Sudbury Valley's Secret Weapon: Allowing People of Different Ages to Mix Freely at School

Sudbury Valley School Experience, pp. 121-136

For a long time I had the strong conviction that age mixing, which is one of the most obvious features of Sudbury Valley, is among the most important educational components of the school (as well as being required by its democratic principles). But whenever I tried to explain it, I couldn't quite put into words why I felt that it played such a central role in the way children learn and develop. However I had an experience that galvanized the entire concept for me. Not that the experience itself was especially unique but, as I will soon relate, it had certain characteristics that finally put all the pieces rather abruptly into place. Perhaps the best thing is to relate the experience first, and then go back and trace my thinking from the beginning.

What happened was simply that I was present when a play group was being organized for children about three years old. A bunch of three year olds were playing around in and out of the house of one of the parents, and my own three year old was one of them.

What I saw was a lot of activity, but almost all of it individual activity. playing together, except that when you looked closely you saw that what was happening was that they were obviously enjoying each others' company and that they were interested in being near each other, but they were playing together separately. Each one was riding his or her own pedal car or tricycle and making a lot of noise and looking toward the other, but there was no joint activity, nothing in which they collaborated was taking place. Also, there was a lot of noise. There was also one other feature that is pervasive in nursery schools, though I must say very few observers mention it. A lot of the activity was markedly repetitious, rutted. Somebody would ride back and forth, back and forth, with a big smile, and somebody would sing for an inordinate length of time, always the same thing. Interestingly the most repetitious activities were those of children who were doing it in each other's presence. Whereas the child who might be staying completely alone in a different part of the house would be doing something original and varied. All these kinds of activity are very common to all such groups, but for some reason the events of this particular day triggered a train of thought in my mind that made many things fall into place. So let me proceed with some more general observations.

If you look around at society at large, or any segment of it, you cannot fail to notice that segregation by age, or by skill, or by ability, is not a prevalent phenomenon. Adults pay very little attention to these factors when they interact with other adults. Whether you are looking at a business or a store or a university or whatever, the adult population is most diverse: there are some people on the verge of retirement, some in their forties, some in their twenties just starting out, and they all are participating together in the enterprise. I know of no enterprise that has the kind of segregation that is common in schools.

Indeed, if you think about this matter as it applies to society at large, it starts to give you some insight about what's going on in educational institutions. In the everyday institutions populated by adults, it is generally accepted that it's a good thing if there's a lot of contact and communication between people who have different degrees of experience in life and different degrees of ability in their work. It's a good thing for the enterprise. It's something beneficial. If people thought it was better for such intermingling not to happen, they would prevent it from happening. 

Now, I suspect that most people simply accept this because that's what they're used to, and that very few people who run businesses or enterprises of any kind have thought through why they let people mix freely; that's the way it has always been and that's the way it is. But whether or not people know why it is good, it is a common feature of our rather successful society, and it is this fact that I want to me as background for later reference. 

Let us proceed to the central point: What is it that goes on when a child grows up and learns how to cope with the world? I think it is rather broadly agreed that the essence of the process of maturation is the development by the child of the ability to form a worldview; to come to grips with the world; to solve problems; somehow to find a place in the world; to get enough of a sense of identity to be able to interact with the world. There are many different ways of saying it. Basically, growing up is acquiring the ability to cope with the surroundings, rather than acquiring a set of static abilities that you live with the rest of your life. Modern thinkers tend to see life as an ongoing interaction between an organism and the world around it. Life is not something that takes on a set form when you become an adult and then just plays itself out; that is more typical of the view held in the past. Now, life is viewed much more as a process. To reach maturation means that you finally attain the ability, more or less, to go on coping day after day, year after year, in a creative, successful, imaginative way, with the ever-changing world surrounding you. 

The difference between a mature person and an immature person is that an immature person still is lacking much of this ability, still has trouble getting a handle on things. The mature person supposedly has developed the ability to find ways of dealing with the world around, solving the problems it presents, and creating structures within which the person can function. 

Since adulthood is an ongoing process of dealing with the world, learning and development can be seen to be the acquirement of the skills needed to be an adult. The focus is therefore on becoming a successful problem solver and builder of models of reality. A successful adult is a person who can do these things well, can take a problem, think about it, analyze it, and somehow come up with a solution that is valid within that person's model of reality. To function successfully throughout life one has to have the ability to build models that make sense out of reality. 

Given this view of what the process of life is, the question of education – or of childhood in general – is how does a child develop the ability to do these things, and what is the best educational environment in which to develop these skills? How do you become a good problem solver? How do you become a good model builder?

One of the ways is by studying the responses of other people in situations similar to the ones you are in. A person learns not only by making everything up from scratch, but by looking around and observing and studying and thinking about how other people deal with the world. That's where age mixing comes in. A person who grows up absolutely alone in a totally isolated environment is obviously going to have a completely different way of functioning as an adult than a person who has grown up in a social environment. Indeed, one of the functions of social interactions in a society is to provide alternate life models for the people in the society to study constantly. 

Now, when you are an adult, you know this. You are constantly looking around at your colleagues, peers, neighbors, etc. I'm not talking about "followers" or authority-worshippers. Even – or especially – the most highly original and creative adult is constantly looking around at other people and wondering how they approach things, or what they see in life; and constantly striving to learn from these alternative models, and to integrate them into the person's world view in order to use them somehow for his or her own benefit. 

What is true of adults is doubly true of children. A child, who doesn't yet have the skills for coping on her own, looks at alternative models around her not only to see what they are, but to educate herself into the very mechanisms of model building. 

That's a rather intricate second-order concept. Let me see if I can make it clearer with some examples. Say I'm studying physics. As a practicing physicist I will be interested in what other practicing physicists do in order to see what kind of theories they use, what kind of formulas they apply to a given situation, what sort of experiments they design and so forth. But a child interested in a physics problem looks at what others are doing not primarily to find out what kinds of theories and formulas they will apply to a situation, but to learn what kind of thought processes are involved in physics. What manner of problem solving is physics? There's a real distinction here. The distinction is between, on the one hand, knowing what physics is about and looking around you to see what kind of physics other people are doing and, on the other hand, trying to find out what physics is about. 

This is just an example of what is going on all the time with a developing child. Unfortunately this is a distinction that has been missed in the educational literature, even by people who write about process and problem solving. The child is not ready to learn simply how to solve problems. He or she has to learn first the fundamental frameworks within which the kind of problem solving adults do takes place. What is the nature of physics? What is the nature of biological thought? What is the nature of historical analysis? The developing child with an interest in politics is not first and foremost concerned with distinguishing between how different politicians deal with problems. That is the concern of adults. But the child is trying first to comprehend how politicians approach problems in the first place. What is the nature of the political thought process? Until one has a grasp on what goes into making a political decision one is not going to be able to think about whether A is a better solution than B.

This subtle difference is the key to everything. The child is trying to understand the nature of model building, the nature of problem solving, the nature of the process of life. S/he's not simply concerned with weighing alternate models and alternate approaches. It's a second order problem that the child has. That's the key to what's wrong with the way our present schools segregate by age or ability. 

There are two extreme situations that a child can be in, each of which is a poor situation for learning. One extreme is that the child is limited to being only with adults. For example, the Mark Hopkins ideal, one child with one adult on the opposite end of the log. Here you have the generation gap with a vengeance. The adult is an adult already; a person exploring a wide variety of problem solving techniques, world models and so forth. And if the adult is really a mature, intelligent, well-developed person, he or she will be really adept at it, constantly weighing alternatives and coming up with creative new ideas. The child, by contrast, has a very poorly formed idea of how to go about these processes, as I have said. So here the child is, stuck with an adult partner, and the adult doesn't begin to understand why the child is having such a hard time. The adult may really be interested in the child, trying constantly to explain what the adult is doing. The more the adult explains to the child, the less the child understands. Because the child's problem is the lack of a common line of communication with the adult. They are not talking on the same level. 

Any adult who has spent a lot of time talking to children will have these frustrations. This is the chief problem in teaching any subject. For instance, you get a bunch of freshman college physics students and then you put a college professor in with them, and the college professor may be just as patient as can be, explaining the same material fifty-eight times. But the problem isn't that the student doesn't understand the words, or has trouble copying them down. The problem is that the freshman doesn't understand what the physicist's way of approaching the world is. No matter how many times the teacher repeats a particular physical theory. it is lacking any foundation in the worldview of the student. So there's no communication and nothing ever happens in the student's mind. That is such a common phenomenon that it's pathetic. It's not a generation gap because of age; it's a question of talking at two different levels. You can be the best pedagogue in the world. You can try every trick. But you never really get around it. Ultimately what happens in that kind of situation is that the child eventually grows up; the person somehow creates in his or her own mind an idea of what it is that the physicist is doing. In some cases this can be a very fantastic idea. You do get people who have the most bizarre notions of what history or physics or philosophy or any other subject is about. When you look into it a little, you usually find out that they have such bizarre notions because of the gap I have just described between them and their mentors throughout their youth. In fact, this happens very often with people who have grown up in families with highly intellectual parents. The children often come up with the strangest notions precisely because the parents have been "wonderful" parents, explaining things year after year, and the children never really caught on. 

The other extreme that is equally destructive to a normal mental development is segregating children, for example by age. This essentially means putting all children together who are at the same level of development. Nowadays this is done with a vengeance in schools; educators are no longer satisfied with grade levels that are determined by age. If you simply determine grades by age you don't really get children grouped according to their developmental level. so most modern educators have a whole series of tests to enable them to put everybody together at the same developmental age. And they consider this a great step forward. 

That's even more cruel to a child because here everybody is in the same trouble and nobody can help each other out. They don't even have the benefit of any successful models around them. They have to try to find out how to develop the ability and the skill and the framework and the methodology of coping with the world on their own. They are at a double disadvantage. 

Now what people do in regular school is combine the two cruel extremes. Neither extreme happens very often by itself, but in the schools we make the combination of the extremes happen regularly. In other words, the way this society's educational system is conceived is to take a bunch of children who are at the same developmental age, and then stick them in a room together with an adult. This combines the worst features of both situations. On the one hand everybody is at a loss, because all they see is the adult and they don't learn from the adult anything about the second order processes. On the other hand when they turn around and try to get help from their neighbor they can't because the neighbor is in the same boat as they are. So it's the most frustrating possible situation. And that to me is the key, that phrase "the most frustrating situation." 

The psychological manifestations that occur in schools and in play groups or whatever are almost textbook manifestations of frustration. What happens when you are terribly frustrated? For one thing. you become angry. Anybody who walks into any school immediately feels a tremendous amount of unspecific anger and hostility. The unspecific nature of the hostility is crucial. They are not angry at a social wrong; theirs is not a rational anger, because something specific happened that they are upset about. Rather, they are overwhelmed by an unspecific anger directed abroad in a scatter-shot fashion. 

The companion to this anger is unspecific anxiety. Not anxiety, for instance, because your mother just left and you don't know when she'll come back, which is specific anxiety and rationally based. In unspecific anxiety, you are anxious, but you don't know why. Frustration is just the kind of thing that produces unspecific anxiety. And if you are frustrated about problem solving, you are frustrated at the most fundamental level of your mental process. You just can't get a handle on the things that your mind wants to do most of all, namely. to solve problems and build models. You are not managing to do it, you are not getting any help from your colleagues, who are in the same boat, nor from your teachers, who can't reach you. And you are just plain frustrated at not making adequate progress. 

Unspecific hostility. Unspecific anxiety. And the third manifestation is what I will call incipient autism. By this I mean the beginning of inward-turning, the creation of a barrier of alienation from the rest of the world. Behavior that manifests itself in early years as rutted, routine, repeated behavior that follows a set pattern time and again. The difference between the early years and the later years is that in the early years the motor responses haven't yet been suppressed. So that early incipient autism often shows itself as routine motor behavior. Later, as society manages to control this kind of behavior, it gets shut down. "Don't yell." "Don't run around." "Don't make a lot of noise." So by the time we come around to a slightly later age, the same category of behavior becomes a dulled turning-off. 

These, then, are three characteristics that, I submit, are very widespread in groups that are segregated by, age or developmental level. All three arise from the frustration of not being able to get a handle on things. 

You just don't see that kind of behavior in children who feel that they can deal with their surroundings. You see precisely the opposite – exuberant activity, eagerness to get on with the job, eagerness to go on to the next thing. Which brings me around pretty much to the point of the whole thing. Having talked about the two bad extremes and their combination as presently found in the regular schools, I think that it is obvious why I think that free age mixing is such a critical factor at Sudbury Valley. It is the key to everything else. Free age mixing provides a free flow of interaction among people at different points along the maturation process. It enables you, as you are growing toward adulthood, always to find somebody in both directions. You can find somebody who is just a few steps ahead in learning how to deal with the environment (just a few steps ahead, and therefore not so far ahead that the person is no longer encountering a lot of the same problems). Somebody who still speaks the same language, who still makes a lot of the same mistakes. But at the same time, someone who has achieved a few of the things that you want to achieve, and since you can talk about 80% of it rather easily (because you are in the same boat for 80% of it), the other 20% becomes an awful lot easier to understand. On the other hand, it is equally important to be able to turn around and find somebody a little behind you. Because you get a handle on your accomplishments and on your maturation by refining them through explaining and re-explaining and making it clear to somebody who is asking you. This is the real meaning of the commonplace saying that teaching and learning are two sides of the same coin. They are indeed. It is equally important to have solved a problem and also to be able to verbalize the solution and hone it against somebody who is quizzing you and giving you a hard time about it. And that's what you get when you're able to look to one side and find somebody who is a year or two older than you, and then to the other side and find somebody a year or two younger. 

Actually, at Sudbury Valley, a careful study of interage contacts would probably yield the classic bell-shaped statistical curve representing the distribution of contacts between the persons at different stages of development. The likelihood is that for the most part children will be communicating with others who are within a narrow range on either side of them, and progressively less time – but some time – with people farther and farther away from them on either side. The distant contacts definitely exist, and they serve to accelerate the normal developmental process. Every now and then a person can take a big step very easily. The little steps take up most of the time, but age mixing also allows you to take a lot of very surprising and unpredictable big steps. We find this happening all the time. Suddenly a child of a certain age will hit it off fantastically with somebody five or six years older, or younger. We used to be amazed at this, for example when teenagers would suddenly find real satisfaction out of relating to very young kids. This has nothing to do with maternal or paternal instincts. Rather, this has to do with their finding tremendous value in following through a big step taken across a wide gulf. And just as often, a young child will make a leap in some area and find a common language with somebody who is developmentally way ahead in a certain area. 

A lot of people have remarked on the absence of significant cliques at Sudbury Valley. There are friendships, and there are mini-groups, but real cliques are very rare in this school. Since cliques are one of the most common characteristics of ordinary school situations, their relative absence here is all the more remarkable. What accounts for the state of affairs here? The answer is simple: even when you have a group of friends with whom you like to spend most of your time, there is always somebody outside of that group with whom you want to spend some of your time. There is always somebody who has an interest that runs parallel to yours in some other area. As a result, you find children constantly turning outside of their most immediate friendship group in order to develop some area that they don't share in common with others. Hence, there are no fixed cliques. 

Another thing that I think is remarkable in the Sudbury Valley School, and directly related to free age mixing, is the noticeable absence of preening and showing off. Of course, I don't mean to say that it doesn't happen: after all, ours is a society practically indoctrinated to show off. But when you look at the school you can't help but noting how high a percentage of the interactions do not have showing off, or even jealousy, as one of their prime characteristics. Why? 

The answer is directly related to age mixing. Showing off, and jealousy, is practically forced upon people trapped in a narrow age group: it's a matter of establishing the pecking order of the group. You are all in the same boat, and so all that's left to you is to fight with each other to establish physical or psychological supremacy. At Sudbury Valley, a lot of the point is taken out of it. I mean, who are you going to show off to? What's the point of it? I'm not talking here in moral terms. I'm talking about what in fact happens in the learning interactions. Here, everybody knows and is quick to acknowledge that everybody is ignorant. For example, what would be the point of a child showing off that s/he knows how to read well? The person knows that s/he can't read as well as a person three or four years older, with whom s/he is constantly interacting. Age mixing takes away the necessity to show off, because age mixing is predicated on the healthy human motivation of learning from any available source. A person who is healthy will always want to learn from whomever there is around who can teach anything that will help the person develop. And satisfaction is gotten from accomplishment, not from preening. 

I would like to end by returning to where I started. Everything that I said as applied to school age children becomes extremely vivid when you see it in three year olds. Three year olds are still in a very rudimentary stage of developing their basic communication skills. Now if you can't even communicate easily with the other person, your frustration level is redoubled. Because not only are you all in the same boat, but you can't even talk to each other in the same boat. So what you have is a bunch of children who can't even express to each other that they want to do the things that they are capable of doing together: they can't even express to each other that they want to do things on their own level. They know what they want to do, they have a picture of it, but they can't get the message through. So when there are just three year olds together and not a lot of other children around to help them, there are no bridges in the communication among them. 

There we were, sitting together, a bunch of three year olds and a bunch of adults. The adults couldn't cross this communication gap because, as I have explained, there was no way I could effectively talk with another three year old whom I never met before. He didn't trust me. He didn't know me. I didn't understand him. He didn't understand me. It was unbearable. However, had there been a few four or five year olds in there, the whole picture would have been different. Those problems would not have occurred. They could have communicated to the four years olds. The four year olds would have been the bridge. Older children are well known to be the perfect bridge of communication among little children, and between little children and adults. 

The free age mixing at the Sudbury Valley School has to be somehow explained to people who come and observe what we're doing. I'm afraid this is a very hard task, because the general educational system is so polarized in the opposite direction. But it is important for us to do because, in purely educational terms, we reap very important educational benefits from this age mixing. It greatly hastens the maturation and development of the children who are in the school, especially those who have started young. 

In a way, this is noticed by many people who visit. They remark on the result without understanding one of the major causes. They will remark on the fact that it is amazing that our ten, eleven, twelve, and thirteen year olds are so developed, so mature. Adults are able to communicate with them and talk to them, which means that they are much farther along in becoming comparable to adults in their model building and problem solving abilities than ten, eleven, or twelve year olds are in the society at large. As I see it, this is a direct result of the effect that free age mixing has on the children at this school.