There is perhaps a simpler way to describe the Sudbury model. At a Sudbury school, students are subjects, not objects.
An object is passive. It receives action. Things are done to it. It has no choices or motivation. That’s what happens at traditional schools. Students are acted upon.
A subject is active. It performs actions. It makes choices and has its own ideas and determines its own movements. That’s what happens in a Sudbury school. The students choose their actions.
Remember that, if nothing else: subjects, not objects.
Here at a Sudbury school, we make it very clear from the start that we do not report a child’s every day activities to the parents. This is a place for freedom to grow, without constant adult oversight and demands.
But there are cases where we do - in fact, we must - notify parents. They are exceedingly rare, and they only happen when a child’s behavior is so egregious that they’ve shown they can’t handle the responsibility inherent in participation in our school. Then, should a student be suspended or expelled by the School Meeting - after due process in the Judicial Committee - we will schedule an interview with the parents to explain the situation.
Otherwise, you can rest assured that we value student privacy.
In a traditional classroom, you often find uninspired students with no initiative. They sit there and wait for the teacher to make all the decisions. They may note problems, but make no effort to solve them. After all, the system has been established whereby the teacher makes all decisions.
But come to a Sudbury school, where the paradigm has allowed children their own initiative from the start. Suddenly, you have a culture of solutions.
School Meeting is filled with ideas how to better the school, and the debates often flow outside the meeting. Students look for new ways to learn what they want. Interpersonal conflicts are solved without resort to grown-ups. It really is a thing to behold.
If you want a kid who whines about their problems but does nothing to solve them, send them to a public school. If you want your kid to grow in a culture of solutions, send them to a Sudbury school.
Sean Vivier, MLSS Staff
When we explain our model, almost inevitably, someone will say we’re “kinda like Montessori.”
Well... no. We’re nothing like Montessori. But in order to demonstrate why, we have to explain the reality of Montessori schools.
Maria Montessori did use the word freedom in her writing, yes. But she used the word obedience far more often. Her idea was to allow children slightly more latitude, so in the end they would be easier to command. They were to care little for their own wants and needs and more for the needs of an abstract collective. Which is why you’ll be surprised to find a passage in one of her books, written before World War II, where she praises the Hitler Youth as a model of scientific education and collective spirit.
Montessori students are not allowed to explore as they please. They are allowed to explore a certain set of manipulatives called the Montessori materials. If a child is not working with the materials, that child is guided back toward them. If they are not using them as Dr. Montessori intended, they will be told to use them in a different way. All with a gentle voice, yes, but none of this is free exploration.
You’re also not guaranteed that a school that calls itself Montessori will follow Dr. Montessori’s original model. There are two main organizations that certify Montessori schools. By shorthand, they’re called “American Montessori” and “International Montessori.” International Montessori demands stricter adherence to the Montessori model as intended. American Montessori is more lenient. As such, it’s quite possible to walk into an American Montessori school where kids move from assigned classroom to assigned classroom to do as an instructor tells them!
A Sudbury school, by contrast, puts the power in childrens' hands. They choose their activities. Staff don't redirect them to pre-approved activities. As long as it doesn't interfere with the rights of others, it's allowed. And all rules and their enforcement are determined by the students and staff by democratic vote, not the will of the teacher.
So no, we’re not even “kinda” like Montessori. When we say we give our students educational freedom, we mean it.
Reprinted from the Sudbury Valley School blog.
My favorite yoga studio displays promotional materials from neighboring businesses in its front entrance, and my eye was recently drawn to two Kumon Learning Center brochures. The first one’s cover proclaimed, “At Kumon, ‘Yes, I can’ becomes a lifelong mantra.” The second’s says, “Imagine … your child blossoming to her full potential.”
Of course I had to grab a copy of both, if only to find out just how Kumon proposed to help my children be truly amazing. And, to be honest, I hoped I’d read something so ridiculous that I could blog about it for laughs.
But, then I stopped myself and tried to imagine being the parent of a child who was struggling to keep up in school. Whose self-esteem was plummeting along with his grades. Or who wanted to advance faster than her teacher could accommodate with a classroom full of other students. Wouldn’t I, too, look at The Kumon Method like it was The Holy Grail?
With this in mind, I read through both brochures. The philosophy is simple enough. Kids advance through Kumon’s math and reading worksheets at their own pace, “so logically and so gradually” that they “learn by doing instead of being taught how.” Progress “is driven only by his own ability and initiative. He’s never constrained by his school grade level or somebody else’s expectations.” And “with a rock-solid foundation beneath him at every level, he can go as high as his ambition takes him.” Kumon students are “the very picture of focus, concentration, and self-discipline.”
Focus, concentration, driven by their own initiative, learning by doing. Kumon sounds a lot like Sudbury Valley. Until you get to the Kumon Success Stories. What exemplifies success in the world of Kumon? It’s the 6th grader who accidentally received the 8th grade test in an international math contest and got the top score, “ranking in the top 4% among 30,000 eighth graders at French schools around the world.”
Success = good test scores?
This is no surprise, considering that the Kumon Method was developed by math teacher Toru Komun to help his eighth grade son prepare for Japan’s notoriously difficult college entrance exams. And it’s sure to be music to the ears of any parents suffering from STAD (i.e. Standardized Test Anxiety Disorder, coming soon to a DSM-III near you!).
I can’t argue against learning incrementally at your own pace. Or having kids “learn by doing instead of being taught how.” There’s certainly nothing wrong with “motivation, and an insatiable passion for learning.” But I do wonder if the bottom line for most parents – and their kids – is that the educational system today is increasingly about “teaching to the test.” There simply aren’t enough hours in the school day to cram the required subject matter into all those little brains, even when they lengthen the school day or extend the school year. And the result is more and more chronically unhappy children. Some parents watch the joy and excitement for learning fade from their kids’ eyes and turn to Kumon Learning Centers and their ilk. But other parents will think to themselves, “There has to be something better than this.”
If they’re lucky, a friend tells them about “this crazy school where there aren’t any classes!” Or they google “alternative schools” and stumble onto the Sudbury Valley website. They’ll call the school, maybe come to an Open House, walk around the campus, possibly thinking, “This is too good to be true.” And if they make it all the way through a visiting week and enrollment, they’ll almost certainly have the pleasure of finding out that they were wrong. Sudbury Valley is definitely not too good to be true.
There are no worksheets here, unless of course, the kids demand them for themselves. We have no standardized tests, report cards, or parent-teacher conferences. There are no tutors. No gifted and talented programs or “advanced work” tracks. We can’t boast about the school’s standing vis-à-vis test scores. But if success is measured by how happily our students go about the job of learning, we think we’re doing just fine.
The organizational structure of Fairhaven School is quite simple but so different from that of other schools and non-profit institutions that it merits some explanation. The governing body of Fairhaven School is its Assembly.
The Assembly, composed of parents, students, staff, and community members, sets major school policies, amends by-laws, sets annual tuition and makes general budget allocations. All decisions are made by majority vote. The Assembly elects a Board of Trustees each year, which serves as an advisory committee, evaluating the school's adherence to its philosophy and making broad-ranging recommendations as needed. The Assembly also elects officers, including a President who serves as the official "head" of the school.
Who runs the school on a daily basis? Who takes on the role of "principal"?
The Assembly does not make day-to-day decisions about how the School is run. Instead, the School Meeting gathers weekly to manage the ongoing internal affairs of the School. All students and staff members are full members of the School Meeting, with an equal vote in all decisions. Meetings are run by an elected Chairperson according to Robert's Rules of Order and recorded by a Secretary.
The School Meeting makes rules about the conduct of its members, elects staff annually, and creates committees and clerkships as needed to carry out its decisions. Admissions, Bookkeeping, Grounds Maintenance, Aesthetics, and Outreach are all examples of committees formed by the School Meeting
When a committee leader or an individual expert is needed, a "clerk" is elected. There is, for example, a clerk who deals with outside authorities - fire inspectors, insurance agents, county officials, and the like - as well as an Office Clerk, a Building Maintenance Clerk, and a Medical Supplies Clerk.
How are rules enforced?
One of the most important committees, the J.C. (Judicial Committee) is given responsibility for enforcing the rules the School Meeting has established. It is the only committee on which every member of the School Meeting will eventually serve (much like jury duty).
The J.C. receives written complaints of rule violations (Keisha left a mess in the Ali Room; Tyler tripped Erin), and hears from both the plaintiff and the defendant, calls witnesses and investigates as needed, then determines whether the defendant has indeed broken a school rule. If so, the J.C. determines an appropriate consequence (Keisha can't go in the Art Room for two days; Tyler must do a half-hour of community service work). The J.C. can refer serious incidents to the full School Meeting, where appeals can also be heard.
Not every dispute must go through the J.C. process. People may work through problems informally when they can. Formal mediation is also an option for resolving conflicts between individuals. Several school meeting members have been trained in conflict resolution and help to resolve conflicts between willing participants.
Does that mean that staff stand aside and do nothing in the face of real behavior problems?
With the exception of intervening to stop incidents where someone's physical safety is in danger, staff do not step in to solve problems or to punish rule infractions simply because they are adults. They too must use the democratic process to address issues that concern them. They are, however, employed in part, to be guardians of the school philosophy and the well being of the school community. Like all other members of the School Meeting, they use whatever wisdom and experience they might possess to influence others toward mutual respect, thoughtful action, and responsible conduct.
Who acquires and takes care of supplies and equipment?
Beyond the management of the school's rules, administration, and maintenance, the School Meeting can create "Corporations." Corporations are groups of School Meeting members interested in a particular pursuit, who want official recognition from the school in order to be able to raise money for equipment and supplies and to govern the use of certain kinds of equipment or spaces.
The Cooking Corporation runs the kitchen, so the Computer Corporation must follow Cooking Corporation procedures while baking pies as a fundraiser for a new CD Rom. The Art Corporation seeks School Meeting money for a kiln. The Sports Corporation decides that people using soccer balls must sign them in and out. New corporations can be created, and worn out ones dissolved in response to the changing needs of the school community. Not every group interested in a common pursuit needs to create a corporation. Classes or clubs, for example, can be formed without the School Meeting's recognition.
Who serves on all these committees, leads these corporations, and runs the School Meeting?
Anyone the School Meeting decides is qualified to do so. When a certain position is interesting to a student, there's a good chance she'll be elected to it, but everyone understands that the Admissions Clerk, the Outside Authorities Clerk, the Bookkeeping Clerk and a few other positions require a great deal of experience, specific knowledge, and credibility in the larger community. Those positions, along with positions no one else wants to hold, tend to go to staff members.
Does everyone attend School Meeting?
Any school meeting member who cares how the school is run and wants a say in decisions comes to School Meeting. (Members can't vote unless they are present.) Typically most of the staff, several older kids, and a smattering of youngsters are in attendance at any given meeting, but some issues draw a big crowd. Other issues spawn "special interest groups" which lobby for a good turnout in order to pass or reject a specific motion.
Discussion can be heated and every School Meeting member is entitled to the opportunity to try to convince others. Some have more influence than others perhaps because of their longevity at the school, their greater experience or knowledge, their passion, or sheer verbal prowess, but all have an equal vote and an equal opportunity to persevere and become more persuasive and articulate.
Why go to all the trouble of running the school democratically?
Since School Meeting members all have the option of full participation, they understand their obligation to uphold the rules and procedures of the school. Children and adults alike feel a sense of ownership and control over their own lives and over the school environment. At its worst, the democratic process can be dry, bureaucratic, or tension-filled. But at its best, the school's democracy achieves that subtle balance between individual rights and community responsibility - each making the other possible - and creates the environment of fairness, tolerance, and respect which each of us seeks and deserves.
The Democratic Structure of Fairhaven School is a publication of Fairhaven School Incorporated, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting the Sudbury model of education in Maryland. For more information on the school call 301-249-8060, e-mail them at email@example.com, or check out their website at fairhavenschool.com. Fairhaven School welcomes racial, ethnic, and religious diversity and families of every composition.
Note: This page is a reprint of a publication produced by Fairhaven School Incorporated and is reproduced here with their permission.
After hearing a short explanation of our school's philosophy, many people understandably try to link it with something already familiar to them. The most frequently mentioned "so-you're-sort of-likes" are listed below. We have tried to be fair but clear in distinguishing ourselves from other philosophies. However, all the subtleties of these educational models are not laid out and comparisons are not made from every angle. We hope that the explanations below serve to clarify what the Sudbury model is and is not really about.
OK, SO YOU'RE SORT OF LIKE...A Montessori School?
There are some ways in which the Sudbury model is similar to the Montessori approach. Children in both settings are allowed more freedom to make decisions about what interests them and how to pace themselves than in most other schools. Both models also hold the basic assumption that children are naturally curious and don't need to be forced to learn.
But Montessori children may choose only between the specific options presented by the teacher, not from the full array of activities which life itself presents. Montessori educators believe that all children learn according to specific patterns and sequences. They base classroom activities on the model's assumptions about what is "developmentally appropriate" for each age group, and restrict access to certain activities if earlier activities in the preplanned sequence have not been completed. The Sudbury model makes no assumptions about how individual children will learn at any age. There is no expectation that one learn multiplication before negative numbers or how to draw a circle before a square. Interest is the only criterion for engaging in any activity, and satisfaction the only evaluation of success.
... A Waldorf School?
Like Waldorf Schools, Sudbury schools care about the whole child. We are not only interested in academic success, but in the happiness and full human potential of each individual. Like Waldorf schools, we do not push children to read early, as traditional schools do. Both approaches value play, "deep" (intensely involved) play, in particular, as crucial to the development of children's mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual selves, indeed as the fundamental "work" of children. We both respect the intuitive wisdom of children, and take their world views and interests quite seriously.
But the Sudbury model espouses no particular path of spiritual or emotional growth. Rather than listening to children in order to better guide them, we listen to them to respond to their self-determined needs. Unlike Waldorf education, we have no predetermined curriculum. We trust children to make their own mistakes, work though their own problems, and come to their own solutions, with help, when it's needed, but without the assumption that we know the best outcome. Waldorf educators endeavor to move children, and society in general, in particular directions, and seek to set up an environment that fosters such social transformation.
By contrast, Sudbury schools seek to create an environment where children can recognize and pursue their own agenda. Children and adults together assess and modify the culture of the school through the School Meeting. The democratic process in a Sudbury school can be loud and contentious; it involves special interest groups politicking, voters making judgments, defendants being sentenced. It is "real" and not necessarily "enlightened" (although always respectful). The Sudbury model simply aims to give children access to the full complexity of life, and the curiosity, confidence, and competence to participate in - and perhaps to change - society according to their own interests, experience, knowledge, and goals.
... A Progressive School?
Sudbury schools believe, as progressive school reformers do, that traditional schooling is not working. Both identify authoritarian teaching and administration as problems, and seek to reduce the stresses students experience in being coerced into learning and evaluated by "objective" testing.
But the Sudbury model also rejects the notion that the alternative to authoritarianism is permissiveness - kind teachers giving kids second and third chances to shape up, trying to prevent any unhappiness, and bending over backwards to "make learning fun," getting children to learn without them noticing they are learning. When kids are treated permissively they do not learn personal responsibility for their actions.
Adults in progressive schools retain the authority to grant or deny that second chance, to step in to resolve disputes, to establish the rules of conduct in their schools. There can be an illusion of freedom or democratic decision-making in progressive school, but if kids make poor decisions, adults always retain the power to step in and solve the problem for them.
In the context of learning, progressive schools often try to have the curriculum follow students' interests. But the effect of teaching to a child's interests is, as Daniel Greenberg has argued, like a parent waiting for a child to open her mouth to speak before popping in the medicine the parent wants to give her. Children who show an interest in playing Cowboys and Indians for a few hours, might be subject to six weeks worth of projects about Native Americans, regardless of whether their interest is sustained or not. The child administered medicine in such a manner may learn never to open her mouth around a parent with a spoon; the student administered education in such a manner may learn not to show interest, at least in school.
Learning something new can be hard work, and children are quite capable of hard work when they are working on something they want to do. When a student has a serious interest, there is no stopping her, and "making it fun" is often an intolerable distraction. When a student has an interest, we believe she should be allowed to pursue it only as far as she feels necessary. She may return to an important idea later, to deepen her interest, but forcing or manipulating her to deepen it will only serve to lessen her curiosity and sense of self-determination.
Some progressive schools offer an array of courses, but do not require attendance. Sudbury schools do not have standard offerings, because learning to pursue one's own agenda can be challenging, sometimes painful, sometimes boring. We think boredom is a valuable opportunity to make discoveries about one's self. It is often easier to sit in classes, be entertained (maybe not as well as TV entertains, but still better than nothing), and avoid parental pressure, than it is to schedule one's own life, wrestle with one's own questions, learn how to seek the answers, and master one's own destiny.
There is a particular philosophy of homeschooling, often referred to as "unschooling," which shares many similarities with the Sudbury model. John Holt was its best known proponent, and his writings have been invaluable to us in helping to explain just how learning can happen without teaching, and why on earth a child might choose to learn arithmetic or some other supposedly dreadful subject.
Unschoolers believe, as we do, that children are born curious about the world and eager to succeed in life and that kids learn best through experience and experimentation rather than by being told how and what to think. In the words of John Holt: "Real learning is a process of discovery, and if we want it to happen, we must create the kinds of conditions in which discoveries are made ... They include time, freedom, and a lack of pressure."
But unschoolers, for the most part, see the family environment as the best place for children to grow, while the Sudbury model believes that, as the African proverb states, "It takes a village to raise a child." Children and parents have complex relationships and interdependencies which make it harder for children to discover true independence within the family.
In the environment of a Sudbury school, children face direct personal responsibility for their actions, without the emotional baggage that family-based accountability can sometimes carry. In addition, children are more able to develop some important social skills in a democratic school - the ability to tolerate diversity of opinion, to speak out against inappropriate behavior, and to develop and carry out group projects, for example. In most homeschooling families, the parent sees him or herself as ultimately responsible for the child's education, while at Sudbury schools, that responsibility rests squarely with the child.
... Student governments in traditional schools?
Sudbury School Meetings are similar to student governments only in that they are composed of students and operate by majority rule. But the School Meeting is a participatory democracy, where every student and staff member has the option of a direct vote in every decision made. Student governments are representative - students are chosen to represent the larger student body. More importantly, student governments are hardly ever given real power over substantive issues. Elected positions serve primarily as symbols of status, popularity, and "leadership potential" for college admissions purposes.
The School Meeting decides who will be staff each year, how tuition will be spent, what each and every rule of the school will be, and who will be suspended or expelled for violation of those rules. Staff members are involved on an equal footing, arguing their positions with gusto. But they are also equally bound to the rules of the school.
As a free majority, students experience real control over their lives at school, and real consequences if they fail to meet the responsibilities such control requires of them. That kind of government brings a community identity and sense of individual empowerment no token school government could hope to achieve.
OK, So You're Sort of Like... is a publication of Fairhaven School Incorporated, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting the Sudbury model of education in Maryland. For more information on the school call 301-249-8060, e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org, or check out their website at fairhavenschool.com.Fairhaven School welcomes racial, ethnic, and religious diversity and families of every composition.
We try very hard to make sure we’re clear about our model. That it isn’t about a rigid dogma, but about trusting children with responsible freedom. Yet, for all our talk, some prospective parents will only hear what they want to hear. That we’re alternative. That if we’re alternative, we must subscribe to a certain set of alternative beliefs and practices.
Yes, in a place where there is freedom, all walks of life will be welcome. This will include people who would be considered alternative. But it does not guarantee it.
So, these potential parents will become quite distraught the first time they see something that doesn’t fit within their own particular alternative ideology. When a kid eats processed food. When there’s screen time. When the students don’t all have to do the same thing together. And we’re left explaining, yet again, that Sudbury schools don’t police students’ actions like that.
It’s not about being alternative. It’s about being free.
We get so upset by the idea that our children might fail at anything. We know it will hurt them, so of course we want to protect them from that. So, for many of us, that means trying to make sure they never fail.
At Sudbury schools, we say let them fail.
This doesn’t mean we have to be harsh about it or put them down for the failure. It just means we have to let them experience failure. We can’t come rescue them at the first sign of trouble. We have to let them see firsthand the natural consequences of their mistakes, and what it’s like to try but not get what you want.
Here’s the thing. They need practice in failure, because they’re going to fail at times in life. They get upset, sure, but they learn how to handle their upset. They renew their efforts, or they learn not to make the same mistakes. Every once in awhile, it even looks like they may fail, but succeed in the end. Why rob them of that?
Let them fail.
Sean Vivier, MLSS Staff
Parrhesis is a Greek word, considered a virtue in ancient Athens. It is the act of speaking an unpopular opinion because you believe it is right and best for the democracy, even at the risk of popularity or punishment.
Parrhesis is a virtue that Sudbury kids live every day. Inside and outside School Meeting, they’re constantly debating and negotiating, never afraid to speak an idea that might not already have everyone’s support.
Of course, it helps that there’s no threat of punishment for speaking their minds.
Sometimes, they sway others. Sometimes, they are one of few or the only one to vote a certain way. But their chance to speak their minds is still respected, and to go on record in opposition. In that way, Sudbury students learn to navigate democracy and free speech without fear.
Sean Vivier, MLSS Staff
In discussing whether or not something should be mandatory, we often find that the conversation takes a turn and really ends up debating whether or not that something is useful. Prove that a thing is useful, people seem to believe, and you’ve proven that it should be mandatory. But really, these are two different discussions. Whether it’s good for you and whether it should be forced on you are separate issues.
Brushing your teeth is a good idea, but not something we enforce by law. It’s a good idea to treat others with respect and keep your word to your friends, but these also don’t carry the force of law.
Likewise Sudbury schooling. Algebra is useful. It’s not mandatory. A second language is useful. We don’t tell them they have to. And so on with every other useful body of knowledge. Which doesn’t stop them from pursuing those disciplines they find useful, without any compulsion on our part.
And so our students learn to read and do math and sometimes even study a second language. Not because they have to. Because they see the utility, and they want to.
Sean Vivier, MLSS staff
Liam Marshall-Butler is currently a student at MLSS.