At Hilltop Education Connections our goal to put our differences together includes two sub-goals: the first is focused on each student as a wonderfully unique individual—our “me” goal; the second is focused on all of us as a community—our “we” goal.

  • Our “me” goal is for each of us to learn how to create our own paths through life.
  • Our “we” goal is for each of us to learn how to put our differences together to our mutual benefit.

We see a natural tension between these two goals. Sometimes each of us dancing to the beat of our own drummer can result in collisions with others dancing to the beat of their own drummer. We believe it is possible for all of us to learn how to find win-win sweet spots between our “me” and “we” goals. These sweet spots are not static but instead vary from context to context, from moment to moment. Thus, finding these sweet spots requires all of us reflecting on the tensions that exist between each of us as individuals and between each of us and our school community as a whole. We call the act of finding these sweet spots, bumping into each other with style. For us, there is nothing more important for each of our wellbeing or the well-being of our planet.

Our approach has much in common with child-centered approaches to education including Free Schools and the Unschooling movement. These approaches have as their main goal giving students as much freedom to make their own choices as is possible, leaving them unfettered by what the adults want them to do. As an adult who was subjected to do-as-I-say teaching as a child, I resonate with this orientation towards child-centered learning and would choose it over schools designed to produce passive and standardized workers and consumers any day! But our approach avoids picking sides on this dichotomous dimension. We are not focused on children being “free” with minimal intervention as a goal. 

Our goal is to meet each other in the negotiation zone where young learners and adult facilitators can make decisions together. We focus our attention on the dynamic process of finding win-win sweet spots in order to put our differences together in productive ways. Rather than minimizing intervention we seek to maximize negotiation and shared decision-making. For this to happen each of us must be skilled at interacting with each other and our planet in ways that benefit us all and at building mutual relationships. 

This distinction is subtle and maybe partially a matter of semantics. In later blogs, I intend to present many examples of our adventures in the negotiation zone and hopefully make clear why I think there is an important distinction between free child-centered schools, standards-based schools, and our negotiation/agreement school, but for now one example might help. 

As an example, when I was teaching at The Farm School, I took our seven-to-nine year-olds (all four of them that attended that day) on a woods walk. My plan was for each of us to focus our attention on looking for things turning into other things (e.g., fallen trees turning into dirt). And a fine plan it was. I also had a number of important concepts that I wanted to talk about with the kids while we were walking: decomposition and synthesis, material cycles, and the conservation of matter. About sixty seconds into our walk one of the kids asked me if they could play their wolf game during our walk. I started to say “no,” even though I know better by now, but then slid my not yet fully formed “no” into a request for more information. What is your wolf game? They told me that they were a wolf pack and that each of them had a special job, one would look for bones, another for geodes, the third for edible plants and the fourth for mushrooms. I grinned and said, “of course we can play the wolf game” and off we went for fun and learning filled hour of searching and collecting and discussing our finds.

 If our focus had been minimizing interventions, I probably wouldn’t have headed out on a woods walk with a predefined plan for focusing our activity on a particular set of concepts I wanted to explore. If our focus had been students doing as they were told, I probably wouldn’t have thrown my mental lesson plan out the metaphorical window in response to a request by a child. Focusing on negotiation is not just a matter of picking when to let kids do what they want versus what we want them to do, although that certainly is a part of the process. In this case, our focus on negotiation manifested as students being comfortable making a request, me hearing their request and asking for more information to help me make a decision, me making a decision that met all of our needs, and all of us getting to do something we valued. Times like this, when one of us has started to say “no” and changed our mind are a hallmark of our approach.

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