The AERO Conference

From Wednesday, May 20th to Sunday the 24th I attended the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) conference in Long Island. There I took part in workshops, listened to some keynote presenters, and watched some documentaries. But perhaps the best part of the conference was meeting and getting to know people who, like me, are excited about educational change.

Details from some of the workshops:

Four students from a public school in Denver gave a workshop in which they presented their vision for an “ideal school.” Earlier in the school year the kids formed a club with the goal of designing a school, and they actually plan to present their design to the Denver school board. In their ideal school, students would have a number of opportunities to self-direct their learning, such as elective courses and independent studies with advisors. The school would be governed in the form of a ‘democratic republic,’ meaning students would vote for other students to represent them in executive, legislative, and judicial committees.

Students from the Brooklyn Free School (see last post) organized a “Youth Oppression Panel” The room split into two groups, those under 18 and those over, and individuals each shared “times we’ve felt oppressed due to our age” and “times we’ve felt empowered due to our age.” It’s easy to overlook the fact that many young people are subjected to types of treatment and control that we as adults would never put up with–we’re so used to it that we often don’t think twice about it, or we rationalize it as part of the ‘natural order’.

In another workshop, Carol Nash, one of the co-founders of Alpha II alternative school in Toronto, led a workshop on developing a narrative around education. Each person in the workshop was asked to pick a memory that serves as a story about education. Then we expanded the stories, one question at a time (in order: when? where? who? what? how? why?) as we went deeper and deeper into the context and the greater meaning behind the stories. My story was about my memory of going to the Museum of Science and Industry at night for a heart foundation benefit. We did that once a year as a family for a while. When we’d go the kids would be ‘set free’ to explore the massive museum on our own. We’d spend hours playing and exploring all the hidden areas we could find. I remember being filled with a sense of wonder as I wandered the mostly empty exhibit halls, my imagination glimpsing the expanse of human discovery. The snapshots that were the memories expanded into narratives about education and about our lives in general. We talked about the importance of knowing our own story. At one point Carol said, “we have to remember who we were as children if we’re going to help them. We have to know our whole lives.” It’s fascinating how you can start with just a little, meaningful memory or story and deepen and expand it until it seems to encompass your entire life.

In another workshop I learned about the practices of a number of “liberated learners centers.” These are places, mostly for teens, where classes are offered but optional, and students plan their own educational paths with help and encouragement from advisors. The advisors are not authorities, and they ask questions like “what do you want to do in life?” and “how can I help?” Some examples of liberated learners centers are North Star in Northampton, MA, Princeton Learning Cooperative in Princeton NJ, and Compass in Ottawa ON. Lighthouse in Holyoke, MA, is a new program (starting in September) modeled after this same framework.

Other workshops included:

• Information about the Ottawa Public Education Remake Initiative (OPERI)’s attempt to start alternative programs within regular public schools.

• Ideas on how to teach global compassion.

• The science behind the importance of positive emotion in learning (the “heart-brain connection”).

• Building tolerance and ending discrimination in schools.

• Students’ responsibilities surrounding language use in a free school setting.

• Interpreting Michel Foucault’s work in the context of democratic education (e.g., can “free schools” really be free? or are invisible power structures always going to be present?)

Some highlights from the keynote presentations:

Yaacov Hecht, who helped start a movement of public democratic education in Israel, gave a keynote presentation over skype. First he introduced a project that he has been working on, called Education Cities, which involves virtual maps of educational opportunities in cities.

Then he talked about some of the ideas behind the democratic school model in Israel, including that each should be free to “choose their life” and that schools should educate for human dignity based the UN declaration of human rights. He also talked about the goal of having each person connect to their “element”/”big motivation”. I found myself wondering why democratic education seemed to be much more accepted in Israel than in the US, at least in the public system, so after the presentation I picked up a copy of his book, Democratic Education, with the goal of learning more about how public democratic education took root in Israel. I also wanted to learn the specifics of how the democratic schools in Israel work (it turns out that there isn’t necessary a blueprint that they all share, but that the schools can be unique based on the desires of the communities that start them. Most involve something along the lines of most or all optional classes, advisors for each student, one person one vote governance, and a lot of involving the community.)

Regarding my original curiosity, it seemed that the journey from one small democratic school in Hadera, Israel to thirty or so public democratic schools across the country was anything but easy. It took a lot of people and a lot of effort to make public democratic schools widely available in Israel. Still, from speaking with some people who have lived in Israel, I do think that there are some cultural differences between Israeli and American parenting which may have contributed to the country’s relative receptiveness to democratic education. Although this is a speculation and a generalization, I think that American parents are more likely to feel it is their job to plan their child’s future, whereas Israeli parents may not be as likely to see that as their role.

Some good quotes and ideas from the book:

• We should aim “to assist the student in creating and acquiring tools which will help him to fulfill his own goals” instead of handing down “goals others have set for him.”

• Not making one’s own educational choices makes for difficulty with clarifying what interests one and what is important to one in life.

• People who are free to follow their interests experience areas of growth in fields that they immerse themselves in. The process of mastering a skill or subject, no matter how ‘invaluable’ that skill or subject seems to outside eyes, teaches important lessons.

• “Since most of us find it hard to see failure as an opportunity for growth, it is best to leave a child alone in his unsuccessful moment (unless he has already adopted our ways) and thus enable him to cope with the difficulty and grow from it”

One of the most important ideas for me from the book is democratic education’s emphasis on empowering kids to choose what they value in life and what they want for their own life (not what others want for their life). I’ve come to think of this line of thought as more of a political stance than a pedagogical approach. You adopt this way of viewing the process of education because you believe that each individual (whether they’re 55 or 5) has the right to be self-motivated and to self-determine.

Sugata Mitra was another keynote speaker. Sugata asked the audience to try something. He asked that we start clapping and that we try to synchronize our claps. So we did. As you can probably imagine, the first claps were scattered, the second claps were a bit more synchronized, and by the fourth or fifth claps we were all clapping as one (and the frequency was beginning to speed up). Sugata then explained why he asked us to clap. He said it was an example of an “emergent phenomenon.” No one led the claps, yet they came together. How? There was no conductor. The same phenomenon occurs in a flock of birds, a school of fish, or the cells of your hand after you get a cut and begin to heal. No one bird, fish, or cell leads the way, yet everyone adjusts and follows. No one is in charge, yet everyone is in sync. As far as science and math can tell us, there is no one conducting. Yet powerful things happen. He believes learning works in a similar way.

Sugata is well known for his “hole-in-the-wall experiments” in India, in which he placed computers in walls in public and found that groups of kids were teaching themselves to use the computers. During the presentation he talked about that and about his newer work with what he calls SOLEs (Self Organizing Learning Environments) which are like computer labs in which children work in groups, using the internet, to try to figure out the answers to big questions. You should really watch his TED talk to get a good sense of his ideas.

Lastly, staff members (called “facilitators”) from Agile Learning Centers gave an interactive presentation about their very intriguing model. There are number of ‘ALCs’ popping up across the country. They said they get inspiration from learner-centered/self-directed learning environments, intentional communities, and tools from the entrepreneurial/start up world. Someone described them as bringing “the free school into the 21st century.” The NYC Agile Learning Center’s website is worth checking out, especially if you want to learn the specifics of their tools, practices, and approach.

I’m extremely glad that I was able to attend the conference. I learned, I was challenged, and I met some amazing people. I know there is a long road ahead for helping all children gain excellent educations, but I left the conference with a sense of hope that genuine change is possible.

Sugata Mitra and Yaacov Hecht share the stage

Sugata Mitra and a luminous Yaacov Hecht sharing the stage


The audience during a keynote presentation

Facilitators from Agile Learning Center share some of their philosophy

Facilitators from Agile Learning Center share some of their philosophy

I’m in Ann Arbor, Michigan now. Tomorrow I’ll have my last school visit for the school year, and then I’ll head home. A post about the last two weeks of my trip will be upcoming!

Until next time,


P.S. Parents, especially those in or around the New York City area, should check out CottageClass, a website run by the wonderful Manisha Snoyer. If you’re looking for a good school fit for your kid or you want to learn about educational activities in the area, she just may be able to help you!