Going to Mondragón and Learning Spanish (“Is it important to have a goal?”)

July 14, 2008 at 3:01 pm 3 comments

So, I’ve got some exciting news. If all goes right, and I am able to raise the funds, I will be traveling to Mondragón in Spain. Mondragón is one of the largest worker cooperatives in the world (over 50,000 members!), and through the Praxis Peace organization they are opening their doors to 30 folks from the United States for a series of workshops, tours, and seminars about how they work and how to translate that to our efforts back here in the States. Here’s a really cool map about their work ethos/basic cooperative principles (via Praxis Peace):

Anyway, I’m going to be posting more about my trip to Mondragón and the relationship between workplace democracy and learning-place democracy, but I also want to use this space to chronicle my adventures in free schooling and learning Spanish. When I go to Mondragón, I want to be able to converse with as many people as possible – and I also just think learning Spanish is extremely important in our society (especially when working with social justice). However, this has also lead me to the question: “In free schooling, when learning a subject, is it important to have an end goal?”

I’ve been on the verge of consistently learning Spanish three times in my life. The first was when I went to a preschool that only spoke Spanish during the day (I think the only thing I remembered how to say a year later in Spanish was “can I go to the bathroom?”). The second was when I was still in junior high and I took Spanish during 8th grade (I didn’t learn a thing). The third time was last year when I was (now, coincidentally) doing a study of radical education in Spain while trying to learn Spanish. That was a major success. While researching Francisco Ferrer, the Escuela Moderna (which gave life to the Modern School movement in the United States), and Las Mujeres Libres de España (the Free Women of Spain) – I was learning Spanish, so that I might be able to read some of the primary sources in their original form. It was a phenomenal experience.

To learn Spanish for this study, I wasn’t taking a class. Instead, with a “mentor,” I was trying to figure out ways of inserting Spanish (and thus my need to learn it) into my every day life. I was able to get two (e-mail) pen pals from Spain who wanted to practice their English. Thus, we exchanged letters on an almost daily basis, sharing stories and things about our lives and worlds – all while pointing out errors we made in our last letters and how to correct them. There were other things as well: I kept a journal where whenever I saw something that I didn’t know how to say in Spanish I would write it down and then look it up, I tried to make most of the movies I watched in Spanish (and from Spanish speaking countries), I attempted to only talk to my Spanish speaking friends in Spanish, I tried to write a children’s book about social justice in Spanish, I read many Spanish children’s books from the local library, I plastered parts of my room in Spanish note cards, my mentor would occasionally give me direction and guidance, and more.

Most of this did not take up extra time in my daily life. For a large part, I just readjusted certain aspects of my day-to-day activities in order to immerse myself in the Spanish language. And it worked phenomenally, I made great strides that I had never been able to make before in learning a different language (I had also previously tried to take classes in Italian). I certainly learned some things I wouldn’t have learned just by taking a Spanish class directed by a teacher, and I of course missed other things. But I learned mostly the areas that I had desired to learn in Spanish while researching radical education in Spain – how to speak about social justice and education issues (alongside some general conversational skills).

Now, however, it has been a while since I did this research project. And since the study ended, my efforts spent around learning Spanish dropped almost 100% – and I’ve forgotten large portions of what I’ve learned. Since then, I’ve made two serious attempts to start learning the language again, but those largely failed because I didn’t have a reason to keep on going. Now that I have a goal in mind and a reason to learn Spanish, however, I am once again seeing myself make the serious efforts at changing certain aspects of my life to become surrounded by the language. I’m once again using many of the techniques described above, but now I’m also trying to find letters written to the Prison Book Project (an organization I am a part of) in Spanish – and translating or answering them. I no longer have an access to a mentor, but that means that I should try to converse with my friends and other people I know who speak Spanish more.

My question, then, is in free schooling is it important to have a goal – or a significant reason – to learn a certain topic? In some ways, this seems like the obvious answer to this would be yes. Free schooling, unschooling, homeschooling, and etc. are based around the notion that you should learn what you want to learn, when you want to learn it, and for your reasons and needs. But in larger and more complex areas of learning, such as discovering a new language or physics and so on, can this happen simply because of curiosity and without an end goal? In his book Instead of Education, John Holt argued that we should not focus learning around end-results or final products. I agree with this in the context that we should not design learning as a means to having the students produce something or do something to prove that they have indeed learned something and how much of it they have learned. But this is where I become conflicted: should we encourage (not force or coerce) learners to set goals or reasons that they might want to learn certain topics? With a goal to work towards, are we going to see what we want to learn and how we want to learn better? I think so. But how do we keep this separate from having to prove to some higher power that we have learned something and how much of it we have learned? And how do we keep this goal flexible to our wants and needs?


Entry filed under: General Free Schooling, Learning. Tags: , , , , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lydia  |  July 16, 2008 at 6:57 pm

    Wow, reading that actually made me wish I was home with my spanish notebook. Working on Spanish with you yesterday evening was really fun! I’m glad that this Mondragon trip is super motivating you, because I agree with the conclusion that you came to- for me at least, learning needs a goal. I think that as long as the learner is setting the goal, having one will make whatever one is learning more meaningful, and possibly better remembered. But that’s just me.

    So- what’s the website where you find all your Spanish email pen-pals? I’ve always been super impressed that you do that because I’ve never felt like my Spanish is decent enough to talk to people, even in writing, pero no he intentado ¡y ahora, quiero aprendar más!

  • 2. Brian  |  July 17, 2008 at 4:14 pm

    Two good websites for pen pal exchange are:




  • 3. james otite  |  July 10, 2011 at 2:21 am

    A nice piece of introduction of the subject matter. precise.


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