The following are edited excerpts from
a discussion which John L. Brown had with Browndale teachers and some outside observers
during a visit to Browndale British Columbia in October, 1974
J.B: Approximately one third of the
children who are in residential treatment in Browndale attend community schools. For the ones who are temporarily not able to do that—usually when they first come into the treatment program—we have to set up some alternative program. Our first school, in 1954, was in the home of a school teacher. We had one child in the treatment centre
who couldn't make it in the public school because her impulse control was too weak—she had a tendency to
or poke or hit if somebody got too close to her. A teacher who was at home because she had a young baby said she would prefer to teach the child in her house. So she
got a desk which she put in her kitchen. The child would go over to her house during school hours and sit at the desk and the woman would
teach her what she needed to know in a typical school room fashion, while she was also looking after her house and baby.
Later on, as we began to get more children who needed it, we set up a specialized school program. And as Browndale has expanded we have school
each of the different regions. How they are organized depends a great deal on the person running them. Sometimes they are very much oriented to academics and regular school programs and sometimes they are oriented to relationships, play and fun. And sometimes they teeter back and forth between those two extremes.
Q: Do you have a curriculum guide?
J.B: No. Our philosophy
is that any academic material should be geared to the individual child; that if you wanted to use a model, use a tutorial model; that children are not expected to be at certain levels just because they are a certain age and we don't worry about them learning things in the sequence that is laid down by boards of education. We think there's a
fallacy in the general curriculum attitudes of modern education.
People don't learn in an orderly fashion. They learn in a random fashion depending on
their circumstances, their interest, their receptivity and curiosity.
There used to be a great deal of support in educational circles for the theory that people go from the academically simple to the academically
complex in an orderly fashion; and that people go from the emotionally undemanding to the emotionally demanding in a progressive
orderly fashion. The theory was that if, in teaching, you keep to those two principles— starting with something that's very easy to learn and has no emotional content and going on to that which is hard to learn and has great emotional content—you'll have nothing but success. It was a beautiful theory that somebody invented, but it wasn't true. That isn't how people learn.
If you watch you will see that people learn certain things when they're ready to. The order in which they learn them will depend on many different factors.
The order in
which they become interested in observations is something that is unpredictable. There are certain things that have to be learned before certain
other things can be learned. But how children randomly learn that in nature is something that doesn't have to be that
controlled. You don't have to be too worried
if somebody does it at this age and somebody else does it at that age, provided
they have opportunities to express their curiosity, to explore, to have some freedom of alternative choices around things that they do for play and for fun
and for individual fulfillment. They will find the model for their learning.
My own point of view is that it
really matter that much whether a kid knows how to read or write or do mathematics; or whether he has attained a certain level
of schooling. We grew up in that period when the school was absolutely es.sential
to the productiveness of society. We had to have people who could read and write if we were going to have an industrialized society and the propaganda
was out that reading, writing and arithmetic
were the greatestthings. It was just like motherhood: you could not criticize it; you couldn't condemn it. But that wasn't true. It's
nice to be able to read, but anybody who wants to, will learn quite easily. Kids will learn to read out of the school
system as successfully —and sometimes more successfully—than they will within the school system. We have elaborate school procedures
that teach people to read and write and yet when they get to university many of them can't comprehend what they read; so that we have a very high
ratio of poor performance after twelve years of preparatory education. It doesn't take a kid more than maybe a week to learn to read if he wants to. So in Brown-dale schools
we don't emphasize that. What we emphasize is that it is much more important for the children who come to us, who have been
through all kinds of crap educationally, to have a time when the pressure is off
I say to kids, especially if they're somewhere between 13 and 17, "Don't sweat it. You know if you really knock yourself out and get
an education that will qualify you for a particular job, nine chances out of ten you're going to have to do something different before very long." People who train to be a technician of a certain kind may find that those occupations aren't available by the time they're qualified. Some
people who are very well trained in terms of education and college find it hard
to get a job and have to think about what they are going to do as an alternative to what they have prepared themselves to do. Formal education today doesn't have that much relevance. I like
a child to be able to explore what there is to explore and to manipulate what there is to be manipulated in the universe around him. What I like for him may not be what
he likes for him. But I would say that you shouldn't be pushing academics—reading, writing,
arithmetic—with your adolescent children. Let them tell you what they want to learn and give them a tutor. I don't think it's good for kids to
be pushed around, they get the wrong attitude.
Browndale schools vary a great deal from region to region, but you'd recognize them as Browndale schools if you went in because they have a certain attitude about learning and kids have a lot of fun, usually.
If you think of the learning process in its simplest form, it's a process of taking something
in from outside and making it part of you. If you do that, then you can incorporate
it and make use of it. It's a process in which the communication of the data comes
to you through your sensory modalities and
gets laid down in the grey matter of your brain where it's retained for future recall.
Most people forget the fact that not just the information gets
laid down; the feelings that were present when the information was received get laid down in the grey matter along with the information. So you may have a fact that is very important
for somebody to know, but it's surrounded with so much crap that was part of how that fact
was brought to the person and taken in, that that militates against the fact
being regarded as something of any relevance or usefulness to that person. If the brain
had a mechanism by which it could extract say, mathematical data and store that separately
from the emotional context in which it got that information, and if the relationships
that were experienced at that time could be sorted out and stored in another part of the brain, then there would be no difficulty. But the emotional content gets absorbed along
with the mathematical data and the recall includes all of it. So when we say we're educating
people, we should make sure we're not doing it in a way that will make the data or information unacceptable to them, or unpleasant to recall.
Our Browndale schools tend to range from schools
that prepare children to go into the standard classrooms of primary schools and secondary schools in a very carefully plotted and designed way,
in which there isn't a single bit of curriculum content that anybody could notice, although in fact, they may have a great deal of curriculum content. The most common educational process
used in Browndale
is the project. You start with something that a child is interested in and you pursue from that, or the child's curiosity builds from that, to those things
that the child
needs to know to pursue his interest in his project.
We find our best teachers
are teachers who come from the child care staff .
We've found it very difficult to use professionally trained teachers because part of becoming a teacher is becoming a person who
the structure of the curriculum as it is laid down by the Department of Education. People who are having a hard time following that structure in public schools or secondary schools, may
come in our
schools and be happy with us. But even then it's hard for a teacher who has been trained and has been practicing in the school system to come into our system. We find our
best teachers are teachers who come from the child care staff and we supplement them in most of our schools with the staff of houses who come in with their children, especially the more difficult
Q: Aren't there problems with licensing when you think that way?
J.B: Yes; but we are only just recently getting into those problems because we were looking after children who had been
kicked out of schools, children whom the Department of Education didn't want to be bothered with. So long as somebody
was willing to set up a school to take care of them, as long as the Department of Education didn't get bothered and didn't have to pay for it, they were happy
it that way. But now the Department of Health and Social and Family Services are saying: "That's education and we don't want to pay for it because the Federal
won't give us refunds for the educational component of your program. You're going to have to get the money to run your school from the Department
To get the money from the Department of Education, our schools have to be licensed by that department. When our schools
the department will supply
teachers to supplement our staff. In Ontario, new legislation vests in local
boards of education the authority to fund programs for emotionally disturbed children in local school board districts. In Thunder Bay and Newmarket local boards have opted to do this with Browndale schools
in a beginning way. They're providing a special ed teacher and certain supplies. This holds good promise for the future.
Now, in Michigan, we cannot operate a treatment centre
have a licensed school: and to have a licensed school we have to have a specialist teacher who is trained to deal with emotionally disturbed children. So there we
we'll hire these teachers but they will be there to learn, and we will have child care staff do the teaching in the school program." If the specialist teachers start to work together
child care staff, there's a lot of intermingling of knowledge and insight and they add something to the school. But we don't expect them to run our school. If
it would be like all the traditional special classes for kids that were failing these kids before they came to us.
you have acting out behaviour it is because the child isn't feeling safe.
Q: How is behaviour handled in the Browndale schools?
J.B: We believe that school should not be a place where destructive behaviour is allowed. If you have acting
out behaviour it is because the child isn't feeling safe. You can have a helluva good time, you can have relaxation, you can have fun, but you have
to provide a structure in which the kid feels: "In this place I'm safe. These people will see my impulses don't get out of hand."
Q: How about discipline?
J.B: That's the same story. You get acting out and bizarre behaviour from these children
if you see them
as cases. If you see them as human children who have the same needs as any human child, then you won't get that bizarre behaviour unless you invite it. I get a lot
to talk to teachers of emotionally disturbed children and the first question they ask me is: "How do I control the destructive-ness in my classroom? What do I
do with the children?" I tell them, "Don't do anything with the children; do something with you."
In classrooms where the teacher doesn't want acting out and destructive behaviour, there isn't any. In the classroom where
it, there is. Those teachers may not know, consciously, that
they are encouraging it, but they're giving the messages, they're giving the permission, or they're not setting the proper limits.
What are proper limits? I'll give you a little story to illustrate what I'm talking about. The director of the Haliburton region of Brown-dale in Ontario drove down
to Toronto one day to pick up a nine year old boy who was
being referred to us from a detention home because he was "unmanageable". He'd take off his belt and he'd whip children and staff with it and they felt this was an unmanageable
made arrangements to place him with Browndale and my brother, who Was the Regional Director of Haliburton at that time, came down in his car, by himself,
up this boy. The people who referred the boy were shocked: "You're not going to be able to drive 130 miles
with this boy
unless you have some help", they said. But my brother and the boy drove back by themselves; they stopped for cokes and milk shakes and hamburgers on the way
talked about where they were going and where the boy was coming from and so he had a sense of where he was. They got
to the farm up north, they went into the house and there was a
for the boy there.
One of the kids who was roughly his age took him around the house, showed him his room and introduced him to everyone.
beautifully then, all of a sudden, the boy remembered who he was. In the middle of this festivity, he took off his belt and he
know, I hit people." Well, everybody was kind of embarrassed. The other children were embarrassed for him and the staff didn't know what to say at first— everyone just stood there in stunned embarrassment for a moment. Then one of the staff said, "Well, here you don't have to do that." That was the only time that boy ever manifested
with us and there wasn't even a limit put on it. He simply received the instruction that he didn't have to do it. In an environment in which that kind of behaviour was not invited,
in which he wasn't getting double messages, he stopped hitting people. If you think a disturbed kid who has been locked up in a detention home has to be bizarre in his
behaviour, you can count on him finding a way to be bizarre. But if you don't expect him to behave in a bizarre way he won't.
Q: What happens when children leave this family environment of Browndale and go back into a society that basically doesn't
J.B: But, you see, that's how it is for all of us. We all start off the same way, pretty uncivilized, and
in our contacts with others; by having loving people who care for us set limits for us within the family. That doesn't mean that we have to be in that protected environment forever. It means if we
get enough fundamental caring when we need it, we're able to cope with all kinds of stress afterwards. The same is true with the children who come
How they manage when they're out in the world on their own depends partly on what kind of help they got while they were in Browndale and partly on many other things. It
depends on whether
they are able to receive some kind of support from their own relations and what kinds of circumstances they encounter in their lives, just as it does with you and I. When we grow up and go out
from the family, it isn't automatic that everything is going to be okay; what happens to us depends on the circumstances we encounter and the support
we get. But
if the child gets what he needs when he needs it, you don't have to keep on carrying him, supporting him, controlling him.
Now there are some children for whom the basic early damage to the personality was such that you
to do that. For certain types of alienation in early life when the child has never been affiliated closely enough, or the affiliation hasn't been a trustworthy affiliation, you
may have to
provide continuing supervisory help. You may have to do this for children who are retarded and can't make judgements. You may have to do this for certain kids who have been locked up in the back wards
of institutions for a long time and who don't come to us until later adolescence. About 50 per cent of those children don't succeed in rehabilitating themselves to the extent that they can live an independent
life. They may have to have some kind of supervised lifestyle although there are a lot of things they can do for themselves. It's hard to
get a society that allows us to provide the whole range of services that are needed.
Q: And so often, if you get them late,
it takes so long to get them to trust you.
J.B: That's very true.
In that respect good teachers
and parents are partners.
Q: Is there a difference in the role of a teacher in a Browndale school and a house staff?
J.B: Yes. Just as there is between a teacher and a parent. The house staff are not the real parents of the child but they're
acting in the
role of the parents and their major task is to civilize and to educate the child in fundamental ways and to support the learning that the child gets. The school teacher does not take care
of the parenting task to the same degree, other than in the way that a good school teacher is also a good parent. A good school
teacher is concerned about the person as a whole, as well as whether the person is learning or not learning. In that respect
good teachers and parents are partners. Problems arose when society became so complex that parents couldn't teach their children themselves. I like to remind myself from time
to time of what the model used to be.
We lived off nature, from what we could gather or grow, and the child up to a certain age carried very little responsibility.
He might play as
he saw adults act, but it was play. Then at a certain age the child was expected to learn. The girl would work with the women; she would learn the way they prepared the food, and made clothes and all the other tasks that were traditionally the women's responsibility.
The boy would work with the men and they would show him how to make tools
and at some point they would take the boy with them into the jungle, or into the forest, and show him which game to hunt, how to kill it and dress it and to bring it home;
how to gather the fruit or the nuts or the berries or whatever it was that they were eating; or how to till the soil and plant
There was an instruction that came from a person close to you in the family and you were part of a workforce related to
that the relevancy of what you were
doing was obvious and there was a certain kind of easiness to the learning. Most of it was done by imitation, which is the ideal model for learning. You watch somebody do it and you do it and you compare how you did it to how the other person does it and then you do it again.
That was the model for learning at that time. But now that society is more complex and families more nuclear with fewer relatives around
to be involved,
very little teaching goes on within the family. More and more nuclear families tend to give up a role to society that used to be theirs, whether or not there is the provision for
it in society. A lot of moral training, a lot of the standards of society used to get handed down through the family from generation to generation, by exposure to the grandparents
relatives. Now everybody wants somebody else to do it. People think the schools should do it; or "society" should do it, or television should do it. We're in a dilemma because there hasn't been
any equivalent to replace the early
model of the educational input from the parents
to the child. Dr. Spock and Dr. Salk, and we ourselves at Browndale,
have been harping for a number of years—and increasingly loudly
in recent years—that something needs to be done to reverse that trend. The family must assume more of the early teaching of the child, and that teaching
is more essential than the teaching that comes later. Because the most important thing that any human being can learn is trust. You have to have trust in people if you're going to be a self or if
you are going to move on, or expose
yourself, or extend out. That cannot
be taught in a school; it has to be taught at home in the relationships that parents have with children and
children with one another. It can then be reinforced and extended in the school.
Many school teachers feel an acute sense of failure because they aren't able to teach the child the things he needs; things he should have gotten from his
family but didn't
get. The teachers see the need and they try to extend to it. But they are not in a position to do it really well. Their role cannot be a parental caring role because they're not responsible
for the things that are life essential to the child—eating, sleeping, getting up and so forth.
have forgotten about all the human elements that are part of education.
have been so busy mass-producing education we have forgotten about all the human elements that are part of education. Consequently we have a lot of very screwy, miserable
people who can cope with assembly-line jobs but find it hard to live with other people or make decisions about the kind
of society they want or even how to manage their own lives.
Q: I am working in one of the Browndale schools and I don't feel that what I have accomplished,
in the short time that I have been with
a child in the Browndale school, will be strong enough and lasting enough to help him continue in a renewed sense of love for learning, once the public school comes back down on top of him.
. . . once a child's curiosity is freed, he can learn despite the school system.
J.B: I think you are underestimating the potential of the
child. What you're dealing with is the child's
curiosity which has been blocked, atrophied, or frustrated. The child has given
up the process of taking in new things and learning because his experience
has been that so much shit comes with that process. But once a child's
curiosity is freed, he can learn despite
the school system. I did it and you did it, any number of other people did it.
I've found with children that it isn't the amount of time you're with them that determines whether the magic happens; sometimes it happens in one encounter, sometimes after many repeated encounters.
Q: Well, I would at least like to make the time that I get
to spend with that child as long as possible so that I can open up a good feeling towards learning in the child and I'd like Browndale to see that as a priority.
J.B: You have to
be careful with it because you can get fooled. What is a renewal in an interest in learning to you, may not have any relevance to the child at all. He may see that as just the same old shit that he's been
getting in the school system all along. A renewal of interest in learning is something that has to come on the child's terms and
he has to tell you how. It doesn't come out of focussing on that; it comes
out of not focussing on that. Focussing on a renewal of interest in learning with the child more than likely will frustrate
the child in the same way that he's been
I don't want the kid to think I'm trying to get him to learn—I don't give a damn whether he learns or whether he
doesn't learn. I'd like him to free his curiosity to pursue it wherever he wishes to. How you do
that, how you free that curiosity, is quite different from the educational techniques for stimulating
an interest in learning or the process of learning. This is why lots of
schools fail and this is why lots of special schools fail.
If you have a relationship with the child you can be sensitive to indications
from him that he wants to pursue something. And you can be helpful to him by being a resource that he can use, when he wants to use it; but one who respects him and doesn't
try to provide input when you think he needs it.
Q: Well, I'm not a public school teacher.
J.B: No; but you
use some of the words of the special educational
programs that I've encountered where the theory is good but the practice violates the kid. And what is this
time thing you are concerned about? What is it that prevents you from having enough time?
Q: As soon as children seem capable
of dealing with a regular school—that is, they're not going
to act out in class—they're immediately returned to public
J.B: Yes; that's
how it should be. Otherwise, we'd be trying to set up an alternate school system. We don't have any authority to do that in the first instance; and if we did it would be the
most frustrating failure that you could possibly have.
Q: Don't you think we should take an interest
J.B: Yes; everybody
should, including parents. The whole educational
system should be of very great interest to all of us, but we shouldn't be using our kids to further that interest. That interest should
exist separately from the children who come to Browndale for the purpose of getting help so that
they can return to the community.
Q: Would you agree that those alternate schools do tend to
be more sensitive to the individual needs of the child?
J.B: They have
about the same degree of failure as other schools; I don't know of any that are particularly successful.
I think you have to listen to what kids say and kids say that they want to go back to public school and to be like everybody else.
I don't think you can reawaken curiosity and instill a love for learning. I think that's already there, badly injured. It might be the same old shit they're learning at
school, but they can do it now; that's what's going to make them feel safe enough to be curious and feel that it's not threatening to try things.
Q: That's not what I'm talking about. I'm
assuming, as John said, that there is a love for learning and I'm also assuming that you learn how
to learn. Especially as you get older, learning sometimes involves spending two or three days thinking about something rather than five minutes. If you're never guided
toward disciplining yourself to do that,
then it's a difficult kind of ability to develop and most people don't
A teacher: The
discipline comes with the desire. At our school we have an eight year old who has a two-second attention span. Today he got so excited about the times tables that
he did a long sheet of four columns of timestables and he did it for 45 minutes. Now I don't expect him to do that tomorrow.
J.B: No. Right!
A teacher: But
before today he hadn't been able to concentrate on anything for more than five minutes at a time. The
discipline came with the desire. I can't force him to be disciplined.
Q: Who said force? I'm saying that there are things to be
of in terms of ways of teaching people to follow up on things.
J.B: Work habits are important, I agree, as
long as everything else is okay. But those things are hard to introduce right at the beginning. Once the kid wants to learn, then
you begin to teach those things.
How you teach them is another thing. You may have the most beautiful things going into the school program, but if you think that learning
is something that starts at and ends at four you've missed the whole business of learning. The time framework of the school system is something that's related to the time framework of our
world—not to people's learning ability or interest. There may be many adolescents who sit in the classroom day after day and cannot learn because they're sitting there in the daytime.
It might be
that they'd be more receptive to learning from in the evening to in the morning. I don't hear
many people who want to do new things around schools talking about what is the best time for kids to learn. This might be the type of thing that you should be looking into.
Can you do things
outside the school? Can you do things with the school at night or early in the morning?
Q: How much freedom does the teacher have to set up different schedules that might be more palatable to the
J.B: It depends
on your regional director. You'll have to fight it out with them. I'm not the boss of any program anywhere in Browndale.
I like to get these kinds of questions and discussions going because nobody has all the right answers. If you have
good ideas ask
permission to try them out and don't be disappointed if they don't work right away, or if they fail and you have to try something else. Every child
is going to be a little different.
same in a house with the kids.
We don't have a formula; we've tried to avoid writing anything that could be construed
as a formula. We like to give you concepts and principles and values
and then let you be as creative as you
can be within those. If you do creative things in the school yourself,
the kids' creativity will begin to come into it. It's hard for any person to stand around
in a free creative kind of situation and not have his or her own creativity stimulated and seek expression.
I think we're lazy sometimes in borrowing typical traditional structures. For instance, consider the
in our own school programs. I get a feeling that they are not that happy or gaining that much from the programs we set up for them. I wonder
why you don't give them an opportunity to set up a structure and ask for the resources that they would like to have. Because
they are concerned but they don't know what to do about it because they're always stuck in a system that they can't influence
or change. Well, here, there's no reason why they can't influence and change the system to be more like what they think it should be.
Q: We believe in free
speech in Browndale
as far as the kids having input into the schools?
J.B: Oh, yes; I
would think so. I would believe in free speech pretty well through the whole organization.
Now, I wouldn't allow a child to abuse another child.
Q: No, but you think the child should have a say in setting up a program that he or she would want to work on?
J.B: I would think so, certainly. For some of the older kids there's no reason why they shouldn't
decide who the teachers will be and what the curriculum will be.
Q: And some of the kids would probably supervise classes for the younger kids?