Sudbury Valley School: The Birth of a New Paradigm for Education

Note: Edited version of a talk given in Portland, OR on March 9, 1991.

It's very difficult to begin a discussion about Sudbury Valley School, because it takes a certain fundamental change in mindset to grasp what we're trying to do. We're not talking about another "open school", we're not talking about curriculum reform, we're not talking about changing this or that aspect of the current school system to make it more humane or more pleasant for the children in the school. We're talking about what some people call a paradigm shift - changing the way you look at the whole concept of education. We approached the school by starting from scratch and consciously rethinking what is wanted of education and of schools. It's not something that was born overnight. A group of us spent years reading and thinking and working very hard to purge ourselves of a lot of misconceptions. That process continued well into the life of the school, when we would sometimes find ourselves doing things that were really inappropriate, as a carry-over from our earlier experience. Changing a world view is not an easy thing to achieve.

There is no lack of people who are convinced that there's something seriously wrong with the educational system. Even the most devoted advocates of traditional schools can't help noticing that the system gobbles up incredible sums of money at an ever-increasing rate, which nevertheless rarely seems to produce satisfactory results. But it's much more difficult to go from there to a completely different world view which concludes that the whole traditional way of looking at education is wrong.

I'd like to start by telling you a little about the conclusions we reached and then backtrack to examine how that compares with the paradigm that prevails in the educational world. There are two overarching purposes to any educational system in a society: one educational, and one sociopolitical. The educational purpose has to do with making it possible for each individual young person in a given society to grow up to be a productive adult. You start with little kids, and you want them to grow up to be adults who can feed themselves, who can raise a family, who can do whatever one does in that particular society and do it effectively. The sociopolitical purpose is to produce good citizens in that society, whatever the definition of "good citizen" is; in other words, to produce people who function effectively in the sociopolitical environment that the culture wishes to propagate. These are two overarching goals, and they're valid for any culture, because every culture will want to propagate its own unique system, whatever it is. Even if later on revolutionaries overthrow the system, they in turn are going to replace it with something else, and then they'll pursue the goal of producing youngsters who can grow up in their new revolutionary social system! So these are meta-goals, which don't refer to any specific sociopolitical or economic system.

Let's look at the educational goal as it applies to the United States. We were discussing this in the late sixties. Conclusions that we reached then are much more valid now and much more widely acknowledged. The question is: what is it that makes a youngster into an effective adult? More to the point: what is an effective adult like? What are the qualities and the traits that one would ascribe to effective adults in modern American society? Let me put it a little differently. If I was the personnel director of some business, what is it that I would look for in the people that I wanted to hire? The answer to that question nowadays is widely agreed upon by a huge variety of businesses and institutions, large and small: they are looking for creative, imaginative, alert, curious, thoughtful people who are capable of taking responsibility and making judgements. They need people who can take the ball and run with it, people who can take initiative, who can think for themselves, who can figure things out, who when they're abandoned out there or left to face a problem don't have to refer everything to some superior for an explanation and a decision. Furthermore, you don't need to be a radical educational reformer to accept this description of educational goals: it's in almost every policy statement of schools nationwide.

Now, let's just think about this for a minute and see what it implies. Forget schools, forget any reference to an established educational system. Let's just focus on that goal. How do I relate it to a child? How do I make the transition from a child to that kind of adult? To answer that, we have to look at children and see the raw material we have to work with. How big is the problem that we have to face here?

It turns out that children are extremely good at every one of the things that I've just listed! Curious, they certainly are. They are so curious that it has become a negative thing in child-rearing. In my opinion, one of the most obnoxious phrases that exists in all child development books is "the terrible two's," a phrase applied to an age when children become mobile enough to turn their curiosity to good use, which means to make sure that they've uncovered every single thing in your household that you possibly could have hidden from them. Clearly, they exhibit no deficiency with respect to curiosity.

Nor is there a problem with children's ability to make decisions for themselves. They make them all the time. They don't have to be taught how to make decisions. I can't stress this enough. They don't have be taught how to be curious, and they don't have to be taught how to make decisions, not when they're one or two or three.

Children don't have to be taught how to bear the consequences of their decisions either, or how to recover from failure, both tremendously important aspects of learning how to be responsible. Indeed, at the heart of learning is the process of encountering errors and transcending failure by living through it and remaining whole without having your self-image destroyed. Every little child knows this! There's no better example than when they learn how to walk. They're up and they're down and they're falling, and the parents are saying, "Oh, he hurt himself," and hurrying over with concern; but the kid is bouncing up immediately and doesn't want you around, he just wants to get up and try again. They don't have to be given any special attention and they don't have to be led by small steps of positive reinforcement to learn how to walk. Imagine if that's the way we dealt with little infants when they wanted to learn how to walk! "Oh, don't get up now, you might fall! Let's just get you part way up. Now a little further, now let's put one foot forward. We don't want you to fall, we don't want failure! Now let's sit down again and I'll read you a book. Now another foot forward." Failure leads to the destruction of self-esteem? Nonsense! Ultimate triumph over failure is one of the biggest contributors to the development of self esteem.

The important message from all of this is: the raw material is there, in each and every child. Look at how they run their lives. A little child does not have to be programmed. They wake up and they're ready for action. That's the first step towards taking responsibility: being able to open your eyes and say, "I'm going to do something today and this is what I'm going to do." As you grow older, the complexity of what you decide to do gets richer. But the first step in taking responsibility is sizing up a situation, deciding on your own that "I'm going to do this particular thing," and then going ahead and doing it. To be sure, you could say, "Well, that's not taking a lot of responsibility, getting up and deciding, 'I'm going to eat now'." But in fact, they're not eating all the time; after they're done eating, they decide what they want to do next. Think about it. We don't have to plan a one-and-half-year-old child's day. We may do it, but not because we have to, not because if we left the child alone that child would be bored. Maybe we plan that child's day because we want to control how the day is spent, but not because the kid isn't ready to take responsibility for their day.

So the raw material is there. All the elements that we want for effective adulthood in the 21st century are there in the child. This is where the paradigm shift comes in. What it means for education and for schooling is that we just have to let these elements ripen and mature. The best service we can render a child in making the transition from childhood to adulthood is not to get in the way. Any school that does nothing more than promise not to get in the way is worth any tuition you can muster, because that's the school that will guarantee the fullest, easiest, most complete growth of all those traits from childhood to adulthood. The essence of a good school, educationally speaking, is staying out of the way of the child's native biologically-produced drives and tendencies. Evolution has taken care of the maturation process. The human race did not wait for the public school system in the United States in order to figure out how to mature. All the good things that happened throughout history happened without the aid of the school system developed in the West that now claims that it's indispensable to progress.

Let's consider the sociopolitical side of education. In the United States, we consider ourselves a country that believes in democracy as the basic framework for organizing society. We expect our country, our states, and our towns to be run democratically. In New England we still run our towns by open town meetings, the embodiment of grassroots democracy. Standard educators' approach to this basic fact is to talk about the need to teach about democracy, to introduce democracy as part of the curriculum!

To me, it's obvious that the most effective way to create an adult population that can work comfortably with democracy is to have everybody get used to it from the earliest age. It seems rather difficult - in fact, close to impossible - to have people grow up in what is basically an authoritarian environment until they're eighteen, and then suddenly have them transform into effective citizens of a democracy. It just doesn't make sense. A person who has absorbed democracy into his being has learned to live with difference, to tolerate, to listen, to understand that people have widely divergent points of view, to stand back and think about alternatives, to live with defeat, to come back and fight to win another day, or to graciously yield and go on to another issue. It is this complex behavior that is the true democratic spirit - the kind of liberalism that Jefferson wrote so eloquently about. This is something that can't emerge suddenly overnight at the age of eighteen.

There's no hope for this being a really democratic society in the way most of us would like it to be - of people really living together in brotherhood and making decisions together and participating and having a voice in their own fate - unless it happens from the earliest age. We asked, "What's to stop us from running a school democratically? Nothing!" If we're not saddled with prevailing practice, we would expect the school to be organized as a pure democracy, which means that everybody in the school community participates fully and equally in making the decisions and is listened to equally.

Now, I have to emphasize that I mean it. Just like I meant the other statement about staying out of the way. These are not just words. I remember vividly the lawyer, a Yale graduate, who wrote our corporate bylaws back in 1967. We were describing what it was that we wanted. He was very kind and supportive, and he was a real Yankee, very conservative but open-minded - as we found a lot of people to be in New England about individual liberty and democracy. He started pacing back and forth and saying, "Four-year-olds have the vote!? Four-year-olds are going to vote!? My God! You can't mean that!" I'll never forget that. He just couldn't believe it. But he wrote the bylaws, and four-year-olds get to have the same vote I have on everything.

That's the key. There's no hidden agenda. Children are smarter than adults. I'm saying that seriously, and I mean it in this sense: adults have become so jaded and so used to wearing masks that a lot of times we can fool each other for a long time. A lot of times it takes a long period of exposure for people to realize that a person we thought was really nice turns out to be a real son of a gun. It doesn't take nearly that long for kids. They see right through fraud because they're more direct. They haven't developed as many masks yet. So you can't usually fool them for any length of time. You can't tell them it's a democracy while you have a Board of Trustees sort of tucked away in the back room that "just makes a few decisions" - like the budget - or have a special committee that decides on hiring teachers. The School Meeting runs Sudbury Valley School. It hires and fires. I am up for election every year. There's no tenure. I stand for election every single year, and don't think I don't take it seriously. The School Meeting, together with the Assembly, designs and decides on the budget, and how the money is going to be spent. There's no power that is beyond the reach of these two bodies, each of which contains every student as full voting members.

It's the same with staying out of the way. There's no one who says, "Look, you can do whatever you want all day if only you learn how to read." Or "if only you study the basics" - those wonderful "basics". I always get into arguments about "the basics," especially with academicians. They always come back to me with math. I love it when people discuss math, because I cannot imagine a subject that more people hate than math. It is universally hated, but nevertheless everybody comes back with, "How are they going to make it in life if they don't all know math?" My answer is always, "As far as I know, nobody ever uses math, really, unless they're in a math-related field, like engineering." The truth is, if a kid wants to become an engineer he's going to figure out pretty early on that if he doesn't know math he's not going to be an engineer, and he'll learn math quickly and easily, which is our experience. There's nothing to it when you want to learn it. But I don't even try to teach anybody who isn't invested in learning math. I keep asking people: if they walked into a supermarket and went to the cash register, and had a cashier there with a piece of paper who started putting down a long column of all the prices on the things in their carriage, and then started adding it up the way they were taught in school, would they ever shop in that supermarket again? And would they trust the addition? It's ridiculous! Nobody would do that today! Imagine applying for a job as a teller in a bank and saying, "I'm good. I got 100% in adding long columns of figures." I hear people say, "They won't know how to make change if they don't know arithmetic." We have five-year-olds running their own concessions in the school - stores that they set up with School Meeting permission. They know how to make change! Maybe they can't tell you how, but you can't short-change them.

In the environment I am describing, there can't be a hidden agenda of "just the basics"; it's like being a little bit pregnant. The minute that a child sees that you really do have an agenda for them, however small it is, that you really don't trust them to make their own educational decisions, they understand that you really don't trust them at all. Today it's "just the basics," tomorrow it's "just a little bit of American history so you'll know what's going on in the world," and the next day it's "just a little bit of sex education," and so forth through the standard curriculum.

I want to discuss briefly how the schools got to where they are now, why the traditional paradigm is so different from the new one I'm discussing here. You've got to understand the prevailing system in order to transcend it. That took us a long time to figure out, and yet the explanation has now become fairly accepted in the world of education.

The current type of school came into existence in a very conscious way in the middle of the nineteenth century, first in the United States and then later in Western Europe. Prior to that, the "village model" was the norm, where kids grew up basically absorbing what was going on around them, and at a fairly early age integrated themselves into the society one way or the other. The idea of a mass school system where every child was to be put through a similar kind of experience in a particular way was put together consciously by a group of extremely intelligent educational reformers whose purpose it was to launch the United States into the industrial age. The problem they dealt with was how to create a human infrastructure for a mass industrial society.

Producing industry-based prosperity - clothing, food, housing, transportation, communication - involved making human beings part of the machine. Today, anything that can be reduced to a repetitive formula can be automated. But before the Information Age, that wasn't possible. To produce an outpouring of material benefits you had to create human machines. There's no point in debating whether this was good or bad. It happened - and it's over. A very simple deal with the devil was made by our forebears: we will sacrifice our individuality, our freedom, a big piece of our humanity, for the sake of enjoying the material benefits of the industrial revolution. Seen that way it's an understandable decision, especially against the background of grinding poverty which was the fate of virtually everybody back then.

That meant trading their freedom as adults in and around factories, and it meant trading the freedom of children in order to produce factory hands. If you think of it that way, everything about industrial-age schools makes sense. Their primary task is to break the will of the child. You cannot hope to convert a child who is active and alert into an automated robot unless you break the child. There's no fancy word for it. You've got to break the child's will, and the literature of education doesn't mince words, especially in the nineteenth century. They talk openly about this - about making the child accept the need for discipline, for obeying orders. The schools they created to achieve this were designed accordingly.

Today, we are in the post-industrial age. We don't need that paradigm of education anymore, but do you see how hard it is to rid ourselves of it? It's like carriage-makers when cars came in. It was so hard for them to forget about making carriages. Basically, all the cars manufactured until 1947 were kinds of carriages. Imagine how long it took to break out of that obsolete mold! The first modern car was the 1947 Studebaker. It was said of it that you couldn't tell the front from the back. Indeed, we used to stare at it and wonder which way it was going; it was a whole new concept of transportation.

Many people have caught on that we've got to shift paradigms. An example is U.S. Steel Corporation. That company realized early that making steel would no longer be their focus; so they changed their name to USX, where "X" stood for anything they would choose to do! They no longer cared what they produced! They broke out of the old mold. "We're a big company. We'll do anything! Don't limit us to steel." The educational world hasn't got there yet; it tends to react very slowly to historical change. It took over fifty years to catch on to the industrial revolution, and it's taking an awfully long time to realize that the industrial revolution is over and that industrial-age schools have nothing to do with current needs - namely, an environment in which children are free to develop as they wish and which is run with their full participation.

When we opened Sudbury Valley School, basically there was nothing in the school except the rooms. We did have a playroom for which we bought some toys because we just couldn't get ourselves to believe that you didn't have to have some toys for the kids. Every single toy we bought was either trashed within a few months or converted into something else! Yet the games that go on in the school are the most intricate that you could possibly imagine. Games are creations of the imagination and these kids are learning how to think twenty-four hours a day. Having courses in schools to teach kids how to think is just so much nonsense! They think just fine without the help of any educational gimmicks.

There's no such thing as a child who's doing nothing. The kids in the smoking area may sit weeks on end listening to music. You might think, "Well, they're not doing anything." We don't think they're not doing anything. It's so strange, because with religious leaders people are happy to say, "They went and meditated for forty days." They think, "That's wonderful!" If I walked by and saw someone meditating for forty days, I could easily say, "Why is he wasting his time? He should be doing something." In fact, no one says that about religious leaders, but to kids they do. They don't allow children the same trust, the same assumption, that when they spend their time dreaming and thinking, something important is going on in their heads.

You know what the kids do best? Concentrate. The exact opposite of what the given dogma is. If you've been in education you will know that one of the dogmas of education is that the concentration-span of a child up through highschool on any specific subject is three minutes. That is the source of the three-minute film loop, and it's carefully followed in lesson plans. That's why textbooks are so chopped up. Actually, kids concentrate phenomenally at every age on what they're interested in doing. They forget to eat, they forget to rest, they don't want to go home. We open our doors at 8:30, close at 5, they can come whenever they want and leave whenever they want, but we'll have kids who absolutely kick and buck when you throw them out at 5. It's a regular phenomenon every day. We throw them out because we don't want to sleep there, but ideally the place should be open twenty-four hours a day. They don't let go. In short, they're marvelous workers. Hanna Greenberg has an essay in The Sudbury Valley School Experience called, "What Children Don't Learn at Sudbury Valley." They never learn how to shirk, which is the main thing you learn in traditional school - how to get out of doing work, how to con the people who think you're doing work when you're not. Our kids are proud of their work, whatever it is. Other kids think they're nuts, but the employers love them.

I want to end with the essence of what the school is about: that a child is no different than an adult in the respect that is due to them from the rest of us. And the easiest way to get into this paradigm, the easiest way to break out of all of these other preconceptions, is to keep reminding yourself of that simple fact. Every time you interact with a child, stop yourself for a second - you can train yourself to do this - and ask, "Would I behave this way to an adult?" Would you walk up to an adult and say, "Haven't you been sitting a little too long staring at the roof? Wouldn't you like to read a book that I have for you?" If you would, I would hope you would seek therapy. It's not a healthy thing to do in adult relationships and it's no healthier in adult-to-child relationships. Children don't do it to each other when they're treated with respect either. When people say to us, "Well, children aren't adults. Don't they need . . .?" I have a very simple answer. All you have to remember is what people used to say about women. It's quite revealing. The most common negative characterization applied to women when people were putting them down was, "They're like children." Actually, I agree. So are men. That's the point. If you remember that, it's easy to break out of the paradigm. And if you don't remember that, you're stuck in a male chauvinist, adult chauvinist world that you're going to have to break out of.

We were absolutely convinced that the second the model was shown to work, people would want to do it, both in our community and everywhere else. It turns out that breaking paradigms is really hard, even to people in the know. When you see something you know is right, you still go on doing the wrong thing out of habit. There's an interesting political analogy I think is relevant. In 1945 the United Nations was established with about forty members. Now it has about 170. In the past half century there have been over 100 new sovereign states set up in this world. Every one of these states had to decide on their form of government. Now you would think that at least some would have chosen to emulate the system of government this country has. I'm not saying this because I think ours is the only system, or even necessarily the best system, but it isn't the worst. Yet, no one adopted our form of government. Why? I think it's the same story. It's too big a paradigm shift. Since the early 1990's, however, the whole world sees the new political paradigm, and many shift over to it. I feel similar things are going to happen with education, with grassroots democracy, with the elimination of bureaucracy and government. I think you're going to have dams breaking, but people have to reach a certain point where they are ready to make really deep cultural shifts, and nobody can predict when that will happen. Historians later on look back and say, "Oh, it was inevitable. It had to happen then." But if you lived through it, you know that you didn't have a clue.

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