A few years ago—when I was first getting this blog going—a student from my first teaching job asked me…
…to write a post (or several) that explain why Sudbury is better than Hickman at its best. I’m not trying to challenge Sudbury, but I’ve been wondering for ages…I’ve always thought of your European History class as (by far) the best class I ever took. And I can picture how the average Sudbury class (or module? phase? session?) would be far better than the average Hickman class (honors, AP, whatever), but what I still don’t understand is how Sudbury allows you to deliver something better than your AP Euro 1995…I think my overall question is that I picture AP Euro as a complete success and example of how traditional education should be done, and so it’s hard for me to picture that an unstructured (differently structured? maybe that’s my question) program can be so much better.
It’s a good thing this assignment didn’t come with a deadline! But seriously, her question has been stuck in my head all this time, as I too have long been fascinated by the contrast between my own schooling and first career, on the one hand, and my subsequent immersion in Sudbury schooling. Now, finally, I’ve found the time and summoned the nerve to dig into another comparison of these disparate strands of my professional life.
My first thought is that there’s actually nothing in Sudbury schooling that would prevent me from teaching an AP European History class like that one from the mid-90s—nothing, that is, except for the Sudbury requirement that classes be completely student-initiated. Yet in 19 years with Sudbury, I’ve almost never taught a history class. I’ve taught a little history, sure, some Spanish and piano, and a lot of English (mostly creative writing) and math—but never anything resembling AP Euro. Why might that be?
One answer is that, as Sudbury students learn by living their lives—making choices, managing their time, finding their place in the community—they typically have less interest or see less value in learning in a conventional classroom setting. They encounter life much more directly than my high school students were allowed, and so they tend not to need adults to structure, mediate, and deliver content and skills to them, nor to evaluate their progress (not that my high school students had any choice in such matters, of course).
So it’s difficult to compare what to me seem like educational apples and oranges. But at the heart of my former student’s request, I think, lies a simple, yet significant, question: What is it about Sudbury that makes it better than the education she enjoyed as an AP student in an academically strong school?
Including her glowing appraisal of my class makes me rather self-conscious, but I think it’s important not to dismiss the value of AP Euro within the scope of what it was meant to do. I do believe that, as far as I could manage, my AP courses offered a reasonable approximation of the intense liberal arts programs most of its students were in the very process of applying to. The reading load and level, the writing assignments, and the tests were as close as possible to what I recalled of my own studies at Northwestern. I believe I would have felt far more prepared for college if I’d had these sorts of classes when I was in high school.
The seniors I taught in AP Euro were among the most academically capable at that school, which regularly turned out National Merit scholars in the double digits. But what a narrow definition of ability and success! And the opportunity costs for both them and those deemed less capable were part of what drove me to leave that school and system.
Even for the creme de la academic creme, I question the balance of cost and benefit. Elsewhere I’ve written of the effect on me of growing up as an honors student—how it distorted my perception, how it got me addicted to external direction and praise. And here I was, Mr. Smith the AP Euro teacher, doing the same thing to the next generation of the officially gifted and talented. I now had a front-row seat for the horrow show of students simultaneously carrying a full load of honors courses and resume-enhancing extracurriculars while also applying to prestigious colleges.
So how is the average Sudbury experience better than my best AP classes? Compared to their AP counterparts, some Sudbury students may be less able and, more significantly, less willing to perform standard academic tasks. However, Sudbury students are, in my experience, every bit as intellectually alive, if not more curious and capable for not having internalized the agendas of others. They appear even better off in such areas as self-awareness, initiative, time management, resourcefulness, and adaptability. On the whole, they’re amazingly mature and responsible, better positioned to identify and pursue their goals than young people compelled to follow the narrow confines of conventional education.
“Advanced placement,” indeed.