Lessons From Sudbury Valley

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In 1968, Daniel Greenberg, a former history and physics professor, founded one of the best-kept secrets in education, the Sudbury Valley School. Greenberg was fed up with the existing structure of the education system and was interested in reinventing school, basing it on the principles of personal freedom, exploration and discovery, not indoctrination and coercion. Located in eastern Massachusetts, the school’s model has spread around the world to various countries, including Japan, Belgium and Germany. Today, there are about fifty Sudbury Valley schools.

To understand the Sudbury Valley model, you have to begin with this idea: Adults do not control children’s education. Children educate themselves.

For Greenberg, knowledge is fluid, as the truths of today are the myths of tomorrow. Knowledge should be judged based on its usefulness to the individual, and not externally prescribed by mandates from the curriculum. He believed that students’ education should consist of following their own passions and pursuing their interests. The fixed nature of the curriculum denies this truth, failing to give students a real voice in directing their own education. Through starting Sudbury Valley, Greenberg was determined to find a better way, giving students the necessary freedom to take control of their own learning.

Most have not heard of Sudbury Valley and it is not usually taught in teachers’ college by professors who ignore it because it fails to be easily assimilated in conventional educational thought. It runs strongly against the grain of our culture’s thinking about education. Sudbury Valley is unlike any other school, it is a true democracy. Unlike the progressive education models of Montessori and Waldorf, it completely breaks away from traditional schooling. The school’s educational philosophy is that each person is responsible for his or her own education.

Greenberg felt that a democratic school is one where there is “a free market place of ideas, a free enterprise system of talents.” It is this true equality that leads many to think that the Sudbury Valley model is the ideal school of the future, with Peter Gray commenting that, “In fifty years, I predict, educators will see today’s approach to schooling as a barbaric relic of the past.”

To understand what it has to offer for the future of education, it’s important to look at several key aspects of Sudbury Valley:

1. School Meetings –  The main administrative body of the school, including all students and staff members. Like a true democracy, everyone gets one vote, regardless of their age and they are responsible for running the school. Meetings are held once a week. All rules of behaviour, budgetary expenditures and concerns are discussed and participation is not mandatory.

2. Judicial Committee – This group enforces all school rules and includes at least one staff member, two elected student clerks who chair the meetings and five other students who represent the various age groups. Similar to the judicial system, when a rule is violate the committee hears the testimony, gathers evidence and makes a decision. Cases range from noise disturbances to more serious issues like theft or vandalism.

3. Staff’s Role – In general, the staff are expected to be the adult members of the school community with various duties including: ensuring safety of students, performing chores, protecting the school and serving as resources for students who want to take advantage of their skills and knowledge. Staff don’t call themselves “teachers” as they recognize that students learn more from each other and their own play and exploration. There is no authoritative expert at Sudbury Valley.

4. Total Freedom – Students are free all day to pursue their interests and are not assigned to specific spaces or groups. Books, computers and manipulatives are available to aid education in a wide variety of skills and subjects. Students are free to wander around the campus with classes in specific subjects being offered when the students request them. Classes have no formal status and last only s long as the interest lasts. The school is free of curriculum, tests and evaluations (to receive a graduation diploma, students must prepare and defend a thesis explaining why they are ready to graduate).

5. Mixed Ages – There are no “second graders”, “middle schoolers” or “high school students”, as students learn and play across large age ranges. This allows the younger ones to learn skills and sophisticated ways of thinking from the older ones. In turn, the older students learn how to lead and mentor. The presence of young children has a pacifying effect on the older ones.

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