For all my more famous love affairs with school models, I've never been able to dismiss one small Brazilian school that seems constructed around what kids really want. To choose their work, to fix on a goal and do everything that's needed to accomplish it.
This is the Escola do Max in Brazil.
School Founder Marcelo Rodrigues, teacher at the school and author of Lifelike Pedagogy, describes it this way:
"What will children educated through life be capable of in the future? Only an education focused on the experience of real experiments, where the students decide and learn through the achievement of their own enterprise, prepares the child for the challenges that the future will bring, teaching not just the basic scholar disciplines, but also the knowledge that can only be acquired through the experience of life, and yet favoring the development of fundamental skills for a human being to be independent, creative, self-confident and happy."
I read Rodrigues' book over a year ago and it's stayed with me.
All you need to know about it is found in the cave project. Imagine a class of seven-year-olds.
Phase I: Choosing the Theme
Step 1: Exposure. Escola de Max teachers seed the possible projects by placing around the classroom magazines, photographs, books with a wide range of subjects. The children are encouraged to focus on those pictures that give rise to their curiosity. They talk together about what they see, what interests them most, what makes them ask questions.
One of the interesting photographs was of a nearby cave system.
Step 2: Brainstorming. The children announce their ideas for projects: places to go, things to do, construct, study, create. A list of possible activities grows on the blackboard. The teacher gives very little feedback, just assisting the students in creation of a list of ideas.
A cave system exploration was among those ideas.
Step 3: Voting. It's very simple. The kids advocate for their chosen topic; they work to get the votes. The idea with the most votes is the next class project; in this case, the cave theme won!
Phase II: Exploration.
Questions, theories, ideas are written down and the course of the research is chosen by the class. At the end of this phase, the course of the work has been decided and the kids are fully enlisted in it.
Phase III: Enterprise.
The project has been decided: they will go visit a nearby cave system, and study every aspect of the flora, fauna, geological and any other interesting aspect of this cave system. In the meantime...wait! There's no money to pay for the trip! The students and teacher work together to figure out how to raise the money. They decided to put on a play and charge parents and friends admission. This raised some but not all of the needed funds; so they made sandwiches and sold them. Finally the money was there!
Meantime, the cave study had been ongoing. They were becoming cave scholars, but hadn't yet set foot in one.
Phase IV: The day arrives!
Imagine the excitement in the air when they board the buses headed for the caves!
It's so simple and logical that it almost looks too easy. But the back-end of this system consists of teachers who are able to give the power and control of the important stuff to the kids.
Kids don't really know what can or cannot be done; teachers are there to let them know. If a student says, "We can't go to the cave system, it's too far away," the teacher can put in., "No it isn't. It's only an hour and a half. We can take buses but we have to raise the money."
They also can point out in equally simple, factual terms, which of the students' ideas are harebrained, and why.
Rodrigues says, "...the "lifelike" approach aims to form people who believe in themselves, in life and in the world. They feel like they own the world and are capable of overcoming any challenge that may come their way in the pursuit of their dreams.
"The school must be connected with the planet so that the students learn from life, and through life."
Escuela de Max's approach is not unique. It sounds very much like the preschools in Reggio Emilia, Italy. Democracy, agency and empowerment are big words that come from this little school. It's worth thoughtful consideration by anyone interested in real learning.