This is the first in a two-part conversation with author David Gribble. After teaching in both conventional and democratic schools in England for more than 30 years, he visited nearly 20 other schools around the world that promote self-directed learning and recorded his observations in two books (“Real Education: Varieties of Freedom” and “Lifelines”). This conversation focuses on how underprivileged children fare in such environments.

David Gribble spent the majority of his teaching career at schools that offered students a great deal of freedom, coupled with responsibility for governing themselves. Over the years, he watched many children, with a range of personalities and talents, flourish in such settings. But the students at his schools were predominantly middle class and enjoyed considerable freedom at home, too. Could less privileged children (especially those accustomed to strict hierarchies at home or in society) also learn to make sensible decisions and govern their lives wisely if given the chance to direct their own learning? He decided to find out.

He first visited a couple of schools that turned the reins over to students who had previously been written off as unmanageable, and came away impressed (they are among the case studies in his first book, “Real Education: Varieties of Freedom”). Then in the early 2000s, he studied four more schools that had developed organically in response to specific social problems affecting highly marginalized populations.

He paid extensive visits to three of the schools, and relied on personal recollections, film footage and various documents for the fourth, which had existed as a wartime emergency in the 1940s. All four catered to low-income children; many had been abused or neglected, and some were living on the streets. They had all, in some form or another, received consistent messages that they were inadequate. Some accepted this verdict passively; others rebelled, sometimes violently.

The conventional wisdom is that such children require strictly controlled learning environments. But Gribble’s investigations led him to a very different conclusion: If the goal is to uplift children and help them develop their capacity to lead happy and fulfilling lives, he says, then non-authoritarian education is not only helpful in such cases — it is often essential.

What follows are some of his main takeaways from the two schools he researched in the United Kingdom and the United States. Part Two will focus on what he observed at schools in India and Thailand, as well as what he concluded from all of these places.

Learning to Govern Themselves

The Barns Hostel, in rural Scotland, was presided over by a Scotsman named David Wills. He had begun his teaching career as a harsh authoritarian, but had a revelation while working at a colony for delinquent boys. He noticed that students behaved much better around staffers with whom they had developed an affectionate bond, and concluded that affection created a desire to please and made coercion unnecessary.

He decided to make unfaltering affection the cornerstone of his approach at his next posting as the head of the Barns Hostel, a residence and school that served 50 otherwise unwanted boys, ages nine to 14, who had been evacuated from Edinburgh during World War II. Many had been deemed “unmanageable,” and half had police court records.

In lieu of punishment, Barns operated on a system of “shared responsibility,” designed to minimize both misunderstandings and resentments. Although lessons were mandatory, the rest of the rules were made by the students themselves, and transgressions were handled by peers imposing what they considered a reasonable and appropriate consequence — for example, a disruptive student might have been asked to remain in another room until the desire to be disruptive faded.

“Boys from Barns school going on an outing, possibly the seaside, or large area of water.” (theirstory/Flickr)

In areas where the students had authority, it was absolute. “It is better to limit the children’s responsibility to something very small, if that authority is absolute,” Wills wrote, “than to get them a wide but vague sphere of control with the danger that you might step in one day and veto a decision which they have made.”

The first arrivals, accustomed to being at the bottom of their classes and having to endure regular beatings, took advantage of the lack of punishment and behaved wildly for several months before settling down. Because self-government was a new concept to these children, it was introduced gradually at first, so they could first learn what was necessary “to ensure a contented and smooth-running community,” as Gribble puts it. (Once the student culture was established, it was absorbed more quickly by later arrivals.)

By the second year, there was no longer any need for adults to get involved with disciplinary issues, Gribble says. Eventually, the children even managed to run the hostel capably for several months when Wills was called away.

Wills and his teaching colleague tracked the boys’ progress, which was sometimes striking: For example, one 11-year-old was noted to be truculent and “offensive and aggressive in the extreme” a month after his arrival; a year later, he was described as “a very happy, attractive, cheerful little boy.” The boys also thrived academically — the average increase in reading age was 1.6 years per 12 months, and in math it was two years per 12 months.

Given the magnitude of the boys’ problems, it was inevitable that there were still “outbreaks of rage or distress,” Gribble notes. Wills believed that children needed to remain in a supportive environment long enough for their gains to be consolidated and stabilized. A follow-up study showed that, of the three-quarters of the students who were removed against the advice of the staff and went to live and/or study in unsupportive environments, many relapsed and had enduring difficulties. But the students who left when they appeared ready continued to thrive, with just a few temporary setbacks.

Marginalized Students Start Their Own School

In the early 1970s, Chicago’s Puerto Rican community was plagued by gang warfare, poverty, drugs and other social problems. Its students were accustomed to people in positions of authority treating them — and sometimes explicitly telling them — that they would never amount to anything. So a group of Puerto Rican high school students decided to become their own authorities, and founded the Doctor Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican High School.

“We’re trying to help people to take control of their lives, and live their lives with dignity,” said Marvin Garcia, the school’s principal at the time of Gribble’s visit.

The school fostered a supportive atmosphere that emphasized egalitarianism and mutual trust among faculty and students — even gang animosities were set aside while on the premises. The school was thus able to blossom into a focal point of the community, with which it was tightly integrated.

The students themselves drove the curriculum but shared overall control of the school with teachers and community leaders. Everyone had a genuine voice: Two school meetings per week were open to all, and anyone could propose agenda items (one of the meetings was chaired by a student). The classroom work varied from highly structured lessons to free-ranging discussions and independent projects, but even the structured sessions offered considerable freedom, and teachers played more of a facilitator role.

The staff also didn’t shy away from engaging with students on a deeper level — “the students’ own personal difficulties are acknowledged and the staff do all they can to help,” Gribble wrote. The school shared its premises with the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, whose social programs included child care for parents attending classes. Many of the youth told him that the school felt more like a family than an institution.

In turn, the students were encouraged to turn that support outward, by engaging in the public sphere and applying their learning to improve society. They participated in community actions to raise awareness of important issues such as HIV/AIDS, for example, and actively lobbied Congress to release Puerto Rican political prisoners. “They’ve become agents of change,” as Garcia put it.

All of this helped to give the students two much-needed elements: a sense of purpose and self-confidence. The effects then spilled over into their learning — one teacher recalled children arriving with a reading age of 10 and “learning fast as soon as they understand that they can.”

Part two of this two-part conversation with David Gribble is available here

Can Self-Directed Learning Work for Underprivileged Children? 1 May,2015Luba Vangelova

  • “If the goal is to uplift children and help them develop their capacity to lead happy and fulfilling lives, he says, then non-authoritarian education is not only helpful in such cases — it is often essential.” I love this line. Looking forward to part two. Thank you. I think back to Dr. Montessori and her Casa Bambino in the slums of Rome.

  • Knox Siwash

    Yes, Montessori definitely comes to mind, and it’s interesting that her system is mostly for the privileged now. Sugata Mitra is relevant, too.

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  • Susan Wolfe

    I have taught 15 years in Title I Schools. I begin coaching my students to be self-directed learners from the first day they enter my classroom. Children who come from poverty know how it feels to be powerless. Powerless over hunger, homelessness, and many other issues that come from low socio-economic households. They crave ownership and nurturing that sense of autonomy in the classroom is empowering. My curriculum is differentiated and students negotiate criteria with me. Every student has a job that helps their classroom run smoothly. I teach communication skills and collaboration skills that foster this type of environment. Our motto, ” We sink or we swim together.” Is fully embraced. As with any classroom, problems do arise. My role as a coach helps guide these students to learn techniques to problem solve. My guest teachers always tell me, ” Your classroom runs itself.”

    Thank you for posting such a great article!

  • Cora

    I think this article gets at a very interesting and often-overlooked point about inequalities in not only
    educational resources, but also overarching purposes of education between
    schools that cater to different socioeconomic classes. Many schools that
    educate children by allowing them freedoms and responsibilities in the
    classroom—teaching independence and decision-making instead of just preparing
    for tests—are available mainly to middle- and upper-class kids. Vangelova
    describes schools for lower-class children as believing that “… such children
    require strictly controlled learning environments.” One clear example of this
    philosophy can be found in the Kipp Schools website. The Kipp Schools are geared
    towards disadvantaged students, and require their students to follow an
    incredibly strict path through their educational experiences, as can be seen in
    the description of the “Five Pillars”:
    According to the site, for example, “Kipp Schools relentlessly focus on high
    student performance on standardized tests and other objective measures. Just as
    there are no shortcuts, there are no excuses.” The Kipp School purpose of
    education seems to be to get kids who are seen from a deficit viewpoint into
    and through college. As Vangelova discusses, it is important to realize that
    there are excellent alternatives to this rigidly controlled system for
    disadvantaged students. An environment where these students are allowed to make
    their own decisions recognizes that each students has something important to
    contribute to their own school community.

  • Miranda Bucky

    I found this article to be a very welcome change from the idea that underprivileged students inherently need a different style of education than their peers who come from more privileged backgrounds. In my college-level education course, we looked at charter schools like KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), where students coming from low-income families are thought to need an oppressively strict classroom environment. Students are instructed on how to stand and sit at attention and how to speak “properly,” and are encouraged to develop character traits like zest, grit, self-control, and gratitude. The theory is that students’ character is not being shaped at home in a way that will enable them to be successful in school and attend college (a main focus of KIPP is college prep), and that it is the job of the school to inculcate in students values that will enable them to be successful.

    Preparing students to be successful, especially those who might not have access to academics of the same quality at a traditional public school, is unarguably an honorable goal to pursue. However, it did not seem plausible that the model of progressive education, valuing autonomy and self-governance, can be applied to some students but not others. I found the video about the Doctor Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican High School in Chicago to be especially interesting: the approach of allowing students freedom worked because students’ home culture was respected rather than suppressed. What each student brought into the classroom was instead build upon, in keeping with John Dewey’s theory of continuity of experience.

  • Natasha

    This educational model is very
    exciting to me. It is my belief that students have the capacity and should have
    the opportunity to mold their educational experience just as much, if not more,
    than teachers and administrators. Collaborative self-governance like the
    article describes provides students with agency and involvement in their own
    schooling, which, in my opinion, has incredible value in developing them as
    stronger learners and community members. Having the ability to participate in
    your educational institution, determine school policies, and conduct productive
    dialogues with other students and faculty can build confidence, validate
    student voices, excite the community about education and learning, and demand
    that people think collaboratively and innovatively.

    In my own experiences with
    self-governance in high school, I found that having a platform to express
    dissent or help determine institutional changes challenged me to know myself as
    a learner, understand the needs of others in my community, weigh the potential
    consequences of certain decisions, and find productive ways to voice my
    opinions. I was engaged in my school’s culture and community as a result, and that
    involvement fostered an appreciation for my education and a sense of ownership
    in my learning experience. I believe that when students are given agency to
    develop structures that serve their needs best, they will not only be happier
    within their communities, but they will also cultivate important life skills,
    gain a stronger sense of self, and be motivated stay engaged in school. It is
    unsurprising to me that underprivileged students thrived under this model
    because I think that oppressed communities have the most potential to benefit
    from the agency and autonomy provided by self-governance. If we operate under
    the notion that the people who experience everyday life in their community know
    their needs better than those who perceive their deficiencies as outsiders,
    then it makes sense that the former should be making decisions and developing a
    model that serves those requirements. Self-governance not only empowers
    students—in bringing their personal perspectives and needs into the
    conversation, it has the potential to maintain pride in community culture, as
    was shown in the video. All in all, I think this article provides a compelling
    account for the individual and collective benefits of student agency in


Luba Vangelova

Luba Vangelova’s work has appeared in numerous print, online and broadcast media outlets, including The New York Times, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Salon. She is also working on a book about self-directed learning. Her web site is She also posts on Twitter and on her official Facebook page.

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