Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong

I am frequently asked, "Can students in Sudbury schools get sufficient exposure to different ideas?"

Exposure in Sudbury Schools

In a Sudbury school there are scores of different people, with different interests, from all walks of life, together in one community; and those people have time to do what they wish. Freewheeling conversations occur everywhere, with all sorts of topics being discussed everywhere by people of all ages. As one wanders through the campus of a Sudbury school, one is exposed to dozens of ideas and thoughts in the space of a couple minutes--one hears people arguing about how to read the rules of a game fairly, talking about how to broach a difficult subject with a mutual friend, debating politics, arguing over the meaning of a word or passage, critiquing one another's work, discussing new discoveries or events, describing plans for projects with one another and the problems that they may encounter and how to overcome them, advising one another about ethical obligations, working on mastering a skill together, etcetera.

Sudbury schools rely on the free market of ideas. With mass media available in a Sudbury school--books on the walls, a high-speed Internet connection, television, radio--there is a constant stream of information to feed the free-wheeling conversations; conversations in which each person is exactly as active as s/he wishes.

Exposure in Traditional Schools

This is in contrast to traditional schooling. Far from being designed to maximize or guarantee exposure, traditional schools are deliberately designed to limit exposure. Put in their seats, students listen to about five lectures--or pre-selected media streams--pre-planned for them over the course of the day, in an environment that is devoid of real debate, activity or choice.

The questioning and controversy that make most subjects exciting, are taboo to discuss in a traditional school. Debates about metaphysics lie at the heart of every one of the physical sciences, debates about human nature are at the core of the humanities, and debates about the proper relationship between man and society are essential to understanding history. Because a school curriculum is about allegedly factual material rather than about subjective debates, and because schools must answer to parents who differ in their positions on these fundamental debates, the subjects making the curriculum are discussed without the foundations that underlie them. History is mostly reduced to chronicles of events, and science is reduced to those few things that a plurality of scientists agree are true. This, despite the fact that the heart of these subjects is in the debates that rage within them.

What the Question Really Means

Why does the question "can students in Sudbury schools get sufficient exposure to different ideas?" seem absurd to me, but seems sensible to the people who ask the question? In the daily life of a Sudbury school, this is no theoretical question. Having a full complement of children in the school, and parents supportive of the school, demands that we understand what is really at the heart of this question, and that we try to address the question with a sense of what is really being asked.

In order to understand the question, one must look closely at the answer which satisfies people prone to ask the question. When that question is asked of traditional schools, it is deemed sufficient to answer that the school has this-or-that mathematics program, reading program, cultural awareness program, great works program, art program, or sports program. At its heart, the question really being asked is "can students in Sudbury schools get exposure to the right ideas, without being distracted by unimportant matters?"

Sherlock Holmes--A Man of His Time

In his first novel about Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle's Doctor Watson records his first meeting with Holmes:1

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

"You appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it."

"To forget it!"

"You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it."

Doyle's detective suggests a metaphor for the mind. He suggests that the mind is a storage-place for facts, where they are placed is such a way as to be pulled out whenever needed. There is an underlying attraction in this model. First, it seems to be a sensible and simple metaphor--the brain is an attic which, if filled with the wrong things or left unorganized, will be less useful. Second, it is democratic--it explains "greatness" in some people (such as Holmes' detective work) as a result of keeping their storage space properly stocked and organized.

Every element of the design of traditional schools assumes this model of memory and learning. Curricula are the defining quality of traditional school. Curricula are, by definition, ideas and facts that students are expected to master. Curricula are made up of items to be placed, by the child, in an easily accessible part of her/his mind, just as one might shelve important objects in specific parts of a well-organized attic. Modern schools, in particular, have responded to the demand for equality by suggesting that not only should every child carefully organize his/her own attic, but that each child needs precisely the same set of items and tools in her/his attic; they would react with contempt to Sherlock Holmes's attempt to organize his own attic in his own way, just as the St. James Preparatory School reacted with contempt to Winston Churchill's avoidance of Latin and Greek.2

The web site for the "Common Core State Standards Initiative" (an Inter-state organization supported by the US Department of Education in concert with State governments) takes hundreds of pages simply to present a summary of the ideas and facts that children at various grade levels are expected to agree with, memorize and recite back.3 Various states and local agencies, as well as various private organizations that advise teachers, add more items to be filed away in students' minds during their schooling.

A survey of web sites about education and educational goals in other countries, shows that they view education in much the same way. UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), offers its own list of "standards" to be applied to every human being. On just one page of the web site for the "International Bureau of Education" (their Educational Practices series of publications) I find hundreds of pages of documents, in ten different languages, listing items that every child in the world is expected to memorize and master.4

The attic, described by Arthur Conan Doyle, is the model of memory and learning on which traditional school is based. This is the understanding of human learning and attentiveness, that suggests and presupposes that distractions are the biggest danger to intellectual growth. It is no surprise that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote this passage less than fifty years after the modern program of public education was first put into effect (in Massachusetts), and less than twenty years after it was put into effect in England.

This understanding of the human mind is at the heart of the question so frequently asked about exposure.

Memory and Learning

The human mind is a mystery. After more than 100 years of concerted study in the field of psychology, following on tens or hundreds of thousands of years of musing and theory on the subject, it is clear that we have only begun to scratch the surface of the human mind.

But one thing appears clear. The mind is an expression of the brain and body. The brain is a hugely complex and dynamic changing network of more than 100,000,000 neurons, each one of which changes its state of receptivity based on the states of each of its neighbors, and almost as many glial cells, which also change and develop in reaction to neural changes and which inspire neural changes. The body interacts with proteins and hormones running through the system, affecting and being affected by the systems and connections in the brain, making a meta-system. Beyond that, the body affects and is affected by the world around. Two things about this are striking. The first is the scope and scale of the complexity of the mind. The second is that the mind is an expression of a dynamic and ever-changing web of interactions.

This suggests something. It suggests that learning is not simply the process of storing data away for later use. It is also, and more importantly, the process of building models--deeply personal models--out of the connections between different things. Our understanding of how the world works arises out of the changing and dynamic relationship between systems in the brain, systems in the body, and by extension systems in the vicinity of our bodies with which we interact.

The recognition that the human mind is an artifact of process did not occur overnight, as the result of sweeping work by one scientist. Instead, this notion of how the brain works developed slowly, as we came to understand more and more the scale of the complexity of the functioning of the human brain.

Even spiders become better at evading predators, running through mazes and finding prey, when they have more information, "distractions," and space, time and objects to explore and play with in their cages.5 The value of free play in busy and full places is even clearer in mammals such as mice.6 In humans, language allows us to use metaphor to understand new experiences. Building up a library of such metaphors through play and exploration is key to human intellect, and indeed man plays more and more fully than any other creature.7

People build mental models of the world. Our mind attempts to mirror systems and the rich relationships between different people and things in the wider world. We build more and more useful models, that encompass better and better what our daily lives and interests bring into focus, finding systematic ways to understand others' ideas about the world and to communicate our own understandings. We develop more and more robust and flexible models that can tolerate growth and change. We develop the habit of seeing similarities and trends in disparate systems that are meaningful to our own selves; and just as importantly we mark out the areas in analogous systems that do not behave similarly, and seek the causes. This is what human learning is about.8 9 10

Every piece of information learned creates more levers to learn and understand more things. Every system that we come to see and understand serves as an underpinning or metaphor for further intellectual growth and development. The more that one has experienced and the more that one knows, the more capacity one has to know more!

Sherlock Holmes was wrong. The question about exposure--that is, the unspoken question about getting "exposure to the right ideas, without being distracted by unimportant matters"--is built on a faulty premise. Every activity or experience that draws our attention and interest is important, because it becomes part of our own mental models of the world.

Final Thoughts

The freedom of choice and communication in a Sudbury school allows students to build their own libraries of experiences. It allows them to form and modify and play with their own visions of how the world works and how to adapt to it. It allows them to be exposed to each others' visions about the world and how it works. Freedom allows them to develop their full human potential. With the speed of change and the adaptability required of man in the modern era, it is more obvious than ever that our children must be left free to explore, play and adapt.


1. Conan Doyle, A. (1887) A Study in Scarlet

2. Winston Churchill wrote, in My Early Life (1930), "in all the twelve years I was at school no one ever succeeded in making me write a Latin verse or learn any Greek."



5. Carducci, Jeannine Pollack & Jakob, Elizabeth M. 2000 Rearing environment affects behavior of jumping spiders. Animal Behavior, 59, 39-36

6. Januus, C., Koperwas, J.S., Janus, M. & Roder, J. 1995 Rearing environment and radial maze exploration in mice. Behavioral Processes, 34, 129-140

7. This was recognized as early as 1955, in Johann Huizinga's work Homo Ludens, and subsequent studies have deepened our understanding of the role of play.

8. Novick, Laura R. 1988. Analogical transfer, problem similarity, and expertise Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 14, 510-520

9. VanLehn, K. & Jones, R. 1993 Learning by explaining examples to oneself: A computational model In Chipman, S. & Meyrowitz, A. (eds.), Cognitive Models of Complex Learning

10. Hoffstadter, D. 2001 Analogy as the core of cognition In Gentner, D., Holyoak, K., & Kokinov, B. (eds.) The Analogical Mind: Perspectives from Cognitive Science

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