accountability is a group effort. In my observations, the students managed to solve issues in a far more mature way than one might expect. They have an incredibly strong desire to see justice served, and they also call for harsher punishment, even for infractions that they themselves are likely to commit. Being a part of the school's decision process gives students more self-confidence, independence, and grows their ability to reason. These are lessons that can be applied to any classroom or situation in life. If you want to engage your students, act as a guide but let them take the lead.

3. Maybe medication isn't the answer.

A lot of debate has swirled around giving children medication for conditions such as attention deficit disorder. Rather than focusing on diagnoses and medication, the founders of Children's Village emphasize an understanding of child psychology. Forcing a child to do something they don't want to do often manifests as behavioral problems. In some instances, the proposed solution in traditional education is to medicate the child for ADD or ADHD. Perhaps instead, other methods could be tried to engage the child. If that means offering up more freedom, so be it. If not, perhaps a different education system might serve the child better. Medication should ideally be the last resort.

4. Our education practices reflect strengths and weaknesses of our culture.

Not long ago, getting knuckles slammed with a ruler was considered a normal punishment in traditional schools. Even if that's no longer the case, fear is still often used to motivate students, and that lack of empowerment and helplessness may cause future issues. At Children's Village School, students are empowered to speak out immediately about infractions against them and bring it before the council. They are taught from day 1 that they have rights and to violate those rights means to be judged in front of their peers.

5. Freedom does not mean anarchy.

Contrary to popular belief, the Summerhill system does not spiral into disaster. Good teachers are every bit as important in a Summerhill school as they are in any other school system. At Children's Village, a peer process is in place, and older students help guide younger ones. Encouraging students to look after their younger counterparts helps keep things level, and is part of the reason there are no cotton candy breakfasts or gummy bear lunches, for example, in spite of the free environment of the village.

I have studied this small Summerhill school for more than 6 years and have watched many students grow into young adults. The system is by no means perfect, but I firmly believe that many of Children's Village democratic traits should be incorporated into more standard school systems. I have learned that giving more power to students better helps them grow into well-adjusted adults, and that's really what the purpose of education should be.

Connect with Marvin and Heather on Twitter. 

Image credit: 6 Weeks to Mother's Day. Used with permission of the author. 

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