What Freinet* teacher in elementary school has not heard the question, often asked with an anxious tone of voice: “But how do you prepare your pupils for middle school?”.
Freedom is a scary value in a society that tries to format the children, therefore most people are afraid that kids who have grown up in a free educational environment might not be able to adapt to the mainstream school system. In the ACE school, this kind of discussion does not happen: it is a middle and high school using the Freinet method.
I had not planned to go to Brussels, but when Caroline from Louvain-la-Neuve told me about the ACE school, I immediately felt the need to go and have a look at it. A few emails and of hitchhiking kilometers later, I was at the entrance of the school, curious to see what teenagers who have learned autonomy and responsibility would look like.
The school, a big modern building, used to be the headquarters of a company. The classrooms, once offices, are large spaces open to each other which have been freely decorated by the students.
The school was funded by a few students’ parents who probably wanted to find a different answer to the middle school question so that their children may keep studying with the Freinet pedagogy.
The school is public but not free of charge: the teachers’ salaries are paid by the State but the loan which bought the building is being repaid by voluntary donations from parents, with the amount recommended by the school based on income – 2 percent of the income is the average amount. Although most students come from comfortable social backgrounds, many of them enrolled here because they have learning difficulties and have had bad experiences in mainstream education.
So what kind of future adults are being taught here? In the corridors, you can see the typical jaded looks and grumpy sense of humour that usually characterise teenagers; however, the students who graduate after their last year are surprisingly mature and self-confident. It is remarkable to observe how fulfilled young people who have not been conditioned by the school system can become. Julie, a French teacher, summarises the whole idea of the ACE when she describes her pedagogical ambitions:
“I came to this school to change the world.”
Autonomous learning is important
The school uses the traditional structure of the French and Belgian middle and high schools: a pre-established timetable with one teacher for each subject and same-age groups from 11 to 17 years old. Nevertheless, the content of the lessons is quite different from what I remember from middle school. The teachers all have a common organisation: there are collective learning times, where the students discover a new notion together, and autonomous learning (AL) times, where everyone chooses their own activities.
During AL time, the students have access to self-correcting exercises in each subject. These exercises – which have all been created by the teachers themselves – are organised so that the students may be able to correct their work and make their own progression. Guillaume is a maths teacher and in his AL time for instance a student wanting to learn square roots has to go and find the exercises about this notion.
“On the one side of the sheet you have the exercise. On the other side you have the answers. I do the exercise and then I check my answers. When I have worked on square roots enough, I can choose to take the test and in the end I will have passed and can move on to the next one.”
The students each have a personal work organisation sheet where they write the activities that they have done in every subject. These work sheets are reviewed by the teachers every two weeks in order to establish individual objectives for each student. Here, the classroom is not the only learning space:
“During AL time, we can go out of the classroom to find extra learning material or inspirations for projects.”
This freedom of movement enables them to either find a quiet work space alone or to work with other students, who can be from different age groups.
AL times reverse the relationship between students and knowledge; the starting point is not the knowledge itself but the curiosity of the student; it therefore links the learning to the students’ lives. In the French class, there is a culture of unguided creative writing: the students write texts that they can then read to the others in the sharing times. In Julie’s class, a student in year 10 went in front of the class to read a poem and asked the others for suggestions to help him improve it. Anaïs, another French teacher:
“I don’t encourage the students to do grammar and spelling exercises. I prefer them to learn it while writing.”
In the maths class, sharing times are used to present their own maths projects. For instance, I met a 14-year-old student who was building a bridge made of spaghetti (which incorporated several maths theorems).
The students are also encouraged to have personal projects out of the academic subjects. This means they have little or no set homework. Laetitia, sixteen years old, is preparing an art project about the representation of the body and she is organising a debate about euthanasia with two friends of hers. This is how she explains the difference with her former school:
“Now I have a lot less work at home and that gives me more time to do other things like go to museums.”
Wall of the maths projects
The lessons are not planned
In the ACE school, you do not find the stereotype of the teacher that has been doing the same lessons for twenty years. Here, the teachers are dynamic and responsive: they try to link their classes to the students’ interests. For Julie, this means giving up on the idea of a pre-established curriculum:
“I don’t always know what my next lesson is going to be about.”
This organisation revolutionises the relationship between the student and the teacher. When teachers stop seeing the students as empty vases to be filled with knowledge, the trust between the two grows significantly.
“You don’t feel like you’re some kind of machine. Here the teachers take time to talk with you, they are interested in your projects, but like for real. I think it’s a more humane relationship.”
Everyone works on the national curriculum in their own rhythms often doing creative activities. For instance, in the maths class, Philippe does a regular “mathematical creation” exercise rather than collective lessons. What he asks his 15-year-old students seems quite strange:
“Do anything you want to do on your paper with only points, lines and numbers.”
After 10 minutes, Philippe puts one of the productions on the board: it is a curve on a graph. I am just as perplexed as the students, in the beginning no one knows what to say but then the students start making suggestions:
“It’s a function”
“The curve is rising.”
“Maybe it shows the evolution of something.”
“We could say that it represents the profit from the football industry.”
“Or it could be the curve of the human population on Earth.”
“That’s impossible. You can’t have a negative number of humans.”
Philippe doesn’t speak much during this discussion, only to help rephrasing some ideas. A few other puzzles are talked about and the students end up with four areas of work that they will have to investigate on:
- What function can represent the number of human beings on Earth?
- How many triangles can there be in one triangle?
- How can you design the layout of a house in 3D?
- How many perspectives can there be for one cube?
The students will have the AL times to go deeper into these questions and they will be able to present their solutions in the sharing time.
The ‘moral education’ class (mandatory subject in Belgium) run by Emmanuelle is also built up with the students. Every class is a philosophical discussion where one question, made up by the students, is tackled. This Wednesday, Emmanuelle starts by reading about the myth of Daedalus and Icarus* to year 7s. The students are then asked to come up with questions that they feel the text inspires. After discussing in groups, everyone sits in a circle and tries to answer them together, for example: ‘is it a good thing to have freedom without limits?’ They end up with the quote of the lesson: “I advise you, not to pursue freedom in excess, to restrain yourself and to find your own limits.” In the ACE, I see a few scenes which would be completely out of place in another middle school. While this is going on, a group of other students are outside the classroom: in pairs, one holds the shoulders of the other who has their eyes closed. They are students from Anaïs’ drama class who are starting the lesson with a game. Anaïs:
“It’s the beginning of the school year, they are still a bit shy. Last year, I had two students who one day went into each classroom and stood up on the tables to make Malala*‘s UN speech.”
Everyone participates democratically
The idea of a responsible, autonomous teenager may sound like an oxymoron. Not in the ACE. It is quite simple: here, the students are active participants in every decision making process. Students who are trusted and who know they have a say in everything tend to be more respectful of the rules and have more motivation to go to school. It’s hardly surprising.
The school environment is based on trust and freedom, each form votes to decide how to organise the space of the classroom, sometimes leading to amusing decoration choices. Decisions are made during the Class Meetings (and School Meetings) where problems are solved and projects are developed collectively. As they are used to being involved, the students understand citizenship in a probably deeper way than most adults.
There are all kinds of projects: organising team-building activities, creating new spaces in the school, participating in a book club. Even the school trips are organised by the students, they have a budget to find a destination, transport and accommodation!
One day, at lunch time, I attended a meeting with four high school students that I found astonishing. They had decided to organise a seminar about the Freinet pedagogy so they were discussing the workshops that they wanted to create, the films that they could show, the speakers they could invite.
“We have to ask Amandine [the headmistress] if we can skip a few classes to go and film primary schools.”
The project, inspired by a social science class from last year, represents the level of autonomy that older students have: they enjoy their school so much that they are reflecting on and promoting their learning experience. Isn’t it amazing?
The school is always evolving
In France and Belgium, most middle and high school use obsolete teaching methods that are considered “traditions”. I find incredible the work of the teachers from the ACE which gives life and meaning to learning. However, it is not so easy to get rid of the school system’s restrictions. Some students like Laetitia seem happy but I met another student who was new here:
“The teachers are nice but I’m bored.”
Indeed, the method of the school is pioneering but the teaching is still quite traditional. Learning is divided and regimented by the timetable: it is impossile to always be motivated when you haven’t chosen the subject you are working on. You have to meet expectations in each class, your personal work organisation sheet is regularly reviewed, you may retake a year if you don’t perform well enough and you have a final exam to prepare… This of course puts pressure on the students. I think that efforts are made to individualize everyone’s progression, but autonomy is quite limited.
The teachers are very aware of this and it bothers them but it is imposed by the institution. However the school is not static, the teachers often gather during “Freinet afternoons” to discuss the evolution of the project. I find quite touching the dedication of the teachers in their work. Nicolas, a 15-year-old student, admits:
“I don’t love going to school. But if I had to spend one day in another school, I would come running back the next day!”
A few more pictures:
After one has answered the question of preparing the children to middle school, one could wonder: how will young people who have grown up in such a free environment be equiped to enter the world of work? This question is based on the idea that if you do not change the whole system all an once you cannot consider any innovative initiative. Nevertheless, on the one hand, the students who come from the ACE school are not bound to be marginalized; they are responsible citizens with critical thinking and adaptability. On the other hand, why should we train students to integrate into a broken system?
“There is no Freinet method. (…) We are not fanatic supporters of a method. We are a
pedagogic movement, an extensive movement enhancing the practical tailoring of our school to the needs of time and the resources that the social and scientific reality today offer us. We are above all practitioners working, without the prejudice against this or that technique”
*Freinet: French pedagogue and educational reformer, quite famous in France and Belgium. The techniques he inspired are based on enquiry-based, cooperative learning and democracy.
*Daedalus and Icarus: characters from the Freek mythology. To escape from a maze, Daedalus makes wings for his son Icarus and reminds him not to fly too high as he could burn his wings. Icarus, overwhelmed by his freedom, forgets his advice and gets closer to the sun, his wings melt and he falls into the sea.
*Malala: Pakistanese girl who, at age 11, protested against the Talibans wanting to stop girls going to school. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and is now an activist for women’s rights.
(Special thanks to Olwen Pearce for correcting this translation! )
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