Children Educate Themselves IV: Lessons from Sudbury Valley
For 40 years, children have educated themselves at this school.
Posted Aug 13, 2008
The Sudbury Valley School has, for the past 40 years, been the best-kept secret in American education. Most students of education have never heard of it. Professors of education ignore it, not out of malice but because they cannot absorb it into their framework of educational thought.
The Sudbury Valley model of education is not a variation of standard education. It is not a progressive version of traditional schooling. It is not a Montessori school or a Dewey school or a Piagetian constructivist school. It is something entirely different.
To understand the school, one has to begin with a completely different mindset from that which dominates current educational thinking. One has to begin with the thought: Adults do not control children's education; children educate themselves.
But the secret is getting out, spread largely by students and others who have experienced the Sudbury Valley School directly. Today at least two dozen schools throughout the world are modeled after Sudbury Valley.
I predict that 50 years from now, if not sooner, the Sudbury Valley model will be featured in every standard textbook of education and will be adopted by many public school systems. In 50 years, I predict, today's approach to education will be seen by many if not most educators as a barbaric remnant of the past. People will wonder why the world took so long to come to grips with such a simple and self-evident idea as that upon which the Sudbury Valley School is founded: Children educate themselves; we don't have to do it for them.
In the last posting, I summarized evidence that hunter-gatherer children learn the extraordinary amount that they must to become effective adults through their own self-directed play and exploration. In the posting before that, I pointed out that children in our culture learn many of the most difficult lessons they will ever learn before they start school, entirely on their own initiatives, without adult direction or prodding. And now, based on the experiences of the Sudbury Valley School, I contend that self-education works just as well for school-aged children and adolescents in our culture as it does for preschoolers and for hunter-gatherers.
For many years, I have had the opportunity to observe the Sudbury Valley School, both as the father of a student who went there and as an academician using the school as a resource to study play and self-directed learning. Here, I'll tell you a little about the school.
First, a few mundane facts. The school was founded 40 years ago and has been in continuous operation since then. It is a private day school, in Framingham, Massachusetts, open to students age four on through high-school age.
The school is not in any sense elitist. It admits students without regard to any measures of academic performance, and it operates at a per-pupil cost that is about half that of the surrounding public schools. The school currently has about 200 students and 10 adult staff members. It is housed in a Victorian mansion and a remodeled barn, which sit on 10 acres of land in a part of town that was largely rural when the school began operating. Now, the more remarkable facts concerning the school's mode of operation:
The school operates as a participatory democracy
The Sudbury Valley School is first and foremost a community in which children and adolescents experience directly the privileges and responsibilities of democratic government. The primary administrative body is the School Meeting, which consists of all students and staff members.
In one-person-one-vote fashion, the School Meeting, which meets once a week, creates all of the school's rules, makes decisions about school purchases, establishes committees to oversee the school's day-to-day operation, and hires and fires staff members. Four-year-olds at the school have the same vote as do older students and adult staff members in all of this.
No staff members at the school have tenure. All are on one-year contracts, which must be renewed each year through a secret-ballot election. As the student voters outnumber the staff by a factor of 20 to 1, the staff who survive this process and are re-elected year after year are those who are admired by the students. They are people who are kind, ethical, and competent, and who contribute significantly and positively to the school's environment. They are adults that the students may wish in some ways to emulate.
The school's rules are enforced by the Judicial Committee, which changes regularly in membership but always includes a staff member and students representing the full range of ages at the school. When a student or staff member is charged by another school member with violating a rule, the accuser and the accused must appear before the Judicial Committee, which determines innocence or guilt and, in the latter case, decides on an appropriate sentence. In all of this, staff members are treated in the same way as students. Nobody is above the law.
The school does not interfere with students' activities
Students are free, all day, every day, to do what they wish at the school, as long as they don't violate any of the school's rules. The rules, all made by the School Meeting, have to do with protecting the school and protecting students' opportunities to pursue their own interests unhindered by others.
School members must not make noise in designated "quiet rooms," misuse equipment or fail to put it away when finished, deface school property, use illegal drugs on campus, or behave in any way toward another person that makes that person feel harassed. Behaviors of those sorts are the fodder of Judicial Committee complaints.
None of the school's rules have to do with learning. The school gives no tests. It does not evaluate or grade students' progress. There is no curriculum and no attempt to motivate students to learn.
Courses occur only when students take the initiative to organize them, and they last only as long as the students want them. Many students at the school never join a course, and the school sees no problem with that.
The staff members at the school do not consider themselves to be teachers. They are, instead, adult members of the community who provide a wide variety of services, including some teaching. Most of their "teaching" is of the same variety as can be found in any human setting; it involves answering sincere questions and presenting ideas in the context of real conversations.
The school is a rich environment for play and exploration, and therefore for learning
Learning at Sudbury Valley is largely incidental. It occurs as a side effect of students' self-directed play and exploration. The school is a wonderful place to play and explore. It provides space and time for such activities. It also provides equipment—including computers, a fully equipped kitchen, a woodworking shop, an art room, playground equipment, toys and games of various sorts, and many books. Students also have access to a pond, a field, and a nearby forest for outdoor play and exploration.
Those who develop a special interest, which needs some new piece of equipment, might convince the School Meeting to buy it, or they might raise the money and buy it themselves by some means such as selling cookies in the school.
The most important resource at the school, for most students, is other students, who among them manifest an enormous range of interests and abilities. Because of the free age mixing at the school, students are exposed regularly to the activities and ideas of others who are older and younger than themselves.
Age-mixed play offers younger children continuous opportunities to learn from older ones. For example, many students at the school have learned to read as a side effect of playing games that involve written words (including computer games) with students who already know how to read. They learn to read without even being aware that they are doing so.
Much of the students' exploration at the school, especially that of the adolescents, takes place through conversations. Students talk about everything imaginable, with each other and with staff members, and through such talk, they are exposed to a huge range of ideas and arguments. Because nobody is an official authority, everything that is said and heard in conversation is understood as something to think about, not as dogma to memorize or feedback on a test.
Conversation, unlike memorizing material for a test, stimulates the intellect. The great Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky argued, long ago, that conversation is the foundation for higher thought; and my observations of students at Sudbury Valley convince me that he was right. Thought is internalized conversation; external conversation with other people gets it started.
Hundreds of graduates attest to the school's educational effectiveness
My own first study of the Sudbury Valley School, many years ago, was a follow-up study of the graduates. Since that time, the school itself has conducted several studies of graduates, which have been published as books. All of these studies have shown that the school works well as an educational institution.
Graduates of Sudbury Valley can be found today in the whole range of careers that are valued by our society. They are skilled craftsmen, entrepreneurs, artists, musicians, scientists, social workers, nurses, doctors, and so on. Those who chose to pursue higher education had no particular difficulties getting into colleges and universities, including highly selective ones, or performing well there once admitted. Many others have become successful in careers without going to college.
More important, former students report that they are happy with their lives. They are almost unanimous in reporting that they are glad that they attended Sudbury Valley and in believing that the school prepared them better than a traditional school would have for the realities of adult existence. To a considerable degree they maintain, in adulthood, the playful (and that means focused and intense as well as joyful) attitude to careers and life that they developed and refined while at the school.
If you are interested in learning more about the Sudbury Valley School, a good place to start is with the school's website. The leading philosopher of the school, and also one of the school's founders, is Daniel Greenberg. His books, and other books about the school, can be found at the school's website. Greenberg's most recent book, which I recommend, is "Turning Learning Right Side Up," co-authored with the noted business professor and innovator Russell Ackoff.
My own interest in this and future postings is not to promote Sudbury Valley as an institution, but to help create a dialogue about play, curiosity, human nature, and education that is informed, in part, by the experiences of the school. So far I have only scratched the surface. I'm sure that for most readers what I have said here raises many more questions than it answers. Ask away, and don't hesitate to include your doubts and objections.
1. There is one exception to the statement that the school does not evaluate students. Students who wish to graduate with a high school diploma must prepare a written thesis defending the statement that they have prepared themselves for responsible adult life. That thesis is defended orally and evaluated by a panel of adults who are staff members at other Sudbury-model schools.
2. My study of the graduates, co-authored with David Chanoff, was published in the American Journal of Education, Volume 94, pp 182-213. The school's more recent studies of the graduates have been published by the Sudbury Valley School Press and can be found at the school's website.