Approaching the Elephant, A Close Look at Free Schools

What if we stripped away mandatory classes, course requirements, standardized tests, endless paperwork, seat time, grades, and other predominant structures in our educational system? What if we asked students to learn everything and anything their little hearts desired while we coached and facilitated the process of their individual growth? That’s exactly what one visionary did four years ago in New Jersey.
In 2007, Alex Khost opened the Teddy McArdle Free School, a radical, “free school” that removed all class requirements and asked students to be a part of a democratic voting process. The first day was the beginning of an adventure, social experiment, radical change and revolutionary outlook for its students – and filmmaker Amanda Wilder captured it all on camera.
Wilder, a filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY and the director of the work-in-progress documentary Approaching the Elephant, arrived on campus the first day and continued to go back for two years, endlessly captivated by her subjects.
“Everything was being worked out in the moment. It felt like the beginning of an adventure,” said Wilder. “On that first day, after introductions and an explanation of the basic tenets of the school, it was up to the children what they wanted to do.”

Wilder, who attended mainly conventional public and private schools, experienced her first taste of a free school when she was in fifth grade. Her father, an elementary school teacher interested in progressive schooling models, took her to visit A.S. Neill’s Summerhill School in England.
Summerhill School, which was founded far before its time in 1921, created a learning community for students with a democratic philosophy that gave students a stake in their education like no other school before. Students collectively chose their classes, learning experiences and school rules. While visiting, Wilder was asked to participate with the students at Summerhill School in a free-writing activity.
“I had never done a free write before,” recalled Wilder. “All the kids jumped in, scribbling away, while I sat wondering how to do this assignment correctly. What was the formula? I blanked, and came up with very little. As the kids went around reading their work, I remember feeling impressed and envious of their ability to jump into their own voice and create with almost no guidelines.”
Wilder’s first-hand experience at Summerhill School surfaces a growing problem among students today. Many lack the creative ability and internal drive to express their ideas openly, creatively and critically. We’re entering the age of 21st century skills, focused in critical thinking and problem solving, with a system that teaches students formulaic thinking, multiple choice answers and disengaged learning.

“Without a useful application, the quadratic equation will go in one ear, stay for a short while, and go out the other,” she says. “When self-direction or inner drive are allowed to take hold, that’s a whole other story.”

The students at Summerhill School “radiated confidence, vitality, and ownership – ownership of their school and their lives,” said Wilder. “I had never met kids like this before.”
Schools like Summerhill School and Teddy McArdle Free School take this fundamental problem and seek to fix it with radical change that gives students a voice in learning. This resonated with Wilder, who attended Marlboro College, a progressive college that placed more emphasis on culminating projects for expression of proficiency, growth and knowledge than classes and grades.
Wilder believes that her documentary, which places the audience in the heart of a free school in the United States, showcases the way that personal drive and interest can positively influence learning and education for students.
“Without a useful application, the quadratic equation will go in one ear, stay for a short while, and go out the other,” she says. “When self-direction or inner drive are allowed to take hold, that’s a whole other story.”
Approaching the Elephant explores themes of power, justice, freedom, and democracy in a free school among the lives of 15 children. It asks vital questions about the wants and needs of students, says Wilder, like “What are the rights of children? How do children, if left to their own devices, want to spend their days? What and how do they want to learn? Most generally, what works in terms of education?”
Wilder hopes that in the midst of a current educational system in the United States that continues to fall short on the international stage, this documentary will spark creativity and growth in education by presenting an enormously different way of operating.
“My purpose in making Approaching the Elephant is not to push an agenda,” said Wilder. “I’m not here to tell people what to think. I’m trying to tell a story. The point is to illuminate something unusual that breaks the mold and to leave the rest up to the audience.”
Wilder is currently working to raise $14,500 to complete the production of the documentary with Producer Jay Craven and Editor Kamila Calabrese. The group is accepting donations for Approaching the Elephant on Kickstarter.
For more about Approaching the Elephant, visit

The Teddy McArdle Free School is no longer in operation, but the story is still available to tell. For more information about free schools, take a look at A.S. Neill’s Summerhill School, The Brooklyn Free School and Albany Free School.

Getting Smart Staff

The Getting Smart Staff believes in learning out loud and always being an advocate for things that we are excited about. As a result, we write a lot. Do you have a story we should cover? Email [email protected]

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