Our Schools are Always Open

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Interview with José Pacheco. In Portugal, Jose Pacheco, age 63, is a symbol for alternative education.

The short, gray-haired man with a squint and a mustache looks like your nice teacher from a picture book. Yet his words are radical: “Today, people of the 21st century are educated by teachers of the 20th century with the methods of the 19th century.”
In his opinion, age-based classes, exams or certificates have neither any scientific nor a legal basis. Above all, he knows: It can be done very differently. 
Almost forty years ago, as a young teacher, together with two colleagues he began to reform a state run school, step by step. Thus, near the city of Porto the “Escola da Ponte” was created (English: School of the Bridge), a flagship project and a reference for free schools worldwide. Ten years ago he moved to Brazil where he created a network of alternative schools.

Based on which personal experiences did you campaign for the establishment of a new school?

Pacheco: “I grew up in a poor family in Porto during the Portuguese military dictatorship. My mother died from exhaustion, my father was thrown into prison by the PIDE. Early on I learned that only radical thinking can bring forth change. I became a teacher, but in the state school system I could only last a single year. Like any teacher, I could not be happy, if only one of my students did not make progress. I always asked myself: Why was this happening? Finally I realized that it was me. A teacher who knows everything and learns nothing, can not teach. Today I know that a characteristic of a good teacher is to be incomplete.”

The foundation of the Escola da Ponte happened shortly after the Carnation Revolution. How did it come about?

“After the revolution, many new ideas seeped into Portugal, it was a very lively intellectual climate. For founding the school, we were especially inspired by the liberation pedagogue Paulo Freire from Brazil, but also by Krishnamurti and others. The Escola da Ponte is a state run school, at this particular time such a radical approach was still possible within the existing system. We started out with 185 students and three teachers, supported by many volunteers. Instead of classes, project groups arose, coached by teachers and laymen. Much of the actual education took place outside the school, wherever the students’ curiosity drew them. The students would find people who would demonstrate something for them and answer their inquiries. Thus the whole community became teachers: factory workers, craftsmen, beggars and housewives.”

In 2004, you have been awarded the Ordem da Instrução Pública, a type of Portuguese Order of Merit, but immediately afterwards you left the country for Brazil to advance your basic approaches. How far did you get there?

“In Brazil there is a lot more freedom. By now I have established a network of 50 schools and 2,500 teachers and laypeople there. Also there, we face great challenges. There are 4 million children who do not go to school, street children in slums, which are treated as disposable products, who have never experienced respect. They all respond positively to our offers for learning. While public schools are secured with high walls and electronic gates, our schools are always open, 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. There is no reason for them to have time off – a hospital also does not take holidays, nor does curiosity and the desire to learn. Such a thing is possible in Brazil, because the municipalities have the autonomy and freedom to build the school that best fits their requirements.”

What is the underlying idea of an alternative school? 

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Every student is a unique being, in community with other unique beings. When children are treated this way and respected, they learn everything very quickly. If a student does not want to learn, he is either sick or the school is sick.”

What is the role of the teacher?

“A teacher who faces a class alone is lost – and tries to hide his loneliness and his fear behind strictness or behind the demands of the curriculum. Teachers are not there to pass on ready made text book knowledge to the children, but to awaken their questions and then to show them where and how they then can obtain answers. This way cross-curricular tuition projects emerged that follow the wishes and the enthusiasm of the children. Once again: The teacher should not start any projects or make any plans. The starting point of the lesson is the activity of the student. The teacher helps him to transform information into knowledge.”

Do you follow a curriculum?

“If we follow a fixed curriculum, we lose the ability to listen. But there is a individual curriculum inherent in all children which they follow with love and enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is the secret of truly effective learning. With every question that we take seriously and do not fend off immediately with a ready made answer, we have an entry gate to all school subjects, from geography via history to economics and even botany – eg why do I live in a favela, how do favelas come about in the first place? But the teacher should not give the answers. The children head out, do research and ask all sorts of people until they unearth a knowledge that no teacher could have told them, and is not found in any textbook. However, the teacher can show them, how they can communicate the knowledge, use it, evaluate it, and put it into action.”

What role does the muncipality have in which the school is located? 



“In my opinion the school belongs to the municipality. The municipality should be granted autonomy regarding education – but within the network and with other schools in the country and the educational authorities. Autonomy means to know what you are doing and why you are doing it. In my opinion no state has the right to force a municipality to do something that is contrary to the welfare of their children. If a law does not allow change, we’ll have to change the laws. Every community is different, and so every school is different. The boundaries between school and community need to disappear. In a favela, the children of one of our schools mobilized neighbors, friends, and families to organize the cleaning, waste disposal and construction of playgrounds in their quarter. What children learn in such an activity is interdisciplinary and directly from life. They learn about civil rights and citizen participation not from books and homework, but by actually doing it – and that they will never forget.”

What to do if a child shows no curiosity?

“For me there is the limit of anti-authoritarian education. When children are damaged and their curiosity has been stifled, sometimes the teacher has to intervene and rekindle it with questions: What do you want? This is only possible with respect and contact. The quality of learning corresponds with the quality of the relationship that exists between teacher and student. ”

In a district like Odemira where there are many hamlets, with only a single child and where many schools are closed for lack of pupils… What would you do?

“No school should be further away than 2 or 3 km, so that a child can walk or cycle home any time, on its own. Homeschooling is not an option in my eyes, because a child needs social contacts and friendships with other children. No law says, however, that a child would have to go school every day. Learning can take place anywhere, on the farm, in the bakery, in the factory. Each community has the competence to teach children and respond to their questions. Instead of the expensive centralized schools, I propose to form small groups of children who are accompanied by laymen – that may be parents, unemployed people, retirees or volunteers – with their questions and projects. Once a week they will go to school and report on their findings and projects. There they find more working and learning resources, and teachers that can help them further. ”

You call the school system inflexible. How can a change happen nonetheless? 


“Just as all children can learn, all adults can learn to learn. There will be only a few teachers at the beginning that are ready for a change. Many will say: I only learned lecturing, nothing else. Yet, if a teacher in all modesty decides to change, everything around him will change too. However, the trigger for the change has to come from parents’ initiatives. Parents who are seriously concerned can encourage the emergence of prototypes for new schools. There you will practically experience, what is successful and what not. Success will attract other teachers, and in this way the model will spread and, in the course of time, this will lead to a change of policy. Of course, we also have to learn to communicate with representatives of the state. We should never start a project in which the regional authorities are not represented. Or someone from the university, as they can learn a lot in the new school projects.
Important is the interconnectedness of the new schools. Each school is different, that’s a fact, but there are also similarities. We intend to summarize those in a chart of common principles. They will represent a new image of the society. Concrete school models, networking, dialogue with the representatives of the systems, and theory formation for the new, are what I perceive as the way of change.”

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