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Agile Book Club, anyone?

I’d like to write articles about books that are relevant to our community and the Agile Learning movement in general. I’m not sure of the best place to put such book reviews is, so I’m posting this to the ALF Summer 2014.

I’m wondering aloud whether I’m recording my thoughts for posterity (shareable value); calling for an audience to discuss some of the pressing issues; or hoping that some sort of ‘agile book club’ might emerge.  This last thought is something I’d love to see develop: any takers?

Before I go on, I’d like to explain myself a little bit further, though it’s probably a familiar experience to those of you who love to read as much as I do.

During the first few weeks of coming into contact with this community I found myself being inundated with interesting reading materials.  This started for me before the Summer Camp, at the AERO Conference in New York, where I could see immediately on display dozens of fascinating ‘key’ texts about the many and various strands of alternative education.

I ended up building my own library (I bought a dozen books!) with the help and advice of the friends I made at AERO (especially Joel who has read everything on the subject).

This trend only increased once I arrived in Charlotte where, thankfully, much of the wisdom of the group’s experience and readings were distilled into the initial training sessions.  I can’t help but feel like I want to get deeper into most of these things we touched upon.  Even on our website there are dozens of references to ‘key’ agile related texts or touchstones.  I’m wondering what to read next.



Summerhill is probably Britain’s most famous school.  Its radical philosophy of education has led to constant conflict with the educational establishment.  In response to attempts to close the school, Summerhill challenged the government in court and triumphed over what is described as “the tyranny of compulsory lessons and exams.”  A Free Range Childhood is Matthew Appleton’s insightful account of his years as a houseparent at the school.

I’ve just finished reading an excellent book – “A Free Range Childhood: Self-Regulation at Summerhill School” Appleton, Matthew (2000).  As a recently certified ALF, I was fascinated to read about life as a ‘houseparent’ (something equivalent to an ALF, keeping in mind that Summerhill is also boarding school) and his perspective on the school after an extensive period (8 years) of working in that role.

I’d highly recommend this text to anyone getting started as a volunteer ALF, or considering it, the first three chapters really set the tone for what to expect (as an adult) in an environment where children are empowered.  He discusses a ‘gangster phase’ (detoxing from compulsive schooling) and the adult-child relationships at the school.

Since my first involvement with Agile Learning, I’ve tried explaining Agile Learning to various friends.  Often I get questioned on the nature of the freedoms that we are trying to cultivate.  I’ve caught myself (devils advocate, perhaps) saying “it’s not ALL wrestling and stick fighting, though there is value to that too”.  I want to continue to be challenged by what I’m advocating, to show it warts and all, to avoid any complacency.

The idea of a school where the ‘kids create the rules’ inevitably brings to mind William Golding’s Lord of The Flies  – a comparison that I was happy to see suitably challenged by Appleton:

“It is worth noting that Golding’s kids were all boys, the products of a moralistic, authoritarian, sex-negative, public school system.  That is, they were caged animals suddenly let off the leash.” – p. 103 

Through reading Appleton’s account, I came to realize that the adult-child relationships are a key to understanding how Agile Learning is far from a “Lord of The Flies” dystopia.  This is of course, also, where some distinctions arise between Agile Learning Facilitators and Summerhill Houseparents, though both (at their best) are present in a way that supports cycles of positive culture creation.  Besides which, in contrast to Golding, both are on the side of children in stating the inherent goodness of child nature.

Despite trusting that children are inherently good, I struggled with the idea of giving up all of the seemingly ‘natural’ authority of an adult.  It seems far too utopian to me, to think that the age and experience of an adult (at least) would not give rise to some kind of ‘natural’ leadership.  Surely even fully respected, self-regulating children will ask adults for the benefit of their experience, or look to them as models for their own behavior.  So I can’t help but feel that Appleton does not recognize his own contradiction when he says:

“The adults do not strive to set examples for the children.  We go about our business naturally, unhindered by stances of stiff dignity or condescending paternalism.” – p.38

Those who know me well, will recognize that I often see the word ‘natural’ as a sort of artifice that veils such self-awareness.  Isn’t being natural the highest standard of them all?

Remembering that ALC NYC (the first Agile Learning Center) was once more in line with the traditions of a Summerhill styled democratic free school (democratic meetings, all parties with an equal vote), let’s not buy wholesale into Appleton’s utopia.  One of the challenges of working in such an environment, I’ve heard, is striking a balance between creating a free space for the children that adults would still willingly invest themselves in.

The film Approaching The Elephant, about a free school in New Jersey which had immense difficulties in its first year and finally closed after only two years, was a clear example of where this balance was lost.  Appleton’s account shows plenty of trying moments where Summerhill has struggled and he talks of the difficulty of staff ‘burnout’ for those not suited to the conditions of Summerhill life.

” One lesson that new staff quickly learn is that adults take on far less importance in a community of children who are empowered in their own lives than they do in a situation where the adults have all of the authority.” – p.43

I find this to be true in that the children are more interested in their community of peers than the lives of adults.  The tension seems to lay between adults thinking they know best, and children seeking to buy back their own time and space through approved behavior.  It’s a tension I see as partly inevitable – as adults we can’t remove ourselves entirely from the equation: even trusting that children know best is a decision of the adult’s in relation to the child.

Wherever Agile focuses on intentional culture-creation and powerful tools (kanban etc), I am reminded of this tension between adult-child.  There is an intention here, I believe, to model best practices for self-regulated learning: the ultimate goal being self-empowerment.  The best examples of course come when the children begin to model this to and for each other (Tessa’s finger-weaving class; Arya’s Indian dance class).  How to ALF so kids will ALF.

Appleton gives his own evidence of this when he discusses the value of the continuity of experience within the community.  A group of children without a lot of ‘big kids’ had put to a vote the idea of throwing out all of the existing rules (laws) of the community.  The vote was easily carried.  After Appleton describes the ensuing chaos, that ended of its own accord (new laws were passed little by little to return the school balance), he shares a telling moment when these experienced kids are asked to try the experiment again (by a new group of young kids).  The older kids call it their ‘worst time at Summerhill’ and talk the younger kids out of the proposal:

“This is precisely why self-government runs smoothly when there is a group of big kids who have gone through this phase of pushing against the laws just for the sake of it.  They become a strong stabilizing force within the community.” – p.115

The difference here is that ALC’s can’t afford the luxury of time that Summerhill seems to have.  Agile Learning Centers need to learn from the benefit of these experiences rather than repeat the same or similar experiments.  Hence intentional culture creation: ALC’s seek quick (agile) processes for decision making with the belief that the doing/learning part of the school is more interesting to the children than how the rules are made/broken.  I more than welcome this resolution to these challenges.  Having worked on other progressive social projects and environments, I feel like Appleton’s words echo my own experience elsewhere:

“At one time I favored the concept of consensus, whereby differences are talked through until a solution agreeable to everyone is reached.  Having watched and been part of Summerhill self-government at work, I have changed my mind on this.  To begin with, our meetings would go on for days.  As it is, it takes a good chairperson to keep things concise.” – p.106

The rest of the book is fully illuminating in other areas too.  In Chapter 5: Destructiveness and Unhappiness he discusses the difficult issue of a conflict between a group of three students who supported each others destructive impulses to the detriment of everyone.  Appleton struggles with his own demons over the resolution of this situation, whereby two of the children ended up being expelled.  These two children, whom he expresses a great love for, had deeply traumatic experiences before coming to the school.  It was this heavy realization that Summerhill could not help everyone that weighed so heavily on the author.

“From time to time we have taken on other kids with similar difficulties.  It’s never black and white.  It’s always a matter of degree.  But experience suggests certain conclusions.  Summerhill cannot compensate for extreme emotional deprivation in early life, nor, if we have to continually fight against parents, can we ultimately win.” – p.131

My take-away from this was to continue to meet each challenge with a healthy balance of experience and fresh eyes.  Even in the case of the two students who were eventually withdrawn from Summerhill (one by community, one by parents choice), this made it possible for the community to support the third child to overcome similar challenges.

Though there is much else to comment on in this book, there is one further issue that loomed large for me.  It concerns the idea of childhood ‘sexuality’, a topic I generally find too disturbing to discuss.  I know that I missed the ‘Porn with Elaine’ discussions, but chapter 9 of this book, titled The Sexual Continuum, was very illuminating on this virtually taboo topic.

This may have less relevance to the Agile community than Summerhill (a boarding school) but I can’t help but feel that being somewhat taboo it often sneaks up in awkward moments.  I only have to think back on my own childhood and remember my own first’s: my first crush, my first rivalry over someone’s affections, my first kiss (which it seemed I’d waited forever to experience)… to recall how early and how natural these things happened.  There was a deep and tender curiousity towards my peers, that was always kept in check by a fear of getting in trouble with adults, without even knowing why.

Appleton begins by challenging Freud’s notion of a ‘latency period’ (from infancy through to puberty) when children are postulated to be sexually dis-interested.  For Appleton, this is where the confusion begins.  To him, “children are sexual beings and will always explore their sexuality with other children”.

“Much of the confusion that surrounds sexuality stems from the notion that because children are not orgasmic in the way that adults are, they are not sexual.” – p.229 

Once you broaden the concept of sexuality to include the range and depth of emotions that are explored in intimate relations, it becomes clear just how innocent and essential these feelings are for children to discover.

The conversation is one for the adults to have in terms of creating safe spaces and developing an awareness of the otherwise ‘secret lives’ of children.  If we are too afraid to have these discussions we open ourselves up to potentially greater dangers.

“If we turn sexuality into a no-go area for them they will never learn what they like, or be able to distinguish it from what they don’t like.  This doesn’t protect children from abuse, it opens them up to it.” – p.240

To be clear, Appleton is not advocating for an awkward ‘birds and the bees’ conversation, he is railing against the shaming of the sensual/sexual exploration of the children amongst themselves.  Though this shouldn’t be confused with a blanket liberalism, either.  He also points out examples of overly pushy ‘liberated’ parents trying to encourage their teenagers to experience their sexuality.

“There is a vast difference between approval and intrusion, between acceptance and control.  These former qualities are expressions of trust in child nature, the latter ones of distrust, and children feel the distinction keenly.” p.239

In the end sexuality is just another example where adult fears and distrust of children can become the source of much greater dangers.  The very real fear of sexual predators can translate into a fear and distrust of all childhood sexuality and intimacy.  Appleton argues that children that are clear in their own needs will draw clearer boundaries and be more certain in defending them.

“The protection of children from unwanted sexual advances goes hand in hand with protecting their own sexual integrity.” p. 240

I have to say that I was not expecting such challenging subject matter from this book.  Having worked with children in other contexts, and perhaps tellingly for Disney, I was really not prepared to be confronted by such glaringly obvious holes and contradictions in my own thinking.

Nor was I prepared to be challenged once again by my own experience and recollection of my own childhood.  It’s surprising how much stigma I’d learned to carry since then.  There was a touch of acceptance and letting-go then, as I read about Appleton’s experiences of ‘child-nature’ as observed from outside.

Such is the benefit of learning from Appleton’s written experiences.  Throughout the book are eight years worth of challenging experiences supported with lively anecdotes.  His passion for the work comes through fiercely in this broad storytelling.

I hope that others will pick up this text and/or discover for themselves how much more there is to learn about how to work with children on their terms and to trust in the value of having a free range childhood.




  1. Yanira says:

    Thanks so much for this. I also love to read and in the middle of Free to Learn by Peter Grey, which I find fascinating. It was actually his Ted talk that I watched, after learning about it on the Mosaic website, that really set my family on the path to ALC. I recommend people watch it, especially if they don;t have a lot of time to dive into books – which sometimes i do not. It is a great way to share what the ALC philosophy is for people who know nothing about it (like myself 2 months ago!). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bg-GEzM7iTk

    I am also reading After Summerhill – which has some of the same info and quotes as in A Free Range Childhood. While it is interesting, the boarding element varies the lessons that the kids are learning at ALC some. Most of the adults seem to have really enjoyed their time at Summerhill and learned so much about themselves an who they wanted to be. And perhaps more importantly, who they didn’t want to be.

    Free Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy (A NY columnist that I have followed for years) is next on my list. But perhaps I should reread Lord of the Flies 😉

    • Hi Yanira,

      I didn’t get this message until now. I’ve not been keeping up to date with the ALF Summer blog, partly because there’s so much else to look at. I’m going to start a thread in the ALC forum. Look for it there!

      FYI – I’m reading Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility

    • @Nancy – i didn’t see this till now, either. Or maybe I just wasn’t as deep into the website when I got the notification. I am starting a topic in the nyc ALC forum, but that’s because i don’t got the admin priveleges to start a forum at the ALC root. Could you do that? Agile Book Club? Then people could post comments as topics per each book that people are reading. Would make it easier to build comments over a long period of time that would be relevant to newcomers and to anyone looking for reading recommendations…

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