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What is the Structure of Freedom?

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I started this article with an assumption that freedom is a shared value for all of my readers, that we would all take it for granted that freedom (particularly for adults, but possibly for everyone) is a prerequisite for thriving.

But before I dive into the question that makes up the title of this article, I want to try to get on the same page about this idea.

Miki Kashtan first described power to me as “the ability to gather (and access) resources to attend to needs.” I guess, then, that freedom is unhindered access to that power, and choice in how one uses it.

When we are free and have the requisite skills, we have much greater access to what is called self-connection, an understanding of our own feelings and needs in any given situation. And when this happens, we have access to sanity, clarity, efficiency (my favorite), joy, fulfillment… and all the rest of those lofty goals we see marketed to us every day.

But freedom is such a slippery, abstract idea. How can we think about freedom in a grounded way?

In six words, what is the structure of freedom?

The question almost seems like a paradox: how can freedom have structure? In fact, “structuring” freedom reeks of philosopher monarchs telling their subjects what to do and well-intentioned adults instructing children how to behave. While telling them that they are, in fact, free.

Obviously, that’s not what I’m going for. But I’ve grappled with this question consulting and visiting a variety of gifted and 2e schools.

How can we create a culture of freedom in such a structured environment as school?

I believe it can be done. I have to. And it starts with buy-in.

Frequently at meetings, when colleagues propose actions that would impact the children, I ask “In the name of what needs?” All too often, there is an insufficient assessment and the lack of a profile of needs, longings, and hopes that could increase buy-in from all involved.

Requests, both for connection and solutions, are best delivered upon a foundation of shared understanding at the needs level. One concrete strategy is to include all stakeholders, including children, in meetings that plan how they will spend their time.

There is precedent for this in many school districts’ special education departments having Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings with the kids present, as well as in mental health agencies offering “wraparound services”.

You can either let kids be fully heard about their hopes and levels of willingness, or they will use some combination of passive and active aggression in the classroom to speak louder to the same needs.

Bob Yamtich 10-7-15 (2)

If the kid can speak up before that happens, at the planning time (although all moments are moments of choice), then they are more accountable for their own choices about production and honoring agreements.  If they are presented with a pre-packaged curriculum, any medium-high functioning educator can subtly undermine their voice by pushing an agenda they had no say in.

To propose that their expressed needs are every bit as important as those of the adults also increases self-responsibility, and is consistent with progress in many domains (including civility, ingenuity, and perseverance).

Honoring the needs, first by hearing them, is one key step in structuring freedom. I’d love to hear in the comments below strategies you have used to help children express their true hopes and longings.

{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Kim October 8, 2015, 2:02 pm

    Exactly, we were just talking about this in our family. We were talking about balancing the need for autonomy with security at school. My daughter had a very different view on this than her grandmother, a retired 4th grade teacher. While both views made sense, the assessment of needs certainly brings a lens of clarity to an otherwise emotionally fraught debate. Thanks as always for bringing greater understanding to these complicated ideas!

    • byamtich October 9, 2015, 12:06 pm

      Thanks for your comment! I’m so glad that paying attention to the needs involved increased clarity and cooperation.

  • Paula Prober October 8, 2015, 3:22 pm

    I’d love to hear how this idea works in your school setting Bob. Some future posts on how you implement this with kids. And other posts on what you’re learning in your new job.

    • Bob Yamtich October 9, 2015, 8:14 am

      Yes! I am certainly in a position to continue developing best practices and learning about implementation. Just this morning, I came up with a “Pre-Argument Template” to help kids be choiceful about how they use their thought minutes. I consistently appreciate your encouragement and interest. There is so much work to do!

  • Pamelia Anne October 10, 2015, 9:42 am

    Thank you for the very insightful article. I home school my gifted twins that are in Grade 7 now, and for 4 years we have tried two different programs. We stayed two years with the very “boxed” school at home structure, and now are with the more child lead learning “hack schooling” as one young Tedtalk speaker calls it. I struggle with the boys input because when we do sit to discuss their freedom in choosing direction, they cannot even begin to help give me ideas! They are competitive freestyle skiers and they just want to train and grow as athletes and get the academics done as quickly as possible. Would love to hear more on how I can get them to explore their special, incredible talents in science and math!

    • byamtich October 10, 2015, 11:49 am

      Freestyle skiing sounds like science and math to me. Following their lead, and their passions, you could ask them to follow through on prompts. Start with physics. Chart the position and velocity in both the horizontal and vertical components. Is there any aspect of their work that measurement would help with? If there were to be an additive to your skis, like wax but more relevant, and it only lasted for 3 minutes, …

      All I assess is if everybody involved is having fun.

  • Jade Rivera October 12, 2015, 3:41 pm

    When I read this I was flooded with memories of meetings with you. Good times, buddy. I’m glad you’re out there, sticking up for everyone’s needs.

  • Nikki Linn October 14, 2015, 11:18 am

    I wholeheartedly agree with you! I like to brainstorm aloud and encourage my girls to agree/disagree respectfully with my thoughts. I ask them if they think my ideas meet their needs, and if not, what are their ideas? We have excellent discussions and usually come to mutually agreeable decisions. I hope that encouraging these debates from a young age will lead to them confidently advocate for themselves as they get older. You’ve taught me so much. 🙂

    • byamtich October 15, 2015, 12:00 am

      I’m touched reading this. It sounds like you have a flow of creativity and respect in your family. I’m thinking they will grow up not only confident, but also deft. 🙂

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