Kids these days. I tell ya. They keep making roughly the same mistakes we made when we were their age. Being inconsiderate at times, when it doesn’t occur to them. Trying things too hastily. Taking risks. Experimenting with swear words. Clumsy first attempts. Losing their tempers. Handling interpersonal conflicts with less than diplomacy. All the same mistakes of human nature, minus our years of experience. Not learning better until after they make the mistake, just like we did.
What’s more, these kids are growing up in a culture where violent crime rates are plunging and the non-profit sector is growing. Why, when we were their age, violence was far more common and charity far less so.
Kids these days.
Sean Viver, MLSS Staff
Which would you say, all things considered, works best: fearful anticipation, relaxation, or enthusiasm? Most of us would likely rank them such that enthusiasm would be most productive, relaxation would place second, and anticipation would fare worst.
Well, psychologists performed a recent study to see if that hypothesis held true. They went into schools, where children had to perform a task. The control group was allowed to worry and fret about the results. They guided another group in meditation to relax them. And a third group was primed with all the exciting possibilities of what they might do.
Sure enough, the science backed common sense. The enthusiastic group accomplished the most. The relaxed group did the next best, and the group full of anticipation fared quite poorly.
We think the results speak for themselves. Traditional schools use fear to motivate children, and sure enough, children don’t give their all. But here in the world of Sudbury education, children are allowed to find what excites them and pursue it to their utmost. No wonder they do and learn so much. Enthusiasm works best.
We place so much pressure on each other to never fail. That any failure is a reflection on someone’s character. And it’s a message we tend especially to send to our children.
Yet we miss something. All failure is temporary. Any setback may be overcome. It is our most successful people who fail, but who then rise to the challenge, or to a different challenge, and overcome.
Now, failure is another aspect of life that our school model handles differently than traditional schools.
You can imagine how failure is handled at a typical school. A big F that will stay with them in their records for as long as their records matter. Lectures from the teacher and parents. Conferences. A great deal of attention to make sure they understand that they failed and that this is not acceptable. And should they suddenly understand the material, their grade still reflects their earlier failure.
At a Sudbury school, failure is much more matter-of-fact and value-neutral. There probably wasn’t even anyone over your shoulder to see the failure. If anyone’s present, they aren’t going to rub your face in it. You simply take it in stride and try again - with or without help, as you choose - until you do it right. Failure is something that happens, but not something permanent or earth-shattering.
Now, which treatment do you think better prepares someone for the ups and downs of life?
"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the
place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Confiscation is all too common in traditional schools. The teacher
sees something they don't want a student to have, and they simply take it. No due process, only authoritarian fiat. Something easy to forget is that teachers in public schools are agents
of the State. As such, they are supposed to be held in check by Constitutional limits. No government actor is supposed to appropriate personal property without due process and checks and balances. Were they police, they'd need to convince a judge to warrant the seizure. Note that the Fourth Amendment specifies "people," not adults. There is no compelling reason why children would not fit the definition of personhood.
At Sudbury schools, we have much more respect for the rights of our students to be secure in their effects. It is against the rules to take or damage any property that is not their own without permission. This rule applies equally to the staff. Were they to confiscate something because they don't like it, they would be subject to the Judicial Committee, just as much as if a child had.
The refusal to confiscate helps prepare children to live in a democracy. But more than that, it's about honoring their rights.
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.
Society has come a long way when it comes to corporal punishment. Most of us now recognize that the psychological scars are far worse than any temporary discipline. But for some reason, there are still people who swear that they’d never beat their children... but they will spank them.
Let us be clear. Studies show that children who were spanked but not otherwise beaten demonstrate the same low self-esteem, lowered intelligence, and heightened violence as those who were beaten in the more traditional sense. It makes sense. After all, how does changing
the target change the fact that you’ve chosen to assault your child for the express purpose of causing both pain and humiliation? It’s telling, because people who spank their children will often tell
you that they were spanked as a child and they turned out fine... in a defensive and angry tone... exactly as predicted by the science. It should go without saying that there’s no corporal punishment of any kind at a Sudbury school. Unfortunately, there are still schools in this country where it’s perfectly legal for a teacher to strike your child. Add it to the long list of reasons a Sudbury education is so much better.
Wikipedia is a democratizing tool that allows anyone with any knowledge to contribute to it while anyone seeking that knowledge can access it with ease and without seeking an authority’s help or
permission in the process, all on a voluntary basis. Perhaps that is why traditional teachers tend to hate it so.
Its detractors accuse Wikipedia of false information, even though it has been found to be more accurate than paper encyclopedias. It even has a process whereby mistakes can be flagged and corrected, all with more immediacy than the corrections of new volumes. It even makes
sure to list sources and note when citations are lacking or when an article is in dispute. So much for accusations that it lacks rigor. Teachers will often tell students they aren’t allowed to use Wikipedia
as a source, despite its reliability. Not so here. Of course Wikipedia is welcome in a Sudbury school.
Natural consequences are anything that happens after an action without any need for human interference. If you touch something hot, you will burn yourself. If you leap into the air, you will land. If you run into something sharp, it will cut you. Results that happen by simple nature. Natural consequences.
Too often, people misuse the term. They will tell children, for example, that if they don’t finish their work, they can’t play as a natural consequence. But this is not an immutable law of nature. It
took human intervention to create it. It’s an artificial consequence. It may well be something that the adult sees as a rational consequence, but it does not fit the definition of natural
While there are artificial consequences at a Sudbury school in the form of our Judicial Committee, we do let the natural consequences reign a great deal. If you don’t decide to learn a foreign language, then you only know your native tongue. If any of our students ever decided not to learn to read - which not one single person has - they would be illiterate. And so on. It works quite well, when you leave artificial consequences for those actions that affect other people and let natural consequences be the only “punishment” for those actions that only affect oneself.
There is a democratic aspect to the school. When we say this, sometimes people will reiterate it back that the students all vote on what to do as a whole that day. This is not entirely accurate. We do
vote on a great many things, but we do not vote on everything. The important thing is to find the proper dividing line. Like any democracy, a Sudbury school values individual rights. As
such, the dividing line is clear. We vote on matters that affect the whole school. Rules. Budget. Staff. We don’t vote on matters that only affect individuals in their own sphere. What to do in a day.
Whether or not they’ll join another group’s activity. What to learn. And so on. So, yes, we vote. But it’s important to remember that the entire point of voting is to give the say to the people a decision affects. For communal decisions, that takes a vote. For individual action, it does not.
Another big theory in educational circles is Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. This is the sweet spot where something is just challenging enough that the student can rise to the challenge and grow, but not so challenging that they surrender to frustration. It is sometimes mentioned by its shorthand, i+1, i being the student’s current understanding, and 1 being that one step above.
At Sudbury schools, like anything else, the Zone of Proximal Development is self-controlling. Students are constantly pushing themselves into their “i+1,” trying to get that little bit better at
their current activity. And here, our age-mixing especially helps. It’s easy to find someone a year or two older, someone who’s just that little bit better at reading or just that little bit better at
throwing a ball, or whatever other skill our student is trying to master at the time.
There’s no need to engineer or manipulate our kids into the Zone of Proximal Development. They’re constantly there.
...The sad irony is that as children grow older and become more capable of making decisions, they’re given less opportunity to do so in schools. In some respects, teenagers actually have less to say about their learning – and about the particulars of how they’ll spend their time in school each day - than do kindergarteners. Thus, the average American high school is excellent preparation for adult life. . . assuming that one lives in a totalitarian society.
When parents ask, “What did you do in school today?”, kids often respond, “Nothing.” Howard Gardner pointed out that they’re probably right, because “typically school is done to students.” This sort of enforced passivity is particularly characteristic of classrooms where students are excluded from any role in shaping the curriculum, where they’re on the receiving end of lectures and questions, assignments and assessments. One result is a conspicuous absence of critical, creative thinking – something that (irony alert!) the most controlling teachers are likely to blame on the students themselves, who are said to be irresponsible, unmotivated, apathetic, immature, and so on. But the fact is that kids learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.
Reflections on Motivation, Learning, and Sharing Power
Research Issues in Problem Solving
David H. Jonassen, D.Ed.
University of Missouri, USA
The most important cognitive goal of education (formal and informal) in every educational context (public schools, universities and corporate training) is problem solving….I present the following warrants.
First, problem solving is the most authentic and therefore the most relevant learning activity that students can engage in. In everyday contexts, including work and personal lives, people solve problems constantly. No one in personal and professional contexts is rewarded solely for memorizing information and completing examinations. Problem solving is an essential “21st century skill,” specifically the ability to solve different kinds of non-familiar problems in both conventional and innovative ways and to identify and ask significant questions that clarify various points of view and lead to better solutions (http://www.21stcenturyskills.org).
Second, research has shown that knowledge constructed in the context of solving problems is better comprehended, retained, and therefore more transferable. When solving problems, students must think more critically. Also, the learning is situated in some authentic context, which makes it more meaningful.
Third, problem solving requires intentional learning. Learners must manifest an intention to understand the system or context in which problems occur in order to solve problems effectively. Meaningful learning cannot occur until and unless learners manifest an intention to learn. All human behavior is goal-driven. The clearer our goals are for learning, the more likely we are to learn meaningfully and mindfully.
Fourth, knowledge that is recalled and not used in some authentic tasks is too quickly forgotten, cannot be effectively applied, and in most disciplines becomes obsolete in a short time. Therefore, the primary purpose of education should be to engage and support learning to solve problems.
I confess, my ten year old son is a gamer. He plays video games as many as four to eight hours a day, every day. And when he is not playing, he is thinking about games. He reads magazines about video games, watches TV shows about video games, reads novels based on the characters in video games, researches background information about video games, checks user and critic ratings on video games, and posts on community message boards about video games. He can recall from memory which developer made a specific game, what company distributed it, and the year it came out. He has a few other interests as well, including ancient history, weaponry, and animals. But his clear passion right now is gaming.
The fact that he attends a Sudbury school means that he has the freedom to play video games during the day at school. This is not a solitary activity - he often includes his friends in the gameplay, and they take turns playing and watching each other play or they help each other when the game becomes too challenging. Often one will have the laptop open, searching for walkthrough instructions or YouTube videos of gameplay, while the other has the controller listening for directives about how to solve a puzzle or defeat a boss. They collaborate on missions in some games, or square off as opponents in others. They often recommend games to each other, or trade titles to play at home on weekends.
Most parents would tell me that I am crazy to allow my son to spend so much time gaming. They would say that I should limit his game time, and I definitely should NOT allow him to play games at school. They have the impression that I am somehow damaging my child by allowing him to follow his passion, simply because that passion is gaming. As a Sudbury parent, I believe in freedom as part of the basis of education. I believe that children learn best those things that are of interest to them. And I believe that if we say we are going to provide students with the freedom to discover and pursue their passions, then we cannot draw a line and separate what we perceive as a “good” passion (allowed) from a “bad” passion (not allowed).
Two decades ago as a teenager I was criticized for being a “bookworm”, for spending all of my time alone in my room, with my nose in a book. I was told I was wasting my time and I should be “outside doing something.” These are the same criticisms that are heard by gamers today. The fact is that many parents are ignorant about video games. What they do not understand they cannot support. Just as choices in books include classic stories with engrossing plotlines as well as those that are poorly written with disappointing endings; choices in games include those that are well-made, interesting and engaging, as well as some that are repetitive, boring, and unnecessarily gruesome. Just as some books are controversial, with exposure to topics such as homosexuality, war, or racism, some games are violent, bloody, and feature senseless and repetitive killing.
But for every game that showcases pointless violence, there is another that has amazing visual artwork, creative puzzles, and absorbing stories. My son will not play a game that isn’t well made – he just doesn’t enjoy playing if it isn’t interesting. This is similar to my own aversion to Harlequin romance novels. Reading isn’t something one does just because there are words on a page, and gaming is the same way – not every game is worth playing. Some people love role playing games, some prefer puzzle games, some like first person shooters, etc. And within every genre there are ‘good’ games and ‘bad’ games. Many parents’ only knowledge of games is the mental picture they have when they think of Halo – with lots of guns and shooting and killing of enemies in a war-like setting. And plenty of kids, including my son, enjoy playing Halo. But that’s not the only game on the market.
Getting back to reading, consider that one of the most popular authors of contemporary novels in the last decade is James Patterson. Since 2006 Patterson has sold nearly 220 million copies of his novels worldwide. He tends to write books in series – one series is entirely about a detective working to solve serial murders (which are quite gruesome and described in graphic detail), and another focuses on a group of kids that were bred in a laboratory and subjected to scientific experiments that left them 98% human and 2% aviary. That last series is marketed specifically for ‘young readers.’
So, playing a video game that portrays war scenes against aliens (including green blood) is very bad and may cause irreparable harm to society, but reading book after book about senseless murder sprees and scientific experiments performed on human children is ok. I just don’t see the sense in that statement. Of course, some parents would argue that although they encourage their children to read, they would not allow them to read books like those by James Patterson. I suppose instead they might allow controversial classics like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (racism), To Kill a Mockingbird (racism), A Wrinkle In Time (witchcraft, demons), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (rape), Catcher in the Rye (vulgar language, sexual scenes), or The Color Purple (sexual explicitness).
Parents are concerned about exposing their children to violence through video games, and the effect it may have on their future behavior. But despite decades of research, there is no proven link between video game violence and real-world violence. If violent entertainment caused real violence, logic would dictate that the violent crime rate would have skyrocketed in recent years. In fact, exactly the opposite occurred: Violent crime has dropped significantly over the past 20 years—just as video games have become more prevalent and more violent. In fact, one could make the (equally illogical) argument that violent video games actually decrease violent crimes.
Few parents are aware that there IS a proven link between gaming and the development of inherent resiliency in children, that games facilitate strong social bonds, that gamers are more likely than non-gamers to serve a larger cause and to collaborate with others, or that gaming is an excellent way to improve problem-solving and cognitive skills. Perhaps the ultimate example of the potential benefits of gaming is the very recent discovery of the structure of a molecular protein that may hold the key to finding a cure for AIDS. Scientists had been struggling for over a decade to solve this biological riddle, but after the University of Washington created and distributed a video game designed to leverage the ingenuity and spatial reasoning abilities of gamers, the puzzle was solved in just ten days.
Violence does not appeal to me, and I’m not personally a fan of video games (or any games) in general. But I know that following his passion is what inspires my son to learn and inquire and investigate. Through video games he has become interested in Renaissance Italy, Israeli martial arts, Greek and Roman mythology, dark humor, physics, brain teasers, and The Divine Comedy, to name a partial list.
Kids sometimes have interests that serve as nothing more than a platform to inspire. The art of dance is a perfect example. Those who are passionate about dance will practice for endless hours, patiently watch others dance, and choreograph steps in their spare time. They will beg for dance lessons and dream of attending a dance academy. In reality only a very tiny percentage of these fervid dancers will achieve a career in the dance industry. In fact they are risking serious injury and possible heartbreak by immersing themselves so deeply in their one true obsession. Yet it is doubtful parents will say their dancing should be limited, or that they are wasting their time. In fact adults look to these students with appreciation – how wonderful that they are studying the arts, developing their creativity, learning about dedication and perseverance. They function within a community of others who share the same passion; they are focused, determined, engaged and interested. All the things most parents would want for their child. These dancers are developing characteristics that will translate into success in adulthood.
Likewise, my son will practice gaming for endless hours, patiently watch others play, and dream up new story lines in his spare time. He is developing his creativity and learning about dedication and perseverance. He participates in a community of others sharing the same passion. He is focused, determined, engaged and interested. And the development of his character through gaming is not much different than the dancer, aside from the criticism and disapproval of adults.
I titled this article “The Case Against Video Games” because I wanted people to read it. The truth is that in our home, there is no case against video games. My son is happy, healthy and well-adjusted. He loves school, his friends and his dog. He is friendly, talkative and intelligent. He is not violent or temperamental. And he is a gamer.
Post Script: This article was written two years ago, when my son had been a Sudbury student for about two years. Now age 12, he has since moved away from gaming as his primary activity at school. He's still interested in video games, but now he spends more time reading and learning languages. He speaks a little Indonesian and a little more Italian, and his most recent Kindle download is The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I point this out because many parents assume that if they fail to limit their child's access to technology then the child will never become interested in other things. In fact, sometimes even video games get boring.
Screen time is another baseless concern we run into when we explain our model. The idea is that if kids have too much time - in some cases, any time - in front of screens such as computers and televisions, it will be somehow bad for the kids. They never seem to be able to articulate exactly how or why it will be bad for their children. Only that it will.
It’s another one of those memes that gets suggested, then accepted without critical thought. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever to suggest that exposure to a laptop or a tablet will cause any kind of physical or psychological harm. Yet a great many parents fear it, because others fear it.
Students use the internet to study information that interests them. Also to socialize with others about what they find. Video games, too, are social, as are movies. And every study on the subject shows that violent fiction in video games and movies has a negative correlation with real world violence, not the positive correlation that so many people fear. Far from being dangerous, screen time is helpful.
Furthermore, it’s not all they do. Our kids spend time in front of screens, yes. Then they get up and do other things. We don’t have to force them.
We don’t worry about irrational fears like screen time at Sudbury schools. Like everything else harmless, we let each child decide.
The following post is by Abbe Vogels, founding staff, Rising Tide School, from the Rising Tide School Blog. Read more Rising Tide blog posts here http://risingtideschool.wordpress.com/
Each day at Rising Tide School, there are moments of struggle, learning, friendship, and creativity that take my breath away. Arriving at school in the morning, students are relaxed, expectant, eager. At the close of the day they are satisfied, stretched, and ready for more. When I worked as a top-down educator (“I tell you what to learn”), transcendent moments were rare or non-existent. Cooperation and harmony were absent. People resisted what I had to teach them, and most people, including many of the educators, would rather have been somewhere else. At best it was tolerable; at worst it was dreadful. This was true despite the best intentions of everyone in the system. So what is the missing piece? What gives Sudbury its magic? And why, despite its effectiveness and the happy results, does our culture resist the Sudbury way of learning?
In a recent meeting with a graduating student, I heard an insightful explanation. The young woman was talking about the fears she had been facing around her thesis defense and her upcoming shift to independent adult life. She had been full of self-doubt and fear in the early part of the year, comparing herself to others and judging herself negatively. Even when people in the school saw her positively and reflected that back, she hadn’t been able to see the positive things in herself. However, through some recent adventures, things had shifted dramatically for her. She had realized that she had to love herself, know who she really was, and be herself in the world. She said that she should be pointing out her positive aspects and achievements to others and not the other way around, and that now she could do that. She was full of confidence, power, and was able to clearly express the many, many achievements and successes she had created during her time at the school. No longer comparing herself and coming up short, she was celebrating who she is and the contributions she would make in the future.
She had reached what I’ve come to think of as the Sudbury turning point—the point at which someone really understands, at the experiential level, their own power, goodness, and innate gifts. Once people get that, there’s no turning back. As they gather evidence of their own effectiveness in the world, they become fully prepared to launch into the larger community and to fulfill their greatest dreams over time.
What we need to understand is that self-love, self-confidence, and self-knowledge are a prerequisite for a fully-lived life. They are not add-ons to be explored “someday” or “when I’ve finished all my work.” This longing to be who we are really can be stuffed, or ignored, or ridiculed. But it doesn’t go away. If we really want it all—happiness, positive relationships, and the ability to do our great work in the world—we’ve got to look in the right places. Top-down education can do nothing for us if we don’t know and honor who we are.
Here is the missing piece: Who you are is more important than what you know. Skills can be learned. What doesn’t work is training for a narrow, arbitrary set of skills (i.e. Common Core Standards), and ignoring the people we are inside. For success, for happiness, for health, for everything that makes life worth living–we need to look in, not out. Standards won’t help us get there. Time, space, struggle, and friendship will. A Sudbury school is an optimal environment to begin the lifelong inquiry—who am I, and how can I serve? It’s an optimal place to become empowered, and to create the lives that we were meant to live.
If Sudbury works, and consistently produces stunning results, why do we resist? Why do we dismiss? Why do we say it’s too “out there” and stop listening?
We’ve simply trained ourselves to value the things that won’t make us happy—being like everyone else and playing it safe. We haven’t yet learned to fully value ourselves and to fully trust in our own, or our children’s, power. Time and time again I see children lining up the perfect learning experiences from life’s array of possibilities. The right teachers teach and the right lessons are learned. The turning point comes for everyone who is allowed the time to get to it. It is possible, and it is happening, right here in our community. I hope that, for the sake of our children and our world, we can culturally reach a collective turning point—realizing our own power and goodness and trusting our ability to thrive in a changing world. Then we can honor our children by seeing the same in them, and giving them the gift of freedom to launch in their very own way.
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.
Liam Marshall-Butler is currently a student at MLSS.