Tuesday 15 October 2019

New way to learn

A group of home schooling parents are coming together to open a democratic school in Sligo next year. They tell Sorcha Crowley about giving children the freedom to learn

Maura Duignan and Gayle Nagle are setting up a fascinating new model of education in Sligo
Maura Duignan and Gayle Nagle are setting up a fascinating new model of education in Sligo

A new type of school is coming to Sligo next year, one many will never have heard of before. Sligo Sudbury School will have no classes, no teachers and no set curriculum.

Up to 50 children aged from 6-18 years will attend next September during normal school hours at a yet to be disclosed location in Sligo town.

Also known as 'Democratic' schools, it will be only the second such school of its kind in the country, the other being Wicklow Sudbury School, Ireland's first democratic school of self-directed learning.

Founding members of Sligo Sudbury are mothers Maura Duignan and Gayle Nagle, the later being a fully qualified and experienced primary school teacher.

Both have been home-schooling their own children for several years and decided that democratic schools combine the best of home schooling with the group environment of a school with peers.

"In these environments the children are free to choose what it is they want to learn, the pace at which they want to learn and the way in which they learn," says Gayle.

"There's no fixed lessons, except if a group of children come together and explicitly state they want to learn X, then that can be facilitated by the school but outside of that, choice is the key thing and autonomous self-directed learning," she says.

Everyone, no matter what age has an equal vote in the running of the school.

It all sounds very 'airy fairy' but there is solid research to back it up.

INTO research into learning in 2007 shows that students learn more from group learning: there is a 90 per cent retention rate from peer tutoring compared to just 5 per cent from a lecture.

Research from the New York Times reveals that an ever growing emphasis on academic performance and test scores prevents children from developing life skills like self-control, motivation, focus and resilience which are far better predictors of long term success and well-being than high grades.

Both Maura and Gayle discovered the democratic school model through their home-schooling and are inspired by educator and philosopher A.S. Neill.

"When you start something you become exposed to different ideas and you see that your child is actually thriving and doing really, really well despite the fact they're not in school and they're learning plenty," says Maura of her two sons, aged 7 and 11.

"They have the freedom to learn what they're truly interested in and the freedom to follow learning at their own pace, in their own time and in their own way but within a community of peers and children a little older and younger than them. They can learn a lot, like a very large family," she adds.

Gayle, being a teacher herself, was always very interested in other models of education and in different ways of helping children learn in a school setting.

She visited a school called Summerhill in the UK to see how their learning takes place. When she met Maura through the home school network in Sligo, a "meeting of minds" gave birth to the decision to turn it into action and open their own Sudbury school in Sligo.

They're inspired by author Peter Gray who sent his own son to the Sudbury Valley school founded in Massachusetts in 1968.

Gray developed six core principles, number one being that education is the child's responsibility. The rest include unlimited opportunity to play and develop a passion, playing with the tools of the culture, caring adults who are helpers, not judges, free age mixing with children older and younger than themselves and a stable, moral and democratic community setting.

"The Sudbury model is what we're going to reflect in our school. There's a lot written about it. It's really an inspiring model," says Gayle.

What about people reading this and thinking their child won't learn anything at all because they're lazy and need a push? Wouldn't we all love to play all day and not open a book?

"'Johnny' might appear lazy because he's being asked to learn something he's not remotely interested in," replies Maura.

"If a child wants to learn something, you won't be able to stop the child from learning. In reality they're deeply curious and have great desire to learn when they're given a little more choice about what it is that they're actually spending their energy on - it can make a big difference," she says.

"We all might appear lazy if we were asked to do things that don't appeal to us and we weren't allowed to do things that did stimulate our passion," she adds.

"It's also about us reassessing our expectations about what we believe to be learning as well," adds Gayle.

So all those hours I spent agonising over algebra were in vain? "You're the best placed to answer that!" she laughs.

"When children are motivated to learn - and it's widely accepted and researched - that's the best path to learning as we all know," says Gayle.

Will a democratic school equip children for Third Level?

"They will have equipped themselves," says Maura. "That's the philosophy. They're directing their own learning and we're the facilitators. The staff are there to facilitate, to teach if they require specific learning. I'll be a staff member, we won't have teachers. If external resources or skills are required that can be sourced in," she says.

"When you get to Third Level you do have to be quite self-directed in your learning and it can be a very difficult transition for people who have been directed for 18 years.

Sligo Sudbury School won't be State-funded and will be fee-paying although they intend making it as accessible as possible:"There will be fundraising from the beginning so that we can try to supplement costs," says Gayle.

A public information evening on Sligo Sudbury School will take place this Thursday 30th November 7 - 9 pm in The Model, Sligo. or Facebook Sligo Sudbury School.

Sligo Champion