By Hara Estroff Marano, published on May 1, 2006 - last reviewed on November 20, 2015
"I've learned a lot about how my mind works by paying attention to how I unicycle," Ben declared in preparation for high school graduation. And from the time he was 12, Ben paid attention to nothing so much as unicycling. When students elsewhere were puzzling over, say, the periodic table, Ben, along with a handful of schoolmates, was mostly struggling up and racing down New England mountainsides, dodging rocks, mud and other obstacles. His "frantic fights to maintain balance" demanded both deep focus and moment-to-moment planning. But they gave him something missing from most classrooms today—a passion for pursuing challenges and inhaling the skills and information (to say nothing of the confidence) to master life's complexities.
At Sudbury Valley School, there's no other way to learn. The 38-year-old day facility in Framingham, Massachusetts, is founded on what comes down to a belief about human nature—that children have an innate curiosity to learn and a drive to become effective, independent human beings, no matter how many times they try and fail. And it's the job of adults to expose them to models and information, answer questions—then get out of the way without trampling motivation. There are no classrooms per se, although students can request instruction on any subject or talk to any staffer any time about an interest. There aren't even grades. From overnight hiking trips to economics classes to weekly school meetings at which all matters—including my visit—are discussed and voted on by students and staff, all activities are age-mixed.
Some kids start Sudbury at age 4, their parents committed to democratic principles even in education and trusting to the byways of self-motivation. Some, like Ben, arrive around age 6. "Ben was a kinesthetic learner," says his mother, Pam Swing. "He really learned by doing. I could tell that he wouldn't make it at the local kindergarten, where the kids were arranged in rows and raised their hand to speak. On a visit, he declared, 'I'm not going there.'" Others land at Sudbury because they lost interest or failed in conventional schooling and the place was a last-ditch choice by parents or students.
Students spend an inordinate amount of time talking to each other, reading in quiet corners, drawing or painting, hunkered in the computer rooms and moving around the mansion, barn and 10-acre estate. Mostly, though, they spend time playing.
Play—it's by definition absorbing. The outcome is always uncertain. Play makes children nimble—neurobiologically, mentally, behaviorally—capable of adapting to a rapidly evolving world. That makes it just about the best preparation for life in the 21st century. Psychologists believe that play cajoles people toward their human potential because it preserves all the possibilities nervous systems tend to otherwise prune away. It's no accident that all of the predicaments of play—the challenges, the dares, the races and chases—model the struggle for survival. Think of play as the future with sneakers on.
But when Jeffrey Hohl and his wife first heard about Sudbury Valley, where the tuition is $6,000 per student (less for families with multiple enrollees), they were categorically dismissive. "I mean," he says, "how can kids learn anything without doing much of anything?" That, however, was before the first four of his six kids started school elsewhere and their curiosity began withering. "After spending many years in the business world, it dawned on me that you learn best what you really want to learn, and you really have to have that spark." When he read again about the Sudbury idea of letting kids pursue their own interests, he was ready to buy in. It took two trips to get all four kids their required weeklong trial visit, but when the kids gave the thumbs up, he sold his house in Nantucket and moved his brood a mile or so from SVS. "You don't realize until you're an adult how natural it is to learn, how interesting the world really is. We adults think we know how to do it and that children don't and therefore we have to teach them how."
So ingrained is the belief that kids learn only when confined to their seats and explicitly taught that most adults overlook obvious evidence to the contrary—the young struggle persistently against even their own clumsiness to master such formidable tasks as crawling, walking and talking on their own. "Learning and teaching have nothing to do with each other," declares Dan Greenberg, who, with his wife Hanna, is a founder of Sudbury Valley. In traditional schools, he says, teaching is driven by coercion, which breeds resistance. "Learning is driven internally by curiosity. Teaching can be effective only if the person you're teaching has sought you out to teach her." A physicist by training, Greenberg abandoned an Ivy League tenure track career in academia to start SVS.
Outsiders commonly choke upon hearing that no one even teaches reading. Sometimes insiders get a bit antsy, too. When Ben was in the second or third grade, anxiety temporarily overtook his well-read father, who offered the boy a dime for every 15 minutes he'd spend reading at home. Ben accepted the bribe long enough to prove he could do it.
But true to the Sudbury spirit, his reading proficiency took a huge leap forward only after he began playing with airplanes and then an electronic flight simulator—because that led him to read the flight manual. And that led to discovery of flight simulator communities on the Internet, which led to mock airplane battles, which led to communicating with squadron leaders, which led to spelling and writing, which ultimately got Ben into Swarthmore, where he is now finishing his freshman year.
Given the lack of formal demands, Sudbury attracts its share of sullen and shy teens short on motivation. Stephanie was sinking in her SAT-pressured public high school when she decamped in junior year for Sudbury (her friends derisively called it "day care") for "the sole purpose of avoiding college." For several months, she puffed and sunned her days away on Smoking Rock. In time, she drifted over to the music barn. There she picked up a flute again and began playing purely for pleasure. Two years later she selected a college specifically for its new arts center.
Jessica was severely depressed in her community's high school. Numerous friends "shared my indifference, but they were content with their apathy. I was tortured by it." Her parents agreed to a change, but adapting to Sudbury was difficult. Jessica was shy. She brooded. She sat at the edge of the sewing room, pretty much the crossroads of the school, a large space on the first floor of the mansion where there's always animated debate or a raucous card game around a huge table. For a long time she just listened. Eventually she began contributing to political arguments, discussions of personal beliefs "and philosophies of education and just about everything else." Conversation and debate, she insists, were the source of her education.
Current educational theory corroborates her assertion. Increasingly across all the sciences, there is an awareness of social capital. Researchers in a variety of disciplines believe that human interaction is critical for learning and the best learning comes about as a result of social participation. Relationships provide both the deep motivation and context for acquiring information; people are driven by the desire to understand the perspective of others. Studies have shown that peer engagement, for example, clicks on both intellectual engagement and learning persistence amongst students.
School government is a primary route to self-mastery at Sudbury. At weekly town hall-like school meetings, every student, like every staff member, has one vote, and students govern the school completely, debating and deciding on staff hires, budgets and all rules. That 5-year-olds have as much say as 17-year-olds may explain why all sit raptly through a two-hour meeting.
Day-to-day, an elected eight-person judicial council representing every age group enforces the rules voted in school meetings. A student might be charged with bringing illegal substances on campus or disturbing someone else's right to quiet; students and staffers alike can file a complaint; they come to see it as a way of protecting their special community. Over time, almost everyone serves on JC. Being able to judge and sentence one's peers creates confidence in the fairness of the school. In two days of JC meetings, I never saw a student defiant or defensive about even serious charges against him. All were keenly aware they had betrayed the trust placed in them. Some calmly presented exculpatory evidence, but all accepted the punishment handed down, from extra clean-up duty to short-term suspensions that could inconvenience their whole family.
There's only one graduation requirement and over 95 percent of students meet it. They have to write and present a thesis about how they're prepared to be an adult. It takes time to write, even more time to figure out. "Even kids who've never written before are articulate," says Greenberg, "because they have something to say."
About 50 percent of students go directly to college. Some choose to travel or try other things first. Many sample college while at Sudbury by taking courses at Northeastern University or Harvard Extension School—sometimes to reassure themselves that they can do the work, sometimes to further a long-standing interest, sometimes for the sheer challenge. They import the information to Sudbury and feed the general conversational din.
No doubt about it, Sudbury students throw college admissions officers into a quandary. "They structure their own education and have no educational documents," laments Martha Pitt, director of admissions at the University of Oregon, "while we need to make sure a student is prepared for success." But she finds that those from a nontraditional background who prove their proficiency do very well there. "So we welcome them."
Most make college a deliberate choice on their own timetable—82 percent enroll within six years of graduation—not something they simply hurtle on to, driven by parental expectations. Jeffrey Hohl has a 16-year-old son who wants to be a marine. "I'm not thrilled, but he has to decide that for himself." Another son, a 17-year-old senior, has no idea what he wants to do next year. Hohl isn't worried; it took him two stabs to get through college himself. "He'll probably struggle for a while with some low-level jobs. But that in itself is an education. When he's ready to take on some grander goals, which will probably include college, he'll do it."
Students have become lute-makers, auto technicians, musicians, equestrian-farmers, dedicated environmentalists. Some have started their own companies at 18. Others take retail or service jobs to get money for travel abroad for a year or two. Some continue their education cautiously, going on to community college. They do what they do not by default or by obligation but from a sense of understanding what they're doing and why.
A longitudinal study of graduates—now numbering over 800—shows that Sudbury alumni take an increasing amount of time between high school and college. "The opening of vistas in the 21st century has affected everyone," says Greenberg. But the students go on to lead deeply satisfying lives. Most are unusually resilient. Almost all feel that they are in control of their destiny. In disproportionately high numbers—42 percent—Sudbury graduates become entrepreneurs. The alumni study shows that a "spectacularly high number" pursue careers in the arts—music, art, dance, writing, acting. Math, business and education are popular routes, too.
Since 1991, more than three dozen Sudbury-type schools have sprouted around the country and the world. A few months ago, I visited De Ruimte (The Room) in Soest, near Amsterdam in the Netherlands. As at Sudbury Valley, the youngest and longest-term students are largely from well-educated families that have the confidence to buck convention.
It may be that the culturally rich environments at home contribute the lion's share to how they turn out, and the kids would do well in any school that didn't destroy motivation. It may be that the Sudbury-style schools work so well because they are small: Their values have a chance to spread by contagion, and bad choices are constrained by the power of social approval. No one can say for sure.
But on a 10-acre estate in Massachusetts, 200 kids are having a hell of a time preparing for the future. And not one student needs a diagnosis of ADHD or any learning disability to fit into the program.