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IDEC in Korea

Jerry Mintz
Jerry Mintz

by Jerry Mintz

Last week I attended my 18th International Democratic Education Conference out of the 20 official ones that have been held.  I was at the first was in Israel in 1993. It was organized by Yaacov Hecht, who couldn’t attend this one because of the crisis there, but Skyped in his talk.
As I said in the last e news, we often locate the IDEC to support democratic education in the country that hosts it, sometimes in a crisis.
This year we have such a situation in Korea. There are an estimated 200-300 democratic schools in Korea, but most of them are considered illegal and are not registered. The minority of schools that are registered and approved have run into problems with the education bureaucracy trying the control and change them. Now the government wants them all to register, but with no assurance that they will be able to continue being freedom-based democratic schools. A legislator has put forth a proposed law to control or close the schools.
In my first two days in Korea I had a home-stay with a wonderful family whose two children go to an unregistered democratic school that is near the conference site, which was in the city of GwangMyeong, about an hour’s drive from Seoul. They said I was the first westerner to stay at their home. I had a nice time with them and loved the Korean food. It took me a bit to adjust to the typical Korean bed which is a wooden platform covered by a futon-type blanket. I gave the children a table tennis lesson in a club located beneath the large auditorium that housed the IDEC. All of it is municipal, because the city was a sponsor of the conference, gave them the use of the facility, and even paid for students and teachers to attend from Nepal and Myanmar, among other places. At least 18 countries were represented at the IDEC.
I went with the family to visit their school, although it was not is session.
Before coming to Korea I was skeptical that there could be true democratic schools on Korea, since its basic educational system known to be so rigid, with tiger-moms hovering over children, who go to cram school until as late as 10 PM. But it turns out that because of that very rigidity, hundreds of independent democratic schools have sprung up all over the country. And most of them are truly democratic and learner-centered because of the fact that they are unregistered and unregulated. They are funded on the belief that children are natural learners and that learning should be based on the interest of the child.
This IDEC conference was scheduled for eight days, ending the following Sunday! The reason the conferences are so long is to create real international community, the idea of the teenaged girls who set the precedent as they organized the IDEC in England in 1997. After a great opening ceremony in the evening, the conference started in earnest on Monday.
Chris Mercogliano was the first keynote speaker. Chris was the director of Albany Free School for over 30 years and has written several books. His most recent, A School Must Have a Heart, has been translated into Korean, and Chris’s Korean publisher had arranged a tour for him in which he sold hundreds of books. This publisher has been translating books relating to learner-centered education for 20 years and is a key to the proliferation of the democratic schools movement in Korea.
The most moving part of Chris’s talk was when he referred to the recent ferry disaster in which hundreds of students died. When the ship began to sink, the children were told to return to their rooms. The ones who followed those orders died, 70% of them. The ones who rejected those orders and followed their instincts, lived. His point, in reference to learner-centered education and decision-making, was obvious. He noted out that the same thing happened in the World Trade bombing. People were told to stay put. My mother’s friend’s son was on the fiftieth floor of the World Trade Center when it was hit. He had been there several years earlier when it was hit by a truck bomb. When told to stay put he told everyone on their floor to leave immediately. They lived.
After that there was the first set of open-space workshops. Dozens were offered every day. In the afternoon I did the second keynote. To start with I brought ten children on the stage, 8 or 9 year olds from a democratic school. I demonstrated what I call “organic curriculum,” asked them, through a translator, to think of any question they were curious about. After that we voted on the ones with the most interest to start with. The first was “Why were democratic schools started?” The students came up with many interesting reasons, including regular school problems with bullying, boring classes, etc. Then one girl was asked why her question was “Am I human?” She broke down in tears and said that in her previous school she was teased and called “pig.”
After my talk and the questions, one mother came up to me and asked, “How can I be sure they are learning?” I pointed out to her that all of us who were raised in traditional schools need to fight our programming that doubts that children are natural learners. Even I get shocked all the time at the power of democratic meetings and the learner-centered approach.
Of course they had a ping-pong table there and I managed to teach about 30 people during the conference. One reason I like teaching table tennis is that it’s a way people can become confident as learners in a way that is non-academic.
One day I did a workshop for school starters. There were people interested in starting schools on all levels, from kindergarten through college.  Incidentally, our School Starters Course will start in late September. It is limited to 25 participants but still has openings.
One my last full day in Korea we were brought to Seoul to participate in a public demonstration and press conference protesting the proposed legislation to force the democratic schools to register with the government. Many attendees made the trip there and stood behind a big protest sign. It opened with two students rapping in Korean about the situation. Precision drummers followed. Then those of us representing countries and international networks were asked to speak in support of the schools. The top television network and many from major print media covered the event. We always try to get this kind of attention, but this was about the best I’ve seen. It was on the national news and in major newspapers.
The father in the family I stayed with emailed me a rough translation of my quote in the newspaper:
"I was surprised to see the achievements and development of Korean Democratic education. I would like to request the Korean Education authority to support these schools and learn more about democratic schools instead of trying to control and regulate them."
The article went on to mention that Chloe Duff, coordinator of the European Democratic Education Community said the EUDEC, to be held next week, will discuss the Korean democratic education situation and propose measures to support the alternative schools in their fight against the change in Korean government policy.
It also mentioned that the foreign participants from 18 countries attending on IDEC 2014 issued a statement in a press conference on 31 July, 2014, in Seoul.
"We, the global democratic education community are against Korean government policy of trying to control democratic schools.”
On my last evening in Korea I participated in a panel on legislation and government regulation. Fellow panelists included Henry Readhead of Summerhill School in England, grandson of Summerhill founder A.S. Neill, Kageki Asakura of Tokyo Shure in Japan, Cecelia Bradley of the Australasian Association for Progressive and Alternative Education, Heechang Yang, ex-principal of the democratic Gandhi School in Korea, moderated by IDEC coordinator Taewook Ha, a key pioneer in Korean democratic education. Among other things, Henry talked about the fight that Summerhill School won against the English education bureaucracy in the late “90’s. The IDEC met at Summerhill school in 1999. We hope this IDEC will have a similarly supporting effect for Korean democratic schools.