Review: Free School Teaching: A Journey into Radical Progressive Education

Chris McNutt
September 2, 2019
Free School Teaching: A Journey into Radical Progressive Education by Kristan Accles Morrison is an exemplar of what self-directed, progressive schooling looks like.

Free School Teaching: A Journey into Radical Progressive Education by Kristan Accles Morrison is an exemplar of what self-directed, progressive schooling looks like. Morrison, a traditional educator turned learning partner, writes of her experiences at the Albany Free School in New York. Within, she details every facet of a free school education — from discipline to grading to curriculum, often with initial bewilderment that turns to amazement at what children can do without the traditional path. In many ways, Morrison is deprogrammed from a stern, legacy-style teacher to one who embraces the free school philosophy. She opens with,

‘But traditional school worked for you! You turned out okay!’ I often get this response from people when I propose the idea that perhaps school in America is doing more ham than good for children ad for our society. This declaration has given me pause a number of times, but I’ve finally come up with a question in rejoinder — ‘Am I, or other ‘successful students,’ really okay? Or would I be a different, better, person had it not been for how school shaped me?’ Very few people, most particularly those who were the ‘winners’ in the school game, ever take the time to contemplate if our schooling experiences may have molded us in negative ways, ways that run counter to our society’s highest intellectual, political, and moral ideals.”

Echoing Alfie Kohn’s “…And I Turned Out Just Fine!”, Morrison spends a considerable amount of time talking about the perception of free schools and their radical differences to the overwhelming number of public schools in America. At the Free School, students have no set curriculum, they’re free to do virtually whatever they want (without hurting each other, they must physically attend school), and the student|teacher ratio is 4:1. The school is set up to be stimulating — providing a library, wealth of resources, and other curious things to engage students if they’d like to be.

Of course, the perception from most traditionalist teachers would be that students who aren’t forced to engage in the curriculum simply won’t engage with it. As Morrison states,

In the process of interacting with the world and making meaning from those interactions, the Free School students do come into contact with those subjects or skills that make up the curricular content in traditional schools, but they experience little of the sense of disconnection, unreality, or alienation that is so much in evidence for students in traditional schools.

Time after time, Morrison details how the narrative counter to traditional schooling — simply letting students drive themselves based off of intrinsic motivation — not only led to students to be incredibly curious and creative, but tackle the traditional subjects that the schooling establishment craves.

Not only do the Free School students have exposure to traditional academic subjects through their individual curricula, they also get to experience a different, social and emotional curriculum — one that is largely missing for many students in traditional schools…

…[they] experience democratic governance and diversity, they’re actively involved in the ‘real world’ (the world outside the school building), and they encounter opportunities to develop their skills of interpersonal interactions and interpersonal understanding. Both curricula — the academic and the more social/emotional — work in tandem to gently guide students to an understanding of what it means to be fully human.

Because the school is so small, students and faculty are able to easily move around the community. Students often want to visit local museums or attractions, and much of their interests are based on what’s going on in the surrounding area.

Yet it’s not that students have complete free reign. There is, of course, a place for the educator. Morrison describes her role as a guide — not in the traditionalist “fake-out” of creatively finding ways to have students ease into mandated curriculum — but through building relationships and imploring students to step outside their comfort zones. As she explains,

Free school is clearly an embodiment of many progressive educators’ visions. These students are not passive or dependent recipients of education for it is they who are choosing what they study and when and how. And while they receive assistance and guidance from teachers, they are not controlled by teachers to the same degree as students in a traditional school. The students at the Free School get to focus on the process of constructing meaning and connections; they are not constantly pressured to “perform” to outside mandated standards. This shift in focus from products to process allows the students in the Free School to be more cooperative than competitive.

In practice, this means that Morrison and her fellow teachers spend most of their time casually connecting with students — talking, playing games, reading, watching videos. Free School Teaching has an anecdote or story every few pages that comes from casual connectivity, where students have moments of brilliance from what would be typically seen as an “out of school” activity.

In this environment, it is necessary for the progressive teacher to seek to know the students, to find out what interests them, troubles them, and connects to them. Doing this is no easy, one-dimensional task; rather it involves a multifaceted approach that one must take with the child, an approach that involves close and distant observations, informal and formal interactions, and a great deal of empathy. In all this, the teacher must be herself with the child and seek to connect with the child’s interest and struggles. Once the connection is made, once an interest comes to the fore, then the progressive teacher must think carefully about what she knows about the child and determine how she can best serve that child’s quest to make meaning.
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Pictured: Albany Free School of Free School Teaching.

Throughout, Morrison raises points that challenge the reader — especially if they’re an educator within the public school system. I would consider myself a progressive educator, but the level of connectivity that Morrison feels with her students is beyond where I am currently. For example, she writes of opening up, and the great feeling of being able to feel a full range of emotions as an educator. She writes how the “holding back” of anger and sadness within the classrooms derives students of a true appreciation of how their actions affect the adult in the room, and the realization that it was okay for her to cry in front of children.

Sometimes, the Free School system felt bewildering, solely because of how deceivingly complex it is. Putting students in a room with no objectives means that there’s no guidebook to follow — it’s entirely based off of personalities and connections. And there’s still a place for a teacher to be a teacher, which makes the experience even more hard to navigate. Morrison writes,

…sometimes the teacher will simply step back and be supportive, loving, and trusting, and at other times the teacher will actively instruct, guide, or push, and so on. The progressive teacher, in that she has no set body of knowledge to transmit, is not interested in the students’ ‘performance’ regarding knowledge retention; rather the teacher is more interested in the process of meaning making, which in her mind signifies growth and change…

…Through active or passive means, the Free School teacher tries to help the students move forward in their quests for meaning. This is a subtle, delicate, and quite intuitive dance on the part of the teachers for they must weigh all sorts of information about what they know of the individual child, what the activity or situation is, how the child initially reacts to the teacher’s actions, and so on. The role of the Free School teacher in figuring out how to best serve the child is exceedingly complex and it is folly to believe that by allowing children to pursue their own interests that the teacher has no role to serve, for, indeed, the role is pivotal.

The reason why Free School Teaching is so powerful is the reflective nature it forces the reader to have — it makes us question all teaching practices and whether what we’re doing is “best for kids.” If these students are successful and having great opportunities presented to them, what steps should we be taking to lessen the barriers between systematic legacy education and self-directed education? Is this a place for some students, or does it work for all?

Within, one will be introduced to:

Morrison details story after story that paints the landscape of what school is like for these students and teachers, offering a valuable perspective as someone who has worked in a traditional school. The constant paradigm of traditional schooling vs. self-directed learning allows educators reading this work to understand where Morrison is coming from, as well as grasp new ideas that really push the envelope. I recommend Free School Teaching for any educator who is curious about Sudbury Schools, Free Schools, Democratic Schools, and/or self-directed education centers, as well as what progressive education could look like when wholly embraced, and who wants examples rather than pure pedagogy.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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