What are they learning?

What Are They Learning

It is so hard. The students at SVS are clearly extremely occupied. But what exactly are they doing? You want to take little pictures of it all because so many intense things are going on. But you can’t see most of those things. You can only feel them. Feelings are hard to reproduce in a picture and even harder to capture in words!

Yes, there are kids participating in activities that look like the activities one expects. A few have math books open. Some have books or other reading devices open. Some are doing activities you can see: drawing, painting, throwing a pot, playing a musical instrument, building with blocks, learning to drum, rehearsing a play. We show these activities that are visible to visitors, because they expect it, but we know that is only a tiny part of what is going on for any child.

When you look harder you see that what most of them are doing is invisible! Because what they are engaged in is building a mature person. Not with Legos, but with experiences mixed with thoughts -- with interaction upon interaction being processed by who they already are. Do any of them who play Minecraft, or who put on makeup when they are only six, or who engage in rough and tumble activities where they aren’t supposed to (or where they are), think to themselves, "This is what I need to do to create an adult?” I don’t think they do. But it is.

So it is really frustrating to try to explain. How do I tell parents that sitting in a big room full of people most of the day, watching, listening, and engaging, is what their 16 year old needs to do to figure out who he is? This is not what “getting an education” always seemed to be about. It looks banal when it is anything but! And this is partly because each of us is unique. Each of us has to figure out every situation for himself.

The other day I walked down the stairs into the main lounge and paused, as I often do, on the lower landing, a bit before the end of the stairway. A teenage girl, who has made it one of her undefined but definite tasks to figure out what the grownups are doing and thinking about, looked at me and said, “What are you doing? Thinking that a lot of nice stuff is going on in this room?” And of course that is what I was doing. Conversations, games, books, computers, little kids, medium kids, big kids. And we are all doing the same thing: using every bit of information we take in -- and you can take in a lot looking into a room with 15 or 20 people doing various things while all talking to each other -- to assess the world, ourselves, our school, our lives, our future. Sometimes it is the future five seconds; the future five minutes; or an indefinite future.

Each kid looks like she is hurtling through the day. It is hard to explain that this is what it takes to build the future. They are figuring out the world and their unique place in it.

So when a parent says, “But little Johnny throws pots; little Sarah makes beautiful drawings; Ben is figuring out programming; Tommy is writing away all day, my kid is doing nothing. Maybe this is the wrong school for her,” I sympathize, but it is not true.  The parent needs another way of seeing, and it is a way that is hard to get to. There is no such thing as “nothing.” There are no quiet periods in her daughter’s head, just maybe a couple in her day!

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.