Playing For an Education

An Insider’s View of Student Directed Learning

I want to start with a bit of background on why I am making a presentation here.1 My name is Debra Sivia Sadofsky. I am a 39 year old professional in the high-tech industry. I work as an e-learning implementation project manager for Sun Microsystems, within their education division. I live here in Toronto and have lived in Canada for about 18 years. I grew up mostly in the suburbs of Boston, and I spent virtually all of my primary and secondary education years at Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts.

Let me provide an overview of what Sudbury Valley School is all about. At SVS students of all ages are free to determine how they will spend their days, months and years. The school is based on human curiosity, trust and the concept of each individual being responsible for themselves – and within that, their own learning and education. You might be wondering how this manifests itself. It does so by allowing students, children of all ages, to fill their days as they choose, with activities that they want to participate in.

The adults who work at the school are called "staff members" and they fill a multifaceted role. They assist in running the school and are available to students for assistance with their learning on an as-needed basis. I am sure you are all curious about what this means to the students and how children learn in this environment. I will try to provide a more detailed picture for you, but in essence, the staff are there as one of the resources for children in their learning space.

Another major difference between SVS and other schools is how it operates, which is quite unique and fundamental to the Sudbury Valley School experience and the learning that takes place there. Sudbury Valley School is run democratically by a town-hall style weekly meeting. Each staff member and each student has an equal say and voting power within this School Meeting. All day to day operational decisions, issues surrounding budgeting and expenditures, hiring of staff, rules and use of the facilities, as well as treatment of others within the community, are debated and decided within the School Meeting. There are Clerkships, Committees, and Corporations which play crucial roles within the school and they, too are made up of students and staff. For example, there is a Judicial Committee (with rotating membership) that investigates, and acts upon, disciplinary issues and problems within the school.

People always ask how students learn within this environment, how they typically spend their time, and even what they end up learning. I would like to talk about my own experiences and those of the people I was close to at Sudbury Valley.

The school is located in an old granite house, within which a variety of equipment and materials that students might need are housed. Several rooms are set up as specialty rooms, but most of the space is general purpose. Students arrive at school in the morning and spend their day as they choose. The ways in which I learned, which are probably typical of an SVS student, were varied. I spent lots of time with my friends doing what you could call playing, but there was a lot of learning going on – learning about people, how to interact, how other people think, what their opinions are, etc.

More formalized learning that I participated in included a variety of seminars, from the academic to the mundane. For example, one of the staff members offered a lecture series on history for a few years – the covered topics ranged from ancient history to current events. Throughout the years I participated in a variety of academic learning – sometimes in classes, but some self-study. Not all of the classes I took were academic – one favorite seminar stands out. It was the sandwich seminar – which coincidentally was taught by the same staff member as the history courses! It was a cooking class in which we discussed the components of the best sandwich, e.g. type of bread, spreads, enough but not too many fillings, etc. Not only did we have fun, but I still make a mean sandwich!

I learned many other things from participating in the running of the school. One of the first Clerkships that I was elected to was Elections Clerk. The job was, basically, administering the school’s elections. I must have been 9 or 10 at the time, but I was quite interested in this process and had helped the previous clerks. Elections were held by secret ballot, and there were usually two major elections in the school year, one in the fall for Clerks and Committees and one in the spring for staff. On election days the polls were open all day long, and all students and staff were allowed to vote once. Ballots were controlled and we had a big box that people could put their ballots into once marked. The staff elections were a lot more complex than the Clerks and Committees because everyone was voting on how much time a staff member would be at school – it was much more than a simple yes or no.

People who hear about my education almost always want to focus on my academic learning and how I was able to go on from Sudbury Valley to university. I often find this strange because probably the most important thing that I learned at SVS was how to decide what I wanted to do next, and then to move forward in making that happen. Knowing this enables one to take risks – to go out into the world and go after the things you want. So, I organize my activities and use the resources around me. For those who know me, I joke a lot about my resourcefulness, but this is really a key to who I am, why I am employed today, and how I have managed to navigate my way through life so far.

After graduating from Sudbury Valley, I spent a year traveling, studied for two years at Harvard University Extension School, then moved to Canada to study at the University of Victoria, where I obtained my BA in Anthropology and Asian Studies. Since then I have worked in several fields and industries, according to my interests and whims, including high tech, health care, business management, training, and project management.

In closing, just a few facts and additional comments: Sudbury Valley School was founded in the summer of 1968. I was turning 5 when the school was opening, and started attending – I was one of about 60 students. Throughout the years I attended, this was the typical size of the student body. I recall one year that there were about 85 students – but during my time at SVS, this was unusual. I graduated from SVS in the spring of 1981 – my graduating class had 3 students in it. These days there are about 200 students per year at Sudbury Valley and regular graduating classes in the double digits. In addition, the concepts and model developed and proved at Sudbury Valley have been adopted by individuals around the world and Sudbury-model schools exist around the globe. I want to take this opportunity to thank the Beach School for allowing me to offer many unsolicited opinions on their work, for treating me as a welcome part of their group, and of course to wish them more success than they can currently imagine.


1. Describe a typical or atypical day at SVS.

This is such a common question and one of the hardest to answer. For each student a typical day could be different, depending on what that individual is/was focused on at a given time. Obviously these days change throughout the years. For some, the day could be spent practicing one's art in the art room; reading could be a major activity in a student's day. It is not uncommon for students to spend much of the day at play – either in small groups or at an organized game of soccer, kickball or some such team sport. One of the favorite outdoor activities is to climb the beech tree that has become a symbol of SVS.

In my own experience, typical days were quite varied. I can recall periods of time where I spent the majority of my day playing card games – ranging from strategy games to games of speed; or times that I focused on one of my friends – spending the day or perhaps the week or weeks together. I spent a lot of time playing outside – Sudbury Valley is located on 10 acres of land and borders some forested areas with trails for walking, hiking and exploring.

2. Some parents I have spoken with have expressed concerns that their child would do nothing but play – did kids at SVS play all day?

Sure kids play all day at Sudbury Valley. It is a wonderful thing! This play is the basis for so much learning. One of the things I treasure most from my childhood is that I was so lucky to have Sudbury Valley to grow up in – I got to play all day most days too, and it is a wonderful and privileged childhood experience. So much child's play involves learning. One thing that stands out for me both in my experience at SVS and since leaving there is how intense children are when they are playing. It is quite common for kids to lose themselves in their play and be totally absorbed into that moment. This intensity of activity is important – this is something that I, and others from Sudbury Valley, took forward: intense focus in our pursuits – whether this is play, learning, work, hobbies etc.

The other aspect of play that is important to discuss has to do with kids who come to Sudbury Valley after they have been in public school. Time and time again, I saw individuals come to SVS from public school and they were testing the limits of their freedom. Because they had been in environments where adults dictated their activities, they needed to spend some time seemingly doing nothing. Mostly this time was spent realizing that they were really free to chose their pursuits. This is often seen as "play" by outsiders, but is fundamental to knowing oneself and figuring out what to do with one's time.

3. Did you do anything like school events or sports and if so, how did these come about?

I spent tons of time outside in all types of activities. There is a huge beech tree that kids climb. There are trails in the woods for walking. We sledded in the winter. I played sports – organized with kids of all ages: kickball, capture the flag, soccer, basketball etc. These were a part of my normal routine while attending SVS. There are so many outdoor activities that were a part of my day; for instance, we had a game where we would try to navigate the perimeter of the school building without touching the ground.

We put on plays and musicals, sometimes just a diversion, others with a more formal audience in mind. School dances became popular right around the time I was graduating. I think these differ from other schools because at Sudbury Valley a dance would be open to all of the student body – everybody, no matter what their age, danced with everyone else. We also took advantage of our proximity to Boston and would go on field trips to museums and plays.

We did not have intramural sports within the school. For the most part participation in organized sports was an activity that students arranged outside of school. For example, I spent many years taking gymnastics. Although my lessons were outside of Sudbury Valley, I did practice and train during school hours. This situation is similar for people who take ballet classes. I probably could have organized this within the school had I chosen that route; we did this for certain other activities, types of dance, yoga, etc.

4. Is there an ideal student type for self-directed learning?

I always wonder if this question is best answered with a YES – the ideal type of student is every child! Or with a NO, all students are ideal for this type of education! However, the reality goes back to what I said earlier, that children are people too, and that they have a lot of natural curiosity. They manage to direct themselves to learn how to crawl and then to walk. Children start out self-directing their learning – stop and think about how a child learns to speak. Nobody teaches them, they figure it out by listening and studying others in their environment – how to communicate, to speak! We don't really know how a child learns to speak, but we do know that it is not a specifically taught behaviour.

Then we subject these amazing beings to our public school system, usually from the age of 3, 4, 5 or 6. We change the rules on them and subject them to a full day of adult directed activities.

5. Tell me about staff at the school and their roles?

They are in the school as the adults in the community. As such, they serve as resources and role models. They also teach and ensure that the school is opened and closed each day. They fill Clerkships and serve on Committees, and do things like paying the bills.

One of the goals in hiring staff is to ensure that there is a diverse body of knowledge and skills amongst the staff. It is important to have some who understand the sciences, some the arts etc. In my experience this was achieved well year in, year out, so that when I needed assistance in any subject, or even generally, I was able to get what I needed from the staff.

Does this answer what the staff did for me? Perhaps not. What they did for me was to create a school that was totally fringe to the traditional, they went out on a limb for me, for all of us kids and risked their careers to make a school for us so that we would be able to have a happy, unstructured environment to play and grow in during our school years. Maybe this sounds trite to you all, but a lot of sacrifices were made. People left their traditional career paths to create Sudbury Valley, and then they dedicated many more than full time hours to ensuring its success, all in order to create a better schooling environment for their children and the community.

Another big thing that I have to credit the staff for is their ability to role model treating all people equally. Not to say that the staff at Sudbury Valley think that all kids have the same skills and abilities, but the message is clear by example that regardless of age, or specific knowledge, everyone is equal. The four year olds garner the same respect as the 14 year olds, and as the staff. This is something that sets me apart from the crowd and is a big part of who I am today.

6. How did other students facilitate the learning process?

Well, most of the things I learned, I learned from other kids. I did take classes and participate in a variety of academic learning, but the big things – learning about life, about how to get things done, how to organize yourself and your projects, how to listen and participate in a group – these are the things that you learn from all the people around you. Mostly this learning is seeing how things happen – watching/observing/participating/talking – I think these things are key.

You also learn that although not everything you are going to do in life is fun or interesting to you, there are certain things that you have to do. I think this comes from assisting in the democracy that is SVS. Because everyone always knows what the issues are, there are big debates over the big issues and there is so much learning from this: how to listen, how to articulate your ideas, how to compromise to something that works for everyone, etc.

There is so much life and activity in a Sudbury School. There was at SVS when I was a student, there is now, and this is what generates the learning. People might look like they are just sitting around talking, but what are they discussing, what ideas are being generated, what sparks come from this dialogue and what do they light within each child? This is what makes this learning environment tick and yet it is very hard to quantify.

7. You had an interest in Japanese culture and language and French as well. How did you educate yourself in these areas? How did SVS deal with specialized subjects?

Well, I will use my specific experience around the French language as an example of how the school deals with specialized subjects – although potentially each situation may have a different outcome.

When I was about 10 or 12 one of my friends had the idea of studying another language. She floated the idea past a few of us, and together we decided that we would organize a French class. I think I knew that one of the staff members spoke French and we approached her and asked if she would help us learn. So, she picked out some useful books with us to study from, and provided beginner level classes. We started studying and progressed quickly. I don't know the details from the staff member's perspective, but since our interest was not waning, and we had moved ahead of her, we needed a new solution. In order to solve this particular knowledge gap in the staff, we brought a motion to the School Meeting to allocate funds towards hiring an outside French language teacher. Our motion was accepted and from there we went about finding and hiring a French teacher for a few hours a week. Beyond my academic study of the French language, I decided to travel to France and participated in a summer abroad program for high school students. This is another example of how Sudbury Valley and its students leverage into the community, enriching their education.

As far as my study of Japanese goes, this interest developed later, and I studied Japanese language, culture, history and art in University.

8. Did you have friends in traditional schooling environments and how did your experiences compare?

The short answer to this question is that I had a fun and cherished childhood at school. The fact that SVS and my experiences there are still a part of who I am today says a lot. How many adults do you know who have fond memories of their school years and feel that it shaped them in a positive way? Most of the friends I had outside of Sudbury Valley while I was a student were miserable in their school environment.

The other fundamental difference is that I learned how to think and they learned how to memorize. This was something that I really noticed as a difference in University. When people hear about my schooling they are always curious to know how I got accepted into university with no grades or marks from my school. What is truly amazing is that most people get in based on their ability to memorize and feed back that memorization on tests. These same students struggled with the more difficult college classes because they had to figure out how to study and how to learn. This is something that I understood from a much earlier age due to the SVS environment.

9. The school is run on democratic principles. How did the 5 year olds affect the day to day running of the school?

The process is really quite simple. The students know that if they need something they can get it – for example, if a young child needs help tying their shoes, they get someone more skilled at that to help them. If they can help someone out in a similar situation, they do. In terms of the operations of the school, when there are issues that affect a core group, everyone in the group is aware and they come together to sort it out. The most eloquent comments in the School Meeting often are from the youngest kids – they usually see the core issue clearly. Also, it is apparent that the students far outnumber the staff; the current ratio is about 20 to 1 at SVS. The power of persuasion might be more developed in an adult or an older student, but those five year olds can easily get their friends to side with them and claim victory by numbers if need be.

The other perspective on this is that there is a level of trust. The same trust that the community has for the kids to be responsible and think for themselves, to figure out how they want to spend their time, is allocated to the older students and the staff. So, the younger kids usually stay out of most of the mundane operations – it is when they have a specific issue that they contribute.

10. What about post-secondary education – You were fortunate enough to attend Harvard. How did you get in with no formal educational credentials or what we would call marks?

I was accepted to university based on who I was. In my application I took advantage of all the areas where they allow you to write – mostly about myself. I took that opportunity to illustrate Sudbury Valley and what my education had been to date, and showed through my writing that I would be able to adjust and contribute in that environment. I wanted to show that although I didn't have grades, I was a student who would be able to handle the pressures of university as well as, perhaps better than, the students they were accepting with top marks. I focused my applications on getting an interview. I followed up my written applications with calls wherever possible, taking the initiative to show that I was truly interested. I do believe the trick for me was to get the University to want to meet with me. I am pretty sure that all of the schools that I met with allowed me entrance. One of the schools I applied to and was accepted at had me come to their campus and meet with three departmental delegates – I met with someone in English, Mathematics and French. Even during the interviews I could tell that I would be allowed in. I showed that although I didn't know everything yet, I was willing to learn, and was planning on applying myself to my studies.

I think the process is quite similar today, but probably it is a bit easier now because alternative educational models are being used more and more. At the time I applied, it was still pretty difficult. Essentially I had to talk my way in. First on paper – I had to make them want to interview me; then in person I had to show them that I could be a part of their community.

11. You have had an interesting, varied and successful career, one that would also be considered non-traditional. How do you feel your schooling impacted your choices?

Basically I feel that what I learned at SVS allowed me to choose work that I was interested in and pursue it. On the surface this is probably not that unusual; however for me it has meant that I have been comfortable pursing interesting jobs and careers. Maybe that is the critical difference: I am ready to reinvent myself using my current skill set, and developing new skills as I go. I have the courage to apply for jobs that I want to get, and to market myself so that I am able to get them. I also have the courage to move on to something entirely new. I have worked in several fields and different careers and I am sure I will work in several more.

12. Would you say that your experience at SVS taught you skills rather than knowledge – the tools to acquire knowledge rather than the knowledge itself?

Yes, actually I think I answered this question in my address, but it is an important one to reiterate. At Sudbury Valley the acquisition of knowledge is unlimited – you can spend all day every day in the pursuit of academic knowledge, if that is what you want to do. The amount of time people spend pursuing academics varies from individuals and from year to year for those individuals. I did learn a lot about many subjects. However, I feel that the more important skills I developed there have shaped me into a person who is not afraid to try new things and certainly not afraid to go after what I want. I trust myself and I have the confidence to try new things with the knowledge that I can succeed in them. I am always learning and developing as a person, changing my career, pursing different hobbies, etc.

13. What do you think is the single most valuable skill you acquired at SVS?

I would have to say that the trust in oneself that is developed in the SVS environment and the ability to think critically, as well as the knowledge you gain through experience that you can achieve anything you set your mind to, are the most important – that isn't really one skill, but I think it answers your question.

14. What is your single most resonant memory of being a student at SVS?

I have so many wonderful memories from my years at Sudbury Valley, that it is hard to pick one! Overall, I guess it is the memory of the freedom to be who I am, to have had the ability to choose what I wanted to do every day, and with this the freedom to develop into who I am today.


1. A short talk followed by questions from the moderator delivered on behalf of the Beach School, Toronto, in February, 2003.

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