I often find that, because of my many frustrations with how institutionalised education is and how the state abuses that, it’s difficult for me to be positive about anything in the movement towards healthier learning communities. However, along with the strong critiques, we need positivity because we need to see what is possible rather than just breaking down what already exists.
Considering the constant stream of news of how schools are horrendous and utterly unsafe institutions, it’s also helpful to remember the few positive aspects of learning and how we can take those forward into creating the learning spaces we need as opposed to the schools we have.
So to take a momentary break from the doom and gloom, I want to share the lessons that I’ve learned from my own experiences and those shared with me by other anarchist educators.
Collaboration is necessary. It should be obvious that working together creates healthier and sustainable learning environments, but we need to make it a constant mantra in a world that attempts to atomise us into individual pieces. This is even true among so-called “leftist” spaces, where a lot of (usually white) people continually tell others to “go read books” or “learn theory” without even so much of a hint of irony.
We are stronger together, we need each other, and we learn more by working together than we do on our own.
From my own experiences in the classroom, the moments I noticed my students learning the most was when they were working together (or working on individual tasks but still asking their peers for help or feedback). When someone said they didn’t understand, kids recognised very quickly that they needed to either clarify something because there wasn’t enough information or that they were trying to say something with too much jargon and not meeting others where they were.
This is something that, honestly, my students have taught me the most. Where once I would’ve felt like I had to do something on my own (partially as a result of the school environment I grew up in), I now know that I need to ask for help and feedback from others. It’s not easy by any means, but it has led me to finding communities of people who are going through similar journeys (or are in need of being encouraged to start that journey).
We can’t and shouldn’t do this alone. Other people are necessary.
I want to tell a quick story about how beautiful collaboration can be for a community, even though it took place within the context of a school. A few years ago, my teaching position included the role of ‘Service as Action and CAS Coordinator’. For those unfamiliar with the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, CAS stands for ‘creativity, activity and service’ and is part of the core curriculum for the final two years of the program. Effectively, it is an obligation of all students to participate in voluntary extracurricular activities in order to pass the program.
And it largely makes no sense at all.
Because of this, many teachers treat it as a box-checking exercise and just tell the IBO that, yes, their students have completed the requirements (even when they haven’t). This is because there is no graded component that needs to be sent to them, and it largely is an online check-box indicating ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (an element of the program I actually like and wish were applied more widely).
However, there are a few teachers like me who actually see the value of these programs in being able to develop the school community and the school’s connections to the community it exists within. I actually love these programs because they give me an opportunity to break down walls within the school community and between the school and the outside community, and they really challenge students to see that school is not the most important aspect of their world (regardless of how much messaging tells them otherwise).
Though there is one more difference between me and a lot of teachers who see these programs as vital and important: I really pushed back against the creeping behaviours of the non-profit industrial complex within my schools, asking students to think about if they were doing something for someone (without knowing what they needed) or with someone (after finding out what they needed). When my students put forward ideas for programs they could develop that would “help people with disabilities,” I really wanted them to stop and explore what all kinds of disabled people had to say. I’d give them starting points (the Disability Visibility podcast really helped here) and ask them to explore as far as they could. I did this with every project they put forward that was meant to help a group of people they didn’t belong to.
And it did so much more than I’d imagined it would.
Doing it this way prompted a lot of my students to think about how, initially, they were taught that it was okay to speak for and over people, determining what they needed for them without understanding what was actually being asked for. But it also shifted how a lot of them interacted with each other, realising that this behaviour had impacts closer to home. Instead of just assuming they “knew best” and deciding they “knew how to help,” I saw a lot of kids asking each other what they needed instead of making assumptions. I saw kids who made mistakes with their peers, who had sometimes really hurt them, seeking out other people to help them mediate issues between them and work towards solving the problem according to what the affected person needed.
They even did that with me. When they noticed I was upset or unwell, they always asked me how they could help instead of simply just doing what they thought was best. (And sometimes they would watch me solve my problems and just quietly do the same thing, which occasionally resulted in random kids finding my kettle and making me tea when they saw I was upset.)
And while not a perfect solution, it at least created a space within a harmful institution for better relationships and deeper levels of understanding to develop among some students.
We learn better when we’re given space to try new things and make mistakes. Again, this is something that should be obvious, but I’ve listened to so many of my colleagues make this claim while doing absolutely nothing to encourage it. In fact, this kind of messaging is often emblazoned across the websites of so many schools. It’s kind of exhausting how often that kind of messaging is used as a marketing gimmick and nothing more.
But this is something that is so wildly important to our development. We know that people aren’t perfect, and we know that we’re always going to screw up. Holding ourselves and others to such unattainable standards is really harmful, but creating spaces that allow for us to make mistakes and learn from them is necessary.
This doesn’t mean that we should be making harmful mistakes and asking the people harmed by them to fix it (such as the case for saying something racist and expecting people of colour to teach you why it’s harmful), but it does mean that we need to create spaces where people can make mistakes while others work with them to break down what they know and replace it with a more solid understanding. (This also necessitates that we understand the difference between someone who is genuinely trying and someone who is there for the sake of trolling.)
A critical aspect is that respect should be the guideline, and that respect should be extended to people regardless of whether or not they are there.
This is something that I have rarely seen implemented in schools, so I can’t even really talk about it from that perspective. Though this is the environment that I often tried to build in my own classrooms, elements were often undermined through specific requirements: high-stakes testing, frequent tests for language fluency, other teachers trying to insist that students “shouldn’t make mistakes,” the grading criteria, and so much more. The only spaces I ever really found, within a school context, to build these areas were within extracurricular activities and the mandatory “volunteer” portion of their curriculum.
But even there, it was still pretty difficult to get them to shake off all the anti-mistake and anti-risk-taking policies (which is incredibly ironic for IB schools, considering ‘risk-taking’ is part of their ‘learner profile’).
So better examples from my own life come from self-organised study groups with other organisers and community members, which we developed for the express purpose of building spaces for genuine learning. These were often informal communities of people who wanted to learn anything. One of our big things was organising ‘skill share’ workshops, which were advertised to the whole community. This frequently brought in members who otherwise wouldn’t have come and introduced them to a lot of different people. Some amazing workshops put together by groups of teenagers who wanted to share their knowledge with us, and there were some downright fun ones run by groups of grandmas.
We also put together reading circles when we found a book (or a collection of articles or essays) that we found interesting. We tried to build an environment that was largely welcoming of anyone, and we did our best to shut down bigoted conversation (including having facilitators talk to people one-on-one to get a better understanding of where they were and being very intentional about removing people who were there to simply cause problems).
We also made it very clear what topics were being discussed during reading circles, what materials would be used, and what the goal was. This helped to make it clear what was likely going to happen and helped people decide whether or not they felt like they could or wanted to participate. With regards to topics around race, gender, sexuality, and disability, this was largely pretty useful because we could create ‘intro’ spaces for people who wanted to learn but also realised they had a lot to unlearn and didn’t want to further harm marginalised communities by expecting them to “fix” or teach them.
This was also paired with creating parallel events to allow other people, particularly members of marginalised communities who didn’t want to participate in those reading circles, to either take the topic in a different direction that was necessary for them or just do something entirely different.
At the same time, we did our best to curate a range of resources that people could explore in their freetime. (This was aided by two of our members being a radical librarian and archivist duo.)
There were a lot of positive aspects of this structure.
There really was the expectation of people supporting each other’s progress regardless of pace. In a general sense, that happened a lot throughout the ‘skill share’ workshops. We really made it clear that these workshops could be hosted again or that more advanced topics could be brought up. This aspect honestly helped build an intergenerational space because there wasn’t an expectation that people had to learn everything immediately, and we also made sure that everyone felt like they had a space they could belong to (regardless of age). But it also ensured that everyone was able to work together in different capacities and to learn from each other, especially because anyone was encouraged to share whatever they knew.
But in the reading circles, there was the intent that bigotry that was discussed really should be fixed in an intracommunity fashion. This didn’t mean that others couldn’t participate in those reading circles or had to stay silent, but the onus wasn’t put on them to do that work. A white person should be more responsible for responding to other white people saying racist things; a straight person should be more responsible for working with other straight people who are saying homophobic things; and so on.
These topics were also addressed in other reading circles because of how naturally people made different connections, which also helped a lot of other people to recognise how race, gender, disability, etc. were intertwined with other issues. It created multiple spaces where people could work to unlearn things but also to recognise how concepts they were already familiar with could be understood or applied differently.
But most of all, we had created a space where people felt safe to ask questions and safe to talk about experiences. None of the positive aspects could’ve existed without that, which was built on the core principle of respect.
Encouraging self-directed learning and curiosity is key. Again, this is another mantra that I often hear among teachers that is rarely incorporated into school structures. It’s also immensely true because if people aren’t curious (or engaged), they’re simply not going to learn anything.
This makes perfect sense: Think of all the times that you sat through classes where you were bored out of your mind. Think of all the times where you were interested and then the structure of that class turned you off. Think of all the times where you wanted to explore the topic further but were forced to move on to something else and how unsatisfying that was.
It’s perfectly clear that we need to be able to be curious and explore things at our own pace. We need the freedom to go down ‘rabbit holes’ and see how our interests connect to other things. We need time to engage with things we’ve just learned about, figuring out what interests us about them. Maybe we already know we like something, but we need to figure out why we like it or want to learn more.
This is actually the most common discussion I’ve had with other educators in a range of spaces: secular homeschool co-ops, anarchist spaces, self-directed education, and unschooling.
Every single group of people highlight the need for exploration and curiosity. It’s just that simple.
I have already written about how, in a restricted classroom environment, bringing student interests helped to build engagement and that democratic learning tends to work best. Mostly, I wrote about this because I tend to work in environments where there isn’t a functioning curriculum because of how bad teacher turnover is, but my point still stands.
Developing my class curriculum and units with my students has always led to more engagement.
But other people have shared these same stories with me. There are some nights where I listen to people detail the best learning experience they ever had in school, and it is almost never a content-based lesson or something typical of our excessively rigid systems.
It’s moments like a teacher mentioning a book and then being curious enough to go read it, discovering something that you love in the process (be it the book or a genre of literature). There are people who have told me about how they tried taking lessons in something they wanted to do but were so turned off by how their original teacher taught it and wanted to quit, only to find a passion for it later because they were passed off to someone else who started asking questions they’d never been asked before.
I’ve listened to countless teachers who have told me about all the cool things that their students find simply by going down Wikipedia rabbit holes, which have then turned into full-scale research projects that just totally astonished everyone because you could see how much they cared about what they were doing.
My own experiences have shown the exact same thing. As a high school student, my anthropology teacher often encouraged me to explore areas of culture I wanted to know more about: goths, punk, and young people. In a very Christian community, she even took the heat for letting me do an entire research project on Wicca because she saw the value in someone learning about it. She always told me it was worth it and that she’d do it again.
As a teacher, I took on a lot of the traits she embodied and did the same thing with my students. I gave them space to explore topics they often weren’t allowed to look at: street art and graffiti, tattoos, and youth liberation. Along with maybe two colleagues, we often took a lot of administrative abuse for creating spaces for kids to explore things they were genuinely curious about.
And I’d still do it all over again.
There are a lot of positive things that we can look out for in education. Perhaps schools are doing some useful things, but they still need to be abolished. We need to be creating intergenerational learning communities, removing children from unnecessary silos, and creating spaces for people to genuinely learn from each other.
We have far more to gain from building community spaces to encourage active and lifelong learning for all people.
And that’s a fight I’ll go in for every time.