No curriculum, no tests, no grades?

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.

other-vs-self-directed-edu-diagram

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.

   “The starting point for all our thinking was the apparently revolutionary idea that a child is a person, worthy of full respect as a human being.

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).

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Students, in charge of their own time, like to socialize a lot. This is how you acquire social skills, this is is how you learn about the world, other people’s opinions, and how to play ukulele.

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?

The Judicial Committee is run by two clerks, usually students.

The Judicial Committee is run by two clerks, usually students. It manages cases where rules have been broken.

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.

Irresponsible?

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).

13 thoughts on “No curriculum, no tests, no grades?

  1. well written, alex. I agree with you. we do need many more people believing in self-directed education to make it actually happen in Germany. the alternative schools we’ve got at the moment are great, but there are not at all enough of them established yet.

  2. So very interesting – and exciting. As an educator/freelance theatre practitioner studying for an MA Creative Practices in Education this is great for my research focus – self-directed learning and the individual. Inspiring and well expressed Alex.

  3. I appreciate this article. As a staff member at a Sudbury School, I’m always looking for more resources to help educate and support our families.

    • I think I don’t know enough about other democratic schools to thoroughly answer this question. I know that Summerhill always offers courses, regardless of student’s demand for them. I think Hadera (Israel) also has a stronger focus on courses than Diablo Valley School, I have seen a snippet about their school in a documentary where many students were engaged in math classes. Students taking math classes was depicted as proof that democratic education is actually working.
      My opinion is that whenever you offer something without asking for demand, you are sending the signal that these courses are more important than your own initiative, that this is something you should be doing. Even though I am a trained Mathematics teacher, I think math is very much overrated. I think math received this high value only because it was easy to test. Personally, I draw satisfaction from engaging in mathematical arguments, and math does play a huge role in many businesses. But I feel a lot of students want to succeed in math because it is deemed as an important part of their education (as an end), not because it will be useful for their lives or their personal careers (as a means).

  4. I think this is awesome!we dont have this kind of school in malaysia…im a daycare and preschool operator..and oneday,will creat just a school like this here,wish me luck!

  5. Hello Alexander,

    I like most of your post and I like self-directed education. My children go to Sudbury in Ghent.

    As researcher, years ago, I studied self-organized systems like swarms in nature, and that is how the world works also for us humans. Sudbury is for me an example of a self-organized system based on politics. Children learn how to make their little society function for ‘more or less’ everybody, like our society.

    In Sudbury Ghent (maybe in other Sudbury schools also?) children do not get far if they do not know how to function in the Sudbury’s political system. Children have to learn to go to the school meeting and be part of the committees to ‘decide’ something in the school, or to propose anything. My boy for example has a lot of initiative and he asks me often to stay at home so I support him a bit with my computer knowledge (I am a computer science engineer). He goes to school and he asks there very little, and the staff members do not support him extra to check what he wants to do, or what he need help for. He is suppose to expose his ideas/needs/initiatives at the school meeting or other committees.

    It is also like that in our ‘real’ society. That is why I do not like the following text you wrote “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.”

    Politicians job is to take decisions about many different aspects of our society. They go to a meetings to expose their ideas. People choose them. They have gone to all the committees and done the effort to be part of the required meetings, and get involved in the different groups and activities of our political system to get far for theirselves, and for others, to help others. I personally value the work of politicians, and find very relevant what they do. It is by the way a very difficult job. I did not like your comment criticizing the job of politicians. In general, I do not like people criticizing politicians, because often these people are just outsiders criticizing the system, and do not contribute to make it better.

    What I would suggest to Sudbury leaders, staff, students and families is to get unified, be part of a political party, or make a new one, and apply in ‘real life’ what you do at Sudbury every day, politics. Then make a law about “politicians not being able to write a curriculum”.

    Easy 🙂

    For the rest, I love your post.

    Cheers,
    Liliana.

    • Thank you Liliana. I did not mean to devalue the work politicians are doing in general. I was trying to point out that they are deceived when they think they are doing something good when they write a curriculum, when in reality, they are making things more difficult for our children. I agree that we need more political influence to make that happen, but before influence comes awareness.

      A little comment on what you shared about your son and the computer skills: It sounds like you are a little disappointed that the staff do not ask your son how they can support his computer skills learning process? I have seen similar situations where students do little “academic” work at school, but then come home and research topics in depth on the internet. I think this is because a Sudbury school is mainly a social experience. And this is good, since social skills are much harder to acquire than knowledge, and are also more important for success. The children *will* seek out ways to get the knowledge they want, and I think it is great that he is so interested in what you have to share with him!

      • Hello again Alexander, I think we disagree on one point again 🙂
        I admit Sudbury schools are very rich as a social experience, and less about intellectual knowledge, but I do not agree with you that social skills are much harder to acquire than knowledge. We humans, are social being, we were born like that. Some people may have born with greater social skills than others, just like some people are born with higher IQs for maths for example. We talk here about a social and emotional IQ.
        So, the Sudbury system favors people with higher social skills than others. My son is still young. He is learning there to talk! That is great! 🙂 …. so at some point maybe he will also manage to get others to do more activities with computers.

        But again Sudbury is a democratic system that has leaders, the founders of these little communities. In any democratic system, of the ones we know now, there are flows and there are people who can influence other more.

        In my specific situation, my boy has dared to say in the school meeting that he wants me as a Staff. Do you know what he is learning at the moment? Lobbying at the school. The founder of the school, started to talk negative about me with people at the school, in front of my 2 kids who are students there (my kids told me). The founder thinks I am not good for the school, and that I will change the school.

        Can you imagine what it is for my kids to hear negative comments about their mother at their school? And can you imagine how it feels to be outside of the system (like me now) and not even having the right to go to a school meeting to explain why I could be great for the Sudbury school?

        This is democracy in small scale 🙂 So I am posting this for awareness. 🙂 Before influence comes awareness. Well said.

        • Dear Liliana, you brought up new topics, and I feel I owe my readers a reply to clarify what I think democratic education is and isn’t.

          About social/logical IQ: Scientists disagree which factor has more influence, the genetics or the environment of the upbringing. It’s called the “nurture vs. nature” debate. But all agree that it is a mix of both. Yes, we are social beings, but we are not born with social skills — to get better, you need to practise.

          About the lobbying. I believe there are two types of lobbying: Open, sincere lobbying, and “behind the back” lobbying (also called politicking).
          Unfortunately, the latter prevails in many governments around the world. Some believe that democracy automatically includes behind-the-back lobbying. It does not. At my school we only use open lobbying, and we would criticize behind-the-back lobbying if it happened.

          I am sorry your children experience this, and I am sorry you go through this pain of behind-the-back lobbying. I urge you to seek a conversation with the people involved and use Non-Violent Commumication to explain your situation.

  6. Hello Alex,

    I think we finally agree. You previously said that Social skills are more important than knowledge, and we started the discussion about social/intellectual IQ. I am studying talents and there are of course a lot more IQs than just intellectual, social for example, and others. I know scientist do not have a clear conclusion about nature and nurture. This is like that in many fields. Scientist do not agree in everything, and that is nice! 🙂

    My opinion is that we are born with natural talents, that we can develop easier than other talents, so nature, but I believe we can learn huge amount of things, even those that are not so natural to us, so nurture. So, in Sudbury the focus go to the social/democratic aspect, which means for me that kids with more natural abilities for being social, can develop types of skills faster in this environment, than in traditional schools, which are traditionally not focus on social aspects. But, as I said other kids, with less natural social talents, can also develop them. I think we agree and now my initial post is also more clear.

    Now, going to the point of lobbying, it is very sad to experience that in such a progressive school. My kids past a hard time with it, they talked to me at home about this, but probably never at the school, because as I said, my boy who wanted me to become Staff member (because of my computer knowledge), was just 8. And he felt unpowered by the situation. I experienced personally a lot of problems in this school. And it kind of mirrors the problems in society. I was excluded by a democratic system, because the founder does not like me, I am different, I am foreigner, I think different. This happens in real democracies also, minorities are not enough protected. So I suppose this model of school works better in the US where you are used to more mixed people.

    Behind-the-back lobbying is something very bad! I am happy to hear that at your school you work with Open lobbying.

    My kids will in any case change school, and leave Sudbury Ghent, they will go to public schools that are also quite innnovative, and respect the kids also.

    I am in the US, enjoying the summer camps of the Agile Learning Centers, which by the way started because of a ‘failure’ of a Sudbury school in Manhattan. I find these schools much more in balance. They are also schools promote by Peter Gray, in the network of the Alliance for Self-Directed Education. Have a look at them. I am working hard at university level to convert to this model that is also very human, respectfull, also towards the parents.

    Warm regards,
    Liliana.

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