Sean took a risk in 1987 and decided to open a school run on a new set of principles – those of ‘democratic education’. Starting with fourteen teenagers, Sean established Sands, a school where the rules are decided collectively, there is no uniform, all the staff are paid the same, and everyone is on first-name terms. No adult has a power of veto, and everyone participates in running the school and doing chores. Over time, six hundred students have passed through Sands, most of them mavericks and those failed by bigger schools.
Sean’s teaching approach follows a concept he calls ‘aesthetic learning’. Based on relationships, confidence and trust, he builds learning around an emotional connection to the material using debate, questioning and a range of media. His overall goal is get his students to think, so they can understand themselves and be creative, empathic and critical. Democratic education entails that students learn in and outside the classroom about what it means to be a global citizen and the responsibilities we have toward one another.
The school receives many visitors who are fascinated by how it works, especially young teachers. The South Korean Ministry of Education has consulted Sean on how to educate their youth in more mentally healthy ways. He is now working with a professor of psychology at Seoul University to design research into democratic schooling and emotional intelligence.
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