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Parents and School

From Reflections on the Sudbury School Concept
How it Feels to Send Your Child to a "Free" School

From Reflections on the Sudbury School Concept
Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Parents, Children, and Staff

From Reflections on the Sudbury School Concept
Is Sudbury Valley School "Anti-Intellectual"?

From The Sudbury Valley School Journal
A Paradigm Shift For Parents of a Child in a Sudbury School

From The Sudbury Valley School Journal
Tutoring: A Lose-Lose Proposition


From Reflections on the Sudbury School Concept
Edited by Mimsy Sadofsky and Daniel Greenberg

How it Feels to Send Your Child to a "Free" School
By Mimsy Sadofsky

      Over the years, we have found that the parents who choose to send their children to Sudbury Valley School have very few things in common. They don't seem to come from the same socioeconomic class. In fact, most of them seem to be impossible to "class"ify at all; certainly it is impossible from the cursory amount of information we collect from them. Clearly, however, there are always more parents who struggle to pay our modest tuition than parents who find it easy.
      These parents also have widely different standards for all sorts of categories of behavior in their homes, or at least so they and their children tell us.
      Very often they turn out to be parents who would not ordinarily be sending their children to private schools; that is to say, they are the kind of people who generally feel that private schools have an odor of elitism about them, and they find that odor unpleasant.
      However, what our parents do share is an overwhelming desire to do the best they possibly can for their children. Even though they might be people who only questioned the process of public schooling because their children forced the issue, they are not people who accept the status quo in child rearing or in education.
      We have written extensively about what happens to kids who have had all or part of their education at Sudbury Valley. It has also become pretty obvious that their parents examine their own lives in many of the ways that every Sudbury Valley student must do over time. That in itself is enough to scare away many parents who are not willing to accept this challenge. It seems that this willingness to undergo intense re-examination of their own lives is one of the few generalizations we can make about our highly individualistic parents.
      So, let us say that someone has examined the philosophy of Sudbury Valley, feels confidence in their child's curiosity and judgment, and decides to enroll that child. One might hope that the enrollment would signify the end of anxiety; that the decision to put full trust in the child's judgment would be a relief to parents. And it is a relief. But it also isn't. This is what a parent of a teenager in his second year at Sudbury Valley had to say to the other parents at an informal Assembly meeting:

      For our son, the philosophy of this school made so much sense that coming here seemed like second nature. For us, however, slow learners that we are, the decision was much more an act of faith than one of reason. Molded by our parent's values, our own educational experiences, and the predominant thinking of today, it was clear that in order to be "good" SVS parents we would have to let go of many deep-rooted expectations of what education should be. We needed to get in touch with what we felt really mattered about school, and disregard the rest. This reorientation process hasn't been easy, and has offered a number of terrifying moments, as well as some extremely happy ones. I realize that in many ways hope is merely the flip side of fear. We hope that something good will happen, while fearing that it won't. Some days one face of the coin is up, other days the opposite side is showing. This contributes to a pretty exciting ride on an emotional roller coaster, especially where SVS is concerned.

      None of us lives in a vacuum. Everyone has friends, relatives, parents, sometimes other children, who feel that allowing a student so much freedom is tantamount to telling that child that no one cares what happens to him/her. Most everyone is in a workplace or a neighborhood in which such a brave decision is treated as a sign of abdication of the responsibilities of parenthood. And the very same people who might hesitate to criticize if they thought one's child had been nursed for too long, or put in day care too early, or not forced to sleep through the night, have no trouble spending a great deal of time denigrating the educational philosophy with which parents at Sudbury schools are trying so hard to align themselves.
      Partly that is comforting. It opens up many forums for discussion. But partly it isn't, because a lot of the people one has these discussions with are working from a very small amount of information mostly from the tops of their heads or from what you have haplessly told them or from a position in which many of their beliefs are threatened. A lot of the people each parent knows are sure, totally positive, that the structure of education that is most familiar to them and it will almost always be a variation of the structure that most children are in today is the only possible one that guarantees that we will not produce a generation of savages, ignorant savages at that. They feel threatened by the idea of the loss of adult power and control that such a "free" school is predicated on.
      But of course we parents too feel threatened. There we are, open to attack from all of those other people who think we are crazy, as well as from our own anxieties. It is very well to say in the abstract: "Sure, I know that my kids will grow up constantly busy learning things. I understand that to be the human condition." But then when the things your kid spends time doing perhaps Nintendo, or playing games in a tree, or poring over Magic Cards for months on end don't look at all like the things you did in school at that age, and don't require that they learn the capitals of the states, or how to diagram a sentence, then it is not so easy.
      In fact, sending a child to such a school is a courageous and still an almost unique choice. We all want our children to have even better lives than we had, no matter how good ours was. When we think of a better life these days, we don't usually mean materially better, because most of us have had quite adequate material lives. We mean intellectually, emotionally and spiritually better. And it is hard to keep your "eyes on the prize" of the excellent, well-examined life when the life your children are leading is one in which they can play Nintendo as long as they want, or work with clay for months on end, or read a million science fiction books, or talk to their friends on the phone for hours and hours and hours after talking to them all day at school.
      Most of us went to traditional schools, which became the tradition because society was heavily into educating for uniformity. Now that we are adults, we have noticed that uniformity is not much of a selling point when we want to get interesting jobs, or create a work of art, or create a new idea, or create a new product, or create a new way to market a product. In fact most of us are either in creative jobs, or at least totally excited about the creative activities that fill our leisure hours, and we realize that we don't have to all know exactly the same things as everyone else. Of course there needs to be some overlap between our knowledge and other people's; being alive in the world makes us crave for that overlap, so we go after it. Often, we look for commonality with others even in areas that are of limited interest, because we want to have things in common with people who are not just like us. That is one of the social imperatives of life.
      If you are now a parent, odds are that in your childhood you were educated mostly for a world that was going out of style at the time and is becoming a distant memory now, a world where uniformity was vital to the workplace. Since my childhood the possible ways of earning a living have changed from many, to incredibly many, to no- one-can-count-how-many, because new ideas of how to spend time are invented every minute. Kids need to be educated for a world that changes even faster than today's world, which is a hard thing even to imagine. But that is why we have to allow them to use their minds in their own ways because that will guarantee the most complete possible development for them, which will maximize their chances of succeeding in a wide-open world.
      It used to bother me actually it still does that I had no one to turn to for help with problems once the computers we were using at school had a certain number of programs on them. The configuration became totally unique, and there were so many possibilities that no one who had not studied our system could possibly be on top of them all, and be able to help us; and maybe not even then.
      The kind of anxiety computer problems raise in me are the same kinds of anxieties we have about our kids. These are control issues. They are already in a world that is out of our control, all day every day, bombarded with information we hardly have a clue about. We are raising them for a world where there are less and less secure answers, and more and more possible paths, and that means such a total and necessary abdication of authority over them on our part that it is terrifying. I think every one of us who has chosen to send a child to a Sudbury school has contemplated that abdication of authority, that releasing of control, and everyone, no matter how secure, also has some residual worries about making a mistake.
      So, now that we have taken a look at some of the things that are guaranteed to make one anxious if one is the parent of a child in such a school, let's look at the other side of the coin.
      What do kids learn at a Sudbury school? Are there any guarantees? I actually think that there are, and I think the things that can be (almost) guaranteed are the most important things of all in an explosively changing world. A student learns to concentrate. A student gets constant opportunities to make ethical judgments. A student learns to be treated with total respect. A student learns to appreciate the outdoors. A student learns to be self-reliant. A student learns to be self-confident. A student learns what it means to set a goal and reach for it, to re-assess, to reach again, to achieve the goal, or to fail miserably, and to pick him or herself up and do it all over again, with the same or a different goal. A kid learns life skills. Real life skills. The skills that it takes to be successful at marriage, at child rearing, at friendship, as well as at work.
      What does it mean when I say that a child learns to concentrate? It means that the person focuses in on the interest of the moment, or the hour, or the year, and pursues that passion until it is a passion no more. Which of course also means that the tremendous let-down of losing a passion and having to go out and find a new one is a frequent companion. I see this focus mirrored in students in our school every day. I see it in the student who at 17 has suddenly developed a passion for math, and spends hours a day grinding away at it. I see it in the determination of a kid to get up into the heights of the beech tree, a goal that can take years to reach not that the goal will be pursued, of course, every minute of every day, but more as a theme of life constantly working on climbing skills, and constantly working on what it means to look down 15 or 25 or 50 feet and know only your skills keep you safe. I see it in the kids who constantly design and re-design Lego planes, airports, and space stations; and play elaborate games with the structures they have made. I see it in the drive to learn everything a person has to know in order to be allowed to work in the photolab alone, or on the pottery wheel. And I know, because I have children of my own, and because I have seen a generation worth of Sudbury Valley students, that I see only a fraction of a percentage of what is going on, of the concentration that is happening.
      One of the hardest things for all of us to see and to understand is the work necessary for a teenager who comes to our school to do what has to be done first: to come to grips with who s/he is. To many people, a lot of teenagers look like they are wasting their time. They just seem to spend so much time hanging out, talking, drinking coffee, sometimes even unfortunately smoking cigarettes, talking some more, driving around. Yes, they read. Yes, they are wonderful resources and usually extraordinarily kind to younger kids. But what are they doing? Part of what they are doing is forgetting. They have to forget that they spent years hearing that other people had an agenda for them that was touted to be the "best" thing for them to pursue. They have to get in touch with the idea that the person who really knows what is best for them is themselves; that they can become responsible for their own intellectual, moral, spiritual, and even physical development. That is no small trick. And, yes, a lot of the time they are squirming, suffering, struggling to shoulder these burdens or to escape from them. We, the adults around them believe that, in the atmosphere the school provides, the likelihood of them deciding to shoulder the burdens is as high as you can get. So we let them struggle. We let them suffer. They offer each other a tremendous amount of support. All the adults in the school can do is tell them we understand how hard it is. But what every parent must understand is that support offered from the parent must, first and foremost, take the form of confidence that the struggle will be fruitful. This also maximizes the chances for it being fruitful.
      The student who grows up learning that the most productive motivation is self- motivation, and that s/he can in fact learn how to fail and how to succeed, has the best chance for a life that is rich. We also notice that children given the gift of trust by their parents become closer and closer to their parents, and sometimes these kids even provide the insights and strength to work to solve family problems that have developed over time.
      Students at a school like ours will surely be practiced in ethical judgments. Moral questions are the bread and butter issues of Sudbury model schools. This community has very high standards for ethical behavior, standards that have forced me, over time, to raise my own. The school is run democratically. That doesn't mean that every kid has something to say on every issue. No one polls every person in the school every time something comes up. It does mean that for every issue that comes up, the School Meeting is a forum in which each person, no matter what their age, is treated respectfully and equally, and also has an equal vote in decisions. But there is much more than that. The system for solving problems that have to do with behavior involve a changing sub-group of the entire population, a sub-group with total age variation in it, that investigates, reports on, and comes to grips with, problems of a social nature. This means littering, this means irritating noisiness, this means taking another child's cookie, this means not doing the trash when it is your turn. It also can mean more serious violations of the community norms. Each community's members spend a great deal of time informally and formally defining these norms, to themselves and to others, till they have worked out definitions that will serve them, at least till the issue comes up again.
      I would like to end with more of the hopes and fears of the same parent whose remarks were quoted earlier:

      Letting my imagination run wild, I hope that when our son is ready to leave SVS, he will move on with an empowering sense of purpose and direction. I realize that this is asking a lot. It's certainly not something I could have done when I was his age.
      Most of all, I hope that SVS will help each one of its students to find happiness deep down inside, to feel loved and appreciated, and to pass that love along to others. I don't have too many fears about this, because it seems that this is what a whole lot of people around here are hoping for.

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From Reflections on the Sudbury School Concept
Edited by Mimsy Sadofsky and Daniel Greenberg

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Parents, Children, and Staff
By Hanna Greenberg

      Usually I like to focus on the positive aspects of being at Sudbury Valley. I enjoy thinking about the many facets of life in our little community which is so rich with wondrous encounters and experiences. Every single student is like a whole world and in the course of time each one of them shows me something new that I never knew before. That is what keeps me wanting to work at SVS all these many years and why it is never boring to be there.
      Of course, life is never perfect and neither is Sudbury Valley. Disagreements and misunderstandings often occur, as they would in any group of people who share space, time, resources and responsibilities. Students and staff alike have to learn to live with these problems and overcome the discomfort or anger that they may feel from time to time. I am no exception and I admit to having made my share of mistakes by doing or saying things which were hurtful to others. Sometimes I have been insensitive, neglectful or forgetful. I have done many things at SVS, and I have been seen by students at times when I was less than wise or intelligent. Usually they point out my inadequacies and I can accept their laughter at my expense and even their anger, because it is clear and above-board. They tell me to my face what bothers them and give me a chance to explain or apologize. Most of the time I am astounded by the kindness and tolerance that the students exhibit and it has taught me to be more understanding of others than I had been before coming to SVS.
      Occasionally, I am angry or hurt by others' mistakes or insensitivities and then it falls on me to discuss the matter openly with the persons involved to give them a chance to explain or apologize. By and large people at the school get along quite well because of this ability to air grievances and work things through face to face. In cases where communication between people is impossible they can choose to avoid and ignore each other.
      Unfortunately, this mode of interpersonal interactions is thrown out of balance when it is interfered with by others who are important to the individuals in the school but who are not a part of the daily life of the school. What I am going to describe has happened every year since our inception in 1968, and uncannily is enacted as if according to a script which is always the same. I would find it bizarre and amusing but for the pain that it causes to all the participants in this drama, including myself.
      This is how it unfolds. Students are led to understand by their parents directly or by subtle suggestion that it would be good for them to take some sort of class. The kids agree in principle but can't bring themselves to do it. What we see is kids who ask for a lesson, and then behave in a manner which isn't congruent with wanting to take the lesson. Thus they forget their appointments, or their homework. They may come to the lesson with an attitude of "tell me what I need to know so I can get this boring stuff done with as fast as possible and be free to do what I enjoy doing". Time and again we see bright kids learning very little and hating every minute of it. They often ask the staff for instruction just before they leave for the day, or while the staff person is in the middle of another activity which makes it clear that no lesson can be given. These modes of behavior are in marked contrast to the way they behave when they want us to help them do something that they really want to do. Then they hound us with questions, wait for us to have time to attend to them, retain what we teach them and avidly do work on their own. They are purposeful and focused and it is evident in their whole demeanor that nothing will stop them from pursuing their interest. The contrast with the behavior of the same students when there is an externally imposed push to take classes is remark- able.
      When children are questioned by their parents about classes which they really are not interested in taking but which they engage in to please their parents or allay their anxieties, they are in a quandary. How are they to explain their non-performance? They hem and haw and under enough pressure they begin to project their own behavior on the staff. They say, almost with no variation, that Hanna, or Denise, or Danny, or Joan, or Mikel, or Mimsy, or Carol were too busy to help them, or didn't show up for class, or were too late to do it, or were uninterested in teaching. Sometimes we are accused of going shopping instead of attending to the students! At first when I heard these complaints say about Joan, or Mimsy I thought to myself, "It's possible that it's true, but it is strange that they are both attributed the exact same behavior when I know them both to be so different. Mimsy is so well organized that it is unlikely that she forgot an appointment, and Joan is usually in the Art room and easy to locate. When she goes shopping it is for art supplies with a student and all the other kids in the room know where she went." I wondered: could it be that the whole staff at SVS talks a good line but refuses to be attentive to the students needs? Could it be that all of us are identically forgetful, uninterested in attending to the students needs and dedicated to shopping during school hours? It didn't make sense.
      It was only after numerous repeats of these accusations, leveled at all of us at one time or another, that the pattern began to show itself clearly. The formulaic nature of these criticisms belied their truth and revealed their origins. The students want to do what their parents think is good for them. However, they find this difficult to do at the school. They are too busy doing what they think is interesting and important. Only at the end of the day do they remember what they "ought" to have done. They need an explanation for their parents and for themselves, which will not reflect badly on them, and so they attribute their own forgetfulness, or lack of interest, or preoccupation, to the staff. The trouble is that what they say doesn't fit the characters of the particular staff involved. It does, however, fit the stereotypical reaction of kids to parental pressure to learn things which the parents think are important to learn but which the students don't.
      Neither I nor other staff members hold a grudge against the kids. We know that both they and their parents are doing what they think is best and that we have to cope with these complaints as part of our job. But it does upset me that often the parents involved don't want to hear what we have to say on the matter. They usually are offended when we imply that the child lied to them because the child did not want to disappoint his or her parents. They also often don't agree with us that "suggesting" things to learn to their children constitutes pressuring their children, and that it is not in harmony with the school's approach to education.
      It looks to me that when things get to this stage the children are better off in a different kind of school, where there is a curriculum which the children are obliged to learn and where the teachers coerce them to learn it. I believe that it would be better for the family, and the children in particular, not to attend a school where they are daily put into a situation of conflict between following their own idea of what is important to learn and listening to their parents' advice. It causes the kids to be depressed, guilty and anxious and worse, insecure about their future.
      Yes, SVS is an all or nothing approach to children. Parents either do or don't trust their children to acquire the skills needed to survive in America according to their own judgment. If the latter is the case, it would be better to transfer the children to one of the many humane and kind schools available which believe that children need more help and guidance than we provide at SVS.

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From Reflections on the Sudbury School Concept
Edited by Mimsy Sadofsky and Daniel Greenberg

Is Sudbury Valley School "Anti-Intellectual"?
By Daniel Greenberg

      At first sight, the question posed in the title of this essay appears ludicrous. After all, the school's walls are virtually all lined with books from floor to ceiling a library that would be the pride of schools far richer and larger than SVS. The staff has always consisted of people who are highly educated and have a wide range of interests. The conversations at school, engaged in freely by children and adults of all ages, are often distinguished by their richness of content, elegance of expression, and wide range of topics. And the school has produced a more extensive literature, probing its philosophical foundations, than any other single school ever. It would seem that to wonder whether this institution has an "anti-intellectual" flavor is to be wholly unaware of who we are or what we are doing on a daily basis here.
      Yet, the question is not infrequently asked, and this fact alone must drive us to consider whence it arises. As so often is the case, once we examine the matter more closely, a number of quite significant factors emerge, which shed light equally on the nature of the school and on the underlying outlook of the questioners.
      Let's look at the context which usually raises the issue in the first place. Often, it is one in which parents of children enrolled at the school are told usually by their children, sometimes by other parents that a request to some staff member for help has been greeted with indifference. The story the parents hear almost invariably is something like this: "I went to X [a staff member] and told him/her I wanted to do science. S/he said 'You aren't really interested in this' and didn't help me." Or the last sentence might be, "S/he told me to get a book out of the library and read about science." There are any number of variants, both with regard to the subject matter under discussion, and the specific reply; but the gist of all of them is the same.
      Moreover, when the parent inquires about the incident, the reply from the school is always in support of the staff member's mode of response. In talking about the matter further, the parent and some school representative ultimately get to the question of what constitutes real interest that is, when expressions of interest on the part of children should be responded to actively by staff, etc. subjects I have discussed at length elsewhere.
      Up to this point, the concern has focused on the more general topic of how adults at school deal with requests from students. It is at this point that a new element often appears. Here's how it usually surfaces.
      There are all sorts of activities at school where staff members interact fairly regularly with students, even though these activities clearly do not represent deep, serious interests on the part of the students. Many examples come to mind: all sorts of cooking activities in the kitchen, especially with younger children; various activities in the art room, from fine arts to pottery to sewing to other crafts; outdoor activities, such as rock climbing, skiing, camping trips. In situations like these, it looks as if staff members at school react quickly even to fairly casual inquiries from students perhaps sometimes even initiate the activities!
      On the other hand, one rarely finds this state of affairs occurring in areas of interest that coincide with the standard curricular activities of more traditional schools. To some parental observers, it seems as if the school is saying: "Cooking yes; science no. Beadwork yes; spelling no. Skiing yes; math no." Or, to generalize: "If a student wants to piddle around in some unessential activity that doesn't involve deep thoughts, the school's staff will rush to get involved; if a student wants to do something that develops his/her body of knowledge or ability to think critically (a term regularly used by prevailing schools to justify the subject matter that they include in their curricula), then s/he will get a fairly cold shoulder from the staff." The conclusion these observers draw: Sudbury Valley has an anti- intellectual bent.
      Let's look more carefully at what is going on here. Part of what children enjoy about Sudbury Valley is their ability to interact with adults as people, rather than as authority figures or "teachers". They enjoy the conversation, the mixing, the friendliness, and in general the opportunity to chat about the life experiences of older people in an informal and unthreatening setting. Former students remember, even after a span of decades, how much they enjoyed simply being around grownups they could be friends with, and from whom they could learn all sorts of things about life.
      The students and staff at Sudbury Valley are quite aware of this key role played by staff, and cherish it. Most of the time, they spend time together in a completely unstructured setting sitting around in the sewing room, chatting in the main lounge, playing outdoors together. It is this frequent and casual accessibility of staff that has so often been mistakenly interpreted by outsiders as "the staff doing nothing but hang out". The staff has on occasion been criticized for spending their time chewing the rag with students and seemingly "doing nothing" even by people within the school community, but rarely by students.
      Occasionally, however, either students or staff set up easygoing structured situations where they can interact freely, and enjoy themselves in the meantime. Such situations almost always center around an activity that is relaxed, entertaining, and fun to do. In the context of such activities, staff and students spend gobs of time together, and get to know each other really well; in fact, one of the main points of having these planned activities is to create a natural setting for staff and students to be able to be together for a long stretch without any artificiality attached to the situation.
      Thus, a group of students spending a morning in the kitchen with a staff member, cooking some dish or other, do so especially for the joy of being together, though the production of a tasty dish is certainly relevant to the pleasure afforded by the occasion. When an off-campus overnight trip is taken, the depth of the interactions increases significantly. Always, people return from these trips with greatly increased insights into each other's way of thinking and feeling, and make enormous progress in learning how to handle complex group situations. This is an important motivation behind the students' desire to go on these trips, and is one of the reasons staff members enjoy them so much, despite the considerable work involved.
      The benefits that these relaxed opportunities for mixing afford children cannot be exaggerated. By contrast to most other interactions children have with adults, Sudbury Valley child-adult interactions become laden with positive associations; Sudbury Valley students learn from the earliest age to enjoy being with grownups, to be as relaxed about using them as resources and general role models as they are about using other kids, and to establish relationships that span several generations without any threatening overtones. These are gains that not only remain with students throughout their lives, but also affect the way these students in turn relate to children when they themselves become adults. By providing a setting for pleasant adult-child interactions, Sudbury Valley contributes significantly to breaking the cycle of fear that plagues inter-generational relationships.
      The only way the system works, however, is if adults at school carefully avoid structured situations which are associated in the minds of children with the standard societal demands that are imposed upon them in other environments. In the present context of American society, it is not possible to have a relaxed adult-child interaction that involves chatting innocently about subjects that form the curriculum of the prevailing school system. There is no possibility to have casual get-togethers that putter around in science-related areas; for the children, these situations immediately turn into "science classes", and the adult becomes the "science teacher". The substance of the interaction immediately gets related to what other kids in other schools are doing; and when the children tell their parents about the activities, the parents having themselves been trained in traditional schools cannot help but reacting with overt or subtle signs of relief and pleasure that "finally, our kid is doing something academic", or "finally, our child is engaged in real learning in Sudbury Valley." The focus of the staff-student relationship veers away from person-to-person exchanges towards teacher-student exchanges, and Sudbury Valley is seen as participating, after all, in the same basic game as all the other schools.
      Few things can be more damaging to the atmosphere and outcomes for which the school has fought long and hard. There is no way that the staff at Sudbury Valley wants our school to be even remotely associated with the notion that the curricular areas preferred today by other schools have any special value or significance within the total range of subject matter that children or adults can find interesting and absorbing. It is for this reason, more than any other, that the staff carefully avoids encouraging any slight signals given by children at the school that indicate that they want the comfort of tuning into the standard fare, to reassure themselves somehow that they too are "taking" the right "courses".
      So when all is said and done, I think it is fair to say that Sudbury Valley School is staunchly "anti-standard-curriculum", and gives no special encouragement to students who talk about "doing" the usual school subjects. But in encouraging free-wheeling and open exchanges between adults and students at all times, in all sorts of settings informal, casual, or lightly structured Sudbury Valley promotes a level of "intellectualism" not generally found even in University Graduate Schools these days. The dictionary defines "intellectualism" as follows: "The exercise or application of the intellect." As we stress over and over again in our literature, the intellect is best exercised or applied in situations where it is self-driven, and free to roam without reference to external constricting pressures. Our major task has been, is, and will for some time remain the establishment of an environment as free as possible from the overwhelming societal pressures favoring certain kinds of pursuits as preferable, as more worthy than others.

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From The Sudbury Valley School Journal

A Paradigm Shift For Parents of a Child in a Sudbury School
By Alan White

      We grow up making assumptions, which are derived from our culture. We build on these assumptions to form our view on how the world works. Many are self-correcting because of new information. But some of these assumptions are so obviously true, so much a part of our culture, of what we are, that it takes a great effort on our part to question them carefully. It is one of the major reasons we follow in the religion of our parents, why we are patriots of the country of our birth, why we are conservative or liberal in our political views.

      What would be the consequences of a mistake made in tagging newborns in an obstetrics ward in a hospital? Assume that the babies were given to the wrong parents and that hospital was in Jerusalem which has both Palestinians and Jews as clients. What if that hospital were in Halifax, NS, and a conservative Protestant family went home with a baby whose natural parents were liberal Catholics? What assumptions would the children make, growing up in the wrong”family?

      What assumptions are the vast majority of people in my country or yours making about education? Let me list a few that I grew up with.

      The more classes I took the better educated I would be. Taking classes was how one learned..

      My parents and teachers knew what was best for me.

      The younger you were when you began any activity the more proficient you would be.

      Tests measure the degree of mastery you have acquired in any subject.

      Play is your reward when work is done; to play instead of work was being frivolous and irresponsible.

      Talking in class, unless answering a teacher’s question, interfered with your ability to learn and the teacher's ability to teach.

      There are prerequisite courses that you must take if you are going to be able to do college level work.

      The agenda that experts choose for children is for the child's and society's good.

      The paradigm shift I made was the result of abandoning every one of the assumptions that I have listed above. It was very difficult and it took me years of agonizing soul searching. This was true partly because making a paradigm shift is always very difficult and partly because I had a successful career in public school education, which was based upon the assumptions listed above.

      It was my Sudbury Valley School experience that slowly but surely caused me to abandon every one of the assumptions.

      If you are to be a supportive parent to your child enrolled in a school practicing the Sudbury model you too will have to reexamine your assumptions to find if they conflict with the Sudbury model. As a parent you are the most influential person in your child’s life. If you are unable to make the paradigm shift that is required, you will constantly be undermining your child’s attempt to use the freedom afforded them in a Sudbury school as they try to figure out what is needed to become an effective adult in the 21st century.

      We are undergoing a major transformation from an industrial society to a society based on information. As parents you are in the middle of that transition with one foot in the past and one in the present. Your child has one foot in the present and one in the future. When they reach my age, three quarters of the 21st century will be over. The experts who are currently directing the agenda for children in traditional education will be ancient history. The model of education that they are promoting is a model designed for the industrial society and therefore totally obsolete.

      On the one hand making a paradigm shift is very difficult, but there is an extensive literature that has addressed the questions that every responsible parent will need to ask if they are considering sending a child to a Sudbury school. It will bolster their confidence as they struggle with the anxiety of their decision in going against the perceived wisdom of the majority. The literature addresses educational issues in the context of our history and our economic and social condition. It is a fascinating journey and a useful one if you are to give your children the support they will need to take seriously the idea that they are in charge of their life and responsible for their own education. A Sudbury school is most effective if every child has the support and understanding of their parents.

      It took me the better part of ten years to become convinced that the Sudbury model was appropriate for this time in our socioeconomic development. I am a generation older than most of you and I did not yet have the advantage of the thirty-four years of experience that is embodied in the Sudbury Valley School model.

      What was it about the Sudbury experience that caused me to abandon the assumptions that I listed above? I first heard about the model in 1966 when the school was in its planning stage. At that time I was an Elementary School Principal and had been pioneering in many of the innovations that were attempting to improve education. It was an exciting time and there were many bright, articulate, university professors who were developing programs in math, science, and social science, and devising organizational strategies like programmed instruction, team teaching and team learning. By 1967, I was becoming increasingly aware that these programs worked reasonably well for about 1/4 of the school population but were very disruptive and ineffective for the majority of students. Moreover, even the successful students had to be coerced or bribed to learn what the experts had chosen for them. It went against my understanding of the ideals of a democracy. Freedom and coercion are contradictions and in a free society they have to be examined and reexamined whenever they co-exist.

      The Sudbury model was based upon a view of human nature that assumed children want to become effective and responsible adults. This view also assumed that evolutionary processes had prepared children to be efficient problem solvers. Most observers of children in their preschool years saw that young children solve some of life’s most difficult challenges. Most educators that I knew also recognized that self-motivation is by far the most effective ingredient in learning. The experiment of the Sudbury model created a laboratory to test the validity of these propositions. If reading, writing, and arithmetic were essential skills children would recognize this fact and sooner or later would learn these skills. Children steeped in our culture would, on their own, become aware of those disciplines we value as a society and would select out those aspects that they personally wanted to pursue.

      When the experiment was first proposed most people felt it was a utopian pipe dream. Fortunately, a few brave souls had the courage and the foresight to pursue this dream that was so consistent with the ideals of our English heritage. For my part, I hoped it would work but I was prepared for failure. Yet, even if it was a failure, I felt we would learn a great deal that was valuable.

      The assumptions being tested had their roots deep in the soil of our cultural heritage. Aristotle had observed, over two thousand years ago, that humans were naturally curious and driven to explore. Long before there were schools, in the far reaches of our prehistory, our species survived and flourished because children were driven to become effective adults. Before the Industrial Revolution and the schools it spawned, children learned through apprenticeship programs. Children watched, listened, asked questions, used play to simulate adult roles, and slowly became aware of what they needed to do to survive and become contributing members of their family and society.

      Why were the founders of Sudbury Valley so convinced that the prevailing educational model was unsuited to the reality of our country in the mid-sixties? Not only was it unsuited but it was doing extensive harm because we were no longer preparing for an industrial society. In all the Western democracies computers and communication were transforming society. We were entering the Information Age. Schools that served us well when we were an industrial society were counterproductive for the demands of the Information Age. The founders of Sudbury Valley were not alone in their awareness of the changes that were taking place but they were alone in recognizing that traditional schools could not be modified to meet the challenge. Those schools had to be completely scrapped and a new model for education developed.

      When I said we were not alone let me quote from a few well-respected writers who were voicing their concerns. Albert North Whitehead, a professor of philosophy at Harvard in the 1920's and a world renowned mathematician, in his book The Aims of Education, had this to say:

      What I am now insisting is that the principle of progress is from within: the discovery is made by ourselves, the discipline is self-discipline, and the fruition is the outcome of our own initiative.

      Another quote from Whitehead from the same book: The basis of the growth of modern invention is science, and science is almost wholly the outgrowth of pleasurable intellectual curiosity.

      Albert Einstein, a contemporary of Whitehead had this to say:

      It is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.

      Ralph Waldo Emerson writing in mid-nineteenth century: “The secret to education lies in respecting the pupil. This secret was central to the Sudbury model of education.

      Traditional schools had been necessary in order to obtain the benefits of industrialization. Alvin Toffler, in his book The Third Wave, is very insightful:

      As work shifted out of the fields and home, moreover, children had to be prepared for factory life. The early mine, mill, and factory owners of industrializing England discovered, as Andrew Ure wrote in 1835, that it was “nearly impossible to convert persons past the age of puberty, whether drawn from rural or from handicraft occupations, into useful factory hands.” If young people could be profited to the industrial system, it would vastly ease the problems of industrial discipline later on. The result was another central structure of all Second Wave societies: mass education.

      Built on the factory model, mass education taught basic reading, writing, and arithmetic, a bit of history and other subjects. This was the “overt curriculum”. But beneath it lay an invisible or “covert curriculum” that was far more basic. It consisted – and still does in most industrial nations – of three courses: one in punctuality, one in obedience, and one in rote, repetitive work. Factory labor demanded workers who showed up on time, especially assembly-line hands. It demanded workers who would take orders from a management hierarchy without questioning. And it demanded men and women prepared to slave away at machines or in offices, performing brutally repetitious operations.

      This model for education is counterproductive for the Information Age.

      What was happening at the Sudbury Valley School forced me to abandon my assumptions:

      There are prerequisite courses that you must take if you are going to be able to do college level work.

      The more classes I took the better educated I would be. Taking classes was how one learned.

      Some of the first students who enrolled, transferred part way through their high school program. They reveled in the freedom available at Sudbury and did not take the courses that are considered a prerequisite to college level work. Two things happened that surprised me. First, they were able to gain admittance to prestigious colleges. Second, they were able to compete successfully against their contemporaries who had followed a traditional curriculum. This phenomenon has continued and now we have graduates who had never attended any other school. There was little interest in having classes as a way to learn and the little interest that there was came mostly from students who assumed (as did the vast majority of adults) that classes were the royal road to learning. Nevertheless they have been successful in gaining admittance to college and were able to do college level work. Moreover those who chose not to go on to higher education found other avenues to being productive and responsible citizens in the Information Age. They were not stigmatized as people who were intellectually disabled nor are they.

      Tests measure the degree of mastery you have acquired in any subject.

      Since classes were never popular at Sudbury Valley grades were not given or tests required. The degree of mastery was a subjective evaluation made by the student when they were satisfied that their progress had accomplished what they had set out to do.

      Play is your reward when work is done; to play instead of work was being frivolous and irresponsible.

      Talking in class, unless answering a teacher’s question, interfered with your ability to learn and the teacher’s ability to teach.

      From my frequent visits to the school and many conversations with the staff my impression was that students spent most of their time playing games of all sorts and in endless sessions of conversation with other students and staff. An industrial society had to downplay play to condition children to conform to the “real” world. An information society has to encourage play because it is the child’s way of simulating the “real” world. For a wonderful account of the importance of play read the chapter by that name in Worlds in Creation by Daniel Greenberg published by the Sudbury Valley Press. For a deeper understanding of the importance of conversation read Children and Grownups another chapter in that same book.

      My parents and teachers knew what was best for me.

      It is central to the Sudbury Valley experience that children decide what they want to learn and when they choose to learn it. The only agenda they follow is the one that they choose for themselves. How else can you feel that you are in charge of your own life, how else can you be truly responsible, how else can you learn to trust yourself, how else can you be intellectually independent?

      The younger you were when you began any activity the more proficient you would be.

      At Sudbury Valley children varied greatly as to age when they decided that reading was an essential skill in our culture. Once they made that decision they learned to read in a mater of months. Compare this to the seven years it took for children in my charge as an elementary school principal. It took years and we still had 20% who needed additional help once they went to junior high school. At Sudbury an early start did not seem to give any advantage. Why should this surprise us? Freedom and an absence of coercion are essential for a democracy.

      With very few exceptions all young children learn to speak and speaking is a much higher order of difficulty than learning to read. Again it is worth quoting Whitehead, taken from The Aims of Education.

      The first intellectual task which confronts an infant is the acquirement of spoken language. What an appalling task, the correlation of meanings with sounds. It requires an analysis of ideas and an analysis of sounds. We all know that an infant does it, and the miracle of his achievement is explicable. But so are all miracles, yet to the wise they remain miracles.

      And, last but not least:

      The agenda that experts choose for children is for the child’s and society’s good.

      I will not question motives but the results will handicap children in this age that is radically changing our lives. Quoting again from Whitehead,

      Culture is activity of thought, and receptiveness to beauty and humane feeling. Scraps of information have nothing to do with it. A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth.

      I would like to end by quoting one of the founders of Sudbury Valley School, Hanna Greenberg. This quote comes from “Why a Curriculum is Counterproductive”, Reflections on the Sudbury School Concept, Sudbury Valley School Press, edited by Mimsy Sadofsky and Daniel Greenberg.

      It boggles my mind that the attributes we cherish in ourselves and in our friends – being interesting, insightful, creative, and independent – is what we are willing to sacrifice in children in exchange for the acquisition of knowledge that some of us deem it necessary to learn.

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From The Sudbury Valley School Journal

Tutoring: A Lose-Lose Proposition
By Daniel Greenberg

      Every year, word gets around that certain students in the school are receiving outside tutoring arranged by their parents in subjects that their parents think are important for them to know – subjects that the students are not pursuing on their own initiative to their parents’ satisfaction. For example, we’ll hear of a student being tutored in reading, or writing, or basic math, or algebra – topics that the traditional curriculum requires in other schools1. The accepted dogma in the world of canonical education is that these subjects (a) must be taught (since children will not otherwise learn them on their own) and (b) must be taught at a certain age, since the brain is so designed that if not learned at the appropriate stage of development, they can never be mastered adequately.

      Tutoring in the subjects of the standard school curriculum, when it occurs, is one of the saddest phenomena we have encountered in our 35 years of existence. It adversely affects the student involved, the relationship between the student and his/her parents, and even affects some of the other students in the school. It stands in stark contrast to the underlying educational principles of the school. It creates unresolvable conflicts within the student between what s/he has been told the school stands for, and what s/he is being forced (or persuaded) by his/her parents to do. In short, it is a formula for failure – failure of the student relative to the school’s mission, and failure of the school to deliver optimal outcomes.

      Let's take a closer look at the messages that outside parent-sponsored tutoring in “standard subjects” delivers, and how they relate to the school’s mission.

      (1) The student’s internally driven agenda is not as reliable as an externally driven agenda, especially when they do not match. The external curriculum is the result of “expert” knowledge about what children need to know to make it in the adult world. Trusting the “experts” is thus more reliable than trusting one’s own interests and inclinations. This stance is of course diametrically opposed to the school’s fundamental position that the most worthwhile activity a child can engage in is that initiated by the child, and that every effort must be made to support self-initiated activity, without prior judgment as to its value.

      (2) It is more valuable to rely on knowledge acquired through the ministrations of an outside tutor than to rely on knowledge acquired by one’s own efforts. You never know whether you’ve got it right if you go after it yourself, but if you wait for a tutor to provide the information then it will be more accurate and useful. Passive acquisition of knowledge is the way to go. The school’s stance towards the acquisition of knowledge by contrast is based on the established fact that knowledge acquired through a person’s own efforts is more effectively retained, and more productively used, than knowledge imparted through outside instruction.

      (3) Students can’t be trusted to find out what is important in the world, or what is important to them for their future lives. That’s why traditional schools don’t allow children to decide for themselves what to do with their time at school. By contrast, trust in a child’s judgment is a center-pin of the school, just as trust in every individual’s judgment is the center-pin of a free, democratic society.

      (4) You should have more confidence in what adults prescribe for you than in yourself. Your internal compass is not reliable; without outside help, you will not find your way. Sudbury Valley, however, extols the virtues of self-confidence, which is the force behind anyone who dares to take on life on his/her own terms.

      (5) There is not enough time to wait for students to come around and realize how important certain subjects are. Life is too short to waste on “unproductive” pursuits (that is, on pursuits that do not conform to those promoted in traditional schools). Time, however, is a most private commodity, and it belongs to each person to use as s/he sees fit. When someone else tells you how to spend your time, that person is robbing you of control of your most precious possession.

      These five messages are extremely erosive of all that the school stands for. Sending them to students can only make the students doubt the school and, even worse, doubt themselves. Parents would do well to contemplate this before sanctioning any form of outside tutoring – or before putting pressure on their children to seek special tutoring at school from staff members.

      The spectacular degree of self-knowledge and self-confidence shown by Sudbury Valley alumni is living proof that allowing the system to work provides the greatest benefit to students. There is an extensive literature explaining why this is so. The urge to provide tutoring, driven by anxiety and fear of failure, should be fought and conquered. It is so much more productive for a parent to say, “I believe in you, and will support you in whatever path you take.”2

      Postscript

There is one category of outside tutoring that sometimes is useful to Sudbury students: tutoring to improve scores in college entrance exams. Every year, there are students who feel that taking these exams (the most common of which are the SATs) will help get them into the college of their choice. I have never yet met a student who was interested in these exams for their own sake, or was motivated to study for them because the subject matter caught their fancy. Preparing for them is distasteful, and though a great many students manage to do so on their own, or at school with the help of other students or staff, some find it more palatable to find outside tutors or take special cram courses (Princeton Review, Kaplan). Tutoring of this sort never seems to do any harm, since there is never any illusion that the material is important for future success in life. On the contrary, it’s just stuff that one has to swallow for a limited purpose – sort of like Driver’s Ed, which occupies much the same place in the sphere of outside classes.

      Anyway, reliance on SATs seems to be diminishing in the realm of college admissions, and ever more avenues are opening up to obtaining a fully satisfactory college training without going through the Entrance Board testing ritual.

1. I would like to make it clear that I am not discussing outside instruction in esoteric or advanced subjects that are not offered in the school, and that the school does not provide through the importation of outside instructors (such as horseback riding, or advanced dance class).

2. The same considerations apply to tutoring that students ask their parents to arrange. In such cases, the students’ fears of not being capable of developing fully in such a demanding school – fears that are fueled by outside pressures of friends and family, and sometimes by subtle or not-so-subtle signals from parents – lead them to set aside their internally driven interests in favor of an external agenda. The response of parents should in any case be the same as that described in the text: “You, not outsiders, are the best judge of what you need.”

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