Sometimes you discover a way of doing things so obviously more effective than how you were taught that you can’t believe how twisted our society has become. The new way shows how much the systems we’ve created twist us to fit their goals, however much those goals smother and corrupt our basic humanity that served us for hundreds of thousands of years, living in harmony with our world, and still do in vanishing communities our twisted society is infecting, corrupting, and smothering.
My educational discoveries
A decade ago I heard of project-based learning.
A few years later I started teaching that way and haven’t looked back. I haven’t prepared a lecture or given a test since (I hope my students don’t feel I lectured). My students give stellar reviews, talk about the courses highly, and their projects turn into TEDx talks, Harvard talks, and coverage in the Washington Post, Forbes, Wall Street Journal, Inc., and more.
The switch led me to see the way school taught me as based in compliance, coercion, and geared toward filling me with facts, teaching me to analyze things in the abstract but not to live them.
The new (to me) way of teaching leads students to act on their values, which forces them to learn their values, not just about values in the abstract. Likewise, instead of learning about skills and about experiences that others have, they develop skills and experiences themselves through practice—that is, by living them.
Many people call this style progressive education, including Chris Lehmann, through whom I learned about it. It traces its roots to nineteenth century practices of John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and more.
I thought I had discovered the last word in learning.
I hadn’t seen anything yet
It turns out I had barely scratched the surface.
Last week, I discovered self-directed education, mainly through reading biopsychologist Peter Gray’s column Freedom to Learn, which mainly covers the Sudbury Valley school and its style of education. (I found Peter Gray through Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s New York Times piece How to Play Our Way to a Better Democracy.)
I think I’d heard wisps of Sudbury and self-directed education in passing but probably dismissed it as too esoteric to believe or likely a model that failed or I would have heard more of it. The more I read about it this past week, the more fascinated I became so I’m diving into learning about it. Also, the more I find it fits with how I believe education works. Instead of tracing its roots to the nineteenth century, it traces its roots to the dawn of humanity and before.
It resonates with my greatest life lessons, none of which came from the classroom. It does away with the parts of school that held me back from learning. It leads me to see how school distorted my view to see its bureaucracy and system as normal and universal, or even designed to help or educate me or students in general.
Here are a couple paragraphs on Sudbury’s model from Peter Gray.
The Sudbury Valley School has, for the past forty 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 fifty 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 fifty 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.
Students teach themselves. Sudbury has no curriculum, subjects, classes, or formalized educational path.
Students of all ages determine what they learn as much as adults.
Students vote on all policies with equal say as any adults, which I couldn’t believe, or expect a prominent educator to promote as more effective.
Beyond acting on their values, as they do in project-based learning, students live democracy, not live under authoritarian rules telling them about a concept of democracy at odds with how authority treats them.
The school treats them with respect. Children aren’t too stupid or inexperienced to figure out how to live, learn, and grow. By confining them and depriving them of a say, other forms of education deprive them of the ability to develop the skills they innately have.
More provocative writing on the school:
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.
Reading more led me to see in that model a lot of how I’ve created my life today—doing what I value, which inevitably results in helping others enough that they reward me back enough to live on, not buying into the belief system that you have to submit your freedom and independence to do things their way, learning and growing all the time by following my interests and connecting with people I find most interesting.
I also see what I missed growing up—why I love cleaning my room and cooking today, tasks I remember chafing and rebelling against as a child, often doing in tears under threat of violence.
Not having experienced it, I can’t say I liked it from experience, only that I think I would have. Maybe I would have found problems with it that didn’t affect the people whose writing I’ve found so far. That writing has fascinated me and inspired me to reconsider how I teach, though I work with older students. I’m also reconsidering how I live my life and how I interact with my nieces and nephews.
Don’t take my word
Don’t take my word for that style of learning. I’ll share the links of what I read about it. Partly I’m showing how much I’ve read, partly for future reference for myself, and partly because I expect some people will be as fascinated and will want to read as many articles. I put a hold on Gray’s book Free to Learn at the library so I’ll read it soon. I recommend the prologue, which is online.
Here’s what I’ve read so far. If you’re like me, you’ll read all of it and want more.
Peter Gray’s column
- The column’s home page
- Children Educate Themselves I: Outline of Some of the Evidence, Children are designed by nature to educate themselves.
- Children Educate Themselves II: We All Know That’s True for Little Kids, Watching young children learn can revolutionize our views on education.
- Children Educate Themselves III: The Wisdom of Hunter-Gatherers, How hunter-gatherer children learn without schools.
- Children Educate Themselves IV: Lessons from Sudbury Valley, For forty years children have educated themselves at this school.
- Another Example of Less Teaching Leading to More Learning, Delinquent boys made huge academic gains when freed from classroom lessons.
- Kids Learn Math Easily When They Control Their Own Learning, Math outside of school is fun, useful, and joyfully learned.
- A Brief History of Education, To understand schools we must view them in historical perspective.
- Origins of Passionate Interests: A Survey of Readers, “Follow your passions,” they say. But what do passions arise from?
- Children Teach Themselves to Read, The unschoolers’ account of how children learn to read
- When Less Is More: The Case for Teaching Less Math in School, In an experiment, children who were taught less learned more.
- They Dream of School, and None of the Dreams Are Good, In this survey, 128 adults described their recurring dreams of being in school.
- Children’s & Teens’ Suicides Related to the School Calendar, Psychiatric emergencies and youth suicides rise sharply with the school year.
- Minimally Invasive Education: Lessons from India, How thousands of impoverished children in India became computer literate.
Sudbury Valley School’s page
- Home page
- Why Does a Sudbury School Work?
- A Sudbury Valley Education: The View from Inside
- The Heart of the School, Two Takes
- On the Nature of Sports at SVS and the Limitations of Language in Describing SVS to the World
- Showing the World Who We Really Are
- The Human Condition: What it Tells us About How Children Get Educated
- The Results of Freedom
- Kingdom of Childhood: Growing Up at Sudbury Valley School
- How The School Operates
- The Significance of the Democratic Model: Self-Esteem, Self-Rule, and Self-Motivation
- The Magic of Conversation
- The Lives of Alumni
- The Sudbury Valley School Experience (contains link to a sample chapter)
- Announcing a New School… (contains link to a sample chapter)
- The Pursuit of Happiness (contains link to a sample chapter)
- Elements of a Fair Judicial System (contains link to a sample audio)
- What Sudbury Valley is About (contains link to a sample audio)
- The decline of play, Peter Gray’s TEDx talk
- Freedom to Learn, a 10-minute Peter Gray video
- The Alliance for Self-Directed Education
- Why not offer classes?, an email dialogue
- Sudbury Valley School’s Yelp reviews
Read my weekly newsletter
Subscribe for a weekly update of musings on leadership, the environment, and burpees.