This essay has been prompted by a feeling of frustration that has finally led me to sit down and face an unpleasant reality: too many people think we are basically an “un-schooling” institution with some sort of added twist. Consider the following sentence, taken from the description of the school on the website Noodle.com which had just declared SVS to be one of the 41 “most innovative K-12 schools in America”, based on extensive research by their “education experts”:
Since the founding of Sudbury Valley School, about 40 other schools promoting the Sudbury model have opened around the world. These have helped popularize a combination of unschooling—a movement that removes children from the structures of traditional education—and civic education.
Leaving aside the question of where the “civic education” part comes from 1, we find that the people responsible for this site, devoted to handing out awards for educational excellence, have not the slightest notion of the nature of either un-schooling or of SVS. We encounter this confusion in admissions interviews, at open houses, and in conversations with members of the public. Not to mention the number of times we hear homeschoolers ask why they should pay tuition to have their children do the exact same things they could do “free of charge” at home.
So I feel the time has come to set things straight. First, I propose to lay out the contrasts between the basic principles that underlie the philosophy and practices of Sudbury Valley, and the basic principles underlying unschooling. In presenting the basic principles underlying unschooling, I quote extensively from three key unschooling websites: johnholtgws.com (where “gws” refers to John Holt’s homeschooling newsletter, Growing Without Schooling, published from 1977-2001); unschooling.com; unschoolers.org 2.
Second, I will discuss the impact on the SVS community of the consequences that flow directly from the contradictions outlined in Part I.
I. Contrasts: Key Aspects of Sudbury Valley and Their Unschooling Counterparts
For our purposes here, it is enough to summarize briefly the key aspects of Sudbury Valley that are relevant to this essay. Here are the ones I think are important for us to focus on in order to understand the argument I am putting forward:
Sudbury Valley School is an environment where children live with the same rights, privileges, and responsibilities as adults have in this country. Thus students, like adults in the world outside the school, are not subject to mentoring, supervision, or control, unless they choose to place themselves in situations where they accept it (as, for example, in certain job situations).
Sudbury Valley defines itself as a self-contained community consisting of members of the School Meeting: students, staff members employed by the School Meeting, and other persons on whom the School Meeting decides to confer the privileges and duties of its members. The school does not allow others to be present on campus, or involved in the activities of the community, unless they are specifically authorized by the School Meeting to do so, or by an agent of the School Meeting given the authority to grant them visiting privileges. This restriction applies not only to persons not connected directly to members of the School Meeting, but also to persons related to School Meeting members.
At Sudbury Valley, limitations on behavior at school are imposed only by the School Meeting, where every member of the school community has an equal voice in deciding on them—and where they cannot, in any case, diminish the basic rights every student enjoys in principle. This is in line with a fundamental principle of American culture: “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Sudbury Valley does not involve itself in the learning methods which a student chooses in order to master a particular area of interest. In particular, it does not have a list of recommended texts, courses, teachers, or online sources of information, leaving it up to students either to find what they are looking for on their own, or to seek such assistance as they feel they need to help them in their quest.
Now let’s take a look at the key aspects of unschooling and the premises on which they are based.
Parents are, and should be, proactive at all times in mentoring their children. Children are viewed as persons requiring ongoing emotional, intellectual and physical nurturing along their path to adulthood, for which parental involvement is of paramount importance:
The advantage of this method [viz., unschooling] is that it doesn’t require you, the parent, to become someone else—a professional teacher . . . Instead you live and learn together.
Unschooling does not resemble school learning . . . parents and children can learn and grow cooperatively.
Radical unschooling . . . involves partnering with our children, not just with regards to academic pursuits, but in daily activities such as eating, television viewing, and going to bed.
People may confuse radical unschooling with neglectful parenting. This is not the case. Unschooling is not ‘unparenting’. Parents who live the radical unschooling life are very involved, mindful and intentional.
Others—family members, other unschoolers, outside teachers—also have a proactive role in the child’s activities.
Unschooling does not give only parents a direct role in helping to fashion a child’s development, but others as well. The aim is to surround the child with people devoted to helping him/her grow up.
Unschooling learners are interdependent. In partnership with their parents, other adults, friendships, acquaintances, groups, communities and others, they learn to navigate the world, resource their interests, discover their vital roles and responsibilities in their own as well as others’ lives.
Unschooling families have learned how to listen deeply to one another, communicate respectfully and with love, to support each other’s interests and desires.
When families spend time together pursuing passions and building a large base of shared experiences, the bond between parent and child and among siblings deepens in a way that children who spend thousands of hours away from the family are not able to experience. The benefits of such a close family relationship are innumerable.
Perhaps it is all best summed up in this simple sentence written by Pat Farenga, one of the leading figures in the unschooling world:
As Aaron Falbel wrote in The Legacy of John Holt 3, “John trusted parents to learn from their experience with their children. He didn’t say, ‘If you’re going to call it unschooling, you’re going to have to do it my way.’ He wanted them to figure out what was right for them, for their whole family.” [emphasis added]
Parents identify what their child’s interests are and proactively support them. Parental involvement in the child’s development is immediate. It is the parent’s responsibility to be close enough to the child’s activities to be able to detect the direction in which those activities are unfolding, and become involved in following that direction and enhancing progress along the way. The unschooling parent denies any direct influence on the child’s announced or detected interest, considering the entire educational process to be purely “child-centered”.
The bedrock of radical unschooling is trust: a belief that our children possess an inner wisdom or intuitiveness far beyond what mainstream America gives them credit for. Parents act as guides and facilitators, helping children to connect with that inner wisdom.
It’s wonderful to let our kids pursue the things they love, but it’s also important for us to provide them with new opportunities and experiences; after all, there’s a lot out there they haven’t even tried yet, so they don’t know if they’ll love it! My kids thrive on predictability, so we have a loose structure to our week which allows me to build in experiences that I would like them to have while still allowing them plenty of time to do the things they already enjoy.
A child may learn something from—or in spite of—the adults in his world, but learning is centered within the child himself. Learning is not the result of teaching; therefore parents should not focus on being teachers. Instead, the parent’s role is to closely connect with the child, noting his/her interests and then providing opportunities for the child to pursue that interest. This does not mean designing an integrated unit on spiders for a kid who’s into bugs (let’s count the legs, let’s learn how to spell spider, let’s read a book about them!). Instead, the parent brings as much as possible into the child’s world to support that child’s passion—however long-lasting or brief it may be. This may mean borrowing books and videos, setting out a magnifying glass, or capturing that hairy guy on the ceiling in a glass jar instead of squishing it…get the idea?
When we offer our children a blend of self-directed activities 4 and tantalizing new opportunities, we go a step beyond making them aware: we give them the opportunity to experience a life in balance. [More on “a life in balance” can be found below.]
Pat Farenga gives a more concrete example—and note the comment at the end, which mentions the possibility of parental influence, but only in a limited number of instances:
So, for instance, a young child's interest in hot rods can lead him to a study of how the engine works (science), how and when the car was built (history and business), who built and designed the car (biography), etc. Certainly these interests can lead to reading texts, taking courses, or doing projects, but the important difference is that these activities were chosen and engaged in freely by the learner. They were not dictated to the learner through curricular mandate to be done at a specific time and place, though parents with a more hands-on approach to unschooling certainly can influence and guide their children's choices.
Parents (and sometimes others in the family) set limits on the child’s activities, according to the parents’ value system. While it certainly makes sense for parents, and other inhabitants of a home, to be involved in setting limits to the activities that take place in the home, such a situation can hardly be labeled a “child-centered education” based on the learner’s interests. Since the unschooling by definition is home schooling, there are no boundaries between the home and the venue within which the child’s preparation takes place for an adult life in the world outside the home—and this absence of a boundary is a major factor in the choice parents make to unschool their children.
When pressed [sic—and only then; better not to bring up the subject], I define unschooling as allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world, as their parents can comfortably bear.
Another thing I’m big on is finding ways to meet the needs of everyone in our family—including us adults! We went through a time when our kids were often up until after midnight and then sleeping until about 10:00 am or later. This schedule made it harder to plan activities. It also made life difficult for my husband, who has to be up for work early; he was exhausted all the time! And I was frazzled, not getting the quiet time I need in the evenings to recharge. Eventually, we had a family meeting to discuss our needs and brainstorm ideas. We all agreed to move into a “winding down” time between 8:00 and 9:00. The kids still were welcome to go to sleep when their bodies were ready, but we put away the things that tempt us to ignore our signals (for us that’s online games and tv). We also set the mood…lights are lowered in the bedrooms, we’ll have quiet music or a book on tape playing, and some quiet activities such as coloring or knitting available. I’ve found my kids are much better able to “feel their tiredness” when we do this.
The notion of “balance” seems to be an important one in the unschooling world. Here is a statement of the principle, followed by some examples of its application:
Rather than strict rules, unschoolers use principles. Instead of imposing limits, unschoolers work with their children to help them live in a balanced and healthy way. Instead of a strict schedule, unschoolers follow a daily rhythm.
Balance. It’s an ever-moving target, that elusive “just right” blend of social activities and alone time, physical activity and rest, screen time and actual face time...
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve had several conversations with folks who are struggling to find balance between time on electronic devices and time doing other things. As unschoolers, how do we help our children strike that balance? Or should we? Because unschooling is not “one size fits all”, I’ve found people to be all over the map on this topic.
On the one hand, I’ve met people who don’t regulate devices at all. They’re perfectly comfortable with whatever their children decide is the right amount of time—even if it’s the bulk of the day (or night). On the other hand, I’ve encountered parents who worry that devices are addictive and must be strictly limited.
There’s no easy answer. But here are my thoughts…
I hesitate to demonize devices by calling them “addictive” and waving a banner of concern if my children seem a bit too interested for my comfort level. I’d rather look at it like this: devices can be fun—LOTS of fun. That’s a good thing. On the other hand, I believe all of us—adults and children alike—will sometimes bypass our bodies’ signals for food, sleep, movement, etc. when we are particularly enjoying something. As a child, I used to ignore my need to use the bathroom when I was having a lot of fun playing outdoors. I’d bypass my need to sleep on those exciting occasions that I was allowed to stay up and watch a special movie. As an adult, sometimes I’ll ignore my need for food or sleep if I’m reading an excellent book or writing.
While I believe children have a wonderful innate sense of their needs, I think they are just as susceptible to this tendency to bypass needs as we adults are—only they may not even be aware that it’s happening. And as someone with more experience, it’s my responsibility to help them figure this out. [emphasis added]
When delving into an area of interest, it is generally useful to use materials developed with the standard traditional curriculum as model. Especially in today’s digital world, there are a myriad of ways to go more deeply into any subject, and most of them are far more current and flexible than school-based curricula. Unschoolers are not averse to various methods of mastering material, but they use a great deal of curricular material that claims to be specially designed for unschoolers, and is marketed to them on various sites. They see nothing contradictory in the odd combination of “self-directed” learning and pre-packaged learning units and curricula.
Unschooling, for lack of a better term . . . , is the natural way to learn. However, this does not mean unschoolers do not take traditional classes or use curricular materials when the student, or parents and children together, decide that this is how they want to do it.
[Parent and child] live and learn together, pursuing questions and interests as they arise and using conventional schooling on an “on demand” basis, if at all.
The term “unschooling curriculum” is really kind of an oxymoron. Curriculum literally means “subjects taught”. Unschooling parents do not focus on teaching, but on facilitating learning. This may seem like splitting hairs, but it’s actually an important distinction to make.
When people first begin exploring the unschooling way of life, they often look for some kind of concrete plan. It can be scary, letting go of the school-at-home model and diving into uncharted territory. We all like something to hang onto when we’re out of our comfort zone! But the reality is that unschooling plays out differently for each family that practices it.
That being said, if you’re new to unschooling and would like a little guidance, below are some links that can help you create an environment that encourages your child to explore the world and pursue his passions.
Unschooling Language Arts
Unschooling Social Studies
Unschooling: Creating Inviting Spaces
Unschooling: Supplies to Keep in Stock
If you make a careful comparison between the basic characteristics of Sudbury Valley, and those of unschooling, outlined at the beginning of this section, you will see immediately that they are two sets of principles which do not intersect at any point, and that they represent contrasting concepts of education that have nothing in common.
II. Some Consequences of the Contrasts
Sudbury Valley has now had five decades of experience with large numbers of unschooling parents who inquired about enrolling their children in the school, some of whom went through the interview and visiting week procedures set up for prospective students, and even ultimately enrolled. That experience has taught us many things that have made it easier to anticipate the nature of the relationship that the school can expect with those students, their parents, and their families. I have summarized those lessons learned below.
Once an unschooler, always an unschooler. The contrasts outlined in the previous section do not faze parents of unschoolers when they enroll their children at SVS. They feel they can continue with their method of raising and educating their children outside of school—which, after all, only occupies some 25 hours a week out of the 168 available—and that the time spent at school is not really about developing the skills associated with independent adults in our society, but rather a break for the child and for the parent from the relentless sameness of the unschooling daily routines. Thus, enrolling a child had little or no effect on the omnipresent influence of parents and family on the child’s activities outside of school, which in turn always affected the nature of their activities in school, exerting constant force in the direction of harmonizing them.
Parents of unschoolers are often angry at the school for being “rigid” in not allowing them any access to the school’s activities or input to the school’s decisions regarding their children. For the first 43 years of its existence, Sudbury Valley experimented with various organizational structures (as reflected in its corporate by-laws) that allowed parents some say in the school’s governance. These attempts were based on the principle that the people who pay for the school’s operation should be able to have some input into what was being done here. It took us time to realize that this principle makes sense only if the population that pays is the same population that is directly affected by what they are paying for—in other words, only in situations where the stakeholders and the financial supporters are the same people. The conflicts that arose with some regularity between parents who wanted some level of control in the school, and the School Meeting which wanted the control to reside entirely in the school’s resident population, finally led to the abandonment of the idea that parents should be involved in the school’s affairs, and to the fashioning of new by-laws that make the school community entirely self-governing with no outside interference. While this has eliminated the former conflicts, it has often left homeschooling parents who enroll their children dissatisfied with their lack of direct influence on their children’s lives at school.
Parents of unschoolers, who are expecting their children to be always enjoying “learning” experiences, often identify the activities other students at Sudbury Valley engage in as unworthy—not conducive to “learning” anything useful. Sudbury Valley students who have been unschooled usually find themselves facing a stressful choice between choosing to enjoy “time-wasting” activities that eat up large portions of their time at school, or having to forego such activities and compensating for this sacrifice by looking down on them and often on the fellow students who enjoy them. Former unschoolers often worry that they are wasting their time, and feel external or internal pressure to study standard curricula in books or online in order not to “fall behind”.
Unschoolers who enroll at SVS often find themselves confused and at a loss about what to do with themselves all day. They are at sea when confronted with the task of figuring out on their own how to spend their time. Not infrequently we find that homeschoolers report that they are bored, they have nothing to do. While most of them eventually overcome this feeling and re-connect with the penchant for self-initiated activities that they were born with—you never see a bored two year old!—it isn’t an easy path for them to follow.
Unschoolers rarely possess the social skills other students have developed either at SVS or even at other schools. We used to think that one of the motivations that parents (and children) have for enrolling their children was to provide them with an opportunity to develop social skills. For the most part, we missed the mark by a wide margin. The refrain we heard from parents of unschoolers, and from unschooling students, over and over again was that we were way off base—that unschoolers had tons of experiences with other children through arranged joint activities, and that nothing was lacking in their social skills. And they were right, if by “social skills” they meant learning how to relate to others with similar values under the watchful and protective eye of adults who were quick to smooth over conflicts and avoid unpleasantness for their children. It did not occur to them, nor did it disturb them, that such skills were of little use in the real world of independent human beings who were not nurtured and mentored by family members or by “caring” adults. As a result, students who had been unschooled before enrolling at SVS frequently find themselves at a loss socially, isolating themselves, or often struggling to develop the skills that they realize they lack—a difficult struggle that may take years to reach its goal.
Why pay? And then there is this: the confusion between unschooling and schools such as ours—a confusion rampant among unschoolers and frequently encountered in the general public, as witnessed by the passage quoted at the beginning of this article—leads many unschooling parents, who might be thinking about relieving themselves of the 24/7 burden of taking care of all their children’s needs, to conclude that there is no point shelling out the money for tuition at SVS when their children could be “doing the same things” at home.
III. Summing Up
All in all, the contrasts—perhaps better labeled as “contradictions”—between the principles underlying homeschooling and those of Sudbury Valley lead to an important outcome, that is well worth recognizing: for the most part, any marriage between the two ends up in an unpleasant parting of ways. From a recruitment point of view, it is always best for those involved in the admissions process at SVS to do their best to discourage unschoolers from enrolling, or at least warn them of the possible pitfalls of such a move. From the point of view of unschooling families thinking about finding an “unschooling school” where their children could spend time away from home, while still being basically homeschooled in the way the family would like them to be, it is always best to look somewhere else.
Actually, the most concise summing-up was given by the person who made homeschooling famous: John Holt. Here is what Pat Farenga, a leading advocate for homeschooling/unschooling, reported he learned from his mentor:
I’ve been asked to define unschooling since 1981. The simple answer I learned from John is unschooling is NOT school.
And, as John Holt himself informed us directly when he looked into our school at the time of its founding in 1968, unschooling is most certainly NOT Sudbury Valley School.5
1. The description has this to say: “The civic education component in particular has established a model for integrating citizenship into learning; students who attend SVS and other free, democratic schools are encouraged to become responsible, active members of society”. [sic] I guess I never realized that SVS is designed to be a training ground for “social activists”....
2. When quoting from these sites, I will cite them as gws, uncom, and unorg, respectively.
3. The Legacy of John Holt: A Man Who Genuinely Understood, Respected, and Trusted Children, edited by Patrick Farenga and Carlo Ricci (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 2013).
4.The writer is quite unaware of any possible contradiction between the notion of a parent “offering” a “blend of activities” and the concept “self-directed” as applied to those same activities.
5. Another perspective on the same subject was offered by Mimsy Sadofsky in her blog entry on Sudbury Valley School’s blog site titled “Sudbury Schools: Unschooling with babysitting?”, posted on February 17, 2014, which can be read at the following url: https://sudburyvalley.org/blog/sudbury-schools-unschooling-babysitting
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