In the world of alternative education, it can be difficult to distinguish between different models. As a Sudbury advocate, for example, I’m often asked how we compare with Montessori or Waldorf, or any number of schools calling themselves free, open, or democratic.
The question of what makes Sudbury schooling unique is a tricky one: first, because I know relatively little about other models, and so I can do little more than speculate; but also because I don’t want to imply that Sudbury is the One True Form, the obviously best approach for everyone, everywhere, and what’s wrong with you that you can’t see that, etc.
So I want to describe this educational model I know and love, giving reasons for my affinity, but without being judgmental. We all have to decide what works best for us: I just want those who might choose Sudbury to know we exist, and why we do what we do.
I often describe Sudbury schooling as self-directed learning in a mixed-age, democratic community. More simply, we give students a place of their own. In this place they learn, from everyday life in a community of equals, how to make their way in the world.
What does that mean? For one thing, schools like Clearview Sudbury here in Austin are as agenda-free as any I’ve seen in my twenty years as an educator. We not only avoid a conventional program of compulsory academics, rigid schedules, and external control: we also refrain from nudging students in any particular direction, however progressive or worthy.
As long as there have been schools, people have regarded them as tools for recruiting young people to their vision of saving the world. Sudbury, on the other hand, follows an approach more consistent with one of my all-time favorite quotes, from Howard Thurman:
Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
Immersed in a scaled-down version of the larger world, Sudbury students learn what brings them to life, as well as what enables them to thrive. To the extent that our schools have an agenda, it’s responsibly pursuing one’s individual passions while simultaneously respecting others’ right to do the same. In the end, this leads to far better results than any externally imposed curriculum.
Directing the course of their days, helping manage the school’s business, Sudbury students learn to balance freedom with respect and responsibility. They learn how to chart their own course and when to ask for help, how to identify and achieve their goals. They learn to coexist with people of various beliefs, personalities, and preferences. They learn to view individualism and community as compatible.
It could be argued (and indeed is, by many) that one doesn’t need a school to learn such things—or that school even interferes with this sort of learning, as it places an extra layer between the student and the outside world. While I respect this view, in my years of experience there is one thing a Sudbury school offers students that they’re unlikely to find elsewhere: a place of their own to practice authentic, responsible, effective living.
How common is it for children and young adults to learn in a setting where they’re treated as an equal—where they are, in a very real sense, peers with people of all ages? How free are they in other contexts to experiment with different ways of being in the world, with the respectful support of adults who aren’t family and aren’t grading them?
I realize this is all quite general, and doesn’t begin to depict how Sudbury works on the ground, what it looks and feels like. But a TED Talk I watched a few months ago reminded me that the Whys are, in a way, more important than the Hows and the Whats.
Why, then, have I devoted so much of my life to this particular approach to education? Initially I was drawn to it on such a visceral level, I’m not sure I could have articulated the reasons. But over the past fifteen-plus years, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on this question, to add substance to my intuitive sense that this model works, and works wonders.
Mostly, I’ve had the chance to see how young people respond when given freedom and expected to act responsibly. This is the most empowering type of school I have ever encountered. After even a short time, Sudbury students exhibit superlative self-awareness and interpersonal aptitude. They are playful and mature, articulate and thoughtful, enthusiastic and determined.
Sudbury students and alumni are—and I say this without a trace of irony—my role models, even as my job as staff is to model effective adulthood. Once I was asked by the mother of a graduate what I thought she’d gotten from going to Alpine Valley School. After thinking for a moment, I replied, “a head start on her adult life.” She knew more about herself and how life works at 18, more about how to get things done and pursue her dreams, than many do until well into their 20s or 30s (if not later). She had a lot less to unlearn and overcome than people whose education was directed by others.
All the qualities that foster success in the 21st century—things like initiative, persistence, adaptability, resourcefulness, and responsibility—are nurtured to an amazing degree at Sudbury schools, where students have a place of their own, to come into their own.