Children are the bearers of the future – What and how should they learn?
How should schools play their significant roles?
“Future” is not about creating imaginations or dreaming about something.
We visited a pioneering school of the future that is already functioning as such.
Part 1: “Free” children of Kinokuni Children’s Village
Kinokuni Children’s Village (hereafter, “Kinokuni”) is located in Hikotani in Hashimoto City, Wakayama, a mountain village with a population of less than 20. The school opened in April 1992 as an unprecedented school with a focus on experience learning. Currently, 177 elementary and junior high school students attend this school.
With the basic principles of self-determination, individualization, and experience learning, it has been over 20 years since the school opened. We will give you a detailed report in two parts, mainly about what type of education is actually provided at the school, and how the graduates have grown and the roles they play in society.
No homework, no exams, and no barriers between school grades
In Kinokuni, there is no homework, there are no exams, and there are no barriers between school grades. They have no adults called “teacher” either. Children call their homeroom teachers by their nicknames. At first glance it seems nothing exists in this school; however, there is one thing – happy days, created by children and adults.
These happy days are created based on class lessons called “projects.” In Kinokuni’s elementary school, classrooms are not divided by school grades, but classes called projects are divided vertically instead and consist of students of different school grades. Each project is unique, such as “Theater Kinokuni,” “Builder’s Office,” “Fun Restaurant,” “Firm,” and “Craft Museum,” and children can choose what they like among them. These projects are the symbol of Kinokuni’s educational philosophy, and the theme of experience learning that children will work beyond their ages and subjects, and beyond the walls between themselves and adults, in order to acquire a “zest for living.” In the elementary school’s timetable, as many as 14 class hours are allocated for these projects, which form core hours of their learning at Kinokuni.
Still, it has to be clearly stated that Kinokuni is a private elementary and junior high school accredited through the usual process of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). In other words, although the school is not located in a special zone, and it is not an exceptional school that does not have to follow curriculum, its “projects” are properly accepted as subject learning.
Close observation of Project “Craft Museum”
It was the first day of our coverage that we heard that one of the projects, “Craft Museum” (hereafter, “Craft”), was constructing a hiding place. The word “hiding place” sounded exciting and tempted us to have a look.
In the Craft classroom, we could see about 20 children of different ages sitting around three big tables and talking with an adult standing in front of a blackboard.
On the blackboard was written “building a hiding place” in big letters, followed by “roof,” “wall,” “stairs,” and “poles.” It seemed that they were discussing how to share their roles in the day’s project.
An adult named “Nao-chin” talked to the students:
“All right then. Shall we share the roles?”
One boy asks a question of everyone:
“Who wants to build the roof?”
About 70% of the students promptly raised their hands. Roof-making must be a popular job among them.
“Who wants to create the walls?”
Probably around 10% of them gradually raised their hands.
“How about poles?”
Again, about 10% of them raised their hands. As many wanted to take a “roof” part, they discussed how they should adjust their roles. The adult, Nao-chin, did not say anything and was just watching them, but after confirming that they decided on the role-sharing, he walked toward the site. Children also stood up quickly and went to the working site with a hammer, saw, nails, and wooden materials in their hands.
The attitude of adults not to give answers to children
Their hiding space was in the mountain behind their school. We went to the site with the children and found a wooden house in the square in front of the mountain.
“Is that your hiding place?”
“No, that one!” answered one of students pointing to the top of the mountain.
Looking at it carefully, I saw something like a fence made by new wooden materials on the slope of the mountain which was about 20-meters high. As it was covered by trees, I did not have a full picture but I guessed it must be their hiding place.
Suddenly I got so excited. Following the children, we climbed up a narrow mountain slope resembling an animal trail and finally arrived at the hiding place. It was amazing. With tall cedar trees on the slope as its main poles, foundation construction had been completed, creating an excellent design matched with nature.
There was a ladder over an uncompleted outer wall. Upon climbing up the ladder there was a room. Although the roof, walls, and poles were not yet finished, it was already giving us the feel of a hiding place. In the room, there were more than 10 children working on walls, roofs, and poles. Some were nailing boards, while others were carefully inserting each pole into a hole. At each working space, an older child was taking the role of leader and giving precise instructions. Younger children were also fulfilling their own roles.
On the other hand, the adult (Nao-chin) was watching over them to make sure that nobody was getting bored or playing, in order to facilitate their hiding place construction. Nao-chin also gave them simple advice, such as, “Maybe you should arrange those boards.” However, I got the impression that he intentionally did not say anything critical.
Children are capable more than adults think
While the children were working on their projects, I asked Nao-chin what they were going to do that day.
“The children decided to build a hiding place similar to a tree house. It has been three months since we started, and today, our main task will be to put up roofs and place walls. Children are all different; for example, some are physically strong or weak, and some are dexterous or awkward. So we put a bigger child with a smaller one, so that the bigger child can work at a high place which may be dangerous, and the smaller child can help him by passing him tools and materials. Children decide their role sharing on their own.”
It must be hard work even on a flat space, but this was down the slope located at a quite high level. Partly because of that, looking at children freely and noisily working together, I was thinking that they would not make much progress. However, they just convinced me, “they can do it if they try.” In only two hours, roofs and walls were almost done. I felt ashamed of my poor imagination and recognized that children always hold more potential than adults think.
To make it sure, foundation construction and other processes that concern safety are done under the assistance of a local construction company. While properly ensuring security, adults are providing children with opportunities of risk-taking, making decisions and taking actions on their own.
Lectures organically linked to experience learning
While employing this “project” learning style, Kinokuni also has some subject class lessons equivalent to those of ordinary schools. That is called “basic learning.” We visited a class for the basic learning of “Craft,” in which students were building a hiding place.
Looking completely different from in the morning, children were divided into several groups and were solving worksheets with knots between their eyebrows. These groups seemed to be divided by their mastery level. The children who finished their work were teaching those who hadn’t.
The worksheets were for what you call math, which is called “Numbers” at Kinokuni. On the table, besides worksheets, you find a model of a 3D development plan made on graph paper. I was touching the model thinking that the development plan may not be a usual one for cubes or trigonal pyramids. Then, one student told me the following:
“This is our hiding place.”
By assembling graph paper, they could make a model of the hiding place where they had worked in the morning. Besides the models, they were working with worksheets, which are the original materials of Kinokuni. The worksheets include those questions that ask students about the surface of roofs, floors, and walls of their hiding place, and those that ask them about the scale reduction of models made by graph paper. Kinokuni’s basic learning is closely related to the projects and the curriculum helps children understand the significance of learning numbers. In other words, in class lessons, the inevitability to learn about lengths and surfaces is already designed through the process to achieve their own goals. This is why the project classes are established in the fields that directly relate to clothing, food, and housing such as a Builder’s Office, and Firm.
Kinokuni’s rules are decided at the all-school meeting
The all-school meeting is what represents Kinokuni valuing children’s autonomy. Every Thursday afternoon, all elementary and junior high school students as well as almost all school staff including the principal participate in the meeting to discuss school regulations and other important issues. The school holds various meetings but the all school meeting is particularly important. When deciding on school regulations by majority vote, the votes of a child, an adult, and even the vote of the school principal are treated equally.
The hall used for the all-school meeting has a structure that looks like half of the Coliseum. On the seats arranged like stairs, children and adults sit very close to each other. Looking down from my seat, I could see only the chairperson and probably a note-taker were sitting toward the audience.
Chairperson: We are now starting the meeting. Please be quiet.
The rough atmosphere suddenly turned to being completely quiet in the hall, and this silence remained for an hour and a half until the end of the meeting. This must symbolize the children’s sense of ownership. Right after that, one adult in the corner raised his hand. It was Mr. Shinichiro Hori (hereafter, “Hori-san”), the school principal.
Hori-san: Today we have some visitors. Mr. Chairperson, before we start the meeting, will you ask the members if they think it is okay to be observed in this meeting?
Chairperson: Okay, then, who thinks it is okay that they observe our meeting?
It seemed that almost all members were raising their hand.
Chairperson: Who does not wish to be observed?
Nobody raised their hand. I felt quite relieved.
Chairperson: Okay, then, we will have these observers.
Indeed, this is a school where children decide everything. Permission for visitors was not an exception.
From the very beginning of the meeting, I was shocked by Kinokuni’s way of giving lessons.
Thorough application of the principle of children’s self-determination
The theme of the day’s all-school meeting was “How we can reduce water usage at our school.”
Chairperson: We would like to continue our discussion from the last session. How do you think we can further reduce the volume of our water usage?
Several children immediately raised their hands and spoke one after another.
They gave concrete ideas, such as closing the faucet if you see water dripping, wiping off oil on a plate with a napkin/paper before washing it (however, someone mentioned that it could be also a problem to use 200 to 300 pieces of paper per meal), and filling a pan to return dishes with water instead of using paper. Then, a female student from the project “Builder’s Office” gave her opinion.
Student: The sixth graders of the Builder’s Office project checked the volume of water used for showering and tooth-brushing. May I share it with you?
Student: We found that a male student uses 52,000ml water when taking a shower, while a pair of two female students used 66,000ml per person and another pair 35,000ml per person, and another group of three used 61,000ml per person.
When we could feel a kind of questionable atmosphere in the hall, Hori-san, the principal, interjected to offer support.
Hori-san: We have just heard the word “milliliter” in the sixth graders’ presentation, but will you recalculate the amount into numbers of milk cartons so that younger children can also understand?”
After the sixth grader said the water volume in terms of number of milk cartons, the hall was filled with an atmosphere of understanding. Not only Hori-san, but other adults of Kinokuni have high skills for facilitating discussions.
Afterward, presented opinions were voted on and the following was decided as their rules:
・ Close loose faucets tightly
・ Turn off the water more often at showering
・ Stop water when brushing your teeth; use only when you rinse.
You may wonder why all students and many school staff had to meet together to decide such a minor thing. However, this can be the reason why they value this all-school meeting the most. Initially, this may not be a minor thing for children. Here we see the importance of children being raised in such an environment that they can decide what concerns them.
When someone says that children are free and treated equal to adults, you may get the impression that the adults are just pleasing the children. However, what we saw at Kinokuni was that while children enjoy freedom and learning, the children were taking the initiative to protect their freedom.
Continues to Part 2