Freedom to Learn Section II: Responsible Freedom in the Classroom (part two) - A French teacher grows with her students

This chapter relates the experiences of Gay Swenson, a French teacher who transformed her teaching in the late 1960s, enabling both her and her students to grow in the process.

Grammar and growth

  1. I begin

The French teacher relates her beginnings as a substitute teacher, where she was entertaining her students with good humour, although she “sometimes felt as though I were tricking them into learning something through cleverness and catchy techniques.” Although it went well enough, she felt that something was missing, success or failure of lessons was seemingly random.
However, she discerned a pattern whereby learning occurred when it involved:
  1. creativity from the individual
  2. personal choice by the student in determining a project
  3. controversy around an issue applicable to their personal world.
An example then illustrates these observations and she then relates how she was beginning to develop “some clearer sense of direction”, helped by intensive reading into innovative education and attending “conferences given by people concerned with educational and social change.”
  1. School in transition

The context of the French teacher’s school was also in transition, in particular beginning with “modular or flexible scheduling”, a pattern of class attendance similar to that at universities. This flexibility allowed the teacher to build in a small group seminar designed to provide more time for listening and speaking. It was moderately successful overall, but very effective - and fun to be learning - “when the content involved an issue which concerned them
  1. Early contracting

Even with such changes, the French teacher felt that there was “still no fundamental change in the class structure and hierarchy system … it was still the teacher who held the power and control in matters of attendance, curriculum and grading”, leaving some students unchallenged, bored or held back. So she experimented with several alternative strategies, one of particular note was an inter-departmental approach for English and French, selected by the students themselves.
  1. Emerging values

There were pitfalls and potentials in freeing students to learn - so how best to maximise the potentials? She asked herself the question: “How does one meet all the different needs of all these different students so they are using both their scheduled in-class time and free time creatively and uniquely?” And the answer - especially after just having read Freedom to Learn - was to make all the best features of the partially individualised approach a permanent part of the structure of the class.
  1. Selecting a class

Based on her knowledge of the groups, she chose one which had the widest cross-section of potential.
  1. The free learners

She called this group the ‘free learners’, a third year French class of 28 students who ranged from “very motivated, sophisticated and good-willed people, to not so…” However, the French teacher relates that she was “Still afraid of the risk, hesitant, procrastinating” and so did not begin to make changes immediately.
  1. Hesitant steps

She began - hesitantly - to “de-structure” the class in earnest with a new, “rather highly structured” unit - which she acknowledges would have been more successful if the students themselves had initiated it. Indeed, the unit was discouraging  to students and teacher both, so that the teacher “became even more resistant to freeing them to learn their own way.” Yet… “this very crisis acted as the final push that helped me to plunge in with them into a turbulent and buoyant sea of change.”
  1. Researching and self-searching

She began by working for weeks with the students, using a series of preference sheets, to find out what would renew their interest, compiling an extensive set of audio-visual resources which became known as ‘the cart’ - “a moveable book cart and overhead projector overflowing with records, tapes, and books from which groups or individuals were to select their initial project when the spring semester began.”
  1. The project

A number of solutions were developed in order to manage the changes resulting from this totally individualised approach to the learning - or unlearning - process:

1. Personal aspects of the change

Informal groups or class meetings, dealing with:
  1. the problems and opportunities involved in this approach
  2. the responsibilities to oneself and others
  3. confronting the frustrations as they appeared and not allowing feelings to build up
  4. handling feelings of great expectations with an individualised programme and the possible disappointments and sense of failure when goals changed or did not materialise.

2. Ongoing logistical problems

Creative solutions were required to:
  1. the mechanics of developing a personal contract
  2. choice in selecting a project
  3. use of time
  4. keeping accurate records of one’s work progress and a record of newly learned materials
  5. being responsible to turn in materials when completed and deciding when one was ready to take tests on work done, perhaps developing these tests from one’s unit for oneself or other group members
  6. selecting new goals as one project was completed
  7. altering goals and/or demanding more work from the ‘cart’ or elsewhere
“The underlying theme in all of the above was personal and shared responsibility for constant movement and change.”

3. Evaluation (self-evaluation)

The adjustment here involved learning to look inward for signs of progress and growth and not through peer comparison or teacher evaluation alone. There was a high level of resistance to this, which was not surprising: “the evaluating responsibility is a difficult one for teachers to abdicate and for students to assume after years of conditioning.” However, it was vital to make this shift.

4. The creative chaos of free learning

The French teacher outlines the “frustrating and humourous” realities of the physical situation itself - “all that seeming chaos” - the spirit of which is captured perfectly in the final paragraph in this section:
“The physical, philosophical, logistical and emotional factors were ever present. It was not an easy change for the students or for me. It was an exciting one, for there was a vitality and aliveness present through it all. We never knew if that vitality would take the form of guilt, anger and blame, or jubilance and joy at the discovery or accomplishment of the moment. It was an electric time.”
  1. Doubts in the community

The French teacher then explores the question “what did students really learn that we can measure?” and describes two events which impacted the project approach.
First, a vocal minority in the local community were questioning the freedom of students in the new flexible schedule - with the result, for the class, that an esprit de corps developed and intensified as part of the highly engaged student response, often taking place in seminars, and in French.
Secondly, the teacher’s health had deteriorated, meaning that replacement teachers were having to facilitate the free learners - sometimes quite a shock for the substitutes. However, the students were in charge, they reassured the substitutes, maintained responsibility for their learning and for cart resource maintenance and established lines of communication with the unwell teacher, including deep concern and support for her. The French teacher ends this section by saying: “During this period, I believe they felt a responsibility and freedom rarely experienced in the normal classroom situation - a choice to goof off and/or grow as they felt inclined, and to reap the appropriate harvest.”
  1. Fruits off the cart

On her return to health and school, she was fearful as to the true merit of the joint project - however, she was astonished by the results of the creative individual and group efforts, which she relates as the "collected examples of such growth - work and play and learning."
  1. Comparative facts

Compared to a similar period of time, the amount of work carried out by most students in the new class arrangements far outstripped that of a 'normal' class.
  1. Evaluations

Written evaluations at the end of school year reported some negatives:
  1. less individual productivity due to teacher absence - a plea for more directivity
  2. some inaccurate learning - mis-translations - took place when students did not check with teacher or with a dictionary
  3. a desire for a more rigid system of deadlines (old conditioning working well)
  4. poor goal-setting leading to work below ability level
  5. desire for more oral work
  6. worry about not having learned 'traditionally enough' to prepare for demanding college work
However, positives were frequently expressed as excitement, involvement, renewed interest or intensified interest in French, good feelings about group cooperativeness, the removal of fear about tests and the warm, relaxed feelings in class.
The teacher's own conclusions:
  1. Learning does not only occur in the classroom, but anywhere and everywhere
  2. The teacher is also a learner and both students and teacher can become comfortable and pleased with the teacher saying "I don't know"
  3. The free learning context makes open ways of relating easier, leading to changes in personal growth and in interpersonal relationships among students and between student and teacher.
  1. Old fears

Questions such as:
  • Have they learned as much as they would have with a traditional method?
  • Will they do well on those ever present, and important, achievement tests?
Outweighed questions such as:
  • Will they learn values and ideals needed for their own worth?
  • Will they become free learners?
  • Will they concern themselves with humanity's needs?
In order to address the first two questions, fast grammar review sessions were provided - and students did very well in the tests. However, this may not have been related to the new way of learning, as when the teacher asked the class why they had done so well, one person commented: "What difference does it make? You always study for the final week before - then forget everything the next day. So we did the same thing this time. The only difference was we did a lot more interesting things all year long too."
  1. Some conclusions

The following are a summary of the French teacher's strongly held major beliefs held years after initiating the programme (which she acknowledges closely resemble those stated by Rogers in Freedom to Learn):
  1. the curriculum can be self-selected by the student
  2. self-test, self-evaluation, self-set goals are valid
  3. frequent - cooperative - evaluation of the effectiveness of the programme can occur
  4. this requires small group/encounter sessions which might be highly charged
  5. change is not failure, but self-selected re-routing of direction and growth
  6. cooperation rather than competition
  7. grades can be based on individual expectations and will differ greatly
  8. varying amounts of time will be put in by different students
  9. students can be involved at every level possible in designing curriculum or selecting materials and approaches to achieve their goals
  10. language learning is fundamentally a cultural and oral communicative tool
  11. student self-selected topics are therefore the most appropriate and satisfying content for conversation seminars
  12. values and beliefs regarding the human condition can be integral to the study of literature and grammar.
  1. Doing it your way

“All that is needed is one’s courage, one’s students, and one’s commitment to trust the human ability to discover one’s self. It is then we begin to become more of what we really are - free excited learners and growers.”
  1. Postscript

The teacher receives letters and visits years later from students who shared these experiences, reassuring her that “the problems encountered and the opportunities offered during that time helped these young people to become more competent decision-makers and very importantly, open, risking adults, affirming their person-hood.”

Comments (from Carl Rogers)

Rogers underscores some of the important elements:
  1. changes were made by small, risky, steps at first, followed by greater and more pervasive innovation in permitting students to take responsibility. It is a gradual growth process, involving both the teacher and the students.
  2. the underlying philosophy is the important thing - belief in the potentiality of each student
  3. this kind of learning process demands a teacher who is continually growing, open in her feelings and who cares for her students
“It is exciting to see how both teacher and students, though focused on learning a particular subject matter - French - can also learn and grow in personal responsibility, in openness of communication, in an increased sense of self worth, in creativity, and in warm interpersonal relationships.”


  1. Yeah, I know - it's the nub of the dilemma (do dilemmas have nubs? I think if they don't they should. Traditionally, I think they have horns, but do dilemmas always have to be sharp in nature?). When Carl says "All we need..." he misses the fact of the bureaucratic and anti-person institutions in which this revolution must happen and which prevents a truly person-centred education. He does acknowledge this later in the book - I think its the central concern of Freedom to Learn for the 21st Century...

  2. I feel somewhat in transition atm. I have been here many times in my life, it isn't only the contents of cupboards that get the old heave ho with me, ideas/beliefs etc that have meant a lot at one time have also been bonfired over the decades and I feel a bonfire coming on .... Your response above Billy evokes something of what is going on as did reading some of the Heidegger who I feel is v Dogen Zennish in a way. (Don't imagine I know what I am talking about, just think "most of what I say is meaningless" :O) ) I seem to read more and more that those who have thought that "All we need" are now waking up to the FACT that WE are not in control here. What is emerging is SO MUCH GREATER than our efforts to turn the juggernaut of progress and profit etc around. Perhaps revolutions always HAPPEN out-side what has been as the anti-institution persons find new ways of being

  3. I think you're right about Heidegger's thinking - he does seem to take agency away from us, and yes, perhaps we are not in control, perhaps he's right, he certainly is convincing, it feels real when I engage with him and you seem to have experienced something of that, too?

    All we need all we need all we need all we need, the they are always out there with their all we needs, and all I know is what those Beatles knew: All We Need is Love. And how fucking insane that we STILL need a revolution even for that simple truth. So, set fire, Kat, set fire! Burn the deadwood, give the world some warmth!


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