“May peace, goodness and the good be your daily companions on the path of this celebration that is life!” Walter Steuer – Founder of Projeto Âncora
It is by this sentence, highlighted on a large poster, that we were greeted at the entrance of Projeto Âncora, in Cotia (São Paulo). Immediately our gaze was attracted by a large, colorful circus tent in the central part of a beautiful wooded lot. Inside the tent we could see children doing their acrobatics with wide smiles on their faces at 9am on a Tuesday.
“The circus is the heart of Projeto Âncora. This is where everything happens,” explained one of the students during the guided tour of the school. Yes, Projeto Âncora is a school. And yes, it is the students who guide the visits and introduce the school to the curious visitors.
Though it was founded in 1995 as an organization focused on extracurricular learning, since 2011 Projeto Âncora has been functioning as an elementary, middle, and high school. Still, right from the start you can tell that this is not just any school. The innovative pedagogical proposal of the project is to take any adult out of their comfort zone (usually a good sign that the school is innovating).
Designed with the help of educator José Pacheco and inspired by the Escola da Ponte in Portugal, the educational proposal of the project focuses on the development of autonomy – learners and educators – and of valuing learning through relationships. Crystallized structures of formal education are set aside, opening space for new ways of learning and freeing staff time for an individualized and careful look at the students. Here there is no division of students into age-based classes, no test evaluation of students, nor organization of classrooms in lined chairs, nor division of classes by disciplines. We are forced to set aside our automatism, our norms, our insecurities, to perceive the subtleties of a new way of learning that comes forth when we take away what no longer serves us.
At Projeto Âncora everything is at the service of education, from shopping for materials to the organization of visits, everything is done with the participation of the students and everything is seen as a learning opportunity. “No bureaucracy should overtake education – either it is in the service of learning or it does not work,” says the project director (who according to her, only holds the position of director in order to fulfill certain legal requirements, because at Projeto Âncora, nothing differentiates the director from all other educators in practice).
In this environment, for example, a conflict between two students in the hallway should not be promptly interrupted by disciplinary action, but welcomed as a learning opportunity, where conflict is resolved with a lot of dialogue and can generate opportunities for study. The management of the spaces and projects of the school is not be managed by the school team, but rather be led by a working group that also involves learners in the decision and management process.
Students learn how to plan their routine on a day to day basis according to their interests. The organization and planning of time and space is an important pillar of learning at the school, and autonomy is gained in a gradual way, according to the individual rhythm of each child. Once the child has gained ability, they become responsible for organizing their own time in school, with enough freedom to do the activities that are of deepest interest, while also being guided by the educators. The child will study what they are interested in studying (from gastronomy to finance) and in the way they are interested in studying (under a tree, inside a room, outside the school). The learning of different traditional disciplines such as math, geography, history, etc. takes place transversally to these other subjects, allowing the fulfillment of the national curricular guidelines.
The educational philosophy is full of simple devices that are beautiful, loving and committed to truly facilitating a learning process. You can learn more about them at this link or by planning a visit to see for yourself, so I will not go into these details in this text. I would like to share two reflections that accompanied me during the visit: 1) how this environment facilitates and stimulates children’s internal listening, 2) how these devices and innovations can be brought to the millions of children in the public education system.
1) HOW DOES THIS ENVIRONMENT FACILITATE AND STIMULATE THE CHILDREN’S LISTENING TO WHAT IS INSIDE?
“What is your dream?”, “What do you like?”, “What do you want to do most right now?” These are questions that it often takes us a long time to integrate into our lives, and it isn’t hard to understand why – we adults are often paralyzed without answers when we hear these questions. Listening to our inner voice that can help us answer these questions is a lifelong challenge, even more so for those of us who spent the first decade of our lives without this practice. The reality is that we often do not look at what we dream of, how we function, what stops us, what drives us.
It was this that most intrigued me about Âncora. It seemed to me it would be a very big challenge to put these questions to students of so few years of life. The children of the project are encouraged from an early age to be autonomous, designing their plans for the day, for study and for life. And can you plan your life or the day without knowing yourself?
Beyond autonomy, for me the great value of this pedagogical proposal is the constant, daily practice of internal listening that these human beings develop so early in life. With this stimulation and this space in childhood, it becomes possible to imagine the naturalness with which this careful listening to our inner selves can happen throughout life. For me, there is the great contribution of this model of education to society. All external conflicts are born of internal conflicts, often repressed and ignored. A person who listens and welcomes his inner issues from childhood will almost certainly have a different kind of relationship with himself and the external world, and it is these new relationships that will allow a less unequal, violent and conflict-filled society.
It is beautiful to see how easily the children at Âncora talk about themselves. They don’t need a specific, designated moment of self-reflection because this practice permeates their school routine: with horizontal dialogue, self evaluation, participation, autonomy, and a healthy dose of respect and love.
2) HOW CAN WE BRING THESE LESSONS TO LARGE PUBLIC SYSTEMS?
Projeto Âncora is visited by hundreds of public and private school educators who are curious about the innovative pedagogical approach and are challenged to rethink their own classroom routines.
The proposal is so daring in its practices that it can often discourage those who are accustomed the day-to-day life of “traditional” schools, public or private, because it seems so distant from their realities. When the change we see in front of us is too great, we can be paralyzed or feel that we are stagnant in our comfort zones.
Changing the educational proposal of the school in an integral way is a work of great energy, commitment of the team, patience, resilience and love. When the context does not allow for radical change, there are always small practices and small steps that can be taken that will bring benefits and new strategies for classroom relationships and student learning. So here are some simple ideas from Projeto Âncora that can be tested in public (and private!) schools:
- Working groups responsible for things at school: at Projeto Âncora the management of the school is not done by the Director and the Education Coordinator, because every management process and every decision can be used as a pedagogical experience. There are organized work groups in the school, with students and educators, responsible for taking care of the space and academic projects in the school. It’s a great way to broaden students’ sense of responsibility for the school’s physical space, increase family involvement, and decentralize decision-making! In addition, the child is already preparing for “life outside school”.
- Everything is at the service of education: all experiences within the school environment can be used in service of the learning process, but this requires full attention to what is happening and openness to participation. For example, a conflict between two students in the hallway, rather than being interrupted and solved in the boardroom, can open space for dialogue, a conversation wheel, a new project. A process of reforming a school space, instead of being resolved by the board, can be shared with the children so they learn about a process that can include concepts of math, history, arts, and so on.
- Self-evaluation: At Projeto Âncora, students are never evaluated exclusively by educators. Each child is responsible for their self-assessment and there must always be conversation that includes different perceptions. This exercise allows the student to develop skills of self-observation, critical thinking, commitment, and create a horizontal relationship of trust and respect with the educator.
- Project learning: even if conventional disciplines are maintained, it is possible to open space for children to choose topics of their interest to work on interdisciplinary projects that go beyond the classroom and school. An example from Projeto Âncora is an exchange program where students are creating a plan to do an exchange with the Tamera community in Portugal. For this, they have already learned about geography, culture, history, languages and so on. And it goes without saying to say that they are incredibly excited about their studies.
- Shared values: Projeto Âncora has five fundamental values that guide the relationships in the school – Respect, Solidarity, Affection, Honesty, Responsibility – and that are at the tip of the tongue and in the practices of all learners and educators. The team came to these values through a deep listening group exercise, the point of which was to identify and conceptualize what values united them. What values guide your school? What unites people in that space? Discussing and defining this can be a very rich process of learning and building a welcoming space for learning, as well as providing children with an ethical foundation that they can take with them throughout a lifetime.
These are some of the countless ideas that can be taken to any school. While we have structural challenges that can slow innovation and potentially slow the development a new model of large-scale education, we are fortunate to have seeds of examples, such as Projeto Âncora, that allow us to reimagine what school can be everyday through small practices. Let us not miss this opportunity, because it is the small steps that make up the long journeys.
COLLABORATE WITH PROJETO ÂNCORA FOR A NEW EDUCATION, FOR NEW RELATIONS, FOR A NEW HUMAN BEING!
And to conclude, as a thank you to Projeto Âncora for the visit and for the courage to exist and to reinvent itself in the face of so many challenges and doubts, I would like to invite you to help the project! We need initiatives such as these to strengthen and continue, as they are seeds of a much-needed change in our society. As you can imagine, running a school like this is already a ideological and pedagogical challenge – imagine the financial challenges.
For those who felt inspired by the initiative, at this link you will find several ways to collaborate.
Anyone who wants to specifically help the school’s youth exchange project can also do this through this link.
Let’s continue to be inspired!