Freedom in Schooling

20140113-145451.jpgI want to share something with you guys that’s become a wee bit of an obsession for me: it’s called the Sudbury Model of schooling. For me it all started with this book, Free to Learn by Peter Gray. I picked it up on a whim while browsing at the library – from the cover it looked like it was about encouraging kids to play. Sounded good. Turned out to be… well, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say life changing.

If you had asked me about “unschooling” before I read this book, I would have said something like – those people are craaaaazy. They’re doing their children a disservice. That’s not a real education! There aren’t a lot of books that have prompted me to do a complete 180 in what I think about a certain topic, but this one did. So if you think unschooling is crazy, hear me out. Or better yet, read this book! Or, if you don’t want to read an entire book, you can read Peter Gray’s articles about education in Psychology Today.

Gray is a psychologist and professor specializing in evolutionary and developmental psychology. The gist of his argument has three main points:

1. Children do a tremendous amount of learning in the first 4-5 years of life with little to no direct instruction from adults. If you have kids you know that they learn to roll, sit, crawl, talk, run, climb, and so on – all by themselves. Before they even get to school you’ll often see preschool aged kids showing interest in numbers and letters. This thirst for knowledge is built into the human child – they do not need to be told to learn things. They do it naturally because they have a drive to learn new things. It does not magically disappear when they turn 5 or 6, but that drive may be dimmed by the demands of traditional schooling.

2. For thousands of years, children (primarily in hunter gatherer societies) learned everything they needed to know in life by playing with other children and by observing and participating in adult life – not by direct instruction from adults. Modern schooling is a pretty new invention in the course of human history, and its history is tied to religious instruction and feudal agricultural societies – cultures where it was important to ensure that children became obedient, conformist, and indoctrinated with certain religious teachings, not exactly the goals we want for 21st century children.

3. The results of Sudbury schools (also known as democratic schools and free schools) speak for themselves. Graduates of these (typically K-12) schools go on to college at a rate of about 80%, have almost all positive things to say about their educational experiences, and are successful in a variety of careers as adults.

So what happens at a Sudbury school? Basically, it’s a school where children are completely in charge of their own educations. There are no classes, no curriculum, no tests, no evaluations, no grades. The kids are allowed to mingle in mixed age groups (this is actually an important element of their schooling) and choose what to do with their time. The school has resources similar to a traditional school so that kids can choose to use computers, libraries, art supplies, and so on. There is a staff of adults available if the kids want help or guidance in anything they are doing. The rules are created and voted upon democratically by the student body, and so is the hiring and retention of the staff.

My husband Mike was the kind of student who was smart but just NOT interested in almost anything school was teaching. He got by, but that was it. He can remember times where he wanted to do a creative project instead of writing a paper, but was denied the opportunity to learn in his own way. By the time he got out of high school he had himself pegged as a “bad student” and did not pursue higher education. When he read about Sudbury he knew that’s an environment where he would have thrived and been excited to learn.

I was the kind of student who liked going to school and did well on tests. I could easily get A’s without trying very hard, so that’s what I did. I was always more comfortable doing rote busy work than being asked to collaborate or come up with my own projects. School for me was about getting A’s on tests, not really about being excited to learn new material, though I did love to read and write. When I graduated high school I had myself pegged as a “good student,” but I went on to art school where I floundered when I was being asked to be more creative and self-motivated, with no multiple-choice tests to ace. I then went on to Marlboro College (ironically it’s kind of the college version of Sudbury!) where I still could not really find my footing with all that crazy educational freedom. I did what I had to do to graduate with good grades but that was it. When I read about Sudbury I felt like it would have allowed me to build more confidence in my creativity and natural ambition in that environment. Being a fairly pliable and timid child, I accepted the idea that education was about memorizing and test taking rather than learning.

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