Freedom without anarchy

King Alfred School’s Village Project builds a community outdoors without mod cons

Year after year, the King Alfred School (KAS) Village Project further evolves the independent learning experience for its students. For one week, 50 children camp outdoors with six teachers, forming their own community. They elect governance, vote on issues, make decisions as a democracy, build their huts, cook, clean up and learn to live cooperatively. They enter the village as year eight students but leave as leaders, negotiators and sustainable environmentalists. A remedy to target-driven hot-house teaching methods, the village project ring fences a time when children learn in a different way.

Students experience challenges like sleep deprivation, getting cold and wet and a lack of electricity or running water. A community develops, in a true sense of the word, with social awareness, democracy, leadership, empathy, conflict and division of labour.  This is often the first time the teenagers live in a grown-up world, where teachers trust them to make the right decisions for the individual and the camp. The children’s autonomy leads to their discovery of power.   

Instead of iPads, interactive whiteboards and virtual learning environments, the children swap modern teaching tools for chalk, charcoal, and wood. KAS radio is broadcast in the background and teachers are quiet facilitators in a student-led environment, their approach a step further back than that in the classroom. Non-contributors in the classroom can become contributors in the village.

In the early 1990s, when the first village project took place, contraband items took the form of Game Boys, Walkmans and chocolate. Now, children are relieved of their smartphones and iPads for the week, without access to social media and no contact with their families. Without exception, students were positive about the ban. The absence of technology allowed for time to be filled with talking, exploring and foraging.

Mornings begin with a village meeting with elected leaders. Journaling and meditation are part of the activities as is blacksmithing, bushcraft, drumming, origami and digeridoo lessons.

At the end of the project, pupils produce something that represents their time in the village. They are freed from the demands of the school but in many ways the time is far more demanding because they make choices about how to spend their time, how to handle boredom and how to resolve any conflict.

The Village Project continues to be a topic of interest for researchers. The first village in the 1990s was experiential in developing new theories about the value of the learning experience. Irene Fairhurst, co-founder of the Institute for Person-Centred Learning (IPCL) and the British Association for the Person-Centred Approach (BAPCA), visited the Village in 1990 and said: “I feel the project went a long way to developing the young people’s autonomy, their discovery of power and supporting the Person-Centred Approach”. 

In 2014, David Pomeroy offered a critical realist approach in his research of the Village. Using observation and interviews he concluded: “Students feel a sense of achievement derived from making something (an axe, a scarf, a foraged meal) or learning a new skill such as slacklining”.

This year, Bill Lucas (Director of the Centre for Real-World Learning and Professor of Learning at the University of Winchester) is researching the impact of the village on children’s learning. Bill is known internationally as a speaker on the subjects of learning, change, creativity, and leadership.

From hut construction, fire building, menu planning and conflict resolution, the inhabitants of the Village Project this year will emerge with self-reliance and a new self-awareness, proud of who they are, and with more appreciation of the world around them. They experience what makes a sustainable community and understand conservation in relation to local and global environments.  

The 2016 Village Project has drawn together strands from across a wide range of curriculum areas – English, History, Geography, Science, Design Technology and Art. Rod Jackson, Head of Upper School, said: “Each Village Project is unique but KAS Village 2016 has been particularly special. This group of year eights demonstrated a real willingness to meet challenges, to persevere, to reflect on their experiences and to make decisions and to extend their understanding of themselves as individuals and learners.”

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