I’ve known about unschooling for a long time, and I’ve long been struck by its resonance with the Sudbury model of education. For the past fourteen years I’ve worked for these “unschooling schools,” so when Idzie called for guest posts on the subject, I was excited at the chance to share my views on our respective approaches to self-directed learning.
The Sudbury model was first unveiled in 1968 by Sudbury Valley School in west suburban Boston. Since then it’s spread to a few dozen schools (about two-thirds of them in North America), all based on two simple premises: first, that children are innately, powerfully curious, driven to understand and master the world around them; and second, that the best education recognizes and respects this basic truth, allowing all young people the freedom and responsibility to discover their individual paths.
While a number of schools talk this talk, I find Sudbury unusually thorough in also walking the walk. As with unschoolers, Sudbury students freely chart the course of their days, months, and years. There’s no hierarchy of pursuits (e.g., academic vs. hands-on), and all learning happens organically—self-initiated, self-directed, and self-evaluated. Classes and other structured learning situations (e.g., internships) do have a place at Sudbury schools, but only as students seek them out. The bulk of learning at Sudbury schools comes in the course of daily life, and much of it takes the form of play and conversation.
In fact, the philosophical similarities between unschooling and Sudbury schooling are so extensive, I’ve often borrowed from the thoughts of unschoolers to help assure families that trusting their children’s drive is not only valid, but leads to the most effective learning. And that in turn reminds me that unschoolers and Sudbury families have this in common as well: many of our relatives, friends, and acquaintances think we’re crazy and/or putting our children at risk. So sharing our successes—concrete reminders, large and small, of how (and how well) freedom works—seems like one big favor we could do for each other.
Beyond their faith in young people’s nature and competence, what really makes Sudbury schools unique is that their structure is determined by the people directly involved. That is, everything from the rules to the budget to hiring is shaped by a democratic process in which a student’s vote is equal to that of any adult. This structure is flexible—within each Sudbury school, and among the various schools—and changes can be made at any time.
So how do Sudbury schools act like schools? Well, first of all, we do have these physical facilities where students gather on a daily basis. Attendance requirements are partly a legal matter, partly a means of ensuring continuity in the school community. Yet as I’ve suggested, there is significant flexibility here: at my school, for instance, students can arrive anywhere between 8 and 11am, and are required to stay only five hours (though our school is open nine hours, and many students stay past the minimum). With an Open Campus policy, most Sudbury students can come and go freely throughout the day, so long as they fulfill their commitments at school.
And these commitments are fairly modest. A Judicial Committee meets regularly to handle complaints about people’s behavior, and people are expected to serve turns on the committee and testify as needed. Also, Sudbury students are typically expected to do periodic cleaning chores. School governance is overseen by a weekly meeting that reviews the work of the Judicial Committee and considers proposals regarding rules and activities that could affect the normal flow of the day (e.g., field trips, parties, visitors). Then there are clerks and committees to whom much of the school’s business is delegated, along with certification (aimed at ensuring safe, responsible use of school equipment) and age-mixing (Sudbury schools are open to ages roughly corresponding to grades K-12).
In this environment, students not only learn to take responsibility for their own education: they also see what it takes to maintain an institution—though much of that organizational learning is optional. Students can attend School Meeting, serve on committees, and become clerks…or not. They’re expected to abide by the decisions of these bodies and officials, but their involvement is not required. Again, attendance, Judicial Committee, and chores are the only mandatory activities—and even here, students can work to change the relevant policies and requirements. Beyond these areas, students are free to do their own thing, so long as they respect everyone else’s right to do likewise.
In addition to all the freedom and flexibility, Sudbury schools also provide an ongoing, mixed-age community in which young people share responsibility for maintaining a culture of respect. Having such a space outside the family sphere gives our students the benefits of a diverse and vibrant “home away from home,” stretching them to try new things, new ways of thinking and being. In this dynamic, Sudbury students develop superlative interpersonal skills. There are constant opportunities to assess and regulate one’s behavior, and to work with people with whom one doesn’t already have a familial bond. Shy kids learn to speak up for themselves; overly assertive kids learn when and how to hold back. All eventually come into their own in the most thrilling ways imaginable.
Indeed, Sudbury schools foster a greater degree of autonomy and personal strength than I’ve seen anywhere else. These are indispensable qualities, since we all know that learning is not simply about pursuing our passions, but also figuring out how to realize those passions in contexts where people are not predisposed to assist us. Not all learning is sought: some is presented to us in the form of interruptions or obstacles—the people we don’t like or don’t get along with, but with whom we must co-exist; the hoops we must jump through to get what we want; things we’d rather put off indefinitely, but which must be done or learned before we can get where we’re going.
Bottom line, the Sudbury model is easily the most empowering form of education I’ve experienced in two decades as an educator: our students exhibit a maturity far beyond their years, while retaining the best child-like qualities. Articulate and self-possessed, they exemplify confidence and playfulness. Full of enthusiasm and free from fear, they are remarkably adept at knowing and becoming who they are, identifying and achieving their goals.
It is a good, good thing to celebrate the commonality and the diversity of our beliefs and practices. Unschoolers and Sudbury families alike face a status quo that seeks to invalidate us and make it unnecessarily difficult for us to follow our hearts. Getting to know each other’s approach better, sharing our ideas and success stories, and working to build acceptance for what we do can only help as we lay the groundwork for a future in which all children are truly free.