I have heard that question or a similar question throughout my life as a Sudbury student. The answer is: yes, students will choose to learn math to the extent that it is useful to them or they find it interesting. This might scare some people who worry children will not be interested in math and will not see any value to it. These people are concerned that students will not learn math, which they see as a necessary skill, which is precisely why children choose to learn math.
I myself have used math to varying degrees during my entire education as a Sudbury student and am currently studying more advanced math for the SATs. If I ever think that my current math abilities are insufficient I will learn more math.
When students are allowed to choose when, how and to what degree they will learn math, they come to view it as a skill which can be improved upon at any point and not something that they are inherently good or bad at. They are also free from many of the negative associations of their traditionally educated peers. Who do you think would be better at continuing to learn math? Someone who is comfortable with math and learned it organically or someone who was forced into learning math and has negative feelings towards the subject?
One of the benefits I think we often overlook when explaining the Sudbury model is the freedom to learn things which may seem impractical. I have been recently trying to learn how to do a handstand. A handstand fits into the category of things which may seem impractical. While it doesn’t have many practical benefits which could not be more easily reaped through another medium, it is a skill which takes a fair bit of time and effort to learn and is viewed with little inherent value.
On further examination the simple act of learning how to do a handstand or any other skill is beneficial. I had to build my confidence and strength as I transitioned from doing wall planks to handstands propped up by a wall, and continue to do so as I improve my balance and ability to kick up into a handstand. While there are better ways to improve your strength, and balancing on your hands has few utilitarian applications, the act of learning improved my patience and discipline.
When students are allowed to, they are constantly learning new skills, whether it be how to do a handstand, play checkers better, or make a video game. By allowing students to learn things without worrying about their practical uses, Sudbury students learn how to learn what they want independently.
There are two major schools of thought on grammar: descriptive grammar and prescriptive grammar. Descriptive grammar describes how a language is used and accepts informal and class- or region-based usage, such as, “Who am I speaking to?” and “it ain’t nothing.” Prescriptive grammar prescribes the “correct” way to write and speak.
In traditional schools only a variant of the prescriptive grammar is taught and accepted. In Sudbury schools we allow students to choose whether or not to learn and use prescriptive grammar and to what extent. There are different reasons one might decide to use or not use prescriptive grammar. Prescriptive grammar is useful in formal situations, but its overuse can be off-putting at times. One could also argue that there are few situations where it would be very unseemly to end a sentence in a preposition or use “who” as an object of a sentence.
When people are allowed to choose how they wish to speak, they are better able to articulate themselves in a manner they see as appropriate to the situation and are better equipped to determine what the appropriate tone is for any situation in the future.
In many traditional schools there are clear restrictions of expression, such as a ban on wearing clothes with an image of a skull or a blanket ban on swearing. At MLSS we want everyone to be able to fully express themselves, but we also strive to foster a school climate in which everyone is welcome and feels comfortable. We don’t have any specific rules on swearing. All of our rules which could be applied to the matter boil down to just one question: Are you offending anyone? If not, then it’s probably okay to swear.
Allowing students to use socially restricted language, such as swears, is not only a way to let students express themselves fluently and efficiently, but also a great way of allowing them to learn the appropriate way of doing so. When used well, swearing can be a stylistic choice within poetry or art, an effective way to communicate emphasis or anger, or a way to speak casually with someone. Students at MLSS are allowed to learn when it’s okay to swear without offending anyone, when they want to swear and what their own comfort level with other people swearing is.
The same logic holds true for all restricted language. Students at MLSS learn what their comfort level is with things like swearing, blasphemy and discussion of bodily functions and they learn when to avoid things like swearing, blasphemy, discussion of bodily functions and other people’s phobias when they are inappropriate.
I have been thinking about what to write for the final weekly blog post of this academic year. I decided to write an unusual one, written from the first person, when it occurred to me that this is arguably the third unusual weekly blog post in a row. Our former staff person Sean Vivier wrote our weekly blog posts before. When he left he had already written enough blog posts that he could keep sending them to us, but he has now run out. I always enjoyed reading Sean’s blog posts, so when this happened three weeks ago, I decided to start writing them myself.
I am writing this blog post because I often meet people who think that students will not be motivated to do something new, leave their comfort zone and or put effort into something even though it will positively change their lives or have some other intrinsic value. Writing these blog posts has been an interesting experience for me. I have not written much before and I am still working on my writing style and ability. I hope the fact that you are reading this blog post written by a student helps to dispel the notion that students won’t have the motivation to learn new things.
You often hear people talk about what they think best prepares children for the “real world.” This reveals a difference between the Sudbury model and traditional models of education. In other educational models schools are viewed as something outside of the “real world.” Children are not granted the same privileges, freedoms and respect as they will be upon entering the “real world.” They are told what to do for the vast majority of their time spent in school and are unencumbered by any real world decisions.
In Sudbury schools we accept that schools are in fact part of the “real world.” Children are granted the same rights as the adult staff members. Students and staff members are each granted one equal vote. The students are free vote to change, remove or add rules, hire and fire staff members and allocate the schools funds. Students also have the right to become voting members of the Judicial Committee where accusations of rule breaking are handled. They are responsible for their actions, happiness and personal growth.
Who do you think will be better prepared for the “real world” at the age of eighteen, someone who’s been in it their entire life or someone who’s just getting used to the idea of being in the real world?
Delaying gratification is the ability to use patience and resist immediate gratification when delayed gratification yields a better reward. It is often associated with success because people who can delay gratification can better pursue long term goals, and not give in to immediate pressure.
When given the opportunity to pursue their personal goals, instead of externally imposed goals, children naturally learn to delay gratification. They learn this when they are internally motivated to learn how to paint, speak a language, play a video game, do math, play an instrument, perform martial arts or any other thing which requires time and dedication.
Delayed gratification is just another reason to embrace an educational philosophy which allows students to learn and play based on their internal motivation.
We hear plenty of excuses from prospective parents about why the school is fine, but they can’t do it. Their kid (like every kid) has some flaw or some issue. It’s a longer drive. It will cost more money. Work is just so hard. If only we weren’t in an urban environment. If only we had our own building. If only we had more students, or more teens, or more girls.
There’s a virtue in Sudbury education of going after what you want no matter the obstacle. You can make plenty of excuses not to even try, but at the end of the day, they’re all just excuses.
Naches is a Yiddish word that can mean pride in a student’s accomplishment. We experience it a lot. Let us share some of the naches we feel for our alumni.
Nick recently graduated from Hampshire with a degree in economics. He now lives in DC, where he works for social justice.
Alexandra spent time in India to expand her horizons, and now studies at the American University in Paris.
Emily opened her own business, a vintage store.
Adrienne attended Guilford, her first choice college, where she is studied education in the interests of a career in educational reform. While there, she spent a semester abroad at Oxford.
Jacob tried his hand at stand-up comedy for the first time and left the audience in uproarious laughter.
Let no one tell you a Sudbury grad can’t make it in the world. As you can see, they can and they do. You can see why we feel all that naches.
In colleges, professors of education are often concerned with the “research-to-practice gap.” In essence, the gap happens when research shows that an educational strategy is superior to others, but it takes a long time to adopt. Meanwhile, our children are getting an education that we know is subpar.
For example, research shows no real gains from homework, yet teachers are required by the administration to give homework every night. Those who score best on standardized tests do so when they haven’t aimed for the test, nor is there any established correlation between test scores and life success. Yet the public schools still emphasize high-stakes testing. We know that cramming is the worst possible way to learn, yet many teachers still encourage their students to study the night before a test. We know that grades reduce motivation, yet traditional schools still have them. The list goes on quite a ways.
It only makes sense. The incentives in a compulsory system discourage innovation. Teachers do as they’re told, because they don’t want to lose their jobs.
But in a Sudbury school, we don’t have the same problem. We can act without awaiting permission. We don’t have to worry about tests and homework. We can just help the students learn what they choose to learn, the only tried and true method for lasting learning.
Tenure began as a tactic to prevent abuse by employers. In an authoritarian hierarchy, teachers didn’t want the whims of one person to threaten their job security. Thus was born tenure. Whether it has been effective or justified, that is its rationale.
We don’t have tenure in Sudbury schools. There is no one person to answer to, so the rationale is invalid. A majority of the school can vote to remove any staff member at any time. It’s how we make sure our staff truly meet the needs of our students.
It only makes sense. If we truly want kids to have a choice in their education, they have to have a choice in their educators, too. If we want them to have that choice, we have to do without tenure.
She’s a veteran teacher.
He doesn’t want to go into administration. He wants to stay in the trenches.
No lesson plan survives contact with the enemy.
Why is it that traditional schools are so filled with war metaphors? Might it be because the teacher-student relationship has been warped and transformed into an adversarial relationship?
At Sudbury schools, we recognize the inherent cooperative nature of education. You won’t hear many war metaphors from us.
Grades reduce motivation. Students demonstrate less effort and produce less quality when grades are a factor. They are also less likely to pursue an activity once grades are absent. (Source: Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards)
Studies find no correlation between homework and learning outcomes. Students who are assigned homework and students who are not assigned homework demonstrate the same results. (Source: Alfie Kohn, The Homework Myth)
The age at which a person begins an activity has no correlation to that person’s future success in that activity. (Source: Malcolm Gladwell, Late Bloomers)
More than one study has found that students demonstrate greater engagement and better learning outcomes when they have even a little bit of choice in their studies. (Baum, Susan M., Joseph S. Renzulli, and Thomas P. Hébert. “Reversing Underachievement: Stories of Success” Educational Leadership. Nov. 1994. pp. 48-52. / Hartman, Jeanette A., Emily K. DeCicco and Gayle Griffin. “Urban Students Thrive as Independent Researchers.” Educational Leadership. Nov. 1994. pp. 46-47.)
In longitudinal studies, Sudbury students all go on to become successful and productive members of society. (Pursuit of Happiness by Daniel Greenberg)
Bullying is endemic to compulsory schools. It is so rampant, that people blithely assume it’s going to happen. Some even shrug and suggest we need bullying to toughen our children. They come with the assumption that since kids are often bullies in traditional schools, they must be bullies here. But that’s not the case, and there’s a simple reason why.
Bullying is highly correlated with environments that are strongly hierarchical and authoritarian. What is a compulsory school but an authoritarian and punitive environment where everyone is ranked and some people have more power than others? The bullies are simply emulating the system around them!
Yet there are solutions. Bullying experts go into schools to suggest ways to reduce bullying. They talk about more respect, less punitive pressures, and less emphasis on ranking, among other things. In short, they tell them to be more like Sudbury schools.
The hygiene hypothesis states that our young immune systems need to face a constant exposure to germs if we want them to grow strong. If it doesn’t face and defeat microbes from an early age, it won’t be as prepared to fight disease and our children will be sicklier. They need a chance to go outside and get dirty.
We already know the benefits of outdoor play in terms of social skills, intelligence, problem-solving, and exercise. Now we also know it will help our kids stay healthy. Yet another reason Sudbury schools allow children to play as much as they like
The argument for greater control over children’s lives is predicated on the notion that adults are older and they know what’s best for kids. But by taking that route, they show that they don’t know what’s best for them.
What’s best for kids is a sense of independence. Practice at making their own decisions. Autonomy and the sense of competence that comes from it. A chance to learn what interests them. Personal stake and personal responsibility. Those are what’s best for kids, and that’s what Sudbury schools have to offer.
There are plenty of characteristics of success. We even have scientific studies to pinpoint them. There’s tenacity: in other words, how willing someone is to stay with a problem despite setbacks. There’s initiative. Assertiveness. Emotional intelligence and teamwork. Independence. Adaptability. Delayed gratification. Internal locus of control. And passion for your work.
Sudbury schools encourage all of those traits. We watch our students every day cling tenaciously to projects that they’ve chosen. Initiative and assertiveness are no-brainers in a school where you have to go after what you want. They learn emotional intelligence and teamwork by learning how to work well with others while making sure they haven’t offended anyone. They’re independent every time they decide they want to do something on their own and every time they agree to take care of some aspect of school management. With so many possibilities, they’re infinitely adaptable. They know to delay the gratification of learning something or completing a project or beating a game. They know from the start that they are in control of their choices and they can’t make excuses, only change behavior when something doesn’t work. And, of course, they learn what they have a passion for and don’t have much trouble deciding what they want to do for work.
It’s no wonder Sudbury grads go on to be successful.
We live in a democratic society. Technically, a limited constitutional republic, but that’s what we tend to understand when we say democratic. The idea that people have rights, that they should be free within their own sphere of influence, and that no one person’s whims should determine authority, but rather that everyone should have a vote in decisions that affect the whole.
Ideally, we would live in a world where our educational institutions prepared our children for that reality. So why do our public schools - and even a number of private schools - seem so feudal in nature?
Superintendents are owed allegiance by principals. Principals are owed allegiance by teachers. Teachers are owed allegiance by students who, like serfs, have no say in the matter. Sometimes, teachers will agitate for more teacher freedom, as the English barons confronted King John for more freedom for the nobility. But any effort by students to assert more freedom is denied. All top-down, all with arbitrary authorities checked only by higher arbitrary authorities. Like the relationship between lord and vassal.
This is a situation that’s damaging to democracy. Many students leave school thinking that arbitrary authority is the proper way of the world. They accept their servitude and expect it of others. Worse, when they do hold the reins of democracy, they use it to cast more and more coercive authority on others, in the name of democracy.
Far better to have a school that embraces true democracy and individual rights from the start. Far better to have a Sudbury school.
Teaching morality, democracy, conflict resolution... from Peter Gray:
"The debate that I listened to that day [at the Sudbury Valley School] was one befitting the Supreme Court of the United States. There was talk on the one hand of freedom of speech. Did freedom of speech include the right to wear a swastika? I remember one teenaged girl thoughtfully raising the question this way: "Suppose we ban the swastika? Does that mean we could also ban the hammer and sickle, under which terrible atrocities were committed? And what, then, about the American Flag? Some people might be offended by it, because of atrocities such as slavery and the mass murder of Native Americans that were committed under this banner. Once we start interfering with free speech, where do we stop?"
On the other side, several presented the argument that the swastika is a hate symbol in a way that the hammer and sickle or the flag of any other country is not. History was presented--not to teach history, but simply as part of the process of putting forth an argument that was directly germane to the decision that the group had to make. As the debate continued, the tension between the right of free speech and the right to freedom from offensive speech came into sharp focus."
These are the kinds of lessons learned in a Sudbury school that are never touched upon in a traditional school setting. These are the important lessons of life, the lessons that contribute to a successful, productive community. And they are learned organically, without coercion or adult interference.
Read the entire article here.
Rules at Mountain Laurel are very common sense. We aren’t likely to ban something that doesn’t have to do with safety or other people’s boundaries.
Some people might like it if we banned video games or candy or any number of other personal grudges. Things people see as frivolous or even unhealthy. But we have to keep in mind human psychology. Anything forbidden gains a certain fascination with us. Ban video games or candy, to continue the example, and it consumes us, so that it’s all we want.
But, if they are completely acceptable, they lose their extra allure. Kids learn that they don’t always feel great after eating candy, and they look for healthy alternatives. They play a game, then they grow bored and move onto something else. All harmless.
We don’t want to fall into the trap of forbidden fruit.
There are other schools that claim to embrace student freedom and even the occasional classroom teacher in a public school who wants to avoid coercive practices. But if you look closely, you’ll see that they often still embrace the idea of adult control over learning. They may offer the occasional choice, sure, but the teacher determines what those choices are and often limits them. They may speak with a calm smile, but they’re still giving orders.
Sudbury schools refuse to fall for that trap. We embrace, a priori, the idea that the entire school should be based around students who take responsibility for their own education. Those others only take it piecemeal, but try to graft it onto an authoritarian paradigm. Their differences are of degree, not kind.
KWL is another public school teaching technique. It stands for Know-Want-Learn. The teacher makes a grid of three columns. In the first, they write what their students already know about a subject. In the second, they write what they want to know. And in the third, they write what they end up learning. It becomes a rather painstaking process, during which nobody learns anything. It really is obnoxious to watch.
Again, this is a process that’s self-controlling when a student is self-motivated. They review in their heads what they know and what they want to know, then they go research it. And it all happens a lot more quickly, because they do it more naturally.
So many people in the adult world are so used to mediating disputes between children for them. Sometimes they listen to the problem. Sometimes they don’t. Mostly they barrel into a problem and decide they’re going to solve it for them. They determine how they’re going to compromise or otherwise resolve the problem and inform them that they’re to act that way. The kids say they will, because, after all, they have no power in that situation. Then, most often, they return right back to old habits, because, after all, the solution was never theirs.
Cheating is rampant in our public schools. So many students admit to it in anonymous surveys. And is it any wonder? It’s not an inherent lack of moral fiber. It’s the predictable result of a system that stresses grades over all else. When grades are the end goal, of course people only consider how to get good grades.
It’s no secret that public schools teach to the lowest common denominator. They even admit it, though they don’t use so many words. They talk about targeting struggling students. Or teachers are reprimanded for going beyond the curriculum. Or teachers deride brighter students because they aren’t there for them. Or they talk about educational inequality.
Liam Marshall-Butler is currently a student at MLSS.