Freedom in Learning Art

People who are frightened of the idea of freedom in learning usually believe that if you allow children freedom to choose what to learn, they will choose to learn nothing. This is exactly the opposite of what actually happens. Children want to learn, they come to school in the hope of learning new, interesting and useful information, and all too often they find themselves obliged to fill in worksheets, to copy out information that they may not understand and to sit quietly while a teacher talks. They still want to learn, but they see that school is not the place where they will learn what they want to know.

In schools based on the model of Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, there are no lessons at all. Children are free to decide what they want to do all day and every day. In the Democratic School of Hadera, Israel, there is a rich programme of lessons and activities, and children can choose to take part in any of them or to spend their time independently. At Summerhill there is a conventional timetable of lessons, but all lessons are voluntary. Children learn in all these places.

At the Bildungsschule Harzberg, the primary school in Germany founded in 2009 by Falko Peschel, the children meet each day to announce their plans, and then work independently or in small groups. There are no text-books or worksheets. The children are free to devise their own ways of learning. When Peschel was working in an ordinary state school he took a class for four years, using this system, and in terms of academic achievement it equalled or surpassed a parallel class in the same school.

Room 13, in Caol Primary School in Scotland, is an art studio run by the children. They have their own bank account, buy their own materials and employ their own artist in residence. They can visit the studio whenever they have finished their class work. Once there, they can paint or draw whatever they like, or read, or chat, or play chess, or listen to music, or dream. The art work produced in this free atmosphere has been exhibited in many different galleries, including the Tate Modern in London, and is often assumed to be the work of adults.

When OFSTED inspectors visited the William Booth Nursery and Infant School in Nottingham in 2007, they observed: ‘Children plan their days and staff encourage and guide them, in order to reflect their needs and interests. The school's individual style of teaching, based on guided intervention rather than traditional class teaching, helps to ensure that children learn well and make good progress. Behaviour is good, though there is some restlessness at times when children learn more formally in groups.’

The inspectors’ conclusion illustrated the irrational attitude that so many people have towards freedom in learning. They did not suggest that the children should have more time for their own activities, which they were obviously using well, but that they should spend more time under instruction, where they were obviously bored. In the words of the report, ‘There are not yet enough focused reading and writing sessions, such as the workshops, to accelerate children's progress further in reading and writing.’

OFSTED apparently thinks it more important to learn to sit quietly than to follow up your own interests, because, the inspectors assume, if you sit quietly your learning will be ‘accelerated’. In fact what will actually happen will be that the teaching will be accelerated, the children’s interests will be ignored and the learning will stall. The distinction between what is taught and what is learnt is one that inspectors and politicians find hard to understand, just as they forget the distinctions between what is learnt and what is remembered. If the learning that takes place in the school is freely chosen, the children will not only be happier, they will also make better progress.


Read more about Room 13, the art school run by children in Scotland

More articles by David Gribble