"Praxis: a complex activity by which individuals create culture and society, and become critically conscious human beings. Praxis comprises a cycle of action-reflection-action which is central to education. Characteristics of praxis include self-determination (as opposed to coercion), intentionality (as opposed to reaction), creativity (as opposed to homogeneity), and rationality (as opposed to chance)." http://www.sef.org.pk/educatewebsite/educate2fol/glosiconedu2.asp

When I was young, I had the benefit of spending nearly three years at an excellent, public alternative school called Windsor House. Whenever I think back to my time at Windsor House, I return to my old frustrations about the educational options and opportunities we offer our young people. As an educator, it's an issue that's close to my heart. Again and again, while considering our schools, I can't help but think that we could do so much better.

To understand this, it helps to know something about the nature of Windsor House. The buzzword right now is democratic education - in my days there, it was non-coercive education. I don't think the terminology really matters; it's the idea and spirit of this school that are so special. Non-coercive essentially means without force. Democratic brings to mind ideas of ownership, collective responsibility, and participation. These are hard notions to conceptualize in a school if your understanding of school is rooted in the traditional and established forms of this institution: age-graded, rigidly scheduled, top-down places that churn through hundreds of young people every year. Windsor House is nothing like this. Imagine instead a school that by its very design requires each student to identify and develop their individual beliefs, abilities, and passions. Imagine a school where the actual job of a teacher is to support this development, to mediate between government and curricular requirements and a community of autonomous learners. This is Windsor House.

I remember the school year starting with a meeting of all of the students and teachers, where students discussed what they wanted to study and do during the school year, teachers presented their interests and subject areas, and thus classes were formed. Classes were also only one of a range of learning opportunities the school presented. The school community, during my time there, showed a profound commitment to finding the resources and support to allow students to explore and develop a wide range of skills and talents. The democracy didn't end there either. The school itself was student governed. School board regulations were the only imposed rules; all other school rules and policies were generated by members of the school community, who presented suggestions that were voted on at public meetings. Anyone could try to pass a "resolution," and everyone's vote carried exactly the same weight, student and teacher alike.

School rules, and infractions thereof, were also dealt with by students, who, alongside supportive staff members, ran the school court and thus were responsible for maintaining the well-being of their peers and community. In particularly troublesome cases, the entire community would be called together to confront problems and work together to heal rifts. I can only suggest that this level of involvement had a profound impact on students. To really understand, you'd have to be a young person and find a space where your ideas and concerns were taken completely seriously, and your ability to contribute was assumed, not questioned. Given how young people are often treated in our society - let's say marginalized and leave it at that - for many of us, Windsor House was more than a breath of fresh air: it was a lifeline.

At the time, while I was a student at Windsor House, I only knew that this system worked for me. As I went on through university and entered the faculty of education to begin my own teacher training, I necessarily became involved in studying pedagogical theory. Contemporary studies of education and student success are rife with buzzwords too, but one phrase that surfaces again and again is student-centered. This is proposed as a model for successful environments for student learning, and is quite widely accepted as the most effective model. The idea is that teachers, rather than being the "sage on the stage" who lectures and delivers content top-down, ought to be a "guide on the side" who lends their expertise and resources to the autonomous educational pursuits undertaken by students. In its interpretation, this theory is frequently reduced to the sphere of the classroom, and limited in scope to the kinds of activities students undertake in their process through teacher-controlled curriculum. In short, it is often reduced to favouring "group work" over lectures and teacher-led activities. Herein lies the problem.

The actual philosophy behind ideas of student-centered pedagogy shows that it does not work if reduced to only micro components of the system. Shallow autonomy in limited situations simply cannot have the benefits of real democratic education, which is what lies at the heart of such student-centered pedagogy. This means that in most of our schools today (I've been in them too) we are not offering young people today even what we already know to be the best. We claim it is impractical or impossible, ignoring functional examples like Windsor House.

Newspapers and other media report it so often that I don't have to. Young people don't vote, are inclined to apathy, materialism, violence, and so on. These stereotypes are as old as they are inaccurate. It's a time-honoured tradition for an aging generation to fear the one that follows it. Nor is the crisis in public education a recent one. We owe it to ourselves to resolve the gap between educational theory and praxis that has existed for so long, yet been ignored by so many. We face tensions on this planet that increase in scope and complexity every day. Growing populations and technological advances have made the future that young people face an ever-shifting landscape, yet we still also have an unparalleled capacity for positive change. We have the resources, the knowledge, and models to follow.

My province, British Columbia, Canada spends something like $35 million on education every year; the amount per student is in the thousands. This represents a serious commitment. We do some very valuable things within the walls of our public schools, but this should not blind us to the idea that we can do better.

Based on a piece of writing from my neglected blog, at http://fieldoflandmines.blogspot.com/2007/08/pedagogy-and-praxis-windsor-house-and.html

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