Screens, Structure and Self-directed Learning

A couple of years ago, (it feels like about a decade more than that!) a number of students were complaining of boredom, too many people being on screens, and feeling a lack of direction. The flexibility that comes with being a democratic school allowed us to be flexible and look for underlying causes rather than a surface level fix. In a traditional school, structures are more or less set in stone and this can leave you relying on tokenistic solutions when the root of the problem might run deeper. The ethos and adaptability of a democratic school allowed us to get to the heart of the issue.

The fact that some students were complaining of boredom isn’t necessarily alarming. Part of the philosophy of democratic schools and Sudbury schools in particular, is that learning to be with, and process your boredom is an important process for everyone. A lot of creativity emerges from situations where we are initially bored, and managing the feeling of boredom is an important part of becoming a self-directed, well balanced person.

In this instance, the students who were bored were complaining that it was because their friends were on screens all day. All day may have been something of an exaggeration, but it was true that there was a lot of screen usage. Now, many people do good and nourishing things on screens. Students and staff use screens to make art and music, write, research and of course, entertain themselves, which is a perfectly valid way to use them too, if not done to excess.

But when we asked the students in question whether they wanted to be on screens, they actually said they didn’t. Furthermore, they said they felt addicted to them.

Self-directed learning is not the same as learning by yourself, without help. It is still supported learning, and it is rooted in support from the community around the student. So we set out to address this situation as a community. We had individual and group conversations about screens, and we agreed that staff would regularly check in with the group in question when they were on screens to see if they were using them intentionally or if they needed support to be more conscious about what they wanted to do.

One week it would feel like we were making progress, and another it seemed we were still at square one!

Around the same time that this was happening, we were in the process of having our first Whole School Evaluation. We distributed questionnaires (students and staff collaborated on the questions) about how everyone felt things were going. What did we like about the school and what was so-so? Where were we strong, and where did we need to change?

The year ended with a one day workshop hosted by the excellent Dave Dunn. Throughout the day we had a number of frank conversations, and played some fun games too – at one point writing down thoughts on a topic on a piece of paper before scrunching them into balls and having a big snowball fight with them, with the survivors then picking up the snowballs nearest them and reading them out loud.

Of the various activities we did, one thing in particular stood out for a lot of people – a graph with the vertical axis representing expectations of excellence in a community and the horizontal axis signifying care and support. You could place a point anywhere on the graph to represent a given organisation’s culture.

If the dot was high on expectations of excellence but low on care and support you ended up with a pressure cooker environment bordering on neglect. While I qualify this by acknowledging that there are of course many wonderful teachers in mainstream schools and many students who are perfectly happy, there is no doubt that many of the staff and students’ experiences of traditional education had been one where the dot had been too low on care and support.

The flip-side of that was that if the dot is low on the expectation of excellence axis and high on care and support, you have a culture that is coddling and enabling. The chart helped us understand that we could bring in all the new systems and structures in the world to support students, but if we were truly a school of equals, we all needed to accept responsibility for upholding the culture of the school.

I’ll go deeper into the balance between expectations of excellence and care and support in a future blog post, as it’s informed a lot of conversations since.

By the end of the day, we had created work-groups focused on a number of key areas we needed to work on over the summer based on our conversations on the day and the feedback we received via the questionnaires.

Screen use was in there, of course, along with many other work-ons. Chief among them was structure. Students wanted to direct their learning but they wanted further structure for that to take place in. It wasn’t clear exactly what shape that would, could or should take. For some people, it meant more formal classes, for others it meant a timetable, and for many people, the word simply represented an undefined opposite of the listlessness they had been feeling towards the end of the school year.

There was nothing to stop classes or timetables from emerging in the school previously – democratic education means no coercive structure, as long as people agree democratically, the school be organised in a variety of ways that may be more, or less structured. So often in the past, a class would be requested only for interest to dissipate, or engagement to falter at the first bit of boredom or challenge, or simply because someone who had asked for the class felt like doing something else when the scheduled time came around.

Similarly, since so many things were organised spontaneously on the day of or day before they were due to happen, or by one group without consulting other people in the school who may have made other plans, events would often end up clashing or running into each other.

Other issues included arriving at the school feeling like arriving in a big city for the first time, with no direction, and far too many options. It could be very daunting in the first couple of weeks.

So whatever form this ‘structure’ would take, it needed to strike a delicate balance between organising the school week and making sure everyone knew what was on and when, holding people and showing them that they belonged on the one hand, and on the other hand, it needed to still leave time and space for deep conversations to come out of nowhere, or big games of ‘capture the flag’, and for people’s autonomy to be respected.

By not having a set curriculum, we solved a number of problems that plague traditional education, but this brought its own problems. That said, progress is a continual journey of replacing one set of problems with a preferable set of problems – a life without any problems would be boring and purposeless.

So having problems was fine, but we felt we could do better. We had taken away the drudgery of endless rote learning and the overemphasis on linguistic and mathematical intelligence at the expense of other competencies, we had removed the top-down, ‘because-I-said-so’ style of governance that robs students of their initiative and self-confidence.

But we found it wasn’t enough to just remove problems, we needed to craft an alternative beyond a laissez faire, anything goes on any given day approach. We had run into the tragedy of the commons – everyone was doing what they individually wanted to do, resulting in no one quite being happy with how things were going – a coordinated solution was needed. We needed to discuss as a community what our own personal ideal school looked like, and actively, systemically build it.

So we did!

We found ways to democratically make a curriculum that could meet everyone’s needs while still being possible with the resources of time, space, and people that we have.

We brought in Home Groups so people feel welcomed, seen and heard as soon as they come into the community. We have a Monday Morning Circle to ensure everyone knows or can make known any important goings on in the week to come. We have regular check-ins to see how people are doing on an individual basis. We brought in restorative mediation to give people different conflict resolution options. We established core hours so the whole school community is present for at least five hours per day and brought in tidy-up time at the end of the core hours to remedy the mad rush to clean up at the end of the school day that we used to have.

We also introduced School Evolution Week and Culture Club. Twice per school year, SEW presents an opportunity to have the same discussion we had for the Whole School Evaluation. We adjust the curriculum, and we have world cafes (a well-known method of group discussion/brainstorming) on important topics for the school in order to brainstorm improvements. This way, we are constantly and systemically tweaking and adjusting how we do things to make the best school for us all. Culture Club in turn provides a place for students and staff to continue that conversation throughout the year, considering everything from how we all greet each other, to making the school meeting more humorous, or having more communal meals and celebrations.

Of course, all of these new systems and structures were voted in by the whole school community.

Interestingly, when we met all the needs and requests that arose throughout the Whole School Evaluation, screens stopped being a problem. Somewhere along the line, we had indirectly solved the issue; it didn’t require its own specific solution. Some student’s needs weren’t quite being met in the community, and so they wanted to escape into something distracting. By meeting those needs sufficiently, through an extensive process of listening, discussing and formulating solutions, they no longer felt a need to escape.

This isn’t really surprising. Numerous studies of addiction have shown that it’s a form of dissociation, a way of escaping a less than ideal reality. 

For instance, when word got out that a large proportion of US troops had become drug addicts to cope with the horrific situation they found themselves in while on duty during the Vietnam war, there was a collective panic about having to reintegrate so many addicts into society. However, the problem never manifested. When the soldiers were back with their families and in their communities, the same need to escape no longer existed, and approximately nine out of ten soldiers who had used heroin in Vietnam eliminated their addiction nearly overnight.

So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, even without a direct solution, by listening very carefully to the whole community and adjusting the life of the school accordingly, the main addictive behaviour we had seen stopped occurring, and people have been much more intentional in their use of technology since.

Written by Khalil Moran