How DO They Learn?

It is the first question parents ask once they try to wrap their minds around the fact that students at Sudbury Valley are, in fact, free to use their time in the ways that appeal to them.

And even after we have gone through the whole bit; after one of us says, “Even I learn; all of us learn all day every day, whether we want to or not!  It is hard – maybe impossible – to stop.”  And then we point out that their children have been learning beings since they were born and (as we know now) even before, but the learning process is certainly observable every day – maybe every minute – after birth.  I blabber sometimes about how babies will learn to sit, crawl, walk, talk – all without help, even though loving care and the physical freedom to make these gargantuan gains helps – and how much harder that is than, for instance, reading.

I notice that most of this chatter falls on ears that either don’t hear, maybe because they feel that the stuff babies do is just “natural”, “normal”, “evolutionarily destined”, and therefore of no interest, because it basically happens to them all.  I think people want to know about how kids learn the things that regular, loved children sometimes don’t do, like geometry. How they learn geometry however is usually about where they go to school, and only sometimes about their interests in life. Somehow, it is hard to connect those entities in people’s minds: naturally being inquisitive and pursuing anything you want; school; life...

I have been thinking about “how they learn” a lot because at the latest Open House, a larger than usual number of prospective parents asked me that question, and of course I was unable to satisfy them, no matter how hard I tried. In the Spring 2017 issue of our Journal, and on the May 7 blog post, there is an article, The Animal Hospital, by Wendy Lement, about the work two of our very young students have been doing all year to formulate and then realize their ambitious dreams. Their dreams were to build a hospital (in miniature) that would be useful for every sort of situation – for instance, there must be emergency rooms, recovery areas, etc., and species of animals that do not get along with others would have their own areas of the buildings.  To me, the tireless research, planning, and building work they have done is mind-blowing. And to me, it says everything you ever want to know about how they learn.

However, neither of the (loving, interested, attentive) sets of parents of these children have any clue about how they spend their time at school. They don’t know if their kids are doing anything at all except getting older. And when you read between the lines of The Animal Hospital, you will have a clue about why. How do you explain to someone who lives quite literally in another culture (like your mom) how you pursue your interests; how far and how deeply you go to pursue your interests; how important it is and how completely non-play, because there is no line between work and play; how integrated the ways in which you follow your passions are; how you are not thinking about anything but finding out what you need to know and doing what you want, actually need to; and even more: how does this lead to being “educated”? How DO they learn?

Then people talk about “learning to learn”. That is a phrase I have no relationship to and no understanding of. “Learning to learn”. What? We all know how to learn. Does it mean gaining the skills one needs to do what one wants to do? Figuring out how to have fun? Figuring out how to obtain information? Of course, but doesn’t every young child every day pepper the air with “why”, “how”, and “what does that mean”? Not to mention, “when”, “where” and “are we there yet”. Kids’ first words, after they learn some nouns to get by with, are usually inquiries. They know how to learn.

I sometimes think about self-confidence. One does not usually see tots who are not confident enough to explore their world. But one often sees adolescents who are not. How do they learn that? Is that anti-learning? As a graduate of ours said once, “I thought every day you lived in the world and got smarter and smarter. . . . I thought there was no way to get dumber unless you were erasing stuff out of your brain.” Maybe a child’s confidence can be erased out of their brain by hearing really often that the things they were interested in doing are not worthwhile and that there were other things that they should be doing. I have seen kids that looked like that. But if they came to SVS they didn’t stay like that. At our school, they looked around, noticed that there were other ways of living, and slowly but surely recovered that confidence.

Then I thought about the animal hospital. I did not think that actual animals would be operated on there. What I thought is that a fantasy world had been built, in nature, with everything that they thought it needed after deep research, serious planning, careful gathering of materials, and – dare I say – happiness. There are few times when one can watch a process like this in action. One can watch a child develop in so many ways, but to see each point, as Wendy did in this project, is rare. And sublimely beautiful. This is what learning is, and this is what builds the confidence and gives a student the tools s/he needs to go on and on. Another alumnus said, “Everything you do helps everything else you do because if you’re doing one hard thing, it’s not that different from doing another hard thing.” The Animal Hospital was one hard thing, but of course that was not the idea behind it, nor the feeling while it was going on and on.

Emma Tunstall, a graduate who just graduated from Bryn Mawr, summa cum laude, wrote in a letter from college a few years ago. “School feels very far away but earlier today one of my friends asked me about a picture of the musical I have up in my room and I got pretty nostalgic. As much as I like them, no one here can ever really understand SVS.”

The views expressed on this page are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Sudbury Valley School.