Children's Choices

Alan White

The uniqueness of Sudbury schools is the value we place on choice rather than control. That is the new paradigm! Most adults associated with the Sudbury schools grew up in homes and schools where the adults who cared for and educated us decided what was best for us, by coercion or by seduction. We were made to follow their agenda "for our own good". They may have believed that it was for our own good but the price we had to pay was learning to rely on others rather than ourselves. Moreover those of us who marched to a different drummer were often labeled as failures because we could not or would not follow the agenda being imposed upon us.

Freedom to choose is central to becoming self-reliant and being good at solving difficult problems. The genius of the Sudbury School founders was to recognize the power of choice and to found a school based upon that recognition.

We, at Sudbury schools, have made some underlying assumptions about what motivates children. One of these assumptions is that children are curious and driven to learn. Another is that children want to grow up and be successful in our culture. If these assumptions are correct (and our experience over the past thirty-five years demonstrates that they are) what is the basis for the anxiety that even some parents in Sudbury schools feel? What often prompts them to want to insert a little bit of an agenda based on the "really basic skills and knowledge" that every child will need for "their own good"?

I know the answer from my own personal experience. I was a product of traditional schooling, and I found it hard to believe what my eyes, ears, and intellectual faculties were telling me when I observed Sudbury schools. I grew up assuming that I needed to rely on experts, certified by tests and advanced degrees. I was caught between two world views and it created a great deal of anxiety that took me years to overcome. What ultimately helped me overcome this anxiety was reflection on the miraculous accomplishment of children during their infancy.

Fortunately for our species we do not know the answer to how toddlers learn to walk or to talk, so we are content to leave very young children alone to solve that which we adults do not know. Because children have the choice to decide when and how they will learn to crawl, walk, run, feed themselves, and talk, they solve these very difficult problems, usually before the age of three. We have no need to label them as being deficient, therefore we do not feel any anxiety about our responsibilities as parents.

These thoughts helped me realize that, in general, children do not spend hours on mind numbing activities unless they are forced to do so, for example in traditional schools. They hate monotony. These reflections helped me to root out the bias of my own upbringing. And it was my Sudbury experience that made me realize that children who are free to choose their own agenda learned those things that our society values much more efficiently than through a controlled agenda, and without all the bad side effects that such an agenda often inflicts.

Where did we ever get the idea that a class was the best way to learn? It turns out that the idea of a class, as we know it, was invented in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution when we wanted to teach children to obey orders, to do boring repetitive tasks, and to regiment their time to fit the needs of machines. Those classes were useful in making the Industrial Revolution successful and thereby helping us to have a more abundant food supply, to have better clothing, to have better housing with improved sanitary conditions and much more, but the price we paid was giving up our self-reliance. It was a devil's bargain but one we would willing make today if we were faced with the same reality. Many people living in the developing world are making that same bargain we were once forced to make. No one is coercing them to leave their farms, and in most cases they are discouraged from doing so, but they are seduced by the same advantages as people living in the industrialized countries were a hundred or so years ago.

The Industrial Age blessed us with great rewards but it came at the price of abandoning our trust in our own judgment. That is why we think we need to take a class given by an expert if we are to learn. We felt self-reliant no longer. To be sure, there are some occasions when a formal class may be helpful, but how many of you, as adults, take a class if you are faced with a problem? In most cases you are the expert and the solution lies within your hard won experience. It is helpful to talk to your colleagues, to read, to search out ideas on the Internet, but you learn to become self-reliant or you are relegated to low level tasks. Children are born with self-motivation to learn. Does it make any sense to tell them they must to take a class if they are to learn? When we have classes set up to teach children to learn to read it takes years but when we allow them to learn in their own time and in their own style it takes months.

Times have changed and it has become unnecessary and counterproductive to give up self-reliance. The demands of the Information Age that is now upon us require self-reliance, and the pre-requisite for self-reliance is choice. Learning to trust your own judgment is difficult, but any time you make a self-initiated mistake it provides you with feedback that helps you to modify your behavior. A Sudbury school is a golden opportunity to learn life's hard lessons when you are young rather than later on in life when the consequences are much more severe and often harm others like your spouse and children. Could the basic reason society today is faced with seemingly intractable social and interpersonal problems be that we have too few people who are self-reliant, self-starting and creative, and too many people who feel that they need to wait for the experts to solve these intractable social and interpersonal problems?

Actually, it is widely accepted that free choice is far superior to coercion or seduction, and that self-directed activities are the most effective ones. In the vast majority of cases where there seems to be a conflict of opinion on how to educate children and fulfill our responsibility as parents, it is not about the end result but about the means to get there. Everyone nowadays acknowledges that we want children to grow up to be responsible, self-directed, and self-reliant adults.

The simple truth is this: if you value responsible, self-reliant behavior, freedom to choose is essential. Indeed, the history of Western democracies has been a story of extending freedom of choice. The more we have the stronger and more productive we have become. To be sure, in school systems the tide seems to be flowing in the other direction right now, but the tide will turn and children will ultimately be permitted to retain the self-reliant behavior that they were born with. Granting children freedom to choose, as we do in Sudbury schools, is the key to the unfolding future.

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