In Week 5 we thought it would be wise to discuss Optional Lessons


Jason: You’ve got to be able to opt in

Having optional lessons doesn’t mean having no lessons.  You’ve got to be able to opt in or there is no real option.

There have always been lessons at Summerhill.  They might be rubbish lessons- after all the best teachers at the school are not the kind of people who get their knickers in a twist about grades and results.  But they are there, and they help the kids get to where they want to be.

I don’t want exceptional lessons.  I don’t want children to be sucked into more and more school work by charismatic and enthusiastic teachers.  You know what I mean: those pictures that advertise teaching as a career where the teacher looks like an executive and the smiling, eager kids look like its Christmas.  Yuck.

I want competent teachers offering functional lessons in the basics and lots of time for kids to choose their own paths.  There has to be a way of organizing resources so that it doesn’t all end up as a jumble.  And there has to be a way of ensuring that children don’t choose paths that are not very good for them- deciding not to learn to read, for example.  We know that they will have more freedom when they are older if they do, so we should do our best to help them in that direction.

If we are creating a transitional model, it has to be a model that goes somewhere.  It won’t be a boarding school, however good Summerhill is as a residential democratic community.  It must be a school that works for a broader variety of parents and social groups.  So we have to think seriously about what children are going to do when they come through the school doors in the morning.  If the environment isn’t right, as soon as we offer them any freedom they will decide to go home.  That is the challenge.

Leonard : There’s a lot to say


There’s a lot to say about Optional lessons. But first, what’s a lesson? My definition is anything offered by a teacher. And that could be a qualified teacher, a volunteer, another student. Of course, you can get hung up on definitions of teachers but I’m not going to. A teacher is someone who knows something you don’t and is going to help you learn it. And optional means that you don’t have to attend the lesson. However, if you attend, you accept that the teacher is in charge of the lesson as well as the space where the lesson is taking place. That’s very important.

In democratic free schools lessons are optional; we can be talking about skateboarding, crafts, tree climbing; in other words non academic lessons. We can also be talking about academic lessons from the traditional lists of subjects: Maths, Languages, Sciences, Arts, Technology, Physical Education etc.



We think that all optional academic curriculum should be reduced to essentials and that a Bloated Curriculum should be avoided at all costs. Don’t follow a Super-Sized curriculum. In that respect, State curriculums are the equivalent to a bad fast food burger. Ten fat chapters (when 2 are filling) smothered by the special Sauce of Irrelevance in a Mind Numbing Time Wasting Bun. We all know it. The state knows it. Then why doesn’t it … that’s not relevant here, thank goodness.






I also think that the traditional subjects basically fall into two categories. A: The subjects that people freak out about. B: The subjects that people are casual about.

Under Super Freak Out I would choose Maths and Literacy, and when students are a bit older, Science. The rest, as far as I am concerned, come under B: Important if a student is interested. 

Freedom of Choice of Action in Democratic Community is our definition of what takes place in a Democratic Free School.

Let’s deal with the Freak Out Subjects. Who, pray tell, freaks out ? That’s simple: Parents and Ministers of Education. Older students, by the way, will be concerned about any subjects required to get them into College, to allow them to pursue a life path. Wouldn’t you be?

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But you know, if you take the freak away. If you even drop Science. If you simply deal with literacy and numeracy, a student at 14 who can’t read or write, and can’t do maths is in about the same predicament as a hunter-gatherer not knowing the most basic cultural skills to survive. I know that’s cliché but it’s true. So, we think Radically Reduced Maths and Literacy, and later Science curriculums, need to be on offer. If not compulsory, then on a comprehensible timetable and using product placement. Believe us, this will not coerce any child. Just inform her. Our experience tell us this.

So it’s complicated, this Optional Lessons business. Unless you have your head in the clouds it needs some serious thinking about as you begin to design your brand new Democratic Free School.



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