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 Dunne. 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.