Sunday, October 01, 2006


As I said in my last post, I have some experience with alternative primary schooling. Over the years I've thought about what was good about my school, and what I'd do differently, so I thought I'd write about it.

I'm not planning on starting up an alternative primary school anytime soon. So this post isn't going to address the political problems of alternative primary schools as private schools. This is more of a thought experiment, how I'd organise education in a different society, what I'd try and do if I was a teacher, or the sort of environment I'd work towards creating if I was on the board of trustees.

Our alternative primary school was small, there were usually less than thirty kids. The main division was between 'little kids' and 'big kids'. I don't really know how things were set up for the 'little kids', because I don't really remember (I didn't start at the alternative school till I was 7). But the big kids had a routine, of a sort. We'd start with either writing or maths, and do that till morning tea and then we'd do the one we hadn't done earlier. Writing was whatever we wanted to write about, sometimes we'd do creative writing, sometimes we'd do project work, once we designed and wrote about our dream houses (I seem to remember these mostly featuring zoom tubes, and drinking fountains of fizzy drinks). We did maths at our own pace working through text books and asking for help if we needed it. Somewhere in there there'd be silent reading, and we'd also get read to (the teacher cried so much when reading Good Night Mr Tom - which is totally understandable).

In the afternoons we'd do different things. On wednesday we went to the library and on thursday we went to the swimming pool. Apart from that parents had different interests so they'd lead us in group activities: singing, plays, art, history (we'd pretend to live in all these different times and learned how they did stuff), making ginger beer, making a magazine, sports, zoo school (the zoo people let us do things that they wouldn't let other schools do, and my brother got scratched by a tiger), two kids started a shop, sewing, dance, electronics, Maori, making stuff, astronomy (we stayed over at school one night to see Halley's comet), playing the recorder, and probably a whole bunch of other stuff I've forgotten. I don't know how it was decided who got to do what when, but I think we got a reasonable amount of choice.

There was a lot of good things about the way we worked. Most importantly working at our own pace when it came to skills development, particularly maths, was really useful. It meant that people were neither bored or confused. I think in the ideal world you'd have a mix of group and individual work, so kids could join in the groups if they wanted. Being able to write about whatever we wanted was also really cool - it helped kids follow their interests, and I think it'd make writing easier.*

But if I was going to structure a school day I'd do it a little differently, or rather I'd add two things.

One would be a structured session every day where each kid could follow their own passion or interest. This could be anything they wanted: finding out how something worked, creating something, learning to do something. Some kids would spend the time each day kicking goals, others learning to knit, other playing the piano. Either at a set time, or at the natural finishing time of the child's last project the teachers and kid would get together and figure out what resources the kid would need to do what they watned to do.

I think this is important partly because I think it's really good for kids to have the opportunity and resouces to concentrate on things that they're good at and interested in. But more importantly it's because I think it's really important that every kids skills and interests are valued. By doing this the school is saying "this is something that you're good at, this is something we think is worth developing." A lot of kids don't necessarily get that reiforcement from adults, and I think it's really important.

But the other thing that I think is really important is a time set aside each day for each child to work on something that is hard for them. For me it would always have been some sort of co-ordination thing, writing legibly, riding a bike, catching a ball. For other kids it could be reading, or drawing or whatever. The important caveat is that teachers were really careful that the children were trying things that they could see some improvment with practice (ie there were no developmental, or disability barriers to the kid getting better at this activity). It would need to be treated really matter of factly, and non-judgementally, the point being to make the kid feel better about themselves because they're mastering this skill, not bad because they don't already know it.

The reason that I think this is so important was that I, like most kids, came out of primary school knowing there were things that I was good at, and things that I wasn't good at. Luckily for me the things that I was good at were the things that were valued at secondary school, and the things that I was bad at (still everything involving co-ordination) it was OK to be bad at, because I was smart. But nothing in my time at school taught me that I'd ever get better at those things that I was bad at: that I could learn to play knucklebones**, catch a ball, . So if things didn't come naturally, I wouldn't do it (to a ridiculous degree, for years I maintained I didn't understand faxes, despite finding computers really easy). I don't think this is a particularly rare way to approach the world. It wasn't till I learned to drive that I actually worked on a skill that was difficult. I'm not a great driver, but in a way I'm more proud of becoming a vaguely competent driver than of anything else I've done, because I kept on working at it.

I think kids should be given a safe and structured place to work on things they find hard. Not because every kid needs to be able catch a ball, or write legibly, or understand pythagorus, but because every kid needs to know that they can learn stuff, that they're not the person they are now forever, and that things that they can't do now, they will be able to do with practice.

I think, at the moment, children get nearly enough affirmation about their brilliance, and the skills they do have, or understanding that they can gain new skills - they don't have to be 'bad at math' forever.

The one other thing I'd do differently is not make the poor kids do self-assessments. We had to do them every six months or so and we all hated them with a firey passion. I once wrote in one of mine: "SpellingI think I'm getting better at speeling (on second throts maybe not)."

* Start at about age 8 I wrote a series of plays that challenged gender roles called "the lady-knight plays". They started with me killing my brother's character and were great fun- I'll tell you more about them one time.

** I did though - when I was babysitting in my late teens and early twenties, my knuckleboning skills are on par with an 9 year old, but they improved a lot when I figured out you look at the knucklebone you've thrown up, not your hand.


  1. Anonymous9:10 am

    Your school sounds not to different from what happened at the State primary school I went to
    Except we seemed (from your account) to get more teacher help
    Of course it was a country school so we had less fun city things to do but I would suggest that we had more fun cutting gorse and making huts out the back

  2. Yes, I imagine a good country school wouldn't be that much different. Fewer adults around (we had a 1 to 10-15 teacher ratio, and usually a couple of parents as well) probably. But still the opportunity to work at your own pace.

  3. I'd love a school like that in my city! I'd send my kids for sure.

  4. Have you ever looked at Discovery (Primary) and Unlimited (Secondary), two state schools in Christchurch's central city?

    I know more about Unlimited, but the two schools do seem to be pretty amazing - very much student driven. Reinspired my faith in schooling, to be honest :)

  5. Asher I assume they're Integrated/special charter state schools (like catholic schools and other alternative schools).

    Interesting fact about integrated primary schools, in the 1990s you could only integrate (and get reasonably full state funding) if you owned your own building. Which kind of sucked for my school, because we didn't/couldn't afford to.

    I think there are real advantages to the Tomorrow's Schools system in that it allows this sort of school to be developed. But I have rather serious drawbacks about the system as a whole.

  6. Anonymous4:34 pm

    Unlimited is a fairly new state 'special character school'. It only opened in 2003, and the number of students is growing fast. It would be really interesting to work there - so different to teaching class of 30 students at teh same time!

    Having said that, I really enjoyed my primary schooling (state). It was fun and motivating, and the activities you mention in your post were not dissimilar to what I got to do in primary school too (actually, being close to the sea, we did lots of marine related activities, which was great).

    But yeah, I agree with what you said, Maia. I guess I think that school should be about building confidence and self-esteem so the students both learn and enjoy learning.

  7. I think lots of that sounds really cool.

    But some of the things you hated and the way they were done might be the things that others thrive on.

    I LOVE spelling - and being tested on my spelling and times tables all the time - I found it really motivating given how much I love structure.

    I think one of the things I learned from the status quo we have (which is by no means perfect) is that we also have to compromise in all parts of life with those who are not the same as us. And that includes the way that we learn.

  8. But there's no reason not to do spelling and timestables if the kids find them useful (in fact we did them both, I found timestables fine, but spelling really not useful - it was one of the ares of life I got a fixed idea I wasn't good at, but I've learned to spell reasonably well as I got older). That's the whole point of child driven learning, that they can use whatever tools are useful for them.

  9. I also attended an alternative school and have just done a blog post on it which you can read here:

  10. Better still read my article on alternative education here: