The Challenge of Educational Freedom

Anthony Burik is a staff member at Diablo Valley School. Connie Reiss is the parent of a DVS student.

Prominent English novelist William Golding did children a great disservice in his book, Lord of the Flies. He marooned a group of British schoolboys with no adult supervision on a pristine tropical island where they were free to act out their darkest impulses. All kinds of bad things ensued over the course of the novel, including the near destruction of the island and the children themselves, before the end when adults came to the rescue, stunned by the level of savagery exhibited by supposedly properly-educated children.

Adults throughout time have questioned the wisdom of leaving children to their own devices, and when that book came out in 1954, setting precedent to deny children their right to freedom, adults have had something they can point to. Leave the kids alone, adults say, and anarchy will ensue a la Lord of the Flies. They won't make the right choices, they won't use their time wisely, and they might hurt themselves and others.

We in the Diablo Valley School (DVS) community disagree with the notion that if children are in charge of their lives, they will automatically fail. Our school is all about extending freedom to children to take charge of their lives, including their studies, relationships with other community members, and how they spend their own time.

Attending a school where freedom is extended to the students is much more daunting than going to a school where everyone is telling you what to do and what to think about. In a traditional educational setting, the challenge is to successfully do what is asked of you. If you do it according to how someone else wants it done, you get a good grade; if you don't, you get a bad grade. At Diablo Valley School, however, no one is telling students how to occupy their time. The responsibility for learning and succeeding is on the shoulders of the students themselves. That is why we feel DVS is a much more difficult educational environment than everywhere else, because what is being asked of the students is far more challenging than what is asked of them by any traditional educational model.

The challenge of educational freedom resides at the center of the Sudbury educational philosophy our school embodies. One DVS parent likens this state of affairs to a child in a toy store with the means to make a purchase (a 20-dollar bill in her pocket) and enough experience from previous shopping to understand her challenge, having to choose from the vast array of interesting things before her with no one telling her what to buy.

If a teacher were in charge of her purchase, they might recommend, or even insist on, educational games only, because other toys would not meet the teacher's exacting standard. If a parent took charge, they might approve only the purchase of certain toys, discouraging - perhaps even forbidding - other choices. DVS leaves the child's choice up to the child. The DVS parent asked, "How does the child find her feet and make her choice?" Therein lies the challenge. Will our shopper's purchase truly satisfy her? Or will her satisfaction be fleeting? Will she make the most of her choice according to her own criteria? What learning take place in the process of meeting the DVS challenge?

Diablo Valley School challenges students to take advantage of the educational freedom extended to each and every learner, in ways that satisfy their own educational goals according to personal resolve in achieving educational satisfaction, as each student defines it. To successfully navigate the challenges of educational freedom, students find out what it means to take responsibility for their direction in life, and how to call on and further develop their capacity for being responsible learners. They continuously discover and expand their personal resourcefulness (within and without) in finding what they need to support their educational endeavors, thereby deepening understanding of and appreciation for the challenges inherent to educational freedom. Meeting these challenges, directed by personal responsibility and applied resourcefulness, naturally leads to heightened levels of self-respect, which cultivates respect on all levels for other people and processes that uncover and/or create new and greater educational challenges necessary in the process of ongoing self-discovery. Taking responsibility for learning, and employing resourcefulness to meet educational needs, builds respect for self and others and describes the continuing practice that allows DVS students to navigate challenges that come with educational freedom. Thus, Diablo Valley School's three Rs, respect, responsibility, and resourcefulness, serve as the foundation of success at DVS.

The most important factor in becoming educationally free appears to be resourcefulness. Being resourceful means doing the things you want to do and learning what you want to learn, either on your own or with the assistance of others, but without those others dictating your learning experience. It really has to do with utilizing the resources within oneself, like one's intellect, social skills, physical abilities, and common sense. Some students go to schools with amazing resources, like state-of-the-art computer and science labs and incredible athletic facilities, but what happens when a student doesn't like computers or science or sports? Resourcefulness comes down to what a student makes of her or his life. Some students are better at being resourceful than others and are pretty resourceful when they start at DVS, while others need time, in many cases, to free themselves from a past where everyone has told them what to do and how to think.

How does a student become fully resourceful? There are a number of different ways. One way is to go out and try things on her or his own. We have students doing this all of the time, cooking, reading, doing art projects, making music, writing in journals. It is amazing to walk around the school and watch students busy with all kinds of complex activities with absolutely no assistance from anyone. Students are focused, intensely engaged in what they are doing, and pushing themselves to learn and grow. These are also activities that students tend to work on for quite some time, so one activity leads to the next and so on, in what often looks like chaos, and always results in an upward spiral of progress and learning.

Another way to become resourceful is to learn from others, primarily through the medium of conversation. Students at DVS can talk all day with other students or staff members about anything for as long as they want. Just imagine how much learning is going on, how much knowledge is being passed along, and what is being discussed! It really is no different from listening to news programs, going to lectures, debating, attending meetings, or talking with your neighbors down the street, all of which are activities that make real life meaningful.

The big mystery is why so little student talking goes on in traditional schools. Here are young people who want to know about the world and are desperate to talk about things who are told to be quiet and control themselves. Traditional schools ask students to show restraint at precisely the wrong time in their lives, when they should be questioning and discussing and discovering. At DVS, students can discuss what they want with their peers and younger and older people, as the school is not separated by age or grade. We feel that being able to talk about what you want with whom you want is a powerful tool in the quest to become a resourceful person.

Yet another way to become a resourceful person is by playing. At DVS, we have great respect for play. Play, in all its varied forms (through games, with toys, and with words), is part of the work of young people. We do not see play as the opposite of learning, but as a vital educational mode. It is through play that students are creative, imaginative, and communicative; through play, they learn what their aptitudes and affinities are; and through play, they acquire skills they need to be successful. They also have the chance to be kids, to laugh, be silly, and have fun, which contributes to inner resources some people (serious about education) may never enjoy.

A final way that children become resourceful is by participating in the formal institutions at DVS. These are everything from formal classes that students organize to study things, to corporations that students create to do things in an organized fashion (e.g. gardening), to the clerkships, committees, and School Meeting that attend to school business, to the school's judicial system that students utilize to protect the freedom that all school members enjoy. It is by participating in these formal institutions that students learn to articulate their needs, persuade others as to the worthiness of their ideas, consider the lives of others, and exhibit a fairness we wish would be replicated on a grander scale in the outside world.

The school would feel a lot less comfortable about giving students so much freedom if it did not have rules and a judicial system that protect the freedom all school members enjoy at DVS. The school is willing to put control over the students' lives into the hands of the students themselves, but it is not willing to have no structure at the school that protects the freedom all school members share. There would be no freedom without a system that asks every person in the community to take responsibility for their actions, not only in the way that one conducts oneself, but by also being responsible for what one chooses to do or learn and how one spends one's time.

Putting all of this responsibility on each and every student, young and old, is what makes having the freedom so challenging. It is the complete opposite of traditional schools, where students have no freedom and are expected to be responsible for carrying out what other people tell them to do to the other people's satisfaction. The traditional school student totally sacrifices her- or himself to the whims of others. DVS has admitted some of these students over the years, when the students finally decided that they wanted to take charge of their own lives and stop doing the meaningless things that others asked them to do in traditional schools.

What enables this school that preaches freedom with responsibility to continue on a daily basis is respect. It is the respect that each student has for her- or himself and for other students in accepting the challenge of educational freedom and honoring the rules and procedures that comprise the school. It is the respect that the staff members have for the children by not telling them how they should utilize their time and by assisting when needed. It is parents trusting their children with this different educational model and understanding that it takes time to fulfill the challenges freedom sets before the children.

What is the result of educational freedom? The students discover who they are and what they love. This is probably the most important lesson that students at DVS and in Sudbury schools learn. It is borne out by reflections that graduating students from Sudbury Valley School (the school in Massachusetts that Diablo Valley School is modeled after) make during their theses presentations. Hanna Greenberg, a staff member at Sudbury Valley School, writes in an article entitled "The Parting Gift" in the June 2004 Sudbury Valley School Journal, "Students who are writing their theses all say in their own way the same thing: thank you for giving me the time and space - the freedom - to become myself." This is what some of the students write:

I feel that SVS has given me the opportunity to find the right path for me and the freedom to follow it.

Whatever I do in my life I know I'll always be thankful I grew up with the freedom I've had at SVS to be who I am, and to learn at my own pace.1

We feel it is far more important for a DVS student to figure out what she wants to do with her life and become the person she is meant to become, than to keep doing what others are telling her to do, thereby having her valuable time taken away from her while she is young. Nothing less than her educational life is at stake.


1. All quotes appear in "The Parting Gift" by Hanna Greenberg, The Sudbury Valley School Journal, Vol. 33, no. 6, June 2004, Sudbury Valley School Press.

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