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What follows is a super long, ramble-y post. Apologies in advance for lack of organization.

A conversation at an INFJ meetup with James’s friend Greg introduced me to a concept I had not hear of before: Sudbury Schools. Maybe they are a more familiar concept to Amherst planworlders, since the original Sudbury School, the Sudbury Valley School, is in Massachusetts and Amherst’s relationship to Hampshire College might make you more familiar with the ideas surrounding radically self-driven education. But I had never heard of them before and was curious to learn more.

While I was waiting for the directly related books I ordered sent to the library, I picked up Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner from the education section of the library. The part of my mind that is trained in quantitative social science is dissatisfied with Wagner’s primarily case study based presentation, even if he assures the readers that the young innovators he interviews are representative of all of the young innovators he interviewed. But the narratives he presents about the early lives of these young innovators are compelling.

Young innovators tend to have parents who are supportive of their children’s choices and passions, who give them room to play, and who question schools’ priorities when schools get in the way of their children’s interests. In Wagner’s presentation, schools are mixed blessings, and occasionally detriments for these young people as they develop and seek to pursue the three “P”s Wagner finds critical: passion, play, and purpose. Young innovators tend to find mentors who are employed at the periphery of their educational institutions, for example, at universities in non-tenure-track positions. Some of the material is in line with what I’ve read about how Google tries to select its employees.

Many of the themes of Wagner’s book are also present in the book I ordered about Sudbury School: Free At Last: The Sudbury Valley School by Daniel Greenberg. I highly recommend the book, which is short and fascinating.

Students at Sudbury schools are fully in charge of their own learning. Play is emphasized as children’s developmental “work.” Free age-mixing allows for students to learn from other students who are older and younger than they are. When students want to embark on some collective course of learning or activity, they put up signs to recruit people to their activity. They might decide that they want to learn something from a teacher, so the student would initiate an agreement with a teacher to meet at some particular time for lessons. Teachers are there as a resource for the students to consult if they want to. They are not in charge of students’ learning.

Sudbury Schools operate as a total democracy. The school is run by regular school meetings where everyone in attendance, students age 5-19, teachers, and parents, gets an equal vote. Teachers are paid at the end of each year from the net sum of all of the tuition minus the expenses of running the school. In a dramatic expression of Sudbury Schools’ democratic spirit, at the end of each year, the school votes on which teachers they want to retain.

Adolescents, in our society, spend a lot of their effort resisting what authority wants them to do and to be. Greenberg claims this doesn’t happen at Sudbury Valley School. Because the students are responsible to themselves for how they spend their time, there isn’t a “man” for the students to rebel against because they, as a member of their community, are the man.

Greenberg makes a few very striking assertions in his book.

-He asserts that even though there aren’t any teachers pushing students to learn to read, all of the students eventually learn to read. He claims there aren’t any cases of learning disabilities at Sudbury Valley. Effectively, he relegates learning disabilities to a side-effect of adults pushing children to read at too young an age. I’m not sure I quite believe that. He does have a small sample size. Nevertheless, it’s striking.

-He tells the story of a group of 9-12 year olds who hadn’t taken any math classes and whose parents and relatives were starting to become concerned. He says that he taught the students the equivalent of six years of math education--addition, subtraction, multiplication and division--in 20 hours. The implication that our schools spend so much time teaching math when they could postpone it until students are ready to learn is staggering, as is the idea that on some level, our schools may be teaching math so as to demonstrate to the world that they are fulfilling their responsibilities to teach math and not because it’s actually a useful thing to do to 6 or 7 year olds.

-He says that Sudbury Valley has three distinct groups of adolescents: adolescents who have been at Sudbury Valley since they were young, adolescents who were “trouble-makers” at their previous schools, and adolescents who were high achievers at their old schools. He asserts that of that group, the high achievers have the most trouble at Sudbury Valley because they are used to trying to achieve the approval of their teachers, and when their teachers are not so immediately forthcoming with their praise, they have trouble knowing what to do. It’s an interesting comment on the power dynamics of traditional schooling. Frankly, I think it’s a problem I had coming out of school, and going into my PhD program with an advisor who subscribed to Sheldon Kopp’s existentialist worldview.

Overall, Greenberg’s account is so rosy, so idyllic, that I wonder what he’s missing and what might be found out from other sources. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something a little miraculous in putting responsibility for their own learning into children’s hands.

There are a lot of things about Sudbury Schools that are open questions to me. I’m curious about how Sudbury School alumni fare in the job world as underlings, when they don’t get to self-direct. Greenberg claims that the cooperative play and projects that Sudbury students engage in teaches them how to work with others in a way that the largely individual work in traditional schools does not, and I believe him. But much of the work world has explicit hierarchies that don’t explicitly exist between students or even between students and teachers at the intensely egalitarian schools. A great many Sudbury students go on to be entrepreneurs, which could suggest they learn, in school and then maybe in the work world, that they don’t want to work for other people. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is certainly a thing of which to be aware.

I’m curious whether something like the Tyranny of Structurelessness dynamic might be at play in Sudbury Schools.

A lot of people claim that young children need structure. I’m curious how the need for structure plays out at Sudbury schools, or if such a need exists for young people. Greenberg says of the young children at Sudbury Valley that they “are too busy to talk, to eat, to sit still. They never walk; they run. They don’t tire. Until they get home.” I wonder whether the people who talk about young children’s need for structure mistake structure for stimulation. But I also wonder whether the Sudbury Schools might be missing something there.

I’m also curious about the intersection of Sudbury schools and socioeconomic class. It’s possible that Sudbury schools are able to function as intended because the families that choose to send their children to Sudbury schools are unusually independent-minded members of the middle and upper-middle classes. I wonder what would happen with other students, especially students whose parents don’t actively concern themselves with their children’s education or whose parents don’t provide structure or model discipline. From what I’ve read about how childrens’ upbringing varies by their parent’s occupation and socioeconomic class, it is pretty clear to me that parents want their children to learn the values that allowed the parents to make money. For upper-middle class parents, this is frequently self-direction, which is congruent with a Sudbury education. But for lower-middle or working class parents who make their money in low wage, repetitive work, it is often discipline and respect for authority. At very least the latter and maybe the former are opposed to the values one would learn at Sudbury school (see Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods). Parents might object.

I also picked up Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto. He’s very extreme in his criticism of traditional schooling. I think most people are well-intentioned most of the time, especially when it comes to children’s education. This makes me disinclined to believe his theory that modern schooling represents a giant conspiracy on the part of the rich to blunt people’s potential. Daniel Greenberg makes some of the same points in Free At Last about how the structure of traditional schools tends to suppress rather than foster children’s innate curiosity and intelligence, but because he is giving a positive example rather than going on jeremiad, his book is much easier to digest.

I’m also planning to learn more about Montessori education, which seems to share some features with Sudbury education but to be more structured. I wonder if the contrast between Montessori educational methods and Sudbury educational methods can shed some light on another criticism of Sudbury education, which is that it doesn’t turn out well-rounded students with a knowledge of a variety of content areas.

I don’t have a totally set opinion about whether there is something really inherently valuable about our culture’s decision that children need to know about fiction/language, history/social studies, math, science, foreign language, sports and art. As many teachers will agree, just because you teach a subject, there is no guarantee that the students are going to remember it. That specific set of subjects could just be a historical relic. Part of me says “yes, science education is important!” and “yes, history education is important!” etc. because I see the value in each of these fields. But I also see value in some fields that aren’t universally taught to young people by our schools and that I think it’s valuable to know: psychology, sociology, economics, civics, cooking, sewing, plumbing, basic construction skills, accounting, non-fiction writing, how to do your taxes.

I’m sure there is an argument in teaching these subjects because that is what everyone else does, and knows, and maybe simply fitting into society is what following this curriculum guarantees. But I don’t think that’s a good enough argument unto itself.

The proponents of Sudbury education tend to agree with their opponents who object that Sudbury schools don’t produce well-rounded students. But they say that the freedom to pursue their interests, and pursue them with vigor, teaches them how to concentrate, develops discipline, and teaches them to learn and reason. Sudbury education allows students to set their own standards for their work, and develop their ability to criticize themselves when they do not meet those standards. Proponents would say that Sudbury graduates graduate knowing how to teach themselves new content areas if they need them. I’d be curious to know if this really is the case, if Sudbury graduates ever get frustrated because their education lacked something that they now find to be essential and they have passed the developmental point where they can teach themselves if they really want to.

Each year when tax time roles around, I think to myself that it would be really good if I could fully understand our tax system. Sudbury proponents, proponents of individually-driven learning, might say that the fact that I don’t actually try indicates I don’t really want to. They might have a point. But I wonder whether this sort of reasoning (“if you don’t do something, then it indicates you don’t really want to do that thing”) makes a hash of the Sudbury proponent’s claim that a Sudbury education develops discipline.

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October 2013

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