I recently graduated from MLSS and will be entering the next phase of my life. I wish to say one more thing before I go. I have spent the last fourteen years of my life attending MLSS. It’s hard to express all that the school has been for me; but I want to give it a try.
First, I would like to thank all of the staff at MLSS and Sudbury schools across the world, my fellow Sudbury students and their parents, who make the kind of education I had a possibility. It is the kind of education I have had that I think we could use more of within our culture. We as a society have decided that freedom and democracy are what is best for our citizens, save for those who have not been alive for long enough. I had the pleasure of becoming who I am, for the most part, in a free, democratic community. While my same age peers were experiencing the thrills of compulsory education, I was arguing about philosophy, playing games with my friends, learning the language of the Aztecs and deciding who I want to be. The freedom afforded to me by my education has not only enabled my personal and academic success, but given me a life experience which is simply better than the one I would have had, had I been restrained by a compulsory education. I would choose to live life as a child in a Sudbury school rather than a compulsory school, just as I would choose to live my life as an adult in a free nation, rather than a non-free nation.
Growing up in a Sudbury school, I have seen myself and others grow, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually; in a free and positive environment. It is widely believed that many young people are immature because they are young, and thus immature. I have seen that many young people are treated as if they were immature, and are thus so. Children are robbed of one of the most important elements of growth: the ability to make bad decisions. They are forced into every important decision of their life until they are an adult, at which point they are expected to be able to make decisions for themselves.
There is one more thing I would like to mention. There is another danger to the loss of the ability to make personal decisions beyond personal growth: quality of life. People are prone to make decisions they perceive as better for other people, than they would make for themselves. This combined with the authoritarianism inherent to the concept of compulsory education creates a negative and often hostile environment. It seems logical to state that a negative environment made up of people forced to be there will become more negative. Given that the rate of depression among children and adolescents is five percent, I don’t think the question of quality of life should be overlooked.
I will be graduating soon (hopefully), so I have been thinking a lot about the graduation process. At MLSS to graduate you must write a thesis about why you are ready to join the adult community. You also give a presentation about a topic and in a fashion of your choosing. In a traditional school at graduation you are given a piece of paper for having had the ability and willingness to follow orders for four years.
Which of these processes seem more logical?
Life is filled with problems. It is in part, the goal of education to learn how to solve these problems. Students at MLSS not only have plenty experience solving problems that occur during the School Meeting and Judicial Committee, but problems they seek out in the form of puzzles, as well.
It seems like a short logical leap to say that people who spend more time solving a greater diversity of problems will be better equipped to solve problems. Students who are free to find and solve problems do, from Rubik’s and video games to chess and riddles.
In a traditional school students are assigned teachers who were hired by someone else, normally years before the student started attending the school. At MLSS students not only have an equal vote with staff hiring and firing staff whenever there is a vacancy, but in rehiring them every year, as well.
The idea of students hiring staff often seems weird to people who have just learned about the Sudbury model; but it makes sense from the students’ perspectives. The only person who is affected more by the decision to hire a staff person than the students is the potential staff person themself.
Students are free to decide what qualities they believe are most important in a staff person and vote accordingly.
There are many parents who believe it is important to make sure their children engage in many extracurricular activities, so that they will be “well rounded.” The idea is that if the only academic engagement students experience is through classes, tests and homework their education and base of experience will be too narrow.
At MLSS we do not have to worry about the students being well rounded. They are constantly engaged in activities outside of or beyond traditional schools’ curricula. They are free to seek and test not only their own interests, but the interests of the students around them, as well. They play chess and soccer, learn how to do handstands and solve rubik’s cubes, play musical instruments, create art, learn other languages, write and cook.
In a traditional school environment extracurricular activities are something you work towards; in a Sudbury school new activities are the natural consequence of self-exploration and social interaction.
In a traditional school students are expected to learn how to be responsible by doing what
they are told. In a Sudbury school students learn how to be responsible through practice.
They already are responsible for deciding what they will do and how they will do it. Which
way do you think will produce adults who can responsibly take action?
It is common to see a parent or teacher tell a younger child to apologize after a transgression. The thought process being that it is important to teach children to apologize. Some people will even go so far as to force the other child to accept the apology.
At MLSS we do not believe it is our place to force a child to say things they may not necessarily mean. It can cause children to think that running through the ritual of apology is more important than sincerely expressing sorrow or regret and be a negative experience for both the child forced to apologize and the one forced to accept.
In a traditional school environment education happens in straight lines. What you learn in the third grade builds on the second grade, which in turn, used the first grade as its scaffolding. You go from beginner to advanced.
In a Sudbury school students do not always learn in straight lines. A student might very well start learning a subject, stop and start a different subject, and then turn back to the first. In an example such as language, this could be beneficial. For instance, if a student starts learning Spanish, stops to learn some Italian, and goes back to Spanish, their knowledge of Italian could help them with their Spanish. A student could also start learning a subject which is viewed as more advanced than a subject they do not yet know. There is no particular reason a student shouldn’t start learning calculus before learning about U.S. history.
What is success? In a traditional school success is simple - good grades are success, better grades are more success. The ultimate success is getting into a good college, which leads to a good job, which leads to a good career, which is part of a good life.
I could write a paragraph here about what success is in a Sudbury school, but I’m not. I don’t know what college is good, if any, for you. I do not know what your ideal career is. I cannot say if any of those things make you successful. I cannot define success within a Sudbury school, because I cannot define success for another person.
Once, when I was at soccer practice, a few of my teammates, who all went to traditional school, asked me if there were any teachers at my school. I asked them what they meant and:I said that a teacher is anyone who teaches. One of them asked me if there were any people who are just supposed to teach. I responded by asking if our coach was a teacher given that he taught us how to play soccer better. One of them said no, because a teacher teaches in a classroom.
In a traditional school there are people whose job it is to impart knowledge to their students. Whereas, in a Sudbury School anyone who knows something you do not can teach you. In the ideal traditional school students seek knowledge and truth from their teachers, in a Sudbury School students seek knowledge and truth from everyone.
One of the advantages of the Sudbury model is the ability students have to study subjects in such a way that makes sense given their specific circumstances. For instance, when I decided to learn more about historical linguistics, I chose to do this in part by learning two closely related languages, to see how they had drifted apart. I could already speak Spanish, so I decided to study Portuguese. Not only did I have the freedom to learn these specific languages, but I had flexibility as to how I chose to do so. I decided to learn Portuguese from Spanish, which highlighted the interesting differences and similarities between the two, allowed me to practice my Spanish while learning Portuguese and helped me not confuse one when trying to speak the other.
There are many possible variables when considering how to learn something. At MLSS we recognize this and encourage you to find the path that’s best for you, not necessarily the one that’s best for your peers.
In traditional schools there is often the idea that there are books which everyone should read. This promotes the feeling that these books are inherently important and everyone should enjoy them, which can lead to people feeling that they must try to like, or sometimes pretend to like, books that do not actually interest them. It can also lead to a sense of judgment towards people who do not appreciate books which are considered classics.
At MLSS we see that the idea that there are books which everyone should like, or even read, does not make sense. No matter the extent of my love for Shakespeare, if I force a room full of people to read and analyze Romeo and Juliet every day for two weeks, few of them would come out of the experience having gained much and fewer still would want to read more Shakespeare or actually see the play.
I am feeling fairly sick at the moment and I plan on spending tomorrow resting. This, however, does not mean that I will not do anything of any educational value.
If someone saw me tomorrow, they would see me curled under a blanket, earbuds in and with a controller or a graphic novel in my hands. They would most likely conclude that what I was doing carried no educational benefit. This is an assumption made with little information, based on the idea that what entertains us and what educates us is completely separate. The graphic novel in my hands might be in another language or explore ideas and themes in a way unique to its medium. The headphones in my ears might be playing a podcast about medical history, the history of English, psychology, linguistics, art or any number of other academic fields. The game in my hands might be a complex puzzle or strategy game; or an RPG which explores ethics or philosophy in a way which would be impossible without user input.
At MLSS we recognize that the idea that something is not educational unless it was specifically designed to be educational, or that if we do something for its entertainment value it has no educational value, are more of a hindrance than an aid when it comes to pursuing our education.
In traditional educational models people often think in terms of the one right answer. This makes sense in a setting where students must take tests to prove they have successfully learned what is taught. However, this does not make sense in any setting where more than one answer is correct.
If you were to ask someone who had been educated in a traditional American school the question “how many continents are there” you would most likely get the answer: seven. As if the number of continents was a long established fact as simple as the sky being blue. If you asked someone who had been educated in Mexico the same question, you would most likely get a different response. The number of continents there are, is not set in stone and changes depending where in the world you happen to ask.
In my experience, Sudbury students are not as attached to finding the one correct answer, and are more interested in understanding the complex truth. This is a great aid when it comes to philosophy, art or ethics, where “the one correct answer” can be almost unheard of.
About two hundred years B.C. Eratosthenes made the first estimation of the earth’s circumference. Well over a thousand years later, Christopher Columbus believed that he could find a new trade route to India by crossing the Atlantic. He based this belief on newer and less accurate data, leading him to believe that the earth was one third smaller than Eratosthenes’s calculation.
It is easy to look down on the people of the past for their misunderstanding of new evidence, but many apocryphal stories and outdated beliefs exist in modern society. Such as the belief that Christopher Columbus discovered that the world is round, camels carry water in their humps or eating an hour before swimming increases risk of cramping and drowning. Modern beliefs might also fit into our current scientific view of the universe, but later become outdated. It wasn’t until the 1950s that plate-tectonic theory started to become commonly accepted.
In traditional educational environments teachers give you the “truth.” In Sudbury schools students must examine the evidence and find what is best supported by the data. Which approach do you think will lead to people who are better able to consider new evidence?
In traditional school every student is taught the same things at the same times. This means that it is important that students “stay on track” or they will fall behind. They will not be able to understand the things being taught to their classmates. Falling behind is often a cause for concern when a student is ill for an extended period, transfers to a new school in the middle of the semester or cannot attend school for any other reason. When there are a large number of snow days in the same year, parents and teachers worry that an entire school might fall behind.
So, how do we make sure that students keep on track? We did away with the track. There is no reason for every student to learn the same thing at the same time. When a student calls in sick, does not grasp a concept at the same time as another student or there is a snow day, we do not worry. (The track’s like a social construct man. You can’t fall off if you don’t believe, just like prescriptive grammar)
There are many crucial components of the Sudbury philosophy. If I had to choose, I think the Judicial Committee (J.C.) would be the most important.
One especially beneficial aspect of the J.C. is its ability to promote personal growth and acceptance of mistakes. By fostering a fair, reasonable, democratic environment the J.C. manages to handle write ups without stigma. When I am written up, I do not feel ashamed. I admit I made a mistake and try to make amends.
Accepting personal mistakes is a skill and can be one of the hardest parts of being emotionally mature. Through the J.C. the Sudbury model helps students develop this skill.
In traditional schools students are all taught the same things. The idea is that everyone will learn the “essentials”. A problem arises when people are unable to agree on what is essential. One person might think that everyone who passed sixth grade history should know about the Nullification Crisis, while another might think that the Trail of Tears is more important. Obviously these two things are not mutually exclusive. However, it is impossible to teach every student all the things that one might think is an essential. Literature, a second language, a musical instrument, advanced mathematics, art, world history, Native American history and computer sciences are all things that one might think is an essential.
I met someone who was learning Portuguese and had been repeatedly told that Portuguese was useless. Brazil alone has a population of two hundred million people and the eighth largest economy. Not to mention the cultural value of learning Portuguese. Is Portuguese an essential for the general American population? No. Could it be very useful for a few people? Yes.
So how do you decide what is an essential? Sudbury schools have the answer: we let the students decide for themselves what is essential.
In traditional schools students are taught a subject and then given homework and tested on that subject. This process can have the negative side effect of discouraging mistakes, as they become associated with lower grades and failure.
Mistakes serve an important function in the learning process. Babies do not wake up one day speaking their native language fluently after months of only being able to communicate by crying. They learn their native language through years of mistakes. Neither do they learn to walk in a single moment of new found grace and balance, nor does a new cook become a master chef without mistakes.
In Sudbury Schools we recognize that mistakes are a fundamental part of learning any new skill. From mathematics to a musical instrument or a second language the road to mastery is paved with mistakes.
Imagine two Spanish students. The first student wants to start speaking to Spanish speakers in their community as quickly as possible. The second student wants to study Spanish in depth as an intellectual pursuit. The first student wants to learn the basic grammar and vocabulary of the Spanish variant(s) spoken near them to start speaking Spanish right away. The second Spanish student wishes to study Spanish as a whole, learning about Spanish’s regionalisms and history.
They both have legitimate aspirations, but only one of them, at most, would be satisfied in a traditional educational environment. They would both likely be left feeling unsatisfied from their experience. The first would likely be annoyed by learning words and grammar not relevant to their life or from a dialect they are unlikely to hear. The second would likely want to delve into the history of words like chicle, patata, idioma, guerra and atacar which are of Aztec, Taíno, Greek Frankish and Gothic origin respectively and learn why a word like “mano” is feminine and not masculine*.
In a Sudbury school they could both learn Spanish to the level of detail they desired. Whether they wanted to be able to have quick conversation in Spanish or read Cervantes and learn about every cultural influence and sound change from Pliny the Elder to Vincente Fox.
*”mano” was derived from the Latin word “Manus” which was part of the forth declension which had no standardized singular nominative case ending. The same sound changes which caused the members of the second declension to change from an “us” ending to an “o” also effected the feminine word “manus.”
In a piece I wrote for the newsletter I mentioned students being better able to develop their Weltanschauungs; I want to expand upon that.
“Weltanschauung” is a German word which can be translated literally as “worldview.” However, they do not mean the exact same thing. “Weltanschauung” refers to a comprehensive philosophical understanding of the world, whereas “worldview” is something everyone has as a consequence of their sentience.
Sudbury students are better able to develop a Weltanschauung of their own because of the freedom afforded them. They are not told what to think or how, so they must decide for themselves how they view the world. Because of the free environment of a Sudbury school they regularly come across people or things that, either directly or indirectly, question their previous worldview. Through this process, Sudbury students learn to develop a complex ever evolving philosophical understanding of the universe.
“Age is important.” “Someone’s age lets us know what they are capable of.” “You should only be friends with people within your age group.” These thoughts are very often over represented in the zeitgeist in respect to their utility.
Recently Chuck Berry announced the upcoming release of his first new album in nearly forty years. Chuck Berry is just one example of people doing things past the age they would be expected to do them. From doing handstands to learning languages, people do things despite being “too old” all the time.
As a Sudbury student I have seen firsthand people do things later or earlier than would be expected of them in a traditional educational environment. I myself learned to read later then would be expected in a traditional school.
So, if age is not a good indication of when people are ready to learn certain things, why do we use it as the basis for when we teach certain concepts? In Sudbury schools, we simply don’t. We allow students to decide when they are ready, whether that’s later or earlier than normal does not matter all that much in the end.
Creativity necessitates freedom. If you have literally no freedom, you cannot be creative. Imagine trying to write a novel when you do not have the freedom to create the protagonist, antagonist and story arc and there is already a description of everything in the book. You can see that you cannot really write a book without the freedom of deciding what happens in it.
Many traditional schools restrict freedom in the in their students’ artistic expression. While they may offer classes in subjects like music or English, they teach them in a structured manner, giving students a premise or story arc to write or telling them what to paint and how to paint it. This renders normally creative activities as uncreative as reading a “choose your own adventure.”
In Sudbury schools students have the necessary freedom to be creative. They do things like write stories and essays, make video games, paint, play music or many younger students simply play imaginary games. In a Sudbury school, creativity is more like creating your own “choose your adventure,” not just reading one.
Anyone who has been near a young child know they are filled with questions. They ask questions like: what does a rock do, how do rainbows work, why isn’t the sky purple and what does “antidisestablishmentarianism” mean. This curiosity is a cornerstone of how children learn about their home, language, culture and world.
In many traditional educational environments children can feel discouraged from following through on their curiosity. They can be punished for asking “stupid” or the “wrong” questions. They are often also forced to learn about topics in which they are not interested and punished for asking about what they are genuinely curious about.
In Sudbury schools children are free to follow through on their curiosity. They ask how birds fly and google what fire is, and no one will tell them it’s time to learn about something else instead. They are free to explore the world’s many wonders. When people are allowed to be curious they are allowed to become competent individuals who understand the world in which they live.
Because Sudbury students are open to the idea that learning can take many different forms, they are more open to utilizing a greater variety of resources, many of which aren’t commonly seen as educational, to further their academic pursuits. To learn what they want to learn, Sudbury students very often search for resources and decide for themselves what they believe are the most useful. Sudbury students might also find creative ways to use learning resources.
I personally have used many resources to learn Spanish. I have had classes on Spanish grammar here at MLSS, played video games in Spanish, talked to native and non-native speakers in Spanish and watched telenovelas in Spanish. I have taken many steps to make Spanish part of my daily life. When I watch TV, play a game or listen to music I very often do it in Spanish. I have changed my phone’s and my Gmail’s language to Spanish, so the first words I see when I go to look something up are in Spanish, and when I do look it up I see Spanish results. I have also used Duolingo to learn languages from Spanish, either to help my Spanish or because that course is only available from Spanish.
Sudbury students are not afraid to use unconventional learning methods if it suits our needs. We see learning opportunities where others very often see wastes of time.
Liam Marshall-Butler is currently a student at MLSS.