If you saw a person deeply absorbed in a task, what would be the worst thing you could do in that moment? Interrupt them, right? Even if it’s to help them, that interruption breaks their concentration and makes it harder for them to focus on the task on hand.
So why is that what public school teachers do all the time? They assign work in class, then they go around to point out and correct errors. In the process, students find it harder and harder to put their whole selves into it, thanks to both the constant interruptions and now worry about how they’re going to be judged.
Since psychology seems bent on proving the obvious, they’ve done a number of studies on task orientation. Sure enough, they found that constant feedback reduces concentration.
Yet another reason we aren’t constantly looking over student shoulders here at Sudbury schools. We aren’t interested in ruining their concentration. We’ll provide feedback if asked, but only after the student has decided to withdraw from the work of the activity.
It’s no wonder, then, that our students can concentrate on their chosen activities for such long periods of time.
People like to ask us about school safety. They assume, since we’re in the middle of the city, we must be in a dangerous place. Let us set those worries to rest.
First, New Britain is quite safe. We’ve been here since 2002, without a single incident. We’re near several high quality stores, as well as the park, the library, and city hall. It’s a nice area, full of decent people. Plus, the locals tend to recognize and respect our kids thanks to our off campus policy. Nobody’s going to hurt them. Even if, for some strange reason, someone were to try something, the members of the community would be looking out for their wellbeing.
Also, only as a precaution, the staff make sure to wander the halls every so often, just to make sure they know where the kids are. Not to interfere, only to see that they’re fine. And again, they always are.
And if it makes you feel any better, both our staff happen to be black belts in karate.
But that isn’t really an issue. Violent crime rates have been dropping precipitously for the last few decades. It has never been less likely in all of human history than today that a person will be hurt by another person. School safety isn’t an issue.
The following is a guest post by Jess Pillmore to the Psychology Today blog "The Learning Revolution." Jess is co-founder of a revolutionary arts education company and author of Creatively Independent: Life on Your Terms with Play, Community & Awareness. She teaches ensemble techniques, physical theatre and ideation internationally and her artistic work has been seen at the Sundance Film Festival, Off-Broadway and in national publications.
I will jump in the deep end and state: the core issue in education is ageism. A child’s individual voice, needs and methodologies are not recognized as valid solely based on age. Children are at the mercy of others interpreting, controlling and dictating their path.
This is why it is impossible to get everyone on the same page about ‘success,’ curriculum and methodologies because we are not treating those directly affected as equals.
People try to control the unknown.
The future is unknown.
Children embody the future.
The idea is not revolutionary. In our life-cycle, we will all experience ageism, perpetuate it and then experience it again. It is a vicious cycle of control, protection, distrust, ‘best interest at heart,’ and ‘we know better.’ The revolution is stopping the cycle. Not watering it down to a more bearable degree, as we’ve done for generations, but stopping it outright.
“More and more, I have come to believe that the greatest reform required in our schools is the abolition of that chasm between young and old which perpetuates paternalism. Such dictatorial authority gives a child an inferiority that persists throughout life; as an adult, he merely exchanges the authority of the teacher for that of the boss.” (A. S. Neill, Summerhill’s founder)
I believe, on a visceral level, adults remember how wrong it felt to experience ageism. Freedom taken away—bit by bit or in distinct moments—by those older than us. We remember.
But mixed with time and resignation, this memory can be heard as, “I turned out okay so it must not have been that bad.” Yes, we did turn out okay, meaning we survived, because children are resilient. But let’s not confuse the issue. We did not prosper because of this control but rather in spite of it. We learned as children how to survive in a world that rewards conformity and maturity. We learned how to read the signs, obey those in power and get around arbitrary rules by any means necessary. We found ways to exist inside a system that did not value us as people with purpose, self-knowledge and inherent skills to navigate within the world. We did all this with the primal instinct to survive.
That survival is largely based on our inclusion into our community. We are social animals. We need each other. Rebelling against the community can have life or death consequences at certain stages of our lives.
Unfortunately, needing help is often interpreted as weakness in our culture. Weakness is equated with low-status. Thus children, even though they are in fact, evolutionarily speaking, the next and more refined level of our species, are looked at as low-status. And as we have witnessed throughout history, those labeled ‘low-status’ are the most threatened to be denied basic human rights... the most basic, the right to be free.
“I doubt there has ever been a human culture, anywhere, at any time, that underestimates children’s abilities more than we North Americans do today. Our underestimation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because by depriving children of freedom, we deprive them of the opportunities they need to learn how to take control of their own behavior and emotions.” (Peter Gray, Free to Learn)
In order to understand the world, children perpetuate ageism through modeling. They start daydreaming of the day they get out of this low-status prison with ‘When I grow up...’, ‘When I live in my own house...’ and ‘When I have kids....’ A glimmer of hope for when they are in control of their own lives.
The ripple affect is felt in all aspects of our lives becoming part of our ‘natural’ vocabulary, a lens in which we view the world. Parallels are seen in styles of business management, art creation, religion and politics. It is our earliest lesson that we interpret, challenge, embody and translate into other mediums.
So what is the alternative? Trust and equality. They are the biggest risks with the most rewards. A community message to children saying:
As Peter Gray put in Free to Learn, “You are competent. You have eyes and a brain and can figure things out. You know your own abilities and limitations. Through play and exploration you will learn what you need to know. Your needs are valued. Your opinions count. You are responsible for your own mistakes and can be trusted to learn from them. Social life is not the pitting of will against will, but the helping of one another so that all can have what they need and most desire. We are with you, not against you.”
A community of adults who love, trust and respect children. A community who believes that caring for someone means being present and available without dictating and mapping out their path.
With hope, I am addressing that which feels horrible and shameful: ageism and controlling children. I do it myself, it is a struggle in class, a struggle in my home but how else do we change if not to call a spade a spade? How can we evolve unless we let go of shame and acknowledge past injustices and false beliefs?
I propose a litmus test for the education revolution. (Caution: even though it feels like it holds room for grey areas, it is strictly yes or no.)
“Do you believe that children know themselves better than we know them?”
Answer. Sit with it. Ask yourself why.
Ask your student or child. Ask why. Listen.
The revolution is here.
One of the many worries of potential parents is the idea that if we don’t tell the kids what to do, they won’t do anything. Of course, we assure them, it’s quite impossible to do nothing. Even if you’re sitting still, you’re still thinking.
But activity is another thing that’s self-controlling. Studies show us that we are most happy when we are most productive. Just to be happy, just to avoid boredom, your child will find a way to do something meaningful. All we do is leave them the space to decide for themselves.
So don’t worry. Your kid will do something here. They won’t be able to stop themselves.
There are odes everywhere to public school teachers. And in every one, people highlight how hard it is. The long hours. The uncooperative students. The extra work. The grades. The parent calls and meetings. The need to inspire. There’s no doubt. Teaching in a traditional school is hard work.
But here’s the thing. The work is hard because it’s inefficient. Difficulty is often a sign that something can be done more effectively with less effort. Scything is harder than using a mechanical reaper. Sewing by hand is harder than using a sewing machine. And so on.
Likewise, public school teachers have a hard time of it because - either by choice or by design - they offer an education in the least efficient way possible: against the students’ wishes. So of course it doesn’t work as well, which takes more effort to force it to work even a little bit better.
Staffing at a Sudbury school can also be a hard job, but not in the same way. We may teach or discuss something a child wants to learn, or leave them alone to do it themselves. That saves most of the struggle, plus we don’t have to inspire anyone from outside or deal with the control mechanism that is grading. So, we put in the effort, and it often doesn’t feel like work. All with much better results.
A parent's role must include unwavering support for their child. Unfortunately, the our culture is often not accepting of a Sudbury education. And this makes the parents' job harder. Your child is very conscious of the fact that he is not in what most of society considers a "normal" school. If he came to the school older, he may have the feeling that he came because he failed somehow in traditional school. Despite all of the advantages your child gets from being in a place where he can truly gain power and control over his own life, he lives in a wider world which continually suggests that he is "wasting his time" or "at recess all day." You have to be sensitive to your child's natural worries, which stem from living such a different life. I'll suggest two more points, which are vital to supporting your child in such a unique school.
First, your child must know that you truly believe this is the right school for her. Your daughter looks to you to affirm that she is capable of the huge task before her--educating herself. If you show lack of confidence in her ability to educate herself, by bringing in tutors or otherwise attempting to cajole her into something (academic or otherwise) "for her own good," then she will be torn. If she has cause to think that her parents don't really believe she can educate herself, she will lose heart and can easily stop trying. Your attitude has incredible power over her confidence in her struggle to become autonomous.
Second, and related to the first point, you must put yourself in the direct firing line when adults (especially family and friends) show a lack of faith in your child's ability to educate himself. You know the type--the family friend who always announces that your son is "too smart to be wasting his time in that school." Make no mistake--an attack on the school's philosophy is an attack on the competence of children, and by extension it is an insult to your child. You have to be the grown-up, and make it clear that you will not let an insult to your child stand. Your son expects you to try and defend him against any harm; and so if another adult slanders him by suggesting that he can't possibly educate himself, and you do nothing, it suggests that you are tolerant of the slander. Which means either that you think it's true--which would be devastating--or that you are unwilling to defend him from attack--which is devastating in a very different way. Exactly how you defend your child's honor depends on the circumstance--but a quiet "it's the right school for our son, and we will not discuss this any further" can go a very long way.
In addition to all of the other tasks that fall to any parent, you must be supportive of your children in very special ways while they are enrolled in a Sudbury school. You must accept that your information about your child's day will always be sketchy or incomplete. You must trust not only your own child but all of the children and staff at the school to maintain a safe and pleasant environment for all. You must communicate your trust and faith in your children. And you must be ready to defend your child and your child's school against nay-sayers. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy.
Scott David Gray
Sudbury Valley School
From the Sudbury Valley School Featured Essays page, January 2014
This is part of a presentation that took place at Jerusalem Sudbury School on April 18, 2013.
Liam Marshall-Butler is currently a student at MLSS.