Book Review: The Werkplaats Adventure

The Werkplaats Adventure by Wyatt Rawson is about Kees and Betty Boeke’s pioneer comprehensive school, it’s methods and psychology.1 The Werkplaats, or Workshop, aimed at making all types of education available. It seeked to give the children an understanding of all aspects of life – the world within as well as of the world without.2

W. Rawson, The Werkplaats Adventure.

The Werkplaats is an example of how ideals like freedom, democracy, and equality can be put into practice. It is very interesting to see how the Werkplaats succeeded in securing order without force, encouraged freedom and spontaniety, and maintained a sense of equivalence among the children and adults.3

The Werkplaats Adventure is not only a story about education, but also about ourselves and the values and attitudes that are needed for organizing and peaceful conflict resolution. Thirty years had passed since the school was started when the book was first published in 1956. The school contained 850 children at the time, and was recognized and supported by the Dutch government.4

Wyatt Rawson describes how the school was built up gradually, step by step. Wyatt Rawson first met Kees Boeke in 1935. Wyatt visited the school several times in 1954. He talked to teachers and children, and discussed the problems of the school with Kees. The contact with the life of the school and its founders made a deep impression on Wyatt.5 He eloquently shares his personal experiences of the school.

The book is divided into two parts. Part One describes the school’s origin, its working and psychological aspects. Part Two is more concerned with educational methods and the curriculum. The last chapter is about the personal influence which Kees and Betty Boeke have had on the life of the school.6

The Werkplaats demonstrates that just as children love freedom and spontaneity, they also love structure and order. The problem of school life is to find a minimal structure that supports maximal freedom. Order can, of course, be created by force, but fear puts an end to all naturalness and spontaneity. Some other way must therefore be discovered of securing order without the use of force. Thus came the principle of no compulsion to be established. The methods employed at the Werkplaats are based on this principle.7

Two things particularly impressed Wyatt Rawson when he visited the school: (1) The great friendliness with everyone, and (2) the ease and naturalness with which the school seemed to work. There was much natural ease and spontaneous laughter. The older children helped the younger. There was no litter, and no fights. There was an absence of pressure and no use of force – or the threat of force.8 Another noticeable feature of the Werkplaats was the quietness and calm that seemed to pervade it. There was no rampaging around.9

The secret of the school’s success lies in the way in which it dealt with the frustrations of school life. The Bespreking, or Talkover, embodied the spirit of the Werkplaats. The Bespreking arouse out of the family atmosphere of Kees and Betty Boeke’s original school. It was a gathering where all matters that concerned the school as a whole were talked over. Each member of the school had his or her say. And ideas were combined in order to find solutions which represented the common will. Kees and Betty Boeke got this idea from the Quakers and their gatherings, in which no voting takes place and where there is a search for the ‘sense of the meeting’.10

Although no force can be used at the Bespreking, and all decisions must be made by consent, there is no guarantee that the right atmosphere will prevail.11 Wyatt Rawson writes that its success depends upon a family atmosphere, where the minority opinion never is callously overridden. The family atmosphere also explains the spontaneous friendliness between the adults and children. It arouse naturally out of the circumstances in which the school was founded.12

Wyatt Rawson mentions that there is a distance between the staff and the children, but that it confers responsibilities rather than rights, and that it does not entitle the teachers to act as masters over the children. The essence is that children are to be respected like any other human beings. He writes that human beings deserve respect, consideration, and love.13

Wyatt Rawson writes that it’s impossible to wear a mask at the school. You may not want people to know how you feel, but you cannot hide it. Others will immediately know if you are disappointed, or if things have gone wrong in your work. Although being without a mask is not always easy, this spontaneity also gives great joy.14

The Werkplaats encouraged the children’s creativity. Activities in which the children wholeheartedly could throw themselves, ensured the atmosphere of vitality and joy in life.15 The point is to let the children’s interests bring them to the point where they wish to learn. And it worked. The effect was that the children felt that their individual needs were being met as far as possible. It’s also a feeling which was essential for maintaining the atmosphere of freedom at the school.16

Interestingly, an unexpected result of the freedom granted was the spontaneous acceptance of responsibility. Children took responsibility, even at those moments when the teacher was away.17 Human needs were seen and met in the minimum of time.18 Wyatt Rawson points out, however, that the children were not expected to organize everything themselves. Children and staff formed one group, one community. The only danger was that the adults could take over, and thus deprived the children of their own initiative and responsibility, so that the children couldn’t have any of the excitement of organizing and creating something.19

The balance between freedom and order has to be found if a community is to be healthy. The Werkplaats achieved this by combining three things: (1) No fear and threats; (2) friendliness towards wrongdoers; and (3) constant support.20 This does not mean that there were no sanctions, or that nothing was done if a child misbehaved.21

The point is that the child was not judged or condemned.22 Judging and condemning are worse than useless.23 No indignation was shown. The child was simply asked, ‘Why did you do it?’ The sense of guilt arises naturally. With it also comes the desire to make amends. The question then was, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ The absence of threats meant that there was no one to oppose.24 The choice of reparation was the child’s. Personal antagonism was avoided.25

Wyatt Rawson writes, however, that the moral pressure sometimes was so strong that some children felt it as oppressive and rebelled. A few even left the school, even though the vast majority were grateful for being helped with their difficulties. The school’s methods even helped children with mental disturbances to regain their balance. This took a term or two.26

The school community is a collaboration between children and adults.27 The underlying idea is that the children wish to learn, so it’s up to the children to preserve the order necessary for learning. There was originally only one committee, the Bespreking, which met one a week or more often if necessary. All other committees at the Werkplaats developed out of it.28

From the original Bespreking, the Ronde was developed. Its purpose was to deal with all matters of order. All members in the Ronde were equally responsible for solving a problem in which they all were involved. Wyatt Rawson points out that when there’s trouble, it’s usually not due to one child alone.29 The atmosphere of the group is as much accountable for something going wrong as is the lack of control of any particular member.30

Much of the organization of the Werkplaats was deliberately left fluid. Human factors were paramount and not technical points. This included the composition of the committees. The Ronde is, for example, an instrument of the Bespreking of the whole Werkplaats.  Committees arouse spontaneously as a result of the rapid growth of the school, when the organization became inadequate to deal with the large inflow of new children.31

Children do not always keep to the rules, even when they have made them themselves. They learn from their failures, so they must be given the chance to make mistakes. Conflict will always exist. When a solution is found, the conflict is usually shifted somewhere else. Children are spontaneous and will momentarily follow impulses without thought of others. More important than the order itself is the learning received.32 There are, however, children who don’t listen.33 And there is always a minority whom nothing seems to alter.34

Wyatt Rawson shares a rare special case of disorder where the staff actually decided to leave. At first, the children couldn’t believe the staff wouldn’t be coming back. A girl took action and called a general meeting, at which a number of rules were made, and it was decided that anybody who broke them must leave. After less than a week the school was back to order. The lessons had been learned.35 This is an interesting example of the latent powers of self-organization that the school could call upon, even when the staff was no longer available.

Spontaneity was expected at the Werkplaats. It is natural for children to act spontaneously. For those adults who resented it, the atmosphere became intolerable.36 The inflow of new teachers greatly increased these difficulties.37 Action and reaction were the order of the day. What we feel in our heart of hearts is what we do and say with every gesture and word.38 Nothing can prevent this, so an honest humility, together with a willingness to admit mistakes, is required.39 There was also the constant emotional strain that exists in all groups working together.40 Day-to-day difficulties arise in any group.41

The authority at the Werkplaats was vested in the group and not in the teacher.42 The Werkplaats principle of no compulsion compelled the teacher, as well as the children, to accept a part of the responsibility for whatever went wrong. This required the elimination of the personal element in the wrong-doing, and the willingness to see the whole situation without any recriminations.43 The Werkplaats took for granted that all want friendship, and that loving is a much happier condition than hating.44 Aggression melted away in the atmosphere of mutual give and take. Together we can make life finer and richer for all.45

The Werkplaats Adventure is a well-written book about an amazing pioneer school. It’s a story about how fluid organization arises spontaneously in a community based on no fear, friendliness, and constant support. It’s also a story about Kees and Betty Boeke’s unquenchable delight in life itself, and their reverence for all that is fine and beautiful in people, nature, and art. Their spirit shines through Wyatt Rawson’s words. Only when the mind is still and the heart at rest, can we enter into communion with the deeper rhythms of life.46

It’s a beautiful book!

1 Wyatt Rawson, The Werkplaats Adventure (Vincent Stuart, 1956), p.1.
2 Ibid., p.141.
3 Ibid., p.9
4 Ibid..
5 Ibid., p.10.
6 Ibid..
7 Ibid., p.16.
8 Ibid., p.31.
9 Ibid., p.87.
10 Ibid., p.32.
11 Ibid., p.33.
12 Ibid., p.34.
13 Ibid., p.37.
14 Ibid., p.38.
15 Ibid..
16 Ibid., p.39.
17 Ibid., p.41.
18 Ibid., p.42.
19 Ibid., p.43.
20 Ibid., p.45.
21 Ibid., p.47.
22 Ibid..
23 Ibid., p.149.
24 Ibid., p.47.
25 Ibid., p.48.
26 Ibid., p.49
27 Ibid., p.50.
28 Ibid., p.51.
29 Ibid., p.52.
30 Ibid., p.55.
31 Ibid..
32 Ibid., p.56.
33 Ibid., p.59.
34 Ibid., p.60.
35 Ibid..
36 Ibid., p.65.
37 Ibid., p.73.
38 Ibid., p.66.
39 Ibid., p.67.
40 Ibid., p.68.
41 Ibid., p.76.
42 Ibid., p.73.
43 Ibid., p.74.
44 Ibid..
45 Ibid., p.76.
46 Ibid., p.153.


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