With all the photos and comments from friends on facebook of their little ones starting school – or not in some cases – it seems a good topic for another post. Obviously it is not uncommon for people to move to a new town in order to send their kids to a ‘good’ school, whatever that might mean to them. So important are schools, that house prices are strongly affected by the catchment area of the local school and in the UK last year I remember reading in the papers about parents who were being prosecuted for lying about their address to get their child into their first choice school.
So it might not seem that unusual that we moved largely for a school – except that we moved 3,000 miles – but this is quite a unique school model. Of course there were plenty of other factors in our decision, family and friends are here too, beautiful fall foliage, reasonably priced roomy houses and Dunkin’ Donuts.. but the main thing we could not find in England was a Sudbury Valley School.
Just look at the grounds.. it doesn’t look much like any of my old schools! Who wouldn’t want to hang out there every day for a dozen years or so? But its not the location of this place that is remarkable, it is just about everything else. There are no classes, unless the children ask for one to be organised. There are no exams, no curriculum and no teachers.. only staff members.
Sudbury Valley School practices a form of democratic education in which students individually decide what to do with their time, and learn as a by-product of ordinary experience rather than through classes or a standard curriculum. Students are given complete responsibility for their own education and the school is run by a direct democracy in which students and staff are equals.
Students are not separated into age-groups of any kind, but are allowed to mix freely, interacting with those younger and older than themselves; free age-mixing is emphasized as a powerful tool for learning and development in all ages. It makes so much sense to me.
It was a few years ago that I was first introduced to this school model. I wasn’t expecting to be thinking about school when my first child was barely a year old, but I started to read about Sudbury Valley and its ideologies. I started to question whether mainstream schools were the best environment for learning. I had to ask myself why so many kids hate school? Is it really a good way to learn any subject, 45 minutes at a time, 3 times a week? Do I remember or regularly apply much that I was taught in school? Aren’t we more motivated and enthused when we are self-taught? Babies have an innate drive to learn to crawl, to master walking, to communicate, to explore their environment.. none of it needs to be taught to them. Kids are full of enthusiasm for learning and constantly driving their parents crazy asking why, why, why? So why don’t they want to sit down in class and listen to what the teacher is telling them? Well we are all individuals with different interests, different skills, totally different ways of learning. Maybe the one-size-fits-all curriculum and classroom model isn’t working for those reasons.
I have to add here that I always think of myself as having loved school. I was a teacher’s pet, which didn’t do me any harm until I got into my teenage years and it wasn’t quite so cool to hand in your homework on time! I did have a few rough years, when we moved to a different part of the country and I had to start over in school with a bunch of strangers.. that wasn’t much fun. But other than that I was fairly happy to sit and listen (rarely daring to put up my hand) and do my best to regurgitate everything under duress when it came to exam time. But that didn’t teach me much about myself, about my opinions and how to get them across, or even how to think a problem through. I love the fact that many ex-students of SVS have highlighted that the most common activity at the school is just to sit around and talk.
There seems to be a continous struggle to ‘tweak’ the mainstream education system to make it better, or to even make it work at all! But isn’t it about time we admitted that we might need to try something completely different? How about letting kids decide for themselves what is important. It seems to me that they will come across a million things they want to learn along the way, just as we all do when we leave school.. its often then that we really start to learn about life! Of course we can tell them where to look for answers and give our opinions, but there is little point us telling them what they will need to know to make a living and a life in twenty years time, we couldn’t possibly imagine what life will be like then!
This video interview with the always impressive Daniel Greenburg, was broadcast in the UK a couple of years ago on teachers.tv. There is so much to say about the concept and I am no expert, but everything I have read about the model makes sense to me. There are many books published by the founders of the school, as well as biographies and interviews with alumni, so there is plenty to digest.
You can read more about the model, the Framingham school, Daniel Greenburg and the other founders at sudval.org
Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, waterbugs, tadpoles, frogs & turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, hickory nuts, trees to climb, animals to pet, hayfields, pine cones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries and hornets – and any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of his education.” – Luther Burbank 1849 – 1926