We frequently use words in our language that have lost something important through over-use. When one hears the word ‘privilege’ we tend to think of over-indulged people living a life in which they are not constrained by monetary factors or time. One often hears the phrase “a privileged life”. And indeed there are some who are privileged by mere rights of birth to a life that the rest of us could not begin to contemplate.
However, is this really ‘privilege’?
The dictionary talks of rights, immunity and exemptions, of benefits enjoyed beyond the norm, and this made me think about who exactly is privileged in this world of ours.
One could easily argue, for instance, that Prince Harry is a privileged soul; touring the Caribbean to celebrate his grandmother’s jubilee year, meeting people of exceptional quality and never having to worry about finances. Yet he lost his mother tragically when he was too young. He’s spent his life under the gaze of the masses. It may appear to be a privileged way of living – but is it really?
The pupils at Kinokuni Children’s Village school could easily be described as privileged. They have been given the ‘right’ to a progressive and purposeful education. They have choice, and a real voice in the running of their school. They are possibly ‘immune’ from the constraints of a restrictive curriculum that does not take account of their needs, their creativity and their interests. They are potentially exempt from the pressures of an examination system that elsewhere might deprive them of their right to a holistic education.
They are indeed privileged, but with that privilege there is genuine humility and respect.
The real privilege they have is to live a life of relative freedom, self-expression and collegiality. They are afforded time to be reflective, to consider the needs of others as well as themselves, to learn in a manner that engages and excites.
There is humility in watching them at their work and their play. There is humility in observing their interactions with one another, which shows an immense amount of respect for one another – for their peers, their teachers and the fellow dwellers within the village as a whole.
I feel privileged too.
I feel privileged that I have had the opportunity to view and reflect on what I saw at this incredibly calm and productive school.
For some, progressive education conjures up a notion of anarchy, where children are free to do what they want, where there is no control, no restrictions, and some have even gone as far as saying there is no real learning.
However, this is so far removed from what proper progressive education is all about. As stated in a previous blog this week, there are some who turned ‘child-centred’ education into a disorganised free for all and thus gave this vital and important concept a very bad name.
At Kinokuni Children’s Village School, one can see a pure form of progressive education that sceptics of child-focused learning should really go and see. It’s an extremely humbling experience.
Dr Shin-ichiro Hori founded the school twenty years ago. He based his model of education on the works of many progressive educationalists, including A.S Neill of Summerhill fame.
The children within the school all have a say in what is taught, how the school is run and how they spend their time. Every person in the school has a vote in the decision making process and it is one person one vote. The teachers do not have a weighted vote in comparison with the students.
The students and the staff do opt for some so-called formal education. As a state-recognised, although not state-funded school, Kinokuni adheres to the education department’s stipulation that a certain amount of hours per week are made available to study maths, Japanese and English. There are lessons in humanities and arts. Physical education is compulsory as in any school in Japan. In fact, recently, the introduction of traditional sports such as kendo, karate and judo have been made statutory in all schools in the country.
There is a timetable and children are expected to attend the lessons.
However, the classrooms are informal, the learning is experiential, and the children are very much engaged in the planning and delivery of the curriculum. Furthermore, this school affords one and a half days on what they call ‘project’ lessons.
The range of activities include carpentry, farming, biotope (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biotope), cooking, music and drama, car maintenance and educational research projects.
The students spend an entire year on their chosen activity, and if they do not get their first choice project, they are assured that they will do so the following academic year.
This year, the 12-15 year old students decided that they wanted to learn about progressive education systems in Japan and throughout the rest of the world. They have been to Korea to discover how progressive education works there and they have studied the history of progressive education, including the Montessori and Steiner systems of education.
As for the car maintenance students, they practice on the staff cars, taking them apart and mending them for a small fee that the staff are happy to pay.
The primary school children are not exempt from costing out their activities. This year the six to ten year olds have financed and built a greenhouse. Every section of this work was facilitated by the teachers but the decisions and the operational work was implemented by the students.
Seeing the structures built around the school, ranging from cafes to small dormitories and playhouses is very humbling indeed.
But the learning continues, progressively. Fifteen students per year over a period of eight years have built a house, together with patios and a pizza oven, high in the mountains where it took the initial patient children a year to dig out the mountainside and lay some initial foundations. One of the children who initially worked on this project is now a master carpenter doing vital renovations to the magnificent temples in Koya-san, having spent a year or more in carpentry lessons and a year studying Mount Koya, its temples and its philosophy.
The students also have free choice lessons and on Friday afternoon, – many opted for the singing lesson in the village school room, a computer lesson from a visiting professional or a session of table tennis in the grand hall, to mention but a few.
The older students listened patiently and respectfully to a session of English, in which 3Di Associates discussed their model of intelligence in English with little Japanese translation, and then asked a series of thoughtful questions to convey their understanding of not only English but of the concept of multiple intelligences too.
No formal assessment is required. One merely has to sit and observe the engagement of the students to know that this education is working.
On the weekend, the older students who were remaining on site instead of returning to their families, – set up a rota to manage the lighting of the school kiln, built about six years ago. This meticulous planning was all done by the students and overseen by members of staff. They diligently planned shifts to keep the fire alight, and worked out the times when the maximum heat was required, and when more wood fuel was needed to lower the temperature so as to ensure the pots within the kiln did not crack.
Returning to the carpentry lesson, we witnessed children working together, helping one another, planning how to chop wood and carry water!
I cannot over emphasise the humility I felt on witnessing these activities and the spirit in which they were carried out.
Kinokuni is a special place with exceptionally special people. Mindfulness is not necessarily discussed but it is apparent wherever you choose to look. Respect is subliminal and ever-present. Consideration, compassion and common values are all evident.
And learning is happening, everywhere.
The teachers, staff and students at Kinokuni are privileged, and yet the knowledge of their privilege does not weigh on their shoulders. They do not smugly appreciate their fortune. There is no unnecessary pride, only peaceful acceptance that they are indeed fortunate.
To live, work and play in such an incredible environment must be humbling for them as well as for the observer from another country who just wishes the world could see what can be done in the name of progressive education.