In arguments about the propriety of one activity or another, you'll often see one side saying it should be banned because of all the dangers, while another side argues it should be allowed and even encouraged because of all the benefits. But the world is far more complicated than that. It deserves a more nuanced argument. Most things aren't all good or all bad, but a combination of both. And for that reason, they should be allowed, so that everyone may weigh the risks and rewards themselves.
For example, there is evidence that screen time within the last 90 minutes before bedtime can disrupt natural sleep cycles. However, there is also evidence that video games increase executive function and decrease anxiety. Wouldn't it then make sense to let each person decide which means more to them and whether to limit their screen time or not?
Or take the eating of meat. Animal protein increases your risk of cancer, especially processed meat. But a recent longitudinal study also found that people who eat meat along with lots of fruits and vegetables have better lifetime health outcomes than strict vegetarians, especially when it comes to mental health. Meat also improves heart health. Again, it's each person's health, so it's each person's decision which aspect of that health is more important to them.
We at Mountain Laurel see no reason why that same respect for autonomy shouldn't be extended to children, as well. It's their lives, after all, so it should be their choice when it comes to weighing activities with both risk and reward. From screen time to diet to exercise to their studies, let them decide.
One of the least effective ways to learn something is “cramming”: forcing it all into your head over several hours in one night’s sitting, so that you can remember it the next day and then forget it. It’s also so commonplace in compulsory schools that teachers pretty much expect that’s what most students will do the night before a test.
There’s no cramming here. Students learn their interests at a steady pace and keep using it on a regular basis. That’s a much more effective form of education.
The concept of a “living democracy” is introduced by Frances Moore Lappe in Educating Real World Problem Solvers as a way to revitalize democracy in the United States. Lappe envisions a dynamic culture of community cooperation and problem solving. A living democracy means people in all sectors of society directly make decisions regarding their communities’ problems, needs, and goals. She illuminates this concept further with the following excerpt: “the best solutions draw on the insights and creativity of those who have had direct experience of the problem at hand” (Lappe, 1995). People gain the skills of listening, conflict resolution, long range planning, compromise, mediation, and analytical thinking through practice (Lappe, 1994). How do we raise democratic citizens? Lappe points to the obvious: our schools. We say, Sudbury schools.
Lappe suggests creating school systems that are more than “factory models.” She wrote, “But in truth, the factory model of education allots teachers very little. They just work the learning assembly line: Screw on some science here, attach a little math there, pound in a little history, and out comes a shiny new graduate. Teachers aren’t co-creators of the process: they simply are conveyors of mandated data” (Lappe). Alternatively, we can revitalize the culture of education to create a living democracy in schools so that youth realize that democracy is not just a form of government, but a way of life (Lappe). (emphasis mine)
When first considering these ideas some imagine students with limited decision making power. Perhaps they would vote on a given set of choices for an assignment. But Sudbury schools give Lappe’s ideas new meaning. We needn't theorize about participating in a living democracy, students at MLSS are experiencing one. We fully embody the concept of a “shared culture of responsibility” (Lappe).
As the United States helps other countries establish democratic practices, it is important to take a closer look at freedom and democracy in our own country. How free are children that have to ask to do something so innately human as go to the bathroom? Why do we demand that they follow rules that they did not help form? This practice conditions them to accept a role of subordination. This has nothing to do with democracy and egalitarianism. If we want our children to be democratic citizens, then schools that practice democracy are necessary.
paraphrased from a Sego Lily Sudbury School blog post
by Tara Maher
The precautionary principle states that if we aren’t certain of the outcome of something, we should err on the side of caution and ban it. It’s the ideology that wants to ban vaccines and biotech, even though there is no evidence whatsoever that they’re harmful. But folks imagine ways that it might, possibly, maybe hurt someone. So it must be banned. Whenever a new technology or a new service is presented as a hobgoblin to be outlawed, you can see the precautionary principle on full display.
The principle holds sway in most schools. How else could someone be suspended for biting a Pop Tart into the shape of a gun? Or balls be forbidden at recess, just in case that ball might hit someone? Or have a student’s entire day planned for them, because otherwise they might not be a successful adult?
In the process, we lose so many possibilities, from the simple joy of playing ball all the way to the life-saving power of modern technology. More than that, it robs us of our precious autonomy, of the right and the privilege and the chance to test our world, to see what works and what doesn’t, to make our own choices about what risks we deem acceptable. And if that doesn’t begin at an early age, people won’t have as much practice to use that freedom well.
No, we err on the side of freedom. You won’t find the precautionary principle in full strength here.
Which would you say is more important? A system? Or the people within that system?
Surely the people matter more. After all, systems arise in order to help people as their justification. And yet, we often blame people for failing to meet the needs of systems, when really, we should blame systems for failing to meet the needs of people.
In schools, this happens when teachers and parents demand to know why children don’t conform to the school’s expectations, whether or not it truly helps, no matter how much suffering it causes. Yet wouldn’t it make more sense to demand the system conform to the student’s needs?
Systems are a tool, and like any tool, they’re only useful so long as they accomplish what we want. We should be as ready to discard a broken system as we are to discard a broken hammer.
The institution of a Sudbury school is a system infinitely adaptable to any particular student’s needs and interests. Freedom and flexibility allow that. We base our system around the students. We don’t expect the students to conform to any one stringent system.
“When it comes to brain development, time in the classroom may be less important than time on the playground.” After many years of providing an environment where young people play as much as they choose, MLSS and other Sudbury schools already know its value. With this latest research, we have further evidence to support our experience. Follow the link below for the story.
Reprinted from the Fairhaven School website
Liam Marshall-Butler is currently a student at MLSS.