Tag Archives: Sudbury gifts

Oh, That Smarts!

The classic dichotomy is “book smarts” versus “street smarts.” In the 1980s, Howard Gardner came out with his multiple intelligences theory of eight “modalities”: visual–spatial, verbal–linguistic, logical–mathematical, bodily–kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. More recently, in How Children Succeed Paul Tough “argues that the qualities that matter most have more to do with character: skills like perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control.”

My personal wrangling with what it means to be intelligent dates at least as far back as a conversation I overheard in 1997, in which a Sudbury colleague shared with someone his views on the relative unimportance of college. At the time this really jumped out at me, as I was pursuing a second master’s at the University of Chicago a few years after earning a B.A. at Northwestern—which is to say, this hit very close to home. After all the money, stress, and ego I’d invested in my education, after being frequently told, growing up, that I was really smart, I was not prepared to hear that maybe there were other ways of thriving, of doing well at the game of life.

Over the course of my Sudbury career, however, I’ve come to appreciate that colleague’s insight. While not downplaying my ability and background, I can now frame it in a more realistic perspective. Continue reading


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Agreeing to Disagree

I’ve occasionally remarked that social media is an occupational hazard of nonprofit promotion. This has felt especially true the past couple months, as I’ve begun cultivating an active, daily presence on Twitter. On the plus side, Twitter’s proven a surprisingly effective means of connecting with people outside my social and Sudbury circles. Less surprising has been the difficulty of conducting a robust argument in this forum.

Sam_and_Ralph_clockThe reason for this lies not so much in the obvious fact that Twitter is defined by its limited, 140-character soundbites. Rather, what I’m discovering is that my experience in the Sudbury world has led me to expect more developed and widespread skill in arguing than appears to be the case in society at large.

Another regular observation of mine is that it’s easier to argue politics and religion than education, because disagreeing on the running of the country or universe is nothing compared to disputes on raising children. After 17 years of promoting Sudbury schools, I’m used to people reacting with varying degrees of discomfort at the notion that young people not only can, but should, be trusted to direct their own education, that giving them full measures of freedom and responsibility not only works but leads to the most beautiful sorts of growth.

The aspect of this growth that I want to focus on today is the way in which time in a Sudbury environment develops one’s ability to argue—by which I mean not merely disagreeing, but doing so in a way that respects the other party or parties and focuses on the issues rather than the individual personalities. Continue reading


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“Because it’s there” Learning

Lately, I’ve been studying the periodic table. To make things more interesting, I decided to pore over a 30-square-foot transparent version, mostly from behind.

Actually, I didn’t decide to tackle the periodic table at all, much less a large, backwards version of it. As it happens, this particular chart appears on the shower curtain that came with the apartment I’m renting. Thus I’ve been spending plenty of quality time, up close and personal, with a mirror image of something many people study in school. Why, though, make any effort to memorize this classic chart of chemistry basics? Simple: because it’s there.

It’s not as though I need a distraction from the tedium of showering, and surely I will never need to know any of this information (with the possible exception of the pub trivia in which I regularly indulge). The truth is, I simply love to learn; I’ve never had my innate curiosity quite suppressed by my education or the hassles of adult life. And this brings me to another love of my life, Sudbury schooling.

On more than one occasion at Alpine Valley School, I’ve witnessed students learning binary numbers for no apparent reason other than it randomly came up and they were seized by an intense desire to decipher this curious new (to them) phenomenon. At least one of these times, at least one other student was drawn into the challenge of figuring out how to convert from one number system to another. No one decided they were going to or should learn it, and there’s no apparent need or reason for them to do so. They simply wanted to; it simply happened.

This helps explain one of the key reasons Sudbury schools foster such powerful learning, something I call “rich randomness.” Continue reading

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Happiness: the New Normal

It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.

~ Frederick Douglass

Something struck me at school the other day. It’s odd, actually: I’ve been surrounded by this reality for so many years, it’s easy to forget that, in most of the world, what I take as normal is tragically rare—namely, happy children. Happy, healthy, brimming with life.

As powerful as it is to witness the exuberance of youth firsthand, equally frustrating is the ease with which such happiness is discounted and explained away. So often children’s energy is perceived as a nuisance—at best, a transient moment of idyllic naivete to be tolerated until we, the well-meaning adults, can break them like the wild horses they are and harness them to practical pursuits. In this view, play is seen not as children’s work, but a distraction from the serious business of preparing for life’s unpleasant chores.

Compare this backwards view to that of Frederick Douglass, who knew that the less damage young people suffer growing up, the stronger they will be as they mature (not to mention, the harder it is to undo damage than to avoid it in the first place). What Alfie Kohn calls “getting hit on the head lessons” or BGUTI (the “better get used to it” principle) is a true perversion of good intentions. Preparing children for life’s challenges by inflicting the maximum unpleasantness on them at the earliest ages does not, in fact prepare them for anything positive: in truth, this is a recipe for trauma, for passivity and learned helplessness.

As usual, I find myself shouting (rhetorically speaking), It doesn’t have to be this way. Continue reading

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Drinking From Fire Hydrants

More and more these days, I feel overwhelmed by the jaw-dropping range of things I wish I had time to browse, read, hear, learn, and explore. (Indeed, a reasonable definition of middle age might be the dawning of deep awareness of just how finite our time and energy are.) My open browser tabs proliferate, and I add far more books to my to-read list than I could ever find time to open. So many people to connect with, so much news to follow; so much music to make, so many enjoyable games to play and worthy causes to pursue—and so little time.

Just as in the so-called Age of Discovery—when the full range of our planet’s geography, flora and fauna, and people were still largely unknown to individual cultures—the current Information Age presents us with a potentially overwhelming flood of data. Hence, a primary and essential quality for this new era is the ability to sift through massive amounts of input; to deal with outrageous, constant distractions; to sort out what matters; to prioritize and manage. Yet despite the natural and urgent desire to teach these skills to each other, they can only be mastered through extended practice, through direct encounters.

For this reason, Sudbury schools don’t pre-emptively filter the world for students; we don’t presume to know what young people should learn, how, or when. In fact, we realize that attempting to do so would be futile and counterproductive—who are you, who am I, to assert that there’s some specific set of content everyone needs to know; that, once comprehended, ensures a happy, successful life? The more information proliferates (and it doesn’t show any sign of slowing down, or even leveling off, this explosion of content), the more preposterous this notion becomes. As a culture, we confuse what’s interesting and potentially useful (which is just about everything) with what’s essential, and we try to push as much as we can into young minds that should instead experience life directly, not by means of forceful, if well-intentioned, intervention.

By contrast, at Sudbury schools we merely offer young people ample space and time, plus a supportive community, in which to immerse themselves in life’s vast cornucopia. Beyond the value of the specific information acquired and skills developed, Sudbury students gain the inestimable gift of knowing how to integrate the flood of information and scarcity of time which, together, will shape the rest of their lives.

Do you regularly feel overwhelmed? Are you all too conscious of how little time there is to accomplish all you want and need? Then why not join me in extending to more and more young people the opportunity to practice these critical life skills while they’re still young—to learn what’s truly most important?

fire hydrant


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White-Bread Education

Discovery Center of Springfield is an interactive, hands-on museum committed to inspiring people of all ages with a life-long love of learning…

Don’t get me wrong: I really enjoy checking out whitebreadthe Discovery Center when I’m in Missouri visiting my family. As a museum junkie in general, and an adult who’s trying to fully recover his childlike curiosity, it’s a great place. But something about that quote triggered something in me and drove me to the keyboard just now.

Specifically, it’s the notion that we can inspire a love of learning in someone else—not only can, but have to. The clear implication is that something happens to our innate and powerful curiosity, our drive to learn, and so it has to be jump-started or replaced at some point. And this made me think about bread.

You know what “enriched” bread is all about, don’t you? As I understand it, white bread has to be enriched—that is, injected with nutrients—because, for the sake of a bread that lasts longer and/or meets a certain aesthetic standard, the nutrient-rich elements are removed from it. So to turn the bread back into food, vitamins and minerals have to be added back in.

Well, I don’t think I’m off in sensing an analogy with children’s curiosity here. We only have to inspire and motivate young people in school if their natural curiosity has been removed for the sake of extraneous criteria. These might include getting kids to sit still for long periods of time, or imposing on them our ideas of what they ought to learn, when, and how. What bothers me most is knowing that, after squeezing their natural love of learning out of them, we’ll then accuse the children of not wanting to learn. Talk about blaming the victim!

It doesn’t have to be that way, of course. Sudbury schools, for example, are built upon the practice of preserving and supporting children’s innate drive to learn, their powerful curiosity and will to master their environment. So we don’t have to inspire/enrich children unless something’s already been taken from them—even then, their ability to recover their innate drive to learn is quite remarkable, and requires mostly being left alone with sufficient space and time.

In a word, learning is natural. We should never have to replace with our own weak copies something we’ve evolved over millennia;  Just as with food, so with ourselves: organic learning will always be the healthier way to go.

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Write Road P.S.

Today’s post came to me as in a dream—or rather, insomnia.

Waking up in the middle of the night, I realized I’d left one or two things out of yesterday’s post regarding what I don’t know but need to figure out as I go about reviving my dormant freelancing work. Rather than hastily scribbling notes (I’m not sure why I didn’t), I rehearsed this thought-kernel to myself before resuming my on again, off again sleeping, then and each time I woke until morning, when I opened my browser and typed what was still with me.

(Incidentally, I’m quite pleased to have posted on three consecutive days, and that I haven’t had to schedule or make time, haven’t had to scrounge for topics or push myself overly much. Seems like a good sign, a really good one.)

“What I Don’t Know” could fill volumes (increasingly so, the older I get): in this instance, it includes all the concrete practicalities of building a freelance business. After sixteen years with Sudbury schooling, I’ve developed a deep appreciation for entrepreneurs, for those who create and grow their own businesses. This is no accident, as Sudbury schooling very much embodies a start-up mentality—and not simply because our schools are small businesses. Continue reading

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