A Paradigm Shift For Parents of a Child in a Sudbury School

Alan White

We grow up making assumptions, which are derived from our culture. We build on these assumptions to form our view on how the world works. Many are self-correcting because of new information. But some of these assumptions are so obviously true, so much a part of our culture, of what we are, that it takes a great effort on our part to question them carefully. It is one of the major reasons we follow in the religion of our parents, why we are patriots of the country of our birth, why we are conservative or liberal in our political views.

What would be the consequences of a mistake made in tagging newborns in an obstetrics ward in a hospital? Assume that the babies were given to the wrong parents and that hospital was in Jerusalem which has both Palestinians and Jews as clients. What if that hospital were in Halifax, NS, and a conservative Protestant family went home with a baby whose natural parents were liberal Catholics? What assumptions would the children make, growing up in the "wrong" family?

What assumptions are the vast majority of people in my country or yours making about education? Let me list a few that I grew up with.

The more classes I took the better educated I would be. Taking classes was how one learned.

My parents and teachers knew what was best for me.

The younger you were when you began any activity the more proficient you would be.

Tests measure the degree of mastery you have acquired in any subject.

Play is your reward when work is done; to play instead of work was being frivolous and irresponsible.

Talking in class, unless answering a teacher's question, interfered with your ability to learn and the teacher's ability to teach.

There are prerequisite courses that you must take if you are going to be able to do college level work.

The agenda that experts choose for children is for the child's and society's good.

The paradigm shift I made was the result of abandoning every one of the assumptions that I have listed above. It was very difficult and it took me years of agonizing soul searching. This was true partly because making a paradigm shift is always very difficult and partly because I had a successful career in public school education, which was based upon the assumptions listed above.

It was my Sudbury Valley School experience that slowly but surely caused me to abandon every one of the assumptions.

If you are to be a supportive parent to your child enrolled in a school practicing the Sudbury model you too will have to reexamine your assumptions to find if they conflict with the Sudbury model. As a parent you are the most influential person in your child's life. If you are unable to make the paradigm shift that is required, you will constantly be undermining your child's attempt to use the freedom afforded them in a Sudbury school as they try to figure out what is needed to become an effective adult in the 21st century.

We are undergoing a major transformation from an industrial society to a society based on information. As parents you are in the middle of that transition with one foot in the past and one in the present. Your child has one foot in the present and one in the future. When they reach my age, three quarters of the 21st century will be over. The experts who are currently directing the agenda for children in traditional education will be ancient history. The model of education that they are promoting is a model designed for the industrial society and therefore totally obsolete.

On the one hand making a paradigm shift is very difficult, but there is an extensive literature that has addressed the questions that every responsible parent will need to ask if they are considering sending a child to a Sudbury school. It will bolster their confidence as they struggle with the anxiety of their decision in going against the perceived wisdom of the majority. The literature addresses educational issues in the context of our history and our economic and social condition. It is a fascinating journey and a useful one if you are to give your children the support they will need to take seriously the idea that they are in charge of their life and responsible for their own education. A Sudbury school is most effective if every child has the support and understanding of their parents.

It took me the better part of ten years to become convinced that the Sudbury model was appropriate for this time in our socioeconomic development. I am a generation older than most of you and I did not yet have the advantage of the thirty-four years of experience that is embodied in the Sudbury Valley School model.

What was it about the Sudbury experience that caused me to abandon the assumptions that I listed above? I first heard about the model in 1966 when the school was in its planning stage. At that time I was an Elementary School Principal and had been pioneering in many of the innovations that were attempting to improve education. It was an exciting time and there were many bright, articulate, university professors who were developing programs in math, science, and social science, and devising organizational strategies like programmed instruction, team teaching and team learning. By 1967, I was becoming increasingly aware that these programs worked reasonably well for about 1/4 of the school population but were very disruptive and ineffective for the majority of students. Moreover, even the successful students had to be coerced or bribed to learn what the experts had chosen for them. It went against my understanding of the ideals of a democracy. Freedom and coercion are contradictions and in a free society they have to be examined and reexamined whenever they co-exist.

The Sudbury model was based upon a view of human nature that assumed children want to become effective and responsible adults. This view also assumed that evolutionary processes had prepared children to be efficient problem solvers. Most observers of children in their preschool years saw that young children solve some of life's most difficult challenges. Most educators that I knew also recognized that self-motivation is by far the most effective ingredient in learning. The experiment of the Sudbury model created a laboratory to test the validity of these propositions. If reading, writing, and arithmetic were essential skills children would recognize this fact and sooner or later would learn these skills. Children steeped in our culture would, on their own, become aware of those disciplines we value as a society and would select out those aspects that they personally wanted to pursue.

When the experiment was first proposed most people felt it was a utopian pipe dream. Fortunately, a few brave souls had the courage and the foresight to pursue this dream that was so consistent with the ideals of our English heritage. For my part, I hoped it would work but I was prepared for failure. Yet, even if it was a failure, I felt we would learn a great deal that was valuable.

The assumptions being tested had their roots deep in the soil of our cultural heritage. Aristotle had observed, over two thousand years ago, that humans were naturally curious and driven to explore. Long before there were schools, in the far reaches of our prehistory, our species survived and flourished because children were driven to become effective adults. Before the Industrial Revolution and the schools it spawned, children learned through apprenticeship programs. Children watched, listened, asked questions, used play to simulate adult roles, and slowly became aware of what they needed to do to survive and become contributing members of their family and society.

Why were the founders of Sudbury Valley so convinced that the prevailing educational model was unsuited to the reality of our country in the mid-sixties? Not only was it unsuited but it was doing extensive harm because we were no longer preparing for an industrial society. In all the Western democracies computers and communication were transforming society. We were entering the Information Age. Schools that served us well when we were an industrial society were counterproductive for the demands of the Information Age. The founders of Sudbury Valley were not alone in their awareness of the changes that were taking place but they were alone in recognizing that traditional schools could not be modified to meet the challenge. Those schools had to be completely scrapped and a new model for education developed.

When I said we were not alone let me quote from a few well-respected writers who were voicing their concerns. Albert North Whitehead, a professor of philosophy at Harvard in the 1920's and a world renowned mathematician, in his book The Aims of Education, had this to say:

What I am now insisting is that the principle of progress is from within: the discovery is made by ourselves, the discipline is self-discipline, and the fruition is the outcome of our own initiative. Another quote from Whitehead from the same book: The basis of the growth of modern invention is science, and science is almost wholly the outgrowth of pleasurable intellectual curiosity.

Albert Einstein, a contemporary of Whitehead had this to say:

It is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.

Ralph Waldo Emerson writing in mid-nineteenth century: "The secret to education lies in respecting the pupil." This secret was central to the Sudbury model of education.

Traditional schools had been necessary in order to obtain the benefits of industrialization. Alvin Toffler, in his book The Third Wave, is very insightful.

As work shifted out of the fields and home, moreover, children had to be prepared for factory life. The early mine, mill, and factory owners of industrializing England discovered, as Andrew Ure wrote in 1835, that it was "nearly impossible to convert persons past the age of puberty, whether drawn from rural or from handicraft occupations, into useful factory hands." If young people could be profited to the industrial system, it would vastly ease the problems of industrial discipline later on. The result was another central structure of all Second Wave societies: mass education.

Built on the factory model, mass education taught basic reading, writing, and arithmetic, a bit of history and other subjects. This was the "overt curriculum". But beneath it lay an invisible or "covert curriculum" that was far more basic. It consisted - and still does in most industrial nations - of three courses: one in punctuality, one in obedience, and one in rote, repetitive work. Factory labor demanded workers who showed up on time, especially assembly-line hands. It demanded workers who would take orders from a management hierarchy without questioning. And it demanded men and women prepared to slave away at machines or in offices, performing brutally repetitious operations.

This model for education is counterproductive for the Information Age.

What was happening at the Sudbury Valley School forced me to abandon my assumptions:

There are prerequisite courses that you must take if you are going to be able to do college level work.

The more classes I took the better educated I would be. Taking classes was how one learned.

Some of the first students who enrolled, transferred part way through their high school program. They reveled in the freedom available at Sudbury and did not take the courses that are considered a prerequisite to college level work. Two things happened that surprised me. First, they were able to gain admittance to prestigious colleges. Second, they were able to compete successfully against their contemporaries who had followed a traditional curriculum. This phenomenon has continued and now we have graduates who had never attended any other school. There was little interest in having classes as a way to learn and the little interest that there was came mostly from students who assumed (as did the vast majority of adults) that classes were the royal road to learning. Nevertheless they have been successful in gaining admittance to college and were able to do college level work. Moreover those who chose not to go on to higher education found other avenues to being productive and responsible citizens in the Information Age. They were not stigmatized as people who were intellectually disabled nor are they.

Tests measure the degree of mastery you have acquired in any endeavor.

Since classes were never popular at Sudbury Valley grades were not given or tests required. The degree of mastery was a subjective evaluation made by the student when they were satisfied that their progress had accomplished what they had set out to do.

Play is your reward when work is done; to play instead of work was being frivolous and irresponsible.

Talking in class, unless answering a teacher's question, interfered with your ability to learn and the teacher's ability to teach.

From my frequent visits to the school and many conversations with the staff my impression was that students spent most of their time playing games of all sorts and in endless sessions of conversation with other students and staff. An industrial society had to downplay play to condition children to conform to the "real" world. An information society has to encourage play because it is the child's way of simulating the "real" world. For a wonderful account of the importance of play read the chapter by that name in Worlds in Creation by Daniel Greenberg published by the Sudbury Valley Press. For a deeper understanding of the importance of conversation read Children and Grownups another chapter in that same book.

My parents and teachers knew what was best for me.

It is central to the Sudbury Valley experience that children decide what they want to learn and when they choose to learn it. The only agenda they follow is the one that they choose for themselves. How else can you feel that you are in charge of your own life, how else can you be truly responsible, how else can you learn to trust yourself, how else can you be intellectually independent?

The younger you were when you began any activity the more proficient you would be.

At Sudbury Valley children varied greatly as to age when they decided that reading was an essential skill in our culture. Once they made that decision they learned to read in a mater of months. Compare this to the seven years it took for children in my charge as an elementary school principal. It took years and we still had 20% who needed additional help once they went to junior high school. At Sudbury an early start did not seem to give any advantage. Why should this surprise us? Freedom and an absence of coercion are essential for a democracy.

With very few exceptions all young children learn to speak and speaking is a much higher order of difficulty than learning to read. Again it is worth quoting Whitehead, taken from The Aims of Education.

The first intellectual task which confronts an infant is the acquirement of spoken language. What an appalling task, the correlation of meanings with sounds. It requires an analysis of ideas and an analysis of sounds. We all know that an infant does it, and the miracle of his achievement is explicable. But so are all miracles, yet to the wise they remain miracles.

And, last but not least:

The agenda that experts choose for children is for the child's and society's good.

I will not question motives but the results will handicap children in this age that is radically changing our lives. Quoting again from Whitehead,

Culture is activity of thought, and receptiveness to beauty and humane feeling. Scraps of information have nothing to do with it. A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God's earth.

I would like to end by quoting one of the founders of Sudbury Valley School, Hanna Greenberg. This quote comes from "Why a Curriculum is Counterproductive", Reflections on the Sudbury School Concept, Sudbury Valley School Press, edited by Mimsy Sadofsky and Daniel Greenberg.

It boggles my mind that the attributes we cherish in ourselves and in our friends - being interesting, insightful, creative, and independent - is what we are willing to sacrifice in children in exchange for the acquisition of knowledge that some of us deem it necessary to learn.

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