Profile: Sudbury Valley School

Wednesday, August, 1, 12 § 1 Comment

The well-known “democratic” or “free” school in Massachusetts, where kids choose their own curriculum – or none at all.

Place: Framingham, MA. Pop 67,000. Relatively diverse community in terms of ethnicity and class. 20 minutes to Boston.

History: Founded in 1968

The Skinny: 100 children aged 4 to 18 and a dozen adults spend their days doing whatever they like on this idyllic country lane setting. No classes. No curriculum. No lunchtime. But plenty of learning.

What Matters: Kids learn best on their own. Democracy is taught by practicing it.

More info:

When I was in college I heard of an English experiment called Summerhill: the school where you didn’t have to go to school. Premised on the idea that adults have no right to impose authority on children, and that democracy is learned by living it, children decide when and if they go to class, and have equal voting power in all school meeting about rules and policies.

Nearly 100 years after its founding, Summerhill is still operational, and there are dozens of similarly-modeled “free” or “democratic” schools around the world today. Here in the US, many of them emerged from the pedagogical experiments of the 1960’s, including the now well-established Sudbury Valley School, in Framingham, Massachussetts.

I visited Sudbury Valley this April, during its annual Open House. I prepped by reading a book by one of its founders, Free at Last. The book presents compelling wonderful anecdotes about how much children learn when we adults just get out of their way. In one chapter a group of students beg a “teacher” to teach them math, and then master six years of curricula in a matter of months. In another, a boy named Dan does nothing but fish the school’s pond, for five years, until he suddenly applies his patience, determination and love of learning to computers, and goes on to a successful career.

I wasn’t able to witness stories like these first-hand: after too many insolent visitors, I gather, the school has closed its campus except during Open House. (And does not allow picture-taking.) But I did get an informative one-hour tour around the school, which sits on a rolling swatch of green grass, surrounded by forested state park. The main building, converted from a country home, feels like the dwelling of a retired college professor with a very large family. After the coatroom and kitchen, the building becomes a two-story labyrinth of reading rooms, all wall to wall with books, save the small computer room upstairs. (The whole campus is wireless, and according to my guide, the laptop-toting students and faculty clock more internet usage than any other school in the area.)

The only real student I met was an extremely articulate 17 year old who was manning the big barn that sits across the lawn from the main building. The student took a break from reading Don Quixote, which he’d picked up on his own, and described how he’d come to Sudbury Valley because he was feeling bored and understimulated in the public school he’d been attending. (He said he usually came in around 11:00 AM, which was the latest he could arrive to be physically present on the campus for the 5 hour minimum foisted on the school by the state of Massachusetts.)

He led us into a side room of the barn, where there were a couple of television consoles for the students who played video games all day. Beside this there was a sweet little recording studio, where this student dedicates much of his time when he’s not reading.

When I asked about his relationship to the adults on campus he shrugged. He said there were a couple he liked talking to, now and then, but he didn’t really look to them to figure out what he wanted to learn.

This do-it-yourself sentiment, perhaps the heart of democratic schooling, was echoed by one of the faculty members back in the main building, when I asked him if he ever “taught” anything.

He laughed. “The kids come to me and say they want to learn such and such. Usually they don’t want to learn it at all—it’s their parents pushing them to learn something! So I tell them—Go find a book!”

It was a fascinating response. And unsettling.

I found myself thinking back to George S. Counts’ 1932 book, Dare the School Build a New Social Order? This faculty member, who seemed a fair portrait of what the student in the barn would become, was very clever, well-read, and could clearly argue the shoes off a horse.

But he didn’t strike me as wise. He didn’t strike me as particularly compassionate, or passionate, or as someone who was going to inspire a child to someday create something beautiful and just for the world. He reminded me of the “college professor” that Counts says our schools wrongly try to create, that aggravating guy “who sees all sides of every question and never commits himself to any… who before the approach of middle age sees his powers of action atrophy and his social sympathies decay.”

It’s an unfair critique to levy on someone after only a short conversation, but so many of the teachers I’ve met from other models of schooling—even the affluent Waldorf schools—convey a powerful sense of purpose, like they’ve entered education because they want to do something beyond creating a rich place for children to learn.

Hence Counts’ question: Dare teachers and school formers have the nerve, perhaps even the audacity, to enter into influential relationships with their students? To tell them, “This is what you must learn?”

Counts thought so. “If schools are to be effective,” he writes, “they must become centers for the building, and not merely for the contemplation, of our civilization…. We should…. give to our children a vision of the possibilities which lie ahead, and endeavor to enlist their loyalties and enthusiasms in the realization of the vision.”

It smacks of indoctrination. But as Count points out, our children are going to be indoctrinated. Part of growing up is developing theories and beliefs about how the world should work. Better it come at the hand of teachers, who have at their disposal “the knowledge and wisdom of the ages,” then at the hands of CNN or Fox.

I’m not sure if I entirely agree with Counts, but I do know I left Sudbury Valley School feeling uninspired.  The magic of education, I believe, lies in the relationship between the teacher and the student, the meeting of possibility and imagination, of what has been and what’s to come. I don’t know who I would be today if my favorite teachers and professors had told me to “go find a book,” instead of entrancing me with their brilliant, and highly subjective, lessons.

Perhaps I’d be more independent-minded and slower to jump to conclusions. But maybe I wouldn’t bother to draw conclusions at all.

Seth Biderman | Based on visit during Open House April 28th


§ One Response to Profile: Sudbury Valley School

  • Anne Salzmann says:

    Reminds me of a student here in Santa Fe, NM, who wanted to come to the small charter school at which I worked, Monte del Sol, but had no credits to come in as a 10th grader. I asked him what he had been doing at a “democratic” model school in Santa Fe. He said “nothing, just sitting around”. He was uninspired and complacent and I told him I was not impressed.
    I, of course, agree that the relationship is the basis for education and perhaps someone at the “democratic” school should have been talking to that boy and others to see what areas they might explore in the way of their natural curiosity.

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