I grew up in a family of educators.
My earliest memories include walking with my dad after school hours in the silent, old hallways of the high school he worked at, playing with the variety of highlighters and paper he gave me to bide my time while he did some work on the weekends.
He was a social studies teacher when I was very small, but most of my memories are of his work as a vice principal in the Seattle School District.
My mother was a stay-at-home mom, putting her high school teaching career on hold when she became a mother. Later, when we were 10 and 11, Mom returned to school to get her early childhood education certification, and worked for two decades in a small, alternative, co-operative school in the University District of Seattle.
Together, when my sister and I were young, they worked with their good friends to develop and get funding for an alternative elementary school program in the Seattle Public Schools. If you’re familiar with the alternative programs in Seattle, you’d know it as AE-2, which moved from it’s original location in 1989, but is still thriving. My parents were convinced there was a different way to educate children, or rather, a different way for children to learn. Believing that life and experience in the world offers everything a child needs to be successful.
AE #2 focuses on interactive learning and multicultural education. In its first year at Decatur, the K–5 pupils took nearly 200 field trips, exemplifying AE #2s view that “the world is our classroom.” Parents and community members volunteer thousands of hours each year to help the students learn by doing.
As a family I remember many conversations around the dinner table about education, education reform, the frustrations and limitations of traditional schooling and brainstorming ideas for challenging them. It followed that after making my way through a traditional high school, I chose to go to an alternatively structured college, and eventually an alternatively structured graduate program. I come from a long line of pioneers of both adventure and thought, and I relish finding new ideas about how humans work together, learn, and heal, and integrating the knowledge, adapting it and putting it into practice.
Somewhere in my late 20’s I learned about the Sudbury Valley Schools. This is a school founded in 1968 by Daniel Greenburg, a professor who became disillusioned with the way his college students were engaging in their own learning. Forty-eight years later there are a few dozen of these “democratic schools” or “Sudbury Valley Schools” popping up all over the US. One in Seattle is now 20 years old (give or take) and I considered it for my own daughter, but a divorce and a move out of the area prevented it.
This model of education is not like most alternative schools. Programs like Waldorf and Montessori are schools that take standard education and adapt it to better suit children and how they learn, and for some families this is wonderful. Many talented and passionate teachers in traditional standard schools teach in ways that foster enthusiasm, and respect and excitement in their individual classrooms, and some schools are successful in accomplishing those foundational themes school-wide.
But the Sudbury Valley model puts all that on it’s head.
Whereas most schools – traditional and alternative – have as the premise “We are teaching the children” and they monitor, evaluate, and have set standards for the students to meet, the Sudbury Valley School and others modeled after it, do not.
The premise of SVS is children educate themselves.
We are born with the desire and drive to learn. We learn to walk, talk, respond to social cues and learn a vast amount of information in our early years without being formally taught. Children learn through observation, experience and play. In their playing, they take on tasks bigger than themselves, they work out challenges and problems, they assess risk, learn their limits and when to challenge those limits. With enthusiasm and safety of play, they seek and find the new and novel, responding to what they see, hear and experience in their world.
Why do we believe this stops at age 5? What an arbitrary number! Why do we think a child can’t be trusted to learn to read when they are ready and interested to do so?
Why do we believe that children won’t learn the necessary skills to be successful if we don’t force them to learn it when we think it’s the right time to do so?
In fact, we can see now – largely due to the success of the Sudbury Valley School – that if we trust our children, and provide them with resources and support, children WILL, in fact, educate themselves by self-teaching or by seeking out someone to teach them.
This is what the Sudbury Valley School provides.
In operation for 48 years, it has produced hundreds of graduates who have gone on to be successful in higher learning, including prestigious colleges and universities, business, the arts, and trades. The school is run by the students and staff in a democratic way: One person, one vote. Which means the students outnumber the staff by 20 to 1. The students have a vote in hiring and firing practices, school rules (which provide the structure by which a safe, respectful environment can be fostered), and they make up the Judicial Committee who hears the cases when someone is brought up on charges of breaking a rule, and if that student or staff is found guilty, the JC doles out the consequences. Because the rules and the enforcement of the rules are democratically voted on by all, they are respected.
Meanwhile, students may be found playing outside, inside on computers, reading, playing games, having discussions, cooking or baking, doing art or science projects, engaging in formal lessons for academics, writing poetry, or plays…it is limitless. The staff, (not teachers), are there to supervise, be available to help if asked, and offer resources if asked.
It’s funny, but when you give the children the responsibility to become the adult they want to be, they will do it.
In my practice, so often I get young clients having behavioral or academic problems in school and I think, “The problem isn’t the kid…it’s the environment and the rules and expectations, lack of freedom and trust placed on the child that is the problem.”
It isn’t unlike trusting them to play unsupervised – without a parent or other adult supervising, school aged children tend to be more careful and cautious.
Without being forced or coerced into learning what they are told, to a level that is approved of by educators, meeting standards that are arbitrarily determined based on our history of education (and that is a fascinating read, I highly recommend reading Peter Gray‘s book Free To Learn, but be warned, he uses strong language to describe traditional schools which may be difficult to absorb without hackles raising if you have been a lover and supporter of the fabulous teachers and schools that do exist), children seem to find their way.
We just need to trust them to do it.