Can Children "Learn" Anything at Sudbury Valley School?

Note: This essay is an edited version of the transcript of a talk given at the school on November 19, 2008.

It is a question that people ask all the time. We hear it at Open Houses, we hear it when we meet people outside, we hear it at interviews, we hear it during the visiting week, we hear it after a child has just enrolled, we hear it after a year, after two, we hear it from parents and we hear it from children who have gotten some of their anxiety from their parents, some from their peers and some from within themselves. I'm going to discuss this question at some length, as it's one that requires historical and philosophical perspective, not merely a superficial answer. The way I'm going to address it is by starting at the end.


Let's focus on the fact that Sudbury Valley is the name of a school. The reason people send their children here is so they can go to school. The first question I want to deal with is: why should children go to school at all?

This is a good question, one that is actually hard to answer. Children these days spend their entire childhood in school from age three to at least sixteen by law, about eighteen if they graduate high school, until maybe twenty-two if they graduate college, and then, if they should go to graduate school, until the age of twenty-five or older. Why do that?

The answer that everybody gives - whether it's lay people or educators - is that children need school to prepare themselves for life as adults. That sounds like a wonderful answer; it seems to make a lot of sense. You have children on the one hand, adults on the other - and you've got to get them from the one status to the other, so you build institutions that do that for you.

Mass education, schools for all children, developed only about 150 years ago. That's something we generally lose sight of. The recentness of phenomena that we take for granted is something that often eludes us. I think it's often worth pondering recentness, because it tells us something about the pace of history and it gives us historical perspective. For example, most people today lose sight of the fact that the Internet - as far as its public use is concerned - is only about fifteen years old. This fact alone is mind-boggling.

When we had our first web page made, it was a huge step for us. Most of us in school didn't even know what the Worldwide Web was. Our first web page appeared in 1996; at the time, there were only about three million web pages in existence; and we thought that was a lot! We were afraid we were going to be lost in a sea of web pages! Today you can't even count the number - it's probably in the trillions. The point is that if we don't realize the short life span of some things we take for granted as fixtures in our culture - how rapidly the changes have occurred and how shallow their roots are - our efforts to deal with these phenomena become superficial, since we have no cultural experience with them. If we don't realize that, we lose our perspective on life.

The same considerations hold for schools. Schools as we know them have only been here for a century and a half - a blip in the span of human history. Children prepared to be adults for a million or so years without schools. That's something to ponder! How did they do it? The key to the answer is that the sharp distinction between a child and an adult didn't exist. The only distinction that made any sense was that between people who had more or less life experience, so people who were older generally got more respect because they were thought to have accumulated life wisdom. Aging was considered to be a process that benefitted society, because one could look up to older people and ask: what did you learn about life? But as far as children were concerned, they were given adult responsibilities from a very early age.

It's interesting to realize what a reversal has occurred over time. Today age is looked at as a symbol of obsolescence. Some people think you are "over the hill" when you reach the age of thirty; people who are in their fifties, sixties and seventies are assumed to be just plain "out of touch".

It's hard for us to think about children being treated like adults. It's hard for us to realize that kids five, six, seven years old were given real responsibility in society until recently - and often even now, outside the "developed" world. The Bible, for example, tells of Joseph tending sheep far from home as a young boy. David was crowned as the future king of Israel while still a child looking after his family's flocks deep in the Judean Desert. As soon as a child could walk and communicate with adults, that child was given adult responsibilities and expected to live up to them. There were, to be sure, a few specialized training centers for children who were to assume specific roles in society (as priests, legal scholars, military leaders, etc.), where the trainees served as interns. But for most children, learning took place through experience, without any formal education. The whole idea of having a separate place to prepare children for adulthood didn't exist.

The real question then becomes: why did schools come into being? Actually, the answer is not hard to find, because the people who introduced it in the middle of the nineteenth century were explicit as to why they were doing so. They wrote about it, and they didn't make any bones about their reason. In particular, they didn't make believe that schools were needed in order to teach people a lot of really important material that had to be learned in order to succeed in life. They were clear that the reason for schools was to break the spirit of children and to teach them discipline and obedience from a very young age. That's in all the writings of educational leaders at the time; it's really striking when you read it. It doesn't read at all like the sugar-coated literature that we have today, although even today anybody who works in schools knows that one of the chief functions of schools remains the enforcement of discipline. It is common knowledge that the major cause for the huge multiplication of so-called "learning disorders" is the inability of a high percentage of children to knuckle under to expected disciplinary standards.

Why, then, did discipline all of a sudden become so important, and why in the United States? The United States joined the Industrial Revolution a little late in the game. You have to remember that we were a backwater. We were considered by the Europeans to be second rate country yokels, mostly without culture. In fact, we didn't have much of an economic base. Nevertheless, it was quite clear to people in this country - and again, this was articulated - that they would eventually take a leading role in the world, both politically and economically. This, at a time when reality made that look like a very remote ideal. One of the most fascinating experiences is to read some of the writings of the Founding Fathers, written at the end of the eighteenth century, about how they viewed the future of this newly created country. Here was a collection of thirteen colonies - by then, thirteen independent states - with almost four million citizens in all, spread out along the Eastern seaboard, an entire unexplored continent to the west of them. And their leaders are writing about America having a future as one of the greatest world powers, and as a beacon of liberty for all of mankind! One can only marvel at the audacity of these people to view themselves in this way.

This desire to be a leading economic powerhouse drove Americans in the middle of the nineteenth century to become leaders in the Industrial Revolution. This meant that we had to build our industries, a task that required a lot of industrial workers. But here's the thing about industrial workers: they have to be robotic. People have lost touch with this fact.1 Man had to be part of the machine.

The reason man had to be part of the machine is that machines weren't smart, because machines didn't have the kind of feedback that they attained once the Computer Age arrived. To be sure, there were some rudimentary feedback mechanisms, but fundamentally machines could not correct themselves and did not have the capacity to run themselves. You needed somebody attached to them who had the capacity to run them, and that was "the human machine," because we had the only brain that could do that at the time.

If the Industrial Revolution had happened after the Cyber Revolution, we wouldn't have had a need for robotic industrial workers, we wouldn't have had people working on big assembly lines and living perfectly miserable lives for 70, 80, 100 hours a week, attached to a machine doing repetitive mechanical work until they dropped off their feet. But the Cyber Revolution came after the Industrial Revolution, and in order to man the new industrial powerhouse in the 19th century people were needed who could behave like robots, which people don't like to do.

Why did people even agree to it assume this role? I find that one of the more intriguing phenomena of history. It was a devil's bargain, and I think people knew that it was a devil's bargain at the time. Think about it: this was the United States of America, a country that espoused personal freedom and liberty, now aspiring to be a leader in the Industrial Revolution - and therefore requiring people who are willing to sacrifice some of their liberty to machines. What was the benefit to be gotten from becoming human machines? The benefit, the promise, was prosperity, because machines can produce more than individual human beings. Machines can give people things in abundance that they never even dreamt of before machines came into being. For the first million or so years of human existence, people didn't have more than one or two sets of clothing. People didn't have a house with bedrooms and bathrooms and living rooms and things like that. People didn't live remotely like they started to live after the Industrial Revolution began. Even food was not available in abundance; it had to be coaxed from the earth using human and animal labor. That, in turn, limited the population, and often caused mass starvation. The promise that people could enjoy an abundance of material goods, and live well above the subsistence level that the human race had lived at for a million years, was so great and so attractive that people were ready to sacrifice a big part of their freedom to attain it.

However, it's one thing for people to agree to a bargain with the devil; it's another thing to get kids to grow up and be ready to do it. That's the problem that was addressed by mass public education. Schools had to take children, who are by nature rambunctious, mischievous, moving-around kinds of animals, who do not like to take orders, who like to be free to run around and play all day - schools had to take them and break them so that from a relatively early age they could work with machines. That was the challenge that public education was designed to meet. That's the way schools were designed to prepare people for adult life - adult life meaning life beginning at the age of 10 or so when they could enter the industrial world. The only thing you really had to do with kids in school, other than discipline them, was teach them a little bit of stuff that enabled them to be good machine workers, which is where "the three R's" came into play. To be a good worker, you have to be able to read instructions. (It becomes tedious in a factory if you have to give people instructions orally, and they are likely to forget them. If you can write them out, and have workers who can read them, it makes the situation easier and more effective.) You have to be able to write your name, to write things that you had to remember to tell your boss or your foreman, and so forth. And you had to be able to do at least rudimentary arithmetic both on the factory floor and, more important, in the offices where the bookkeeping and the other functions that go into business take place.

So you started with children, held them captive for a few years, taught them the three R's, broke their spirit, and then you threw them into the industrial workplace. That was what schools were about. That was mass education.

As the nineteenth century proceeded, the country was faced with a new task. In addition to preparing people for the Industrial Revolution, America absorbed a tremendous influx of immigrants. There was unlimited immigration, and people from all over the world (primarily from Europe) took advantage of it. Here again is something that people cannot even imagine today. We talk about an immigration problem in the country now, when a few million enter. At the end of the nineteenth century, and the beginning of the twentieth century, tens of millions of people flowed into this country without restriction. They weren't necessarily welcomed as minorities, but they were welcomed as a working population to make the country richer. Then schools got an additional task. They became "the melting pot". Immigrants from different countries didn't speak our language, didn't know our culture, and had little idea of what America is about. So a new task for schools, and an important one, was to acclimatize citizens to this country. That's a tremendous task. The way it was accomplished was by teaching subjects like civics, social studies, American history and, of course, English. So the schools were the training ground for discipline, for the three R's, and for American citizenship - in short, the schools prepared children for adult life in the industrial America of a century ago.

The idea that you need "a school" to prepare children to be productive adults became embedded in the culture. That, in a nutshell, is why we called ourselves Sudbury Valley School. We had a lot of discussions about that when we were founded SVS. After all, what we were planning bore no resemblance whatsoever to the kinds of places traditionally designated "schools." So we grappled with the question: what should we call ourselves? We finally settled on "school," because we wanted people to make an immediate association of SVS with a place where kids prepared for adult life - even though the way they prepare here is so different.

It's amazing what associations you can evoke with a name or a picture. We printed our first catalog containing a photograph some time in the early '80's, because by then printing had become cheap enough so that we could actually afford to put a photograph on the cover of our catalog. We were so proud of the photograph we used! It showed a School Meeting. What could better exemplify the school to the public, which was being introduced to it through this publication, than a front cover showing the School Meeting? Here are kids and staff together, making decisions, with a student Chairman presiding and people voting on some issue being presented. That was the picture; the essence of it was people voting. We were so bitten by that picture! What do you think people saw in it? They saw a classroom, where kids were raising their hands to answer the teacher's question! That experience taught us a lot about the relationship between words and pictures, and about the baggage people bring to words and pictures from their own experience.2


Now I'm going to go back to the original question and consider the second part of it. The question was: can children learn anything at Sudbury Valley School? So, we talked about the "school" part; let's talk about the "learn" part. The preparation for life that goes on in school is called "learning". Indeed, school has become associated in people's minds with the only place that learning can take place: you've got to go to school in order to learn. To see how far that's gone, in senior centers, to promote "lifelong learning", there are now classes organized for seniors, and they can even enroll in certain colleges that have special classes for them. The message is clear. If you are a senior citizen and wish to become a lifelong learner, then we have to provide a school where you can actually take classes. The idea that learning is associated with school has become so embedded in our population that it hasn't even escaped people who have reached the age of sixty-five, who you'd think would know better.

So the real question is: what is learning if it isn't associated with a school? The definition of learning in the American Heritage Dictionary - it's as good as any other - is: "to gain knowledge, comprehension, or mastery of something through experience or study; to fix in the mind or memory; to acquire through experience; to become informed of; to find out." That's how "learn" is defined. It's to acquire something. If you really want to find out what that acquisition of experience and knowledge is, and how it works, all you have to do is focus on infants, because in infants you get the human animal in its pristine form. An infant has not yet been influenced by verbal interaction or by cultural expectations. It is simply born into the world, raring to go.

All of the learning that takes place in those infant years is done without school, without formal teaching and without classes. And yet, it is unquestionably the most intense period of learning that any human being has in their entire lives - all of us. There are no two years that any of us have experienced in which we have learned more, and with greater intensity, than the period between birth and approximately the age of two. I want to talk about what happens during that period because it's so important, and in particular I want to point out some of the characteristics observed in that period.

First of all, children cannot have enough of the world around them. They're reaching out on their own all the time. You can't stop them. The epitome of that is when they reach the age of two and they're really mobile. It's so typical of our society that people call that age "the terrible 2's". Actually, it's the most wonderful age, when you can see the child's curiosity in full bloom. There's nothing that doesn't interest them and nothing that stops them.

That's true from the earliest age. When you look at infants, they're always reaching for something, even as they're learning how to manipulate their arms and their fingers. Do you realize how hard that is? You can get some appreciation of the difficulty by observing people who have undergone tragic injuries and who have to relearn how to use their limbs. It's a terribly difficult process. There are so many things involved - so many nerves to control, so many muscles. It's a wonder that we ever can master it.

I love watching kids learn how to crawl. They've got to coordinate four different limbs, not one of which they know how to control adequately to begin with. So what do they do? Those of you who have children have seen it. First they flail about. Then, instead of going forward, they flip over. Half of the time once they flip over, they can't flip back again, so you have to turn them back over. Then they go sideways or backward instead of forward. They see something, and all they want to do is go a couple of feet to get it. They are sure they can do it - but they can't. Yet, they persist.

The point is that an infant, who doesn't have any background with which to process this experience, is learning how to master his body, how to get things that he wants, how things feel, how they taste, how they look - all of which starts as mass of neural inputs that he has to organize and make sense of. He has to create a whole world view out of nothing more than a mass of chaotic neurological inputs. That's a hugely difficult learning process that nobody ever approaches later in life. The closest equivalent is if you take a person, pull them up out of their home society and dump them in the middle of a completely alien society, with completely different customs, completely different language, and just leave them there alone to adapt. But that's nothing compared to what an infant goes through.

People ask: Do you teach kids how to read? They get so upset when we answer: We don't teach them. So how do they learn to read? I'm not going to answer that question. I'm going to focus on something that happens before they can learn how to read - namely, the question: How do they learn to speak? How do they learn what a word is? Learning language beats everything in its degree of difficulty. When you appreciate how difficult that task is, you get a perspective on how really easy reading and all the other stuff is that parents worry about.

Language is unbelievable. Socrates and Plato were the first thinkers to try to define words. They started with hard ones like "good" or "honest", but realized that they couldn't even figure out words like "chair." The Greek philosophers were smart, so how come they couldn't figure precisely how to define "chair"?

The reason is that a word is a symbol for a huge number of human experiences that have something in common for the person using the word. A word doesn't have any meaning in and of itself. So first of all, a child has to pick out the particular groupings of noises that we adults call "words". Then the child observes the word being used by a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a nanny - whoever. Same word, used in completely different contexts. The child understands that these people are using that collection of sounds for something, and the child has to figure out "for what?".

So every single child who learns a word has to create for himself a set of experiences to which that word has been attached as a symbol, and has to abstract from that set of experiences something common enough so that he can attach that word to something else real and concrete. Do you understand how hard it is? This is set theory. This is abstraction at the highest level, by children at an age where every respectable educational psychologist will tell you - or used to tell you - that children have no power or abstraction. They can abstract from all of these experiences and figure out more or less what a word means until they see somebody using it in a different context; and then they have to widen the scope of that set. In fact, we're constantly doing this all our lives.

Every single one of you reading this has done this when you were infants, and as you were growing up. Each one of us has built up that set of experiences for ourselves that we've attached to certain words. The only thing I can tell you for sure is that no two of us have an identical set of experiences that we attach to a word.

So how can we communicate? How can I even dare to write anything for the public? I'm using a bunch of words that reflect my understanding of these words; you're reading them, and every one of you is attaching your set of experiences to each of these words. How can I be sure that any one of you has a clue as to what I'm talking about? To me, that's the miracle of language: there is enough overlap in these sets for us somehow to muddle through mutual communication. To be sure, the overlap is less extensive as you go farther away from your intimate group. A lot of families have their own private vocabulary. Then there are Sudbury Valley expressions, such as "bring up." To a lot of people "bring up" means something you do after you've eaten bad food and you're sick, but that's not what we mean when we say "we're going to bring you up." Then there are special words: Northeastern expressions, Southern ones, Midwestern ones. And then there are whole nations with their own special meanings for various words. That is why translations are necessarily inaccurate. You never really get an exact idea of what the other language is trying to express.

The point that I'm trying to make is that this incredibly intense period, from birth to two, tells you something about learning. Learning is something that human beings do by nature. We thirst to acquire knowledge and experience. We thirst to understand the world. We thirst to make models of the world that will give us an understanding of what's around us. That's built into our nature. You can't stop it. It starts at birth. It doesn't need anybody to encourage us to do it. It doesn't need prodding from parents, it doesn't need teachers encouraging us to and inspiring us. All it needs is for us to be alive. In fact, learning and life are almost synonyms. If you're alive, you're learning. The phrase "lifelong learning" is a ridiculous redundancy. You cannot not learn all your life. You're always absorbing new thoughts, new experiences. You're always acquiring something every moment of your waking life and often during your sleeping life, in your dreams. That's the nature of learning.

I want to list a few characteristics of learning. First is open-mindedness. Your mind has to be open to accepting new things, to accepting new experiences. Everybody starts out open-minded, by nature. We only close our minds when we've been trained to do so.

Learning involves flexibility. You'll never learn something new if you're not flexible.

Learning involves retention. You don't retain things that you haven't acquired for yourself. You don't retain things that other people have forced you to memorize. But you retain things that you've learned on your own initiative.

Learning is self-directed. We've already dealt with that.

Learning involves conversation. A lot. Why do children go to all that trouble to learn how to talk? After all, you've just seen how hard it is. Why do they do it? Why do they work so hard at it? The answer is a key to learning. Before I learned to talk, the world that I knew was only the world that I could create in my own brain. I was limited to my personal way of sorting and understanding the world. The minute I could communicate with another human being, I opened a channel into their brain. My experiences were enlarged by tapping into the other person's experiences. By learning to talk, we each and every one of us expand our brain power to include the brain power of every other person with whom we communicate. That's why conversation is the most important single learning tool that we have. Without it we'd be isolated islands. That's why conversation is important.

The other thing that's essential to learning is play. Play is any activity where you don't know the outcome when you start out. No matter what the game is - whether it's a game with rules like football or baseball, whether it's a game that you've created, whether it's a game of chance, whether it's playing with an idea, whether it's playing with some new invention - these are all situations where we launch an activity with a general outline of the activity in mind, without knowing how it's going to come out in the end. The beautiful thing about play is that when we play, we automatically meet new challenges and solve new problems. Play inherently involves encountering new configurations and figuring out how to work them out. That's why play is so important for learning, because play is the archetype of problem-solving. All of our lives we meet challenges in new situations that we can't anticipate. None of us live a life of total, boring repetition. If we're good at playing, if we've had a lot of experience playing, then we know we've learned how to deal with such challenges.

All of these are characteristics of learning. In traditional schools, none of these are encouraged - often even not permitted. It's as if they said, "We're going to start a school where we want people to learn, but we're going to design it in a way that they most likely won't"!

Sudbury Valley School

I've talked about school, and I've talked about learning. Now let's get to the question itself: Can children learn anything at Sudbury Valley School?

The simple answer is: of course they can! If they're given the freedom to do what they would do naturally - to do all the things that learning is about - of course they can learn. They do it as infants, they will do it as adults, and they do it throughout the ages in between.

They're also learning things all the time in traditional schools.3 Here are some of the of things they learn:

They learn to get away with doing as little as possible.

They learn to act to please others - teachers, parents, whoever.

They learn to do things that other people will praise them for. That's one of the hardest things for kids who come to this school at an advanced age to get over. It's very sad. They are so conditioned to getting praise when they're doing a good thing and getting rebuked when they're doing the wrong thing. Then they come to an environment like ours and nobody's patting them on the head for doing the right thing. They don't get any gold stars, they don't get any A's, they don't get any compliments for being good kids; and that's hard. If you're conditioned to solicit praise from other people and you're suddenly in an environment where people don't do that - an environment where people just want you to be who you are, and like you for who you are - that's a big adjustment.

In traditional schools, children learn to accept as normal a hierarchical social structure. They learn that the democratic ideals of our society don't apply to them. If I was creating a school system in France for Louis XIV, I would probably design the traditional system we have in place today. Louis XIV would want schools in which the principal is the law, so kids will get used to this structure. Then, when they become adults, they'll realize that it's just fine for the king to be "the law" for the nation as a whole! But we're not operating a school system for Louis XIV; we're in the United States of America, where we want people to value democracy, to express their voice as stakeholders in society. We don't want them to be passive; we want them to be proactive citizens. We live in a country where the right to participate in our government is precious. So how do we bring that about? We put them in schools where they don't have that right at all - where they have no voice, no stake, nothing. We train them to accept authority, and then at the age of majority we throw them out into the world and say, "Be good citizens in a democratic society and understand the uses of freedom!

Perhaps worst of all, in traditional schools they learn not to be treated justly or fairly. Schools neither guarantee students due process, nor recognize their individual rights. How can they preciously defend those rights as an adult if they're trained for years as children to accept the fact that they don't have them?

Above all, at Sudbury Valley children learn how to live as free citizens in a democratic society.

A Final Word

Two quotations provide a perfect summation for what I have bene discussing. One is a passage that was written in the 1830's by Ralph Waldo Emerson, before mass public education had been established. In an essay on education, he wrote:

Education should be as broad as man. Whatever elements are in him, education should foster and demonstrate. If he is jovial, if he is mercurial, if he be great-hearted, if he be a cunning artificer, a strong commander, a potent ally, ingenious, useful, elegant, witty, prophet to diviner, society has need of all of these. A great object of education should be to inspire the youthful man with an interest in himself, with a curiosity touching his own nature to acquaint him with the resources of his mind and to teach him that there is all his strength. I suffer whenever I see a parent or senior imposing his opinion and way of thinking and being on a young soul to which they are totally unfit. Cannot we let people be themselves and enjoy life in their own way? You are trying to make that man another you. One is enough. The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained and he only holds the key to his own secret. Wait and see the new product of nature. Respect the child. Be not too much his parent. Trespass not on his solitude. Nature, when she sends a new mind into the world, fills it beforehand with a desire for that which she wishes to know and do. Let us wait and see what this is, this new creation. Of what new organ the great spirit has need when it incarnated this new will. Happy the child with a bias, with a thought that entrances him, leads him now into deserts, now into cities. The fool of an idea. Let him follow it in good and evil rapport, in good and bad company. It will justify itself. It will lead him at last into the glorious society of the lovers of truth.

That's Emerson in the early nineteenth century. Now let me turn to something contemporary written by Don Tapscott. He introduced the concept of the Net Generation in the 1997 classic, Growing Up Digital, and he's got a new book about Net Geners called Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World. This is about 21st century children, growing up in today's world:

They value freedom and choice in everything they do. They love to customize and personalize. They scrutinize everything. They demand integrity and openness, including when deciding what to buy and where to work. They want entertainment and play in their work and education as well as their social life. They love to collaborate. They expect everything to happen fast and they expect constant innovation.

Nothing could better describe the student body of Sudbury Valley School, and the community in which they live.


1. Not many people any longer have seen Charlie Chaplin's film, "Modern Times." It's one of the great classics. Aside from being a very funny film, it is also almost a perfect characterization of the relationship between man and machine in the Industrial Age.

2. Along these lines, I wrote an essay for the school's periodical: "Are 1000 Pictures Worth One Word?", Sudbury Valley School Newsletter, Vol. 6, No. 3, December 1976, pp. 3-6. The Newsletter was the predecessor of today's Journal.

3. For another perspective on this, see "What Children Don't Learn at SVS" in The Sudbury Valley School Experience (Framingham: Sudbury Valley School Press, 3rd ed., 1992), pp. 17-20.

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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.