Freedom to Learn

The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

Children Educate Themselves IV: Lessons from Sudbury Valley

The Sudbury Valley School has, for the past forty years, been the best-kept secret in American education. ... Professors of education ignore it, not out of malice but because they cannot absorb it into their framework of educational thought. . . . To understand the school one has to begin with a completely different mindset from that which dominates current educational thinking. Read More

Honest Question

Tell me how this works.

I really want to know how students transition into a traditional learning setting (or out of a traditional learning setting)with regards to Sudbury.

At first glance, I would imagine there are a lot of reasons this move to and from or into and out of could be tough.

Adjusting to College

Shamrock, in my study of the graduates I asked all of those who had gone to college questions about that adjustment. Essentially all of them said that they felt they were better prepared for college than their classmates who had come from traditional high schools--not because they knew more but because of the attitude they had toward learning. Graduates of Sudbury Valley School do not feel that it is necessary to go to college. They know of many other graduates who have carved out fascinating careers for themselves without college. So, they see college as clearly a choice. If they go to college it is because the want to go; and they know full well what they are getting into. They know that part of the bargain, in college, is that they have to do a lot of assigned work, including work that they might rather not do. But they accept that as part of the deal.

As one graduate (who had rebelled in public school before going to Sudbury Valley) put it, going to college is different from being in public school. "When I was in public school I was there because the law said I had to be there; I had no choice in the matter. But college was my own choice."

The graduates also, however, often find ways of making college a little more Sudbury-Valley-like. For example, one told me that if she found an assigned book to be boring, she would take the initiative to find another, comparable book that was more interesting to her and would then ask the professor if she could read that one instead. Professors found it hard to turn that request down, because she was so articulate in explaining why the book she chose would serve her needs better than the other one.

Some students did say that they felt disadvantaged at first in some of their college courses because they had never studied the subject before. However, the same students said that this feeling disappeared quickly. They discovered that students who had taken a biology or chemistry course in high school, for example, really didn't know much biology or chemistry. Professors in college pretty much start from scratch; they can't assume that students retain much from their high-school courses. Moreover, the Sudbury Valley graduates were used to seeking out information on their own or asking questions, so they had no particular difficulty filling in any information that they needed.

The most common complaint that the Sudbury Valley graduates in my study had about college is that their college classmates seemed immature to them--they acted as if they didn't want to be in college and often behaved irresponsibly.

Before I did the study I believed that people who had never previously taken tests might lack "test-taking skills." I asked the graduates about this and nobody seemed to find that to be a problem. I have come to the conclusion that the idea that there is a set of special test-taking skills that must be honed by practice is a myth. Tests are easy to take if you know the answers.


Absolutely fascinating. I

Absolutely fascinating. I have never heard of an educational institutions such as this, and if my further study of it is yeilds positive results, will surely become an advicote of its methods. Thank you for this important post.

Sounds like a dream. Is

Sounds like a dream. Is there a way to find a similar school in our local area?

Check the web site

The question from Shamrock about how the transition takes place is not one that can be answered in a pat way, because "how" is not really understood about any aspect of psychology. However, most alumni from the Sudbury Valley school report less difficulty adapting to college environments than students matched for parental income and education level from traditional school.

I suspect that this is in large part because entering the traditional college was a choice / contract consciously made by a willing participant who already knows her/his own power. Also, the hardest thing about college for traditional students to accept is that timing their reports and readings etcetera is their responsibility (rather than being guided by the had by a well-meaning instructor) -- Sudbury Valley students are quite used to being in charge of their own time.

The question from dyhappy about finding / starting a local school (and many, many other questions) can be answered on the web site that Peter references --

We really need someone to

We really need someone to open one in southern california:(

Let's discuss some of the downsides of this approach. Because, there MUST be a good reason why traditional schools are NOT like this...


The main downside for me as a student at Sudbury Jerusalem was that there weren't many other people my age there.

As for why traditional schools do things like they do, I think this has a lot to do with history, and very little to do with what is actually desirable.

One downside is that the

One downside is that the only assured result upon graduation is that the student has written and defended a personal essay claiming that the student has reached a certain level of responsibility in the community. There is no assurance that the student has learned mathematics, science, any foreign language, art, music, civics information, or how to document or show awareness of the sources of the student's knowledge.

There is also no assurance that the student has sought or received mentoring or teaching of any kind from anyone or that the student knows how to do what the student is told.

The second set of concerns are generally addressed to some extent by the home experience, however. And voluntary seeking-out of conversation or mentoring or instruction is well received at SVS, to my knowledge.

There has been some discussion of the offering of courses or workshops or other instruction by staff or others. Currently to my knowledge this does not occur or is very subtle, e.g., by word of mouth.

The first set of concerns bothers me as a parent of an SVS student. If I were on the body that discusses graduation requirements, I would raise the idea of expecting students, as a condition for graduation, to document their claims about themselves and other assertions they make. To some degree, the theses are self-documenting, and in fact they are impressive from that standpoint. But I see a downside here. It is in the implementation of the philosophy, I think, not in the philosophy. But some see a thesis requirement as in contradiction to the school's philosophy.

Balancing the downsides, in my opinion, are two overriding facts.

As the SVS advocates point out, children learn mainly or best at their own initiative. They learn a lot that way at SVS. They blossom, they fly.

And at SVS, the kids are safe, because they are part of the rule making and rule enforcement. When only adults make and enforce the rules, all sorts of abuses of kids by kids are hidden and never corrected, because the kids have the dignity (under an adult dictatorship) not to tell, or maybe also because they fear telling.

The kids at SVS are not only safe, but also appear to be uniformly responsible, neat, respectful, helpful, and almost like from a different world. This is my experience from being around them at the school from time to time when passing through. I think this is because they have the experience of being respected, which is impossible in an environment of absolute adult power, regardless of the intentions of well-meaning all-powerful adults.

I'm sure there are other downsides to the SVS experience. I don't think that the downsides of SVS reflect particularly well on other schools, however. Schools in the U.S. follow a rather rigid Prussian-style philosophy. The day starts with a rote recitation of a divisive pledge of loyalty whose words the students don't even understand; the children are rigidly segregated by age; students who persist in being a minute or two late may be sent to Juvenile Court; and this is not even to mention the academic structure and approach that is bringing the quality of the outcomes of U.S. education ever downward.

No downside for me Diablo Valley School Parent

I have two daughters in a Sudbury model school in California. My experience is that when you treat children with real respect you get that in return.
I have had my daughters there eight years and I have no concerns about their future.
One of the best decisions I ever made was enrolling them in this school.

No assured results

David, thank you for your thoughtful comments here. I would like to comment, in return, on your statement about the lack of "assured results." I agree with you completely. However, to me that is the whole point of the school--the results are in the hands of the students themselves, not in the hands of adult staff or parents. The truth is, when we are talking about developing human beings there is no such thing as an "assured result" except to the degree that we might create such results artificially--say, by defining them in terms of a score on a test and then teaching the answers. I think the hardest thing for most parents, even those who make the decision to send their children to a Sudbury school, is that of giving up control. We want to think that we can control our children's development, that we can assure their success, that we can protect them from pain and sadness, that we can protect them from failure, and so on and so on. But the truth is, we can't. The standard school system was developed on the factory model. In theory, children are brought in as raw material and send out as finished products. The problem is, people don't work that way. We are not moldable from the outside. When people try to mold us we fight it--sometimes consciously sometimes unconsciously. The most important thing to all of us is to be in control of our own lives. -Peter

Core competency can be somewhat assured

I've only recently discovered a local Sudbury school, and found this page through a Wiki link.

One thing is certain: There is plenty of failure, pain and sadness in conventional schools. I think adults, though, 'can' enhance the odds of success and happiness/contentment, through their guidance. And they may benefit from tracking a child's progress in areas that are increasingly likely to be important to success. That doesn't have to mean teaching to the test. But if something isn't working for a particular student, it could be a dis-service to let them drift and then graduate with large skill or knowledge gaps. The incidence of that is probably low, but if we really respect all children and care about their power of self-determination, it's worth pondering.

Why traditional schools are what they are

Dyhppy, you have just given me a topic for my next posting: "Why are traditional schools what they are?" I'll give this some thought and post those thoughts on Wednesday next week. -Peter

John Taylor Gatto

Peter, are you acquainted with John Taylor Gatto's Underground History of American Education? He makes the case that schools-as-we-know-them were not designed to propagate learning, but to mold compliant attitudes.

Joel Spring's book Pedagogies of Globalization makes a similar argument, based on close observation of schools in many nations - including some which are considered adversaries, but who consulted the same experts and borrowed the same ideas from each other.

History of education

Hi Terrymac,

Thank you for your contribution here and below. Yes, I am familiar with Gatto's book. I devote a chapter in my book Free to Learn to the history of schools, but, also, see my next post in this series:


SoCal Sudbury?

Does anyone know of a person or group that is considering opening a Sudbury style school in Southern California?

So Cal Sudbury

I am interested in a Southern California Sudbury school as well. Are you still interested in this?

Look into Day-McKellar

Look into Day-McKellar Preparatory School in Alpine, California (in eastern San Diego county). The school is based on Sudbury with some changes due to state requirements, but a very interesting opportunity for Sudbury-minded parents.

Try Play Mountain Place

Play Mountain Place is a school in Los Angeles that has a similar approach to Sudbury although the details of their governance structure are probably different. I recommend that you take a look at schools listed on the Directory of Democratic Education:

Most, if not all, of the schools that list themselves on that site have an approach that is probably comparable to Sudbury. When I was inquiring about the extent and success of democratic schools I found that there are hundreds of schools operating in a manner comparable to Sudbury and that 9 of them are as old or older than Sudbury. The Marietta Johnson School of Organic Learning in Fairhope, Alabama, is the oldest still operating (founded in 1907). Summerhill School in England is the second oldest and it was started in 1921. Play Mountain Place was founded in 1949, 19 years before Sudbury.


Don Berg

Free E-book: The Attitude Problem in Education

Southern California Sudbury

I would like to discuss opening a Southern California Sudbury too.

Southern California Sudbury

I would like to discuss opening a Southern California Sudbury too.

Why schools are the way they are.

You may not like the answers to that question. I explore some of them in this article. Briefly, from time immemorial, rulers have desired more pliable subjects:

"No one will doubt that the legislator should direct his attention above all to the education of youth; for the neglect of education does harm to the constitution. The citizen should be molded to suit the form of government under which he lives [...] And since the whole city has one end, it is manifest that education should be one and the same for all, and that it should be public, and not private — not as at present, when every one looks after his own children separately, and gives them separate instruction of the sort which he thinks best; the training in things which are of common interest should be the same for all. Neither must we suppose that any one of the citizens belongs to himself, for they all belong to the state, and are each of them a part of the state, and the care of each part is inseparable from the care of the whole." -- Aristotle, Politics, Book 8

"If the government can compel such citizens as are fit for military service to bear spear and rifle, to mount ramparts, and perform other martial duties in time of war, how much more has it a right to compel the people to send their children to school, because in this case we are warring with the devil" - Martin Luther, 1520

"In a word, it is a total change of the existing system of education that I propose as the sole means of preserving the existence of the German nation." - Fichte, Addresses to the German Nation

Fichte’s goal was to mold the entire person, leaving no part behind, so that the education should not merely “belong to the person,” but should be integral to the person.

"The new education must consist essentially in this, that it completely destroys freedom of will in the soil which it undertakes to cultivate, and produces on the contrary strict necessity in the decisions of the will, the opposite being impossible. Such a will can be relied upon with utmost confidence and certainty." -- Fichte again

I've known about Sudbury

I've known about Sudbury Valley since I read a little about Summerhill, and I've long been intrigued by the idea. I homeschool my children, and have slowly made the philosophy shift from "schooling at home" to "unschooling" because it became difficult not to once I saw that they were learning all the time, with or without me guiding that learning. It was a radical shift in thinking for me, but once I made it, it made a lot of sense.

I've been reading your posts with interest, and I look forward to the next installment.

Freedom Works!

I was introduced to Democratic Education while still in college. My degree is in Math education.

I could write (or speak for hours) on why this form of education is superior the the traditional form.

Let me summarize:

1. Preserving our Free Society.
What better way to teach children to be members of a free, democratic society than to create a miniature version of one and raise them in it?

2. Working WITH Nature.
Children come wired for learning, they are learning machines, they learn highly complex tasks (rolling over, sitting up, walking, their first language, etc.) with no teachers, chalkboards, desks, bells, or homework. It is the epitome of human arrogance that we "take over" their education at age six. What they need is what they had -- role models and the freedom to explore their world. This form of education offers both.

3. Leadership Education.
Our society needs leaders on every level. Leaders are people who can think outside the box and find better questions to ask and better answers. They are produced through freedom to pursue ones interests until they find their life's passion. Einstein is a great example. His uncle blessed him with the time to lay around on a grassy hillside and to squint at the sun and ask himself the question, "What would it be like to ride on the end of a beam of light?". If we keep our children pre-occupied with what WE think they need to learn, from where will our next Einsteins come?

Oh, no! I'm getting long-winded. Better stop here.

Eighteen years ago, I gave leadership to a group that started a Sudbury style school in my state. I am now planning on creating another for my grandkids to attend. I cannot think of a better legacy to leave than to give them the opportunity to be raised in the freedom to become all they are capable of becoming.

freedom to learn

I have been subscribing to a google thread on self-directed education for months now, but have been passing the entries by because few of them deal with these fundamental issues of the rights and freedom of children to learn. For some reason, I opened the post tonight and found your blog entry.

The Sudbury Vally school is the example I have pointed to for about 18 years, since I first tripped over its existence, as the place that best makes the case for children's self-directed learning in an open and free (institutional) setting. Unschooling arrangements in the homes of children also provide for similar experiences but don't lend themselves to the same consideration by families who feel they can't accommodate those arrangements.

I have started several schools, both independent and public charter, in an effort to foster freedom for children to learn on their own terms, but have met with countless obstacles inherent in the educational philosophies and approaches of educators, parents and school systems. Likewise, there has been at least one unsuccessful attempt to get a charter for a Sudbury style school in Massachusetts (in South Dartmouth, I think). The public purse strings appear unable to embrace an approach with such invisible and intangible accountabiity. I think Dan Greenberg initially expected it to be easier to make the case for public education to adopt SV's approach. Possibly he was as naive as I have been in my efforts.

It may indeed be true that in fifty years we will see such educational freedom for children become commonplace. Too bad it's so hard to bring about in the present.
If I could force myself back into an institution of "higher" learning for a doctorate, I think I might investigate the effect of the home environment on the capacity of children to continue to direct their own learning. For a variety of reasons, most parents put their children in schools that stifle this capacity and opportunity for free self-directed learning based on play and exploration. It's the parents who see things differently that are attracted to start and send their children to Sudbury-style schools.

It's been almost two months now since I resigned from the public charter school where I have worked for twelve years. I wrote the original educational program part of the charter application, thinking that if we put these ideas down on paper and the state said OK, then it would happen. I guess not.

The structure, history and economics of public education do not lend themselves to self-directed learning by children. So I am now asking myself how I can reinvent my own profession to support children outside of public education to pursue their own learning, interests and passions. I would just as soon not wait fifty years to create paths of freedom for the children I see every day who are struggling and miserable in their coercive school environments.
The Internet makes all knowledge available for free to whomever has the initiative to seek it out. Optional guidance from and interaction with others is harder to seek out and acquire when time and space is so severely restricted. My questions are these:

What new networks and pathways can we invent/create/borrow/share that will empower parents and children to embrace the power of play and curiosity that has already served them so well?
How do I make a living as an educator (or some thing else!) when the learning is there for the taking, like solar energy?

Maybe we can find ways to spread the states of mind and practices we are discussing so that more children will be freer and happier and the world might even change. Any takers?

Making a Living as an Educator

Sidney -

Even if creative people find a way to successfully launch and sustain public Sudbury Valley style schools, I think conventional instructional school is going to be with us for a while. Though it was not the right path for my kids, who ended up being unschooled, it definitely seems to be a favored path for many parents and even a fair number of kids. I have not tried to make a living as a teacher, but if I were you, I would look for a school environment where all the kids in the classroom really want to be there.

A conventional classroom full of youth who really want to be there with a teacher full of energy, enthusiasm and willingness to engage their students respectfully as individuals, in my book, is an effective learning environment. Maybe that rules out most public schools and a fair amount of independent/private schools as well, where a significant percentage of the students don't want to be there. But if you have the intention and can somehow create the reality of that sort of a classroom environment, maybe you can make your living and save your sanity.

As to the big picture, I think the best path forward is to acknowledge that there are many valid paths of learning, including for some people in the right circumstances, the conventional instructional school.

- Cooper

A great idea...but doesn't

A great idea...but doesn't always work...

I too thought this was a great philosophy, this is how I educate my son today...or better yet, how HE is educated...However, at 5 yrs old, he entered a Sudbury school...The result? Two weeks later he was terrified of it...Why? His speech was delayed and the school administrators were constantly told this and met him before school ever began...We wanted to ensure they would "accept" him before we saved up and paid the hefty fees...He was accepted, but less than two weeks after the start of school, the other children "kicked him out" in one of those staff meetings...You see, they didn't like that he couldn't communicate very well...He never hurt any of them, in fact, he brought took toys from home to school every day and always allowed the other children to play with them...The teachers were always the first to tell me this...but because he was different, the other kids didn't like him...and well, when you can't speak very well because your speech is delayed, nobody helps you out in the staff meetings...therefore, it was the other kids against him who could not defend himself. At the end, it was a good thing he is no longer in a place where children are not taught to respect other's differences, but rather allowed to gang up on the weaker kids...and I don't want my child somewhere he is not wanted, but again, it is not all as rosy as it seems...

So, make sure that if you have a daughter, she's not the prettiest girl there, or the other girls might kick her out because boys pay too much attention to her...or make sure that he doesn't wear glasses, as the other boys might think he's a nerd and not want him around...all, perfectly acceptable by Sudbury standards...

And again, I do believe in their "original" philosophy of unschooling, but they take it a bit too far...

My heart goes out to your 5-year-old

Dear "Whatamess," My heart goes out to your son and to you. All I can say is that at the original Sudbury Valley School, where my observations have centered, nothing like the episode you describe could have happened. Children can be expelled from the school only if they repeatedly break the school's democratically created rules. Sometimes the repeated breaking of rules occurs because a child is not developmentally ready to assume responsibility, and sometimes it occurs because a child or adolescent is unwilling at accept the rules. Nobody has ever been expelled simply for being unpopular. The school's rules would not allow for that. There is perhaps one exception, but this exception would occur in a very different way from the way that you describe. Very very rarely, a child comes to the school who has a disability--such as autism--that makes it impossible for the child to take advantage of the school's educational environment, and in those cases the parents are consulted and encouraged to send the child to a school that has the special educators needed to help such a child. It is possible that in such a case the school would even insist that the child be removed from the school, in recognition of the fact that the child needs the services of a specialist. If the case you describe does not fit that sort of example, then I have no way of understanding it or explaining it. I certainly don't know the details of how all of the schools operate which purport to model themselves after Sudbury Valley. If your son's delayed speech is the result of a disorder such as autism or a version of autism, then I sincerely hope that you find the kind of help that he needs. Such help is generally not available within Sudbury model schools. People with these kinds of problems can be helped, but they need help beyond what staff members or students at Sudbury schools are able to provide. Sometimes it is difficult to understand the causes of such developmental delays without professional help. I hope all works out well for your son. Peter

Special Needs

I found your post through a link on a friend's blog, and was delighted to read about Sudbury, as I'd never heard of it before. I have three small children whom I plan to homeschool, and have looked with interest at the idea of "unschooling," after noting how much more my twin three-year-olds learn on their own than when I try to teach them. If the only things required for learning at age three are models, the world around us and the opportunity to explore both, then I think it makes a lot of sense to continue learning that way. It certainly makes learning more fun.

I do have a concern though, about special needs children in a Sudbury-type school. I understand that autistic children need specialized help in learning to cope with all of the cues in their world, but does that automatically mean they do not need to learn about their world like other children do, with other children?

Also, I wonder about the "normal" children in a Sudbury school who miss out on the interactions they could have with special needs children. If Sudbury is truly thoroughly preparing their students to live in our world, (as it seems they are) then isn't learning to interact with people with special needs a part of that preparation? One of my twins' little friends is autistic, and I treasure the time they get to spend with him. They learn so much about caring for others and understanding others' differences.

I would like to know your thoughts on how a Subury-modeled school could include special needs children, whether they are physically disabled, Down's Syndrome, etc.

About special needs

Good question. I really don't have a good, clear answer to it. I agree that it is valuable for people to get to know people with special needs, and it is valuable for those with special needs to get to know the full range of people without such needs. I remember that when my son was a student at Sudbury Valley, he at one point, completely on his own, decided to volunteer to go bowling regularly, for awhile, with a kid who had Down syndrome. So, there are ways outside of school that such contact can happen. I wish there were more ways and that it happened more often. I think the question of whether or not kids with such needs can function at Sudbury model schools is a good one, which probably has to be answered on a case by case basis. I can imagine that some kids with such needs could profit from being at the school if they also have, in addition, the extra help they need for dealing with their special needs.

Freedom with Special Needs

First of all here is an article about a school that does provide special needs kids with a comparable level of freedom, but with an increased level of support:

Next I wanted to mention that in following discussions on the Discuss Sudbury Model Google group and the IDEC (International Democratic Education Conference) listserve Yahoo group for several years the response given that seems the most pertinent for not serving special needs kids better is funding. In order to provide the level of support needed they would have to change their funding model. If a public funding model were in place then given the success of the school mentioned in the article above suggests that special needs kids would do well.


Don Berg

Free E-book: The Attitude Problem in Education

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Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, is author of the newly published book Free to Learn (Basic Books) and Psychology (a textbook now in its 6th edition).


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