At Future Nation Schools, we promote ‘authentic’ learning: students are given the freedom to not only express their interests (academic and otherwise) but also to direct the learning process. The role of the teacher is no longer to enforce ideas or prioritise certain concerns over others, but to allow students to ask questions and make decisions in a controlled space where successes are praised, and mistakes, learned from, and corrected. By focusing on what’s important to them and navigating their acquisition of knowledge, we believe students are better prepared to retain and put that knowledge to good use.
On a Friday afternoon, about midway through my first term at FNS, all the boys in the school — students and teachers alike — filled the assembly hall. We had gathered for what the longer-standing teachers called a ‘boys forum’. This is an occasion that takes place once a month that allows for the young men of the school to discuss openly anything that might be concerning them. The girls have their equivalent and had gathered in the park.
We entered the hall and dragged chairs from the perimeter and set them in a massive circle that continued to grow as latecomers straggled in. The students wanted to talk about bullying. They voiced their concern that others were not being treated as well as they deserved. Still new to the school — unfamiliar with many of the students and unaware of the social dynamics at play — I did not know if those who spoke out were those being bullied, or the bullies themselves, or just third parties invested in stimulating positive change. The mood in the room was somber. Teachers listened, and then probed. Students were encouraged to consider the nature of bullying: what forms bullying could take, and why people bully. Are they modelling what they see at home, are they angry, are they attempting to deny something they lack in themselves by pointing it out in someone else? Or do they simply wish to ‘look cool’ in front of their friends?
One student, as evidence to an example he had given about teasing people who were different, singled out another student who had been the target of much of the recent bullying. I hunched forward on my chair and stared at the ground, immediately uncomfortable. I did not think it wise to so pointedly direct the groups’ focus. I imagined how, in exploring the reasons for the bullying, they might compound the issue and only make things worse. However, tact was shown, and a teacher asked those who had bullied this boy to identify themselves. Bravely, a number raised their hands.
Over the next few weeks I observed carefully — in class and during break time — how students engaged with this boy, and I was pleasantly surprised by their renewed sense of tolerance and respect. It was evident in the way that they listened to him in class, how they chided each other when someone stepped out of line. The school had come together, voiced a serious concern, and chosen to move forward in a mature and inclusive way. I witnessed how at FNS students are not only provided with the space to cultivate their own learning and development, but also how when given the opportunity, they do so.