Schools have changed over the years, but in many ways, things have stayed the same. Yet, there's a school that's been around for more than 40 years that's really still considered radical to this day. It's the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, created by Daniel Greenberg, a former professor in physics and history at Columbia University, back in 1968. It is founded on the principles of democracy, to the fullest extent.
The educational philosphy is that each person is responsible for his or her own education. The students govern and learn themselves. They are able to do what they want, where they want, when they want--within safety guidelines. There is no curriculum, no tests, or any other evaluation. The only "evaluation" comes when they need to use expensive or dangerous equipment, and when they want a diploma, they must prepare and defend a thesis.
So, instead of structured classes of students learning a single subject matter, such as math or English, you will instead see students engaging in a variety of activities: playing, talking, hanging out, eating lunch, climbing trees, riding bikes, cooking, playing card, programming, playing instruments, discussing a movie or novel, reading a book, painting, and much more.
The biggest question on people's minds is probably this: What can they do after they "graduate"? Perhaps surprisingly, those who wanted to go to post-secondary had little difficulty getting in and doing well. Some went to prestigious universities, and most went on to successful occupations in all fields, including business, arts, science, medicine, among others.
Despite not taking structured classes, they succeed in a more structured learning environment. The benefits of their schooling fell into four categories:
1) They were responsible and self-directed. They learned to use their time wisely and had to solve problems democratically.
2) They were highly motivated. They participated in activities they wanted to do, so learning was fun and interesting to them. Their future careers were often a natural progression of what they found enjoyable at an earlier age.
3) They had specific skills and knowledge. Because they were interested in certain areas and topics, they became "experts" in those fields, and gained deep understanding that would help them in their future careers.
4) They lacked fear of authority figures. Because of the democratic environment they grew up in, where peers and teachers were on an even level, the graduates were not intimidated with their professors, and would establish good working relationships with them.
How is this all possible? Is natural, self-directed learning a reality? Perhaps it lies in the environment of a hunter-gatherer band. Here are some features of such a group.
1) Time and Space to Play and Explore: Self-education requires much free and unscheduled time. It gives a wide berth of physical space and time to explore, find passions, be curious, discover new things, learn from one's mistakes.
2) Multi-age learning: Younger children learned skills and knowledge from older ones, while the older ones learned to be leaders and teachers and guardians.
3) Access to Adult Knowledge: The teachers and staff were all caring and knowledgeable, and would help whenever the kids needed help. They were more like aunts and uncles than authority figures.
4) Access to Equipment and Freedom to Play with it: The students could use a variety of equipment, including computers, woodworking, art, sporting, books, and more.
5) Free Exchange of Ideas: They could talk, read, listen, discuss on any range of issues that interested them.
6) Freedom from Bullying: A crucial part where everyone feels safe from physical and emotional harm.
7) Democratic Community: A place where everyone vote and voice counts is a place where people feel they belong and have a say in what happens.
That's what happens at Sudbury Valley School. I. wonder how much of that happens in our schools? Time will tell if educational philosophies and practices shift into this direction. I think with the new curriculum, portfolio assessment, Genius Hour, Maker Space, differentiated learning, technology, and 21st-century learning, the educational thinking may be shifting into that direction as we speak.
(Source: Free to Learn, Peter Gray)
Daniel H. Lee
This blog will be dedicated to sharing in three areas: happenings in my classroom and school; analysis and distillation of other educators' wealth of knowledge in various texts; insights from other disciplines and areas of expertise that relate and connect with educational practices.