Why Does a Sudbury School Work?


Mimsy Sadofsky[1]


I would like to start in the middle. Before I talk about the basic features of a Sudbury school, I would like to talk about two central ideas that dont even come up when you talk about most models of schooling and that are all-important in understanding why a child can go to a free school and still get a great education.


Play and conversation.  These two things are different and yet are totally interconnected.  Play is what people do when they are free to do whatever they want.  And conversation is usually what they do while they play!  But first lets concentrate on play for a bit.

I didnt say that play is what children do when they are free to do whatever they want: I said that play is what people do.  And I meant it.  When I am free to play, I ride my bike, I cook, I read a book, I go for a walk, I talk on the phone, I visit a friend, I knit a sweater, I see a movie.  I might do a lot of other things, but the point is that I am never at a loss for what to do.  And the fact is that my mind is involved in all of these activities.  Sometimes it is through contemplation, or working on thinking through a problem.  Occasionally, I am aiming at the acquisition of information through experience or through intellectual inquiry.  Cooking may just sound like the work you do to feed a family, but to me it is a chance to engage in activity that is creative and also non-frustrating; it is a creative activity over which I have a lot of control.  It is problem-solving with a solution, unlike so many of the other thought processes that I (or you) go through.  Of course, I enjoy eating, too, so . . .  But the main point is that anything I want to do is in some manner mind-expanding.

When I choose to pursue activities with others, to play with other people, it is generally because, selfish as this sounds, the other people are interesting to me.  That means that they will say things that I hadnt thought about before, impart information that I didnt have before, or give me a new slant on a problem they, or I, or someone else, is trying to solve.  When you find someone elses personality pleasing, you want to play with them, you want to interact with them.  I find email to be a wonderful addition to my life, because it expands my ability to interact with people on a daily basis that I would otherwise speak to very rarely, and this gives me much greater benefit.  It allows me a window on a much bigger universe, and a very different one from that of my daily newspaper or the people I see every day. But it is important to understand that for me, as for you, it is a personal universe that I have chosen because of my own personal interests.

The reason that I am talking so much about myself is that I know that I become more sophisticated and worldly and knowledgeable every single day, through the activities I pursue,

although those activities are not geared toward that.  The personal growth is an accidental bit of fallout.  But not totally accidental.  The reason that I choose my activities is that we all, every single one of us, naturally gravitate toward the things that pique our curiosity, that give us information in areas of our own personal interest.  That is why I choose the activities that I want, and dont choose the activities that someone else wants.  I only have my own personal development to worry about.  It is just that I dont worry about it.  Nature takes care of it for me by sending me trotting along toward the activities that have turned out to give me satisfaction and stimulation.  I call it fun, but of course intellectual broadening is what it is about, and what makes fun fun.  Things that are intellectually challenging, while being interesting, are what pull all human beings.  Not just adults.  All people.

I think of play as problem solving.  That is what games are, really.  And the more complex the game the more original the solutions can be.  What makes play so exciting and so seductive to us is that we never know how it is going to end.  Play is not just doing something that we understand all the facets of, in general.  It is doing something where you are open to allow new things to happen.

It seems to me that the human urge to play is what has gotten us where we are today.  Now that statement can be interpreted in a lot of ways, but what I mean when I say it now, is the progress that allows us to sit here in well-lit, well-warmed comfort; that allows me to use a computer to ease my work; that allows us to fly around so that we can vacation in various places or so that we can have people who come from far away talk about some ideas we are interested in!  These progressions have all originated from human beings pushing the envelope, playing with new ideas.

From birth, each creature struggles to gain competency in the areas that are of interest to it.  Usually, there is a great deal of overlap between how human beings progress.  Most learn to sit and to crawl and to walk.  There is not total overlap, but enough overlap so we are very familiar with the stages of infanthood and toddlerhood.  But why do most kids do these things in the first year or so?  They are doing what comes naturally, they are learning the things they are going to need to continue developing into competent adults.       

Improving your mind.  Striving to become a high-functioning member of society.  That is what comes naturally for the human species.  And that was what I was talking about with myself.  I never think about it.  And, no baby is thinking, Ill be a grownup with a better job and a fancier car if I learn to talk as well as I can.  Perhaps they are thinking, If I learn to say that word, maybe I can get them to understand how important it is to give me a cookie when I want one.  Or maybe not.  Maybe they are just trying like the devil to imitate the behavior of their older sibling, or their parents.  It doesnt matter: we all recognize that the striving is built-in with little kids.  In fact, getting them not to strive is often a problem.  That is one of the reasons we are so happy when they are asleep!  Dealing with their education wears you right out.  But you dont think that either.  Most of us dont think about educating our toddlers.  Just keeping them out of trouble and answering their incessant curiosities somehow.

I can guarantee that I never think: Oh, I have some free time: I will do some intellectual inquiry.  Never, ever.  And I can guarantee that no child is thinking it either.  Never, ever.

And that, I think, is what we have to keep sight of all the time when we think about freedom in schools, which is our real theme this evening.  We know that we play, although we rarely use that word.  We know that children play.  But what we have to remember is the higher evolutionary purpose of that play: they play to learn to be adults; we keep playing all through life to learn to be better adults!  It is a continuum.        


So that brings me to one of the important points I wanted to make: It is vital to play.  It is not just vital when you are three.  It is vital through your whole life.  And I will go farther:  I will say that those people who are most in touch with their own ability to play probably those are the people who are rarely bored are the best adapted for modern life, for life in the 21st century, for life that is immensely stimulating, fast-paced and dynamic.

And that is what you find in a Sudbury school.  Students who never lose their excitement about what they are going to play next:  6 year olds, 10 year olds, 16 year olds; it never has to stop.  They all know how to be amused.  They all grow up playing all of the time, and it has an empowering and enlivening effect on them and on the people they form relationships with.

Of course, playing with rattles doesnt do for a two-year old.  Riding a trike in the yard doesnt do for an 8 year old.  Playing with Barbie dolls doesnt do for a 14 year old.  Reading the Bobbsey Twins books doesnt do it for a 17 year old.  Because you constantly, as you move through life, find more and more sophisticated games to play.  You cant help it.  You grow older and a lot smarter.  You are stimulated by and exposed to a thousand things each day.  You follow your curiosity and explore those things that call to you, and leave the others aside for another day, or another year, or maybe for never.  And eventually you find that you may be playing chess, not checkers; bridge, not old maid.  You may be reading real books about historical events.  Or contemporary events.  Not text books, but real books written by people who are interested in the subject!  And those change, too.  The person who is reading science fiction may someday find physics or mathematics exciting.  The person who is picking out a tune on a guitar may someday be playing a flute in a symphony orchestra. 

People who are allowed to follow their own interests constantly develop.  That is all this is about.  It is about the amazing progress you make when you are the person who decides what it is fun to do, and do it, without being deflected over and over and over again by someone elses idea of what you should be doing.


Freedom to play is totally empowering.


Sure, life is often frustrating and playing the game of life is hard work.  It is not easy to progress from being someone interested in learning about child rearing to being a pediatrician, or a psychologist.  There are always a lot of obstacles in the way.  But when you allow a person to develop in the way that nature intended, that stuff doesnt matter.  Learning anatomy is not, in fact, nearly as difficult as mastering your native language.  So you have two things going for you as you encounter the obstacles: the first is that by the time you are school age you have had lots and lots of experience doing stuff that was extremely hard; the second is that as a very young child, you never expected that life wouldnt continue to be hard.  Obstacles in fact are exciting; mastering new situations is totally exciting.  Learning how hard you can work again and again is extraordinarily exciting.  Focus is so completely engaging that it is often hard to interrupt.

And that is another part of this whole play thing.  A child who can spend hours and hours building legos may or may not become an architect.  But she will stay the way Nature intended her: she will stay alert to and excited by challenges and hard work.

Here is something a former Sudbury Valley student said that I love to repeat because I think it is so important and fits so perfectly into what I am talking about. It is about the exposure to new ideas, to new ways to play:


Everyone was extraordinarily mobile.  Trying to find a kid at the school is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.  They'd be there one minute and gone the next.  Mobility was a big part of what was different about the school from any other institution.  That's something that people have a really hard time understanding.  Mobility and randomness together let you find the things you're interested in.  You're not stuck anywhere.  The minute you're bored, you zip somewhere else and find something else you're interested in, so that the whole day you're doing stuff you're excited about.  There's a lot of stuff going on.  Other kids are doing things.  There are books, and activities, and people for you to bounce your ideas off of, so you're not just creating the world out of whole cloth yourself.  Part of it is stuff you're creating and part of it is just stuff you're walking into.  Part of the fun of school was spending whole parts of the day walking from room to room, seeing what was going on in each room before finally settling down and deciding to do something in a particular place.  If you were bored you'd say, "Hey, let's go see what so and so's doing."  And you'd spend half an hour finding so and so and seeing what they were up to. 


So, I will leave play for the moment, but not without re-emphasizing the last point.  Students who have been free to follow their own instincts are constantly focusing on something; usually something a little harder than the last thing they focused on.  They are aware of how difficult life is.  They are not expecting everything to be fun instantaneously.  In fact, they learn as they progress through childhood that the things that are the most fun, that stand the most chance of keeping them interested for the longest, are the ones that are hardest to attain. 

Watch someone draw.  I see kids who have been drawing many, many hours a week, sometimes many hours a day, for years and years.  They have not necessarily been unhappy with their work as they progressed, but something made them keep progessing, keep practicing, keep working on their skills.  They didnt expect to become fabulous overnight.  They didnt expect that talent would take the place of hard work, only that talent, if they possessed it, would augment their hard work.


Conversation.  I guess you could say that I am having a one-way conversation this evening as I try to help foster understanding of why we feel so strongly that this model of education is a startlingly excellent one.  In many ways conversation and play are two sides of the same coin.

Conversation flows freely in Sudbury schools.  Conversation may be stifled and stunted in most other school settings even more than play is.  The free flow of ideas is really what the school is about, educationally.  The abilities to form a thought, share it, reform it after listening to your own and other peoples input to it, are what makes kids who go to these schools so impressive.  I often say that our school doesnt need adults anymore.  Of course, I hope it is not true, because I like my job and would not want to lose it, but in a sense it is true.  They dont need adults to figure things out for them.  We figure things out with them.  And, like kids of all ages, we serve as role models for, among other things, repeatedly figuring out new stuff!  There have been debates in our School Meeting, for instance the School Meeting is the weekly forum that manages the school, that solves the day to day, and month to month issues that come up in which I could, in the absence of other ways to identify the speakers, tell you which ones had spent a lot of years in this sort of an educational setting and which were new to it.  Not because the ones who have been here a long time are the most intellectually acute on all subjects, not because they are the best kids, and not because they are the oldest, but because they can hear a subtle, complicated exposition and understand it in its entirety, and make real contributions based on their own ideas and experiences.  I am going to repeat that: the length of time a kid has spent in a Sudbury school tells you a lot about how well they can hear.  How well they can understand what they hear if it is difficult to understand.  Because that is totally related to how they have spent their time: talking and listening.  Figuring stuff out.  Solving problems. 

And please be aware of this: there are no trivial conversations.  At least not in these schools.  Of course, there are pleasantries, but that is not what I am talking about.  Pleasantries are just what makes it possible for the ground to be so fertile for conversations to develop.  Most often conversations are dead serious, and can range over a wide variety of topics, grazing some and going deeply into others.  These are conversations between pre-adolescents playing with magic cards.  These are conversations among little girls playing with Barbie dolls, or with beanie babies you may hate Barbie dolls, but I guarantee that you wouldnt hate them as much if you could be a fly on the wall listening to the elaborate and shared mental constructs that spring up around Barbie play!

So, why is this so important?  Because, partly, of play.  Because conversation is playing with ideas.  Because conversation is sharing your ideas with others, opening your mind to theirs, and getting into theirs minds a bit.  Because conversation shapes and molds ideas.  It is one of the primary ways we use to link other peoples knowledge with our own.  It is the way that we have to link into other peoples unique viewpoints and ways of thinking.  So, when we converse, we are aiming at not just getting our ideas across to others, but allowing their interaction with our ideas to reshape what we think.  It enhances our thought processes to share our thoughts; we also can build bridges to other people by sharing thoughts with them; we come to understand them better, and they learn to understand us better.  Building this sort of bridge seems to be a primary need of humans.  It is the way we have developed not to be lonely.

And it also seems to be true that the ability to form these bridges, the ability to get into conversations easily with others, and to profit from them intellectually and emotionally, is a very important ability to develop.  We all talk about adulthood as going out there.  Well, it is a lot more likely to be a good going out there if you are good at forging links into other peoples minds and ideas.  That is a big step toward success in what we talk about as the free marketplace of ideas!

Of course, having developed your ability to communicate well is a tremendously helpful tool in being able to form close relationships.

Kids are the way you get them.  To a very large extent.  That is, a great many of their personality and character traits either exist when they are born, or are formed so early we feel like they were intrinsic.  It doesnt really matter that much which.  So, if you assume that each child has a certain integrity of being that you cannot change, you then have to start wondering in what ways you would like to help your own kids, or other peoples, develop.  I dont think that there is a lot of real debate about this.

The funny thing is that there is not a lot of debate about most of this stuff: all child study specialists will tell you how important play is, but many do not see that it is such a central feature of everyones daily life, merely that young people develop more holistically if they can play a lot.  They dont follow the idea far enough to figure out that play is key to learning and to creativity.  But leave that aside for a minute.  They might if they had the kind of experimental evidence that we have!  Meanwhile, research consistently decries the lack of opportunity for real conversation in schools, and find that lack oppressive to children.

The usual solution posed to both of these things is so condescending as to be breathtaking.  It is that children be allowed to play within narrow constraints in some places for some small part of their school day, in ways related to the curriculum of course, and that they be encouraged to take part more in discussions in classrooms.  Free flow of ideas?  NO!  Unstructured outcomes?  I dont think so!

I think that we could come up with a set of ideals for children that would be pretty easily accepted by the majority of society today.  Not all, but the majority.  We want children to grow up confident in their own ability to affect the outcomes in their own lives.  We want children to grow up with a sound sense of ethics, fair play, and tolerance.  We want children to grow up able to forge and maintain strong relationships with people that they care about. 

A Sudbury school is the atmosphere that produces those outcomes for kids.  And all people have to do is enroll them and let them go.  Let them learn to set their own goals, achieve them or find new ones.  Let them make a ton of mistakes, and learn from them painfully.  Let them work at a young age to build a community based on respect for every individual.  Let them work within an institutional framework that is shaped by them and maintained by them.  Let them hear their own voices loud and clear.  And let them hear the voices of others.  That is what I have been talking about here.  And that is what I think we all can agree on.

What is this letting them go stuff.  It is one thing to say let them play and converse.  It is another to say let them make all their own decisions.  But that is pretty much what I am saying.  I am saying let Sara choose not to learn about the stars if she is not interested.  Dont make John eat asparagus.  Let Brett choose not to ever listen to Bach if he doesnt want to. Let Amy go to school without her sweater.  Let Tom never learn algebra.  And let them amaze you by what they do think about when their thinking is not circumscribed by a curriculum.  Let them wow you with the things they get into, from developmental psychology to pottery.  Let them flower into even more interesting members of the family than they were before; your reward for letting go: they will be closer to you than you ever imagined.  They will thank you for the gift of freedom.  They will be better parents that you were.  They will be stronger about asserting their rights in this world, and more cognizant that their privileges are privileges to be guarded, than you could have hoped.

Here, I would like to digress for a moment.  Sometimes people think that it is fine, they will send a kid to a free school, allow the child to play all day while at school, and then make sure that they fill in by tutoring the kids in all of the right areas and keeping them to a tight academic discipline at home.  Or, on the same theme, they send the kid to school but try to get him or her to work according to an agenda some of the time, because the kid still has tons of unstructured time.  They think they can have their cake a curriculum and eat it too (have freedom).  School is not necessarily a failure for these kids, but it isnt quite a success either.  A kid who comes to school without an agenda and a child who comes home into a family life where his choices are as respected as they are at school has a tremendous advantage.  That child knows in his or her bones and heart, as well as mind, that s/he is expected to make decisions about all aspects of life and education.  They are, in fact, responsible for themselves in a meaningful way and can freely take that responsibility with total seriousness.  They are not going off just to have fun, secure in the idea that someone else is controlling the important learning stuff.

Sudbury schools cannot prevent a parent from enrolling a child and still going about ensuring, outside of school, that the child learns what the parent wants it to.  But if you spend time in such a school you can usually tell the difference between the children who are sent there by parents who trust that the child is interested in growing into a high-functioning adult, and the children whose parents dont really think their child can figure it out.  It is a question of seriousness and focus.  The kid trusted by his or her parents is free to make decisions and to focus with clarity upon whatever is important at that moment in a complete manner.  The other kids are going to school only to play, only to get social interactions.  Because their parents do not take their play seriously, neither do they.  Often they are the most disruptive children in a school.

Parents and kids are such a difficult subject to talk about.  I often feel that I am talking around it, not about it.  There are no people in a childs life who are more important than their parents.  It may even be true that there are no people in an adults life who have more ability to affect the adults emotions than their parents, unless it is their own children!  It is inherent in the relationship between parents and children.  From the moment of birth a child is totally dependent on the whims of the parent.  Of course, they dont think about it that way then, but it is certainly true.  You ate, as a baby, either when you wanted to or when your parents wanted you to.  Regardless, they were in control.  As an adult you eat when you want to, more or less.  Infants are just plain unable to be independent.  They yell about it a lot, sometimes, but it is a fact.  So you are totally a captive of your relationship to your parent from the word go.  Childhood and young adulthood mark a constant movement toward independence.  Parents can encourage that often against their better judgment or contrary to their own emotional needs or put up with the consequences of discouraging that.  Whatever.  You know yourself that a slight glimmer of disapproval from your own parent has an entirely different impact on your ideas and decisions than a big glimmer from someone else might have.  So what does that mean?  It means that you, as a parent, influence your child not only in all the ways you know, and in all the ways you have worked on exerting such influence since birth, but in a myriad of ways you dont know.

And it means that if a parent wants to encourage a child to grow up whole and independent the parent must let go, often even when she or he would rather not.  Parents have to allow the child the same autonomy that a Sudbury school allows him or her.  They must tread lightly, because in fact they are the only people who have had a right to tread heavily, and because just as a child reaches for independence and at the same time looks back longingly on the warmth and security of dependence, parents too, are conflicted, and must not visit that conflict on the child unless it is necessary.  For the good of children, if you believe in children, parents must seek a role as much like the schools as possible: benign neglect some might call it; the art of doing nothing others call it.

Perhaps you feel that you have needs for your childrens maturity that I didnt mention.  Interesting enough, I think that these needs are going to be met too. 

Now, some of you might think that all of the wonderful outcomes will happen in the most uninterrupted fashion.  I wish that were true.  In fact, kids go through periods of questioning their own abilities, partly because they are aware that children are not respected in the larger community; and there are also periods of boredom.  When they question their own abilities or become bored, the first and most destructive instinct parents can have and who can blame them; it could hardly be more natural is to help them figure out what they want to do and how they want to spend their time.  To some extent that makes sense.  Helping another person think a problem through is one of the most wonderful things a person can do for another person.  But way too often help from a parent includes, however gently put, the parents judgments about what a child, or even that particular child, should do, in order to make life easier when they go to college, for instance, or to insure that they get into whatever the parent thinks is the right college, or to make sure they go to college at all.  It almost becomes coercion, merely because the parent is so powerful emotionally.  If you send a child to a Sudbury school you must be prepared to give them space and to let them suffer.  Believe me, they will be suffering a whole lot less than their contemporaries in other kinds of schools, but they will be suffering real life problems: What do I really want to do?  How do I go about learning to do it?  What do I do now that I realize I dont, indeed, want to spend 8 hours a day playing Magic Cards?  The child has to feel that s/he is in charge.  To feel that, s/he has to actually be in charge. 

It seems like it is time to do a little more description of this terrific thing I have been touting the virtues of all this time.

Sudbury schools have a lot of features in common.  I will talk about a few.  We will happily answer questions about others.

Every student in a Sudbury school is free to pursue their own activities.  This means that they can be wherever they want, with whomever they want, doing whatever they want all day every day.  That freedom embodies the fundamental principle of the school and of course it is what I have been talking about all this time: people free to engage in play, meaning the activities they choose, and conversation, freely, figure out how to lead their lives in productive ways.  They dont need to be told what to do and what to learn.  Learning just happens while they are doing what they find they need to.   There are no age constraints on almost anything they might want to do.  Their best friends may be 5 years older or 8 years younger.  But even if their best friends are their own age, they still spend time freely mixing with kids of all ages as well as with adult staff members.  This age mixing is a central feature of every school.  The opportunity to find out about whatever you want from people who know a little more, and people who know a lot more, is wonderful.  It is exactly what role-modeling is all about.  And sometimes your role-models are very young.  We have discovered that the youngest children are the best at figuring out how to spend their time, and new kids at our schools, especially those 12 and over, always study how the younger ones spend their time in order to adapt to freedom themselves.  Being able to learn from people who know a little more than you, and being able to teach people who know a little less, is a tremendous spark to development.  Of course, there is never a worry about whether kids will be exposed to a broad variety of ideas when age mixing is the norm.  They cant help it.

Although there are no classrooms in a Sudbury school, usually the schools are set up with a lot of multipurpose areas and some special purpose areas.  Computer areas.  Kitchens.  Art rooms.  Music rooms.  Sometimes science areas.  There is no Sudbury school in which books are not important, and access to the world through computers and the Internet has of course become the norm.  Outdoor activities are important in every school.  Sometimes there are organized games, mostly there is outdoor play.  I feel that part of the covert curriculum in all Sudbury schools is that a child cannot attend for long without developing a love for the outdoors.  The other part of the covert curriculum, which I will talk about later, is that a student finds a need to develop the ability to consider almost any kind of ethical question.

The school is an all-day affair.  That is, people come to school sometime during the morning, spend a good number of hours there, and then go home again.  That is important because it means that it is hard to be late for school.

A Sudbury school is a participatory democracy.  The schools are run by School Meetings, in which each student and each staff member has one vote.  The School Meeting at Sudbury Valley meets weekly to talk about all facets of managing a school.  Some areas of responsibility are assigned by the School Meeting to people or committees it has elected for various administrative tasks; the rest are the business of the weekly meeting, as are requests, problems and big decisions that the clerks and committees have.  School Meetings are run along the general lines of Roberts Rules of Order.  They are staggeringly orderly and serious.  But once you spend some time in one you realize why: the people there are interested in getting their work done well and efficiently.  The School Meetings are in no ways a student council.  They are the entire group of students and staff members meeting weekly to figure out how best to run the school.  All of the schools rules are made there; staff is hired and fired there; important judicial consequences are dealt with there; the budget is made by the School Meeting; and any changes or deviations, which of course happen with some frequency when you have a dynamic institution, are dealt with by the meeting.

The fact that the school is run democratically gives meaning to the freedom of the school.  Our educational philosophy requires each student, no matter what age, to be responsible, totally, for her own education.  This only becomes real when it is clear that such students must also be responsible for their community.  The sense of responsibility informs each day of each students life, and is taken completely seriously by everyone in the school.   It is important in their choice of daily activities, and in their attitudes toward the governance of the school.

No one is ever patronized in a School Meeting.  It is assumed that each person, be they 60 or 6, debate at the full level of their competence and intellectual strength.  Complete deference is given to each point of view.  Learning how to debate from masters is part of the role-modeling that happens in the school.  Decisions are made after careful listening and consideration, and are taken by vote.  No matter how sorry you are that your points were not the ones eventually agreed to by the majority, it is basically impossible to walk out of the School Meeting angry.

Here are a couple of quotes from former students about how they felt about School Meetings as kids, and then later:


I used to enjoy attending the School Meeting.  Feeling equal is so important; that's the whole thing.  As a kid, it's extremely important, because you feel that you have some authority,  that you can express your feelings and somebody's going to listen to you.  If somebody just throws a rule at you, it's a natural reaction to want to rebel against it.  But if you have something to do with it, if you're part of a decision, that situation is an advantage.  I'm talking now as an adult, but as a kid I was aware of it.  I knew that I had certain powers, like, "Hey, we voted staff."  You knew you had power to vote people in, vote people out.


I think I always knew, as long as I can remember, what the School Meeting was:  the place where things got done and decisions got made.  Before I started going regularly, I did what most little kids do; they go when something germane to them comes up.  At some point I can remember feeling maybe that wasn't right and maybe everybody should go all the time, and then at some other point I decided that, yes, it was ok, it was all right for me to let other people decide things that I wasn't interested in.  The image I had was that somebody else was taking care of most things and I didn't have to worry about it very much where "somebody else" was staff members and older students. . . But the thing that went along with that image was that I felt I could complain if there was something I thought wasn't right or something I thought should be changed.

When I was older, I got really impatient at meetings.  I remember thinking that it takes people so long to understand what other people are saying and people miss the point of what other people are saying, and then say things that are way off the point themselves.  More recently I've learned that people do these things a lot less at School Meetings than they do in almost any other setting, and the School Meeting works as well as any democratic meeting that I've ever seen.


School Meetings figure out, as I said, how to spend the schools money.  Often this gives them a lot of experience in frugality, experience which has never been known to hurt anyone, and in prioritizing various needs.   Hiring and firing staff is an awesome responsibility.  And they make the rules.  All of the rules.  The rules about what is, or is not, considered reasonable behavior in a small democratic community.  The rules about what various committees are allowed to, or are responsible for, doing.  They set the parameters for life in the community of the school.

One of the most important duties of a School Meeting is regulating behavior in the school insofar as such behavior affects the community.  The School Meeting could never, ever, in any Sudbury School, decide what courses of study a person could follow.  But it could decide whether or not to allow littering, whether running in the building is ok, whether harming property is okay, and where people can be allowed to play loud music.

Sudbury Valleys disciplinary system is run through a Judicial Committee, a subset of the School Meeting which handles the routine things that have to do with discipline.  The way things go is that if someone in the school, anyone, no matter what their age, sees an activity or an action that they feel is against the rules of the school, they make a written complaint about it.  This complaint is carefully investigated by the Committee, which decides what it, the committee, thinks happened which may bear little relationship to what the complainant thought happened and writes a report about it.  Based on this report, the Committee can vote to charge one or more people with having violated specific rules.  The people can either plead guilty, or have a trial.  If found guilty (or if they plead guilty) they can be sentenced.  Usually difficult complaints to sentence find their way to the School Meeting floor, so that the whole community can be part of the sentencing.  I know I went through a bunch of steps quickly: the fact is that the important features of our Judicial system are: due process is cared for and looked after every step of the way; the people running the system are students, and furthermore students of all ages; it is almost impossible not to get fairly treated; and kids of all ages understand the system, mainly because due process is so carefully adhered to.  The important things for us as we watch the system unfold year after year are that the respect in the school for the Judicial System mirrors precisely the value that kids set on the freedom that they have; and that sentences, while not overseen by anyone, are almost universally obeyed.

I would like to turn to some quotes from our former students about the Judicial Committee to show how important a tool it is in the life of the school.


The Judicial Committee was your tool for making people understand that it's not that running down the hall is the crime of the century; but let's say I'm walking down the hall with a tray full of fragile things and you run into me that's not something I really want to encounter.  Learn to live your life in the context of not making your freedom impinge on the freedom of somebody else.  I had learned it myself through the same process.  I went from being a self-centered person to realizing the effect of my activities in a larger scope, and I would make adjustments to my behavior.


The judicial system was an interesting center of conflict in the school.  Especially trials.  All the time that I was involved, trials were very rare, so that having one was kind of a special occasion.  There would be a lot of buildup and people would talk about it, and then there would be people arguing their cases and trying to convince each other, and it would come down to what the jury thought at the end, so that was always really fascinating.  I think the drama of it was very interesting to me.  I mean, the justice of it was nice, but I don't think that was interesting in and of itself.

There was no way not to get fair treatment if you got brought up.  The committee investigated and they made some kind of report, and if the report was wrong, then it was not that important because it could get cleared up in the trial.  There were enough checks and balances.  It was quite difficult to get convicted of something that you weren't guilty of.

This was important to me because I took advantage of it sometimes.  I was a real stickler, and if people brought me up for things that I knew were wrong, but weren't against the rules, I wasn't about to let myself get convicted of breaking a rule that I know I hadn't broken.  As a defendant, I wasn't scared, but I was nervous.  It's more like the fear you experience when you're going to talk in front of a group of people, than the fear that you experience when you're afraid of bad things that are going to happen to you.  I was always more afraid of being embarrassed than being convicted.  In general, it was important for me to learn that I could defend myself and convince people that I was right.


Often parents who decide on a Sudbury school for their children are not doing it because it is a democratic community.  I think that makes sense; they are looking at it in a much more individualized manner.  But there is no way to minimize the extent to which being in a democracy shapes the childs view of the world.  It is personal empowerment to be individually free, but the empowerment is not as meaningful if you do not have control over your society.  Democracy means that you, along with everyone else, can shape that society to fit your own ideals.  Democracy means that whatever happens you have a role in it.  Often people are worried that democracy in a school just means that the majority exercise a tyranny over the minority.  That is not borne out in our experiences in such institutions.  In fact, democracy means the free sharing of ideas and working through them to find the ones that are most acceptable and most user friendly.  It means everyone in the community understanding the decisions of the community and being able to live with them whether or not they agreed in the beginning.  It doesnt get in the way of personal fulfillment, because no one will let it.

And democracy means equality.  It is one thing to say that a 10 year old is equal to a 20 year old; it is another to live it.  And through living it people become sure about it.  Their autonomy creeps into their entire beings.

People often worry that children who go to Sudbury schools are not able to fit into the broader society.  They worry that students who go to such schools will not be able to have a boss; they worry that their kids will not meet college requirements.  I want to end by looking a little at both of these things.

Kids who are in charge of their school are used to working in a lot of different kinds of situations in which there are lots of interactions with other people.  Maybe they have to set up ways to use the computer facilities of their school.  Maybe they have to work together to plan a dance, or put on a play, or bring an activity into the school that needs a budget.  We have special interest groups that form, some forever, and some just for a year or two, called school corporations.   In many situations things are set up so that someone has some executive power.   This is an efficient way to get things done, and if you can remove those executives at any time, your rights are safeguarded.  So they are used to being executives, to having responsibility, and they are also used to following a plan laid out by someone else.  More to the point, they understand why that is a good way to get many things done.  So having a boss is not a problem our kids are usually appreciated by people they work for, because they are so good at listening and making decisions, and so serious about what they do.

College is never an issue for someone who has spent their time in such an environment.  The worst thing they usually have to face at college is not that someone may know more than they do in one area or another; it is that the other kids who have chosen to go to college have often chosen for less profound reasons than they have.  Our kids go to college to get something that they feel they need.  Others often go for the social experience, for the experience of leaving home, for the freedom, etc.

Here is what a former student said about going to college; this encapsulates why the school doesnt worry about it:


When I went to college, I felt prepared beyond the needs of college in some ways.  I had been at a school where you get things done yourself, where people don't spoon feed you.  At Sudbury Valley, you get a track record.  You do things and you get things done and you do them by yourself or with others with other children or with other adults.  And you establish self-confidence because you can get something done; you see how it works and you go after it.


I recently read an article about Accountability.  It was in a journal published by the Federal Reserve Bank, and the subject was fiscal equalization in schools in the state of Kentucky.  I just happened to see this article by the most accidental of accidents I am not really very concerned with the fiscal ins and outs of public schools; I, like the rest of the staff in any Sudbury school, spend lots of time trying to figure out how to make private schools run on much smaller amounts per student than any but the most poverty-stricken public schools.  But included in this article, as a footnote, was what the Kentucky Supreme Court decided, in 1989, was the set of subject areas that were important.

This is it; every state right now is worried about assessments, about testing, and about making sure that all students can jump through hoops.  But Kentucky, 11 years ago, had a much more reasoned response and it exactly sets out what kids are in fact certain to learn through the Sudbury model of schooling:

(1) sufficient oral and written communications skills to enable citizens to function in a complex and rapidly changing world;

(2) sufficient knowledge of the social sciences so that as an adult a citizen will be able to make informed choices about public policies and issues affecting the community, state or nation;

(3) sufficient knowledge of psychology and the health sciences so that as an adult a citizen will have the capacity to assess and maintain physical and mental well-being;

(4) sufficient grounding in the arts so that as an adult a citizen will appreciate his/her historical and cultural heritage;

(5) sufficient training to enable a citizen to choose a vocation intelligently; and

(6) sufficient academic and vocational skills to enable a citizen to compete favorably in either academic or vocational settings nationwide.

I challenge you to find a product of a Sudbury school education who does not have these content areas well mastered!



1.  This is a talk that was delivered at Harvard University, Graduate School of Education, in May of 2000.