As a new staff member at Philly Free School, I’ve begun to be asked the questions by adults outside the school community probably familiar to staff, students and parents here: “But how do the kids learn to read?”, “How do they learn to do math?”, “Do you teach them history?”

At first, I was excited to field these questions. They presented a challenge to provide brief, articulate explanations of how PFS works. They also provided an opportunity to subtly change the way we think about education. But as time wore on, and the similarity of my conversations became apparent, these conversations began to disturb me. They were painful reminders of the prevailing notions about education, learning, and human life.

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In several instances, people grew visibly angry as I explained myself and the school to them. It’s as if they were saying, “You cruel man and your lunatic co-workers, letting children be free. They play all day and are not prepared for the real world, the world of work. They will be failures! They will starve! They will be poor! They will be unhappy!”

It has now become a preoccupation for me during these exchanges to take notice of the questions not asked. To me, the questions not asked demonstrate how little our educational institutions value the development of a complete person, and how many of us adults internalized these value systems during our schooling.

So these days, when I want to break out of the confines of the same old conversation about “how do they learn to read?”, I try to seize the conversation and shift its direction by mentioning how strange it is that most people never open with questions like “how do the kids learn to have self-confidence?” It works well and often elicits a confession from the person who you are talking with about how they don’t use or remember most of what they learned in high school anyway. Now we’re talking!

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I’ve since deployed several other ‘counter-questions’ in this way and I’ve listed several possibilities below. Perhaps they will be useful to you with adults who want to trap the conversation in “how do they learn how to read?” What stands out about this list is that Philly Free School, and schools like it, are uniquely designed to address these questions, and that these are the kinds of questions worth asking about ourselves, our lives, and our world.

How do they learn to advocate for themselves?

How do the kids develop self-confidence?

How do they develop self-esteem?

How do they learn to self-evaluate?

How do they learn to engage and resolve conflicts?

How do they learn to cooperate in groups?

How do they learn to care for others?

How do they learn what responsibility is?

How do they learn to take responsibility?

How do they learn to be members of a community, a family?

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How do they learn to articulate themselves?

How do they learn how to fail?

How do they learn how to succeed?

How do they learn how to learn?

How do they learn what they want?

How do they learn who they are?

How do they learn what freedom is?

How do they learn how to protect and maintain freedom?

How do they learn how to practice freedom?

How do the kids learn to be free?

Luke Byrnes, September 25th