After four months of working at a Sudbury school, I am still amazed at how different our approach to education is, and I am sad that very few people know about it. In this blog entry, I give a brief overview of how the Sudbury philosophy is different from traditional education.
When you think of education, you are probably thinking of other-directed education. You think of teachers telling you what to do. Self-directed education puts the learner in the driver’s seat of their education. The student decides what to do. This can happen at home (called unschooling or open path homeschooling) or in school. If the school community is organized in a democratic way, it is called democratic education. Sudbury schools are a particular way how to run a school, modeled after the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, USA. Sudbury Valley School was founded in 1968 and now has 140 students between 4 and 19 years. Today, there are over 50 schools worldwide that call themselves Sudbury schools. An example of a democratic school that is not a Sudbury school is the Summerhill School in the United Kingdom, founded in 1921 and still operating today.
I am an advocate of self-directed education, so if children want to stay home and do unschooling, I fully support that. At the moment, this is legal in the USA and many other countries but not in Germany. Personally, I like the idea to come together as a community, and I like the idea of running a community in a democratic way. That’s why I am learning as much as I can at Diablo Valley School in California right now.
Daniel Greenberg, Co-founder of Sudbury Valley School
What is the difference between other- and self-directed education?
1) Perception of children
Other-directed education: Children are incomplete adults. Children need to be shaped and taught by adults, otherwise they become spoiled, irresponsible, failed adults. The responsibility for a child’s education lies 100% with the teacher. Children are not competent to live their lives, they are overwhelmed by lots of situations. It is the adult’s responsibility to prevent children from making decisions about their lives because they will make the wrong decisions.
Self-directed education: Children are human beings worthy of the same respect as adults. Children are competent to run their own lives. The responsibility for a child’s education lies 100% with the child. They know best what they want and what is good for them, so they should be given the freedom to make decisions about their everyday life, e.g. what they want to do, what they want to eat, what clothes they want to wear, what they spend their pocket money on. (Note: I don’t mean we should grant them every wish. The needs of others also have to be taken into account, and there are circumstances we cannot change.)
From this perception of children, the whole philosophy and every-day practice naturally follows, both for other- and self-directed education.
2) Basic features of educational system
Other-directed education: Since children are not competent to manage their education, adults come up with what, when, where, how and with whom they should learn. Break knowledge down into pieces and determine at what age they should know it. Divide students into groups by age. Divide the student’s day into time slots, allocate student groups and time slots to teachers. Give the teacher a way to make the students do what the teacher wants (grades). Test and grade often. Tell the students what they should do every minute of the day.
Self-directed education: Since students are competent to manage their education, students have full control over their time. Adults do not interfere, unless asked to or if the situation is dangerous. There is no curriculum, there are no classes (unless students ask for them), no grades, no tests. Students are free to interact with other students of all ages (5 to 18 years).
But how do children learn at a Sudbury school?
Life is the curriculum. We have a too narrow idea about what learning is, we think it happens when you put 30 students and some books into a room with a teacher for 45 minutes. In reality, you are learning all the time, and quite effectively. Humans are equipped with curiosity and the drive for autonomy. Children are eager to pick up everything that increases their autonomy, which includes skills like walking, speaking, reading, writing, calculus etc. We live in a society that communicates in written form, we use money to buy goods, and we use computers for everything. Children growing up in such an environment have a natural drive to master these basic tools.
I see this every day, for example when some 6 year-olds ask me to go to the supermarket across the street with them: They learn to read the price tags and calculate how much lollipops they can buy. That’s three-digit addition, sometimes even subtraction and multiplication, and it is happening without force, without tests or grades. They master this skill because they need it to live their lives, and because they don’t want to rely on others to help them do calculations for ever. Or when children are playing Minecraft on public servers, they learn about networks and IPs and cheats (basic programming) and possible threats that come with online communication. Oh, and of course they learn to read and write – without the help of adults.
But beyond these basics, not everybody needs to know the same things. Only you can decide what skills and knowledge you need to accomplish your goals. With younger children, this is often an unconscious process, they follow their intuition and develop exactly their personal potentials. With older students it becomes more deliberate when they start forging career plans. An outsider can never determine what is important for you to know in order to accomplish your goals – much less politicians writing a curriculum, who don’t even know you. Also, people don’t learn the same things at the same age or in the same order so we should not force them to do so. This can lead to severe psychological damage and loss of self-esteem, something that must not be the outcome of education, under any circumstance.
So they can do what they want all the time?
Yes, as long as they follow the rules. While education is unregulated, behavior is very regulated. There are around 200 rules that came into effect through School Meeting, the main decision making body of the school, where every student and every staff member has one vote. Yes, that means that the children/adolescents could overrule the adults. But in reality, the rules that get voted for are very sensible. Here are some examples from the current law book:
B2A. HARASSMENT: No one may physically or verbally harass anyone else. Physical harassment includes hitting, shoving, punching, kicking, biting, or any other type of physical violence. Play fighting is allowed.
F11. SHOES ON FURNITURE: People are allowed to stand or jump on the furniture once their shoes have been removed, except as noted below. Shoes may be permitted on furniture when necessary for performing maintenance work. Use necessary precautions in this case to protect the furniture. Shoes are not permitted on cloth upholstered seats.
B12. SALES AT SCHOOL: Any money-making venture conducted by School Meeting members while signed in at school requires School Meeting approval. School Meeting may require some compensation for the privilege of operating such a business.
All federal and state laws also apply within the school, like no alcohol for minors and so on. If someone believes that a rule has been broken, they can file a complaint with the Judicial Committee, who will investigate the case and sentence the offender if they find it necessary. The Judicial Committee consists of six children and one staff member and convenes daily. I will explain the judicial system of Sudbury schools in more detail in another blog post.
I feel many parents send their children to other-directed schools because they have gone through it themselves, and because they think it is the most responsible thing to do. They think that sending their kids to a self-directed school is irresponsible, that their children will fail at life and that this will be the parent’s fault. They fear that society, friends and relatives will look down on them. If I learned one thing about education, it is this: If you want your child to lead a happy and successful adult life, TRUST them and let them take the lead. This is the most responsible thing you can do as a parent. Your children will thank you.
Thanks for reading. I really want to know what you think about this, if there is anything that you would like me to explain in more detail, or if you want to criticize something I wrote! Please comment below or send me an email (see contact).