Optional lessons take place and are scaffolded



Optional lessons are central to Summerhill but may be difficult in a democratic day school. This point came out in the conversation with Leonard.  It is the most important point to bring out in this follow up.

Lack of Trust


My schooling was full of content that I had not chosen.  Some parents want that for their children- lots of improving content that will give their children a competitive advantage in the world.  If you are running a democratic school, you will wave goodbye to those children and their parents.  The model is based on lack of trust: if you let kids alone, they will be idle or get into trouble.


Democratic schools are for kids who want choices and parents who want their kids to have them.  They have a different basic idea: children do not have to be improved on; they can make good decisions by themselves and can be trusted to guide their own learning.  Once they have learned to read, they can go off on their own reading and investigation tracks.


I like Leonard’s accounts of the straightforward motives that went into setting up his first school. When you get rid of all the fatty excess the curriculum in a democratic school can be lean and effective.  

Get Rid of Fatty Excess
Lean and Effective


Anyway, I am going to summarize in a list my key essentials about optional lessons:

    • Kids do things for themselves.  We provide the environment but we trust them to get on with it. 
    • We have a timetable that explains the options and how kids can opt in or out. 
    • We give priority on that timetable to the core subjects of the National Curriculum, especially Mathematics and Literacy.
    • We design spaces so that free choice of activity is possible: a standard classroom will not permit this. 
    • We design spaces so that we can start to accumulate resources for all the varied activities that will soon be taking place in them.

Lessons Take Place


Having optional lessons means that lessons take place.  Those lessons follow a clear structure working their way through a curriculum outline with multiple entry points for children who have dipped out of learning for a while.  We do not engage in elaborate and bureaucratic systems of measurement and assessment because we are fundamentally opposed to that.  It is not necessary in a small school.


Our day school will have the difficult task of persuading the authorities that it is viable to offer optional lessons. Our reduced core curriculum is convincing: it is tight, focussed and age-appropriate.  We can demonstrate that the foundation subjects- otherwise known as the rest of the curriculum- can be covered through our free choice provision.  We can show that we are aware of the developmental level of the children and offer them appropriate help and resources.

Compromise for Freedom ?


We may have to bend our neck and put maths, literacy and science on a more formal compulsory footing in order to be approved and we will do that because the overall aim of giving children free choice is such a big gain. We are prepared to compromise and put some core skills into compulsory spots if it means we will be allowed to go ahead.



In Optional Lessons paerts 1 and 2, we discussed day schools, as opposed to a boarding school like Summerhill, reduced core curriculum and used product placement. We felt that simply saying Optional Lessons leaves the reality without context and scaffolding and leads to wrong interpretations of successful Democratic Free Schools.



All of the realities and contexts were thrown up at me in 1970 when I was creating my own democratic day school. As we got closer and closer to succeeding : some cash, a building, successful renovations, good fire, health, safety and building code inspections, positive media coverage, public presentations and adequate recruitment, my co-founder and I became concerned about learning and longevity. What if we could not sustain the school financially for a decent number of years  and children had to return to the state system?  If we did manage a long term run, if a child came to our school at 9 and graduated to high school at 14, would they be able to adequately transition? 

Transition ?


After many decades in democratic education and state school education I know for certain that most of what students under thirteen have to learn in state schools is unnecessary for future success, and that even Maths, English and Science can be cut back drastically: there is so much repetition in those curriculums and in the textbooks. In 1970, at twenty-four, we had strong gut feelings that was true and wanted to act on it. But with opening day approaching, we still had to decide what to offer, when and how? In our school of Free Choice of Action in Democratic Community. Of Optional lessons.



So, I made an appointment to visit the local office of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. This was set up not for inspection but to look into different and new educational methods. I had a great conversation with the fellow. I told him about my school, and about my concerns. What do I need to think about? He said, “Well, and this is between you and me: numeracy, literacy, problem solving, a bit of research.” I was taken aback. “ That’s it?” “Yes,” he said. “Unless they make a second language compulsory starting, say, at ten years of age.” 

Four Week Cycle


I left the office elated, discussed it with my co-founder, and we set about figuring how to create a  timetable that would offer those basics. Agreeing that we would cut back on the Maths and English repetition and bullshit, we still needed something to do with problem solving and research and to solve the when and how of it all. After a few hours of trial and error ideas we invented a four week cycle:

Maths and English


The first week would have Maths and English mornings. I would offer English, Ed would offer Maths. That’s all we would do. The students did not have to do the lessons but nothing else would be offered by adults. If you opted out of Maths and English you had to fill your own time. Generally, it would be made known that people who wanted to go to lessons should not pressure others to do so, and people who didn’t want to go should not pressure people in lessons who did attend.


In weeks two three and four, there would only be Wednesday Maths and English morning. In the other four mornings … 12 days total over three weeks, Ed and I would offer a single, mixed age Theme Activity. 



So, on the Monday morning of week two, the students would gather in the meeting room and I would pile dozens of books on the centre carpet ( We were very cheeky and raided the local library of all of the books on a theme using a variety of library cards !) We put a scroll of white paper on the wall, wrote the topic name and put a few possible project ideas underneath. ( We offered ‘Taster’ Themes in traditional subjects like Science, History as well Architecture, Film Making, Puppetry …  whatever interested us over coffee or what the kids asked for.) 


After the general planning session the kids went to different parts of the building to work in groups or alone and we wandered about willing to help out. We did not present any ‘global’ system of planning or thought process.


It was a small town, it was the seventies, so the kids could make up a list of materials and walk by themselves to art supply and hardware stores etc., or we would drive out and get them. Not all projects would last 3 weeks, it didn’t matter. Or you could do two short ones. If a student wanted to do an Alternative Theme, no problem. If a student didn’t want to do a project at all, that was fine too as long as they minded their own business.

Our Crafted Versions


So that was ‘offered’ problem solving, planning and research covered along with Maths and English. For me, that’s when Reduced Core Curriculum, ‘Taster’ Curriculum and Product Placement was invented. Crafted for that particular school at that particular time.


Our version of Optional Lessons.