Schools Of The World: Brooklyn Free School

What does a school without a curriculum look like?

Brooklyn Free School (BFS) is different. Split into two with an an upper school (ages 11 to 18) and lower school (ages 4 to 11), teachers are called ‘advisers’ and children aren’t told what to do. They have no homework, they don’t have tests or grades, they make the rules and they decide what and how they want to learn. If they don’t want to come to school then they don’t have to.

Sounds like a recipe for chaos? This is a bottom-up approach to education that is student-centred, holistic and starts with the students.

It might not float your boat and appear to be just free-range teaching gone mad but this is a school worth closer inspection. This is a democratic system based on choice, flexibility and creative freedom and giving students the space and trust to direct their own learning.

BFS’s mission is education as a form of social justice by engaging young people in democratic decision-making and problem solving. The BFS is made up of an environment of unprecedented diversity and students are not segregated by age, sex, or ability.

BFS say,

We honor student choice and facilitate student-centered learning through play and exploration, constructivist teaching, collaborative course work and self-directed student initiatives.

A video about BFS gives a snapshot of what life is like there:

This doesn’t mean that students lack structure because some students motivate themselves to create a routine and daily timetable. This might not necessarily be part of a class but doing individual projects and finding their own way.

At the core of BFS is democracy with democratic meetings which allow students safe environments to respond to the circumstances of their lives, via conflict mediation, personal reflection, diversity awareness and community responsibility.

Founded in 2004 by Alan Berger, BFS has had to weather a few storms but has since carved out its own identity as a diverse, social justice driven, and inclusive school community. Importantly he reminds us that

Education in this world at this time in history requires experiencing first hand, or at the very least significant exposure to, a diverse community meaning children and young people from different races, classes, sexual orientation and gender identification, and abilities.

Free schools aren’t new but can be found worldwide and they all share a similar approach: trusting children’s desire to learn. However, they get plenty of criticism especially those who say that a structure-less environment doesn’t prepare students for the real world.

It might be pedagogical pie in the sky to some, but Brooklyn Free School has great support with one parent saying,

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