Sudbury Valley School – Peter Gray on why this alternative to schools works

Peter Gray’s Free to Learn discusses an alternative approach to schooling, as it is exemplified by the Sudbury Valley School (http://www.sudval.org/). I wish we had schools like this here in New Zealand!

“Sudbury Valley is a private day school located in a semi-rural portion of Framingham, Massachusetts. It accepts students, age four on through high school, without regard to test scores or other indices of ability. The only admissions criteria are an interview and a visiting week designed to ensure that potential students and their parents understand the school before they enroll. In recent years the population of the school has consisted of between 130 and 180 students and nine to eleven adult staff members. The school charges a low tuition and operates on a per-pupil budget that is about half that of the surrounding public schools and far less than that of other private schools.” (p.89)

Peter Gray explains that: “Sudbury Valley runs strongly against the grain of our culture’s thinking about education. Most people believe that children need to sit through lessons and work hard at assigned schoolwork in order to succeed in life. In fact, to suggest otherwise borders on blasphemy. Even if some children complain or rebel, even if some must be given strong drugs so they will concentrate on their assigned schoolwork, such work, most believe, is necessary.
Most people who hear of the success of Sudbury Valley graduates quite naturally look for ways to explain it without upsetting their prior beliefs. One approach is to suggest that somewhere, behind the scenes, adults are giving lessons. Perhaps these children are being schooled at home by their parents, or perhaps the school’s staff are extraordinarily clever educators who manipulate children into wanting to do the things they must to learn.
I can assure you that neither of these is the case. A few parents enroll their children at Sudbury Valley with the idea that they will school them at home, but they quickly give up that idea. The attempt to enforce a curriculum at home is so much in conflict with the school’s philosophy that parents either stop the homeschooling or remove their children from Sudbury Valley. The staff members at the school are highly capable people, and they no doubt influence students’ learning through the examples they set and through conversations with students; but they have no interest in manipulating students into learning particular lessons. They believe strongly that children learn best on their own initiative, through their own self-chosen and self-directed means, and that the best way to help children learn is to leave them alone except when a child asks for help or advice. And even then, they believe, the help or advice should be limited to what has been requested, not more.” (pp.97-98)

Gray explains that Sudbury Valley School works well “because it provides the conditions that optimize children’s natural instincts to take charge of their own lives, to develop social bonds with those around them, and to learn what they need to know to function well in the culture within which they are developing. It works because it is the functional equivalent, for our time and place, of a hunter-gatherer band.” (p.100) He goes on to list what he sees as “the conditions that optimize children’s abilities to educate themselves effectively – conditions that exist both in hunter-gatherer bands and at the Sudbury Valley School.” (p.100) These include:

Time and Space to Play and Explore
Self-education through play and exploration requires enormous amounts of unscheduled time – time to do whatever one wants to do, without pressure, judgment, or intrusion from authority figures. That time is needed to make friends, play with ideas and materials, experience and overcome boredom, learn from one’s own mistakes, and develop passions. In hunter-gatherer bands adults placed few or no demands on children and adolescents, partly because they recognized that young people needed to explore and play on their own to become competent adults. The same is true at Sudbury Valley. Self-education also requires space – space to roam, to get away, to explore. That space should, ideally, encompass the range of terrains relevant to the culture in which one is developing. Hunter-gatherer adults trusted their children to use good judgment in deciding how far they should venture away from others into possibly dangerous areas. At Sudbury Valley, children are likewise trusted, within the limits set by prudence in our modern, litigious society. They can explore the surrounding woods, fields, and nearby stream, go to local stores and museums, or go wherever they wish to pursue their interests as long as they let others know where they are going and take adequate safety precautions.

Free Age Mixing Among Children and Adolescents
… hunter-gatherer children necessarily played in age-mixed groups, as there were not enough children of any given age for age-segregated play. At Sudbury Valley there are enough children that students could play exclusively with others close in age, but they don’t. Research studies have shown that students at the school regularly, of their own volition, play across large age ranges. …age-mixed play allows the children to learn skills and sophisticated ways of thinking from older ones, and it allows the older ones to learn how to nurture, lead, and, in general, be the mature person in a relationship.

Access to Knowledgeable and Caring Adults
In hunter-gatherer bands, the adult world was not segregated from the children’s world. Children saw what adults did and incorporated that into their play. They also heard the adults’ stories, discussions, and debates, and they learned from what they heard. When they needed adult help, or had questions that could not be answered by other children, they could go to any of the adults in the band. All of the adults cared for them. Many of the adults, in fact, were literally their aunts and uncles.
At Sudbury Valley, too, adults and children mingle freely, though the ratio of adults to children is much smaller there than in a hunter-gatherer band. There is no place in the school where staff members can go where students are not welcome. Students can listen into any adult discussions and observe whatever the adults are doing, and they can join in if they wish. Students who need help of any kind can go to any of the staff members. A child who needs a lap to sit on, or a should to cry on, or personal advice, or the answer to some technical question that he hasn’t been able to find on his own, or (occasionally) more prolonged help in the form of a tutorial or course, knows which adult will best satisfy that need. The adults act much like aunts and uncles. They know all of the students and take pride in watching them develop over the years. Since the staff members must be reelected each year by a vote that includes all of the students in the school, they are necessarily people who like kids, are liked by kids, and serve kids’ needs effectively.

Access to Equipment and Freedom to Play with It
To learn to use the tools of a culture, one must have access to those tools. Hunter-gatherer children played with knives, digging sticks, bows and arrows, snares, musical instruments, dugout canoes, and the like. At Sudbury Valley, children have access to a wide range of the equipment that is of most general use to people in our culture, including computers, cooking equipment, woodworking equipment, art materials, musical instruments, sporting equipment of various types, and walls filled with books; and they have access to other equipment through the school’s open-campus policy.

Free Exchange of Ideas
Intellectual development occurs best in a setting where people can share ideas freely, without censorship or fear of being ostracized. According to anthropologists’ reports, hunter-gatherers were nondogmatic in their beliefs, even in religious beliefs. People could say what they thought, and ideas that had any consequence to the group were debated endlessly. The same is true at Sudbury Valley. …

Freedom from Bullying
To feel free to explore and play, a person must feel safe, free from harassment and bullying. Such an environment prevailed to a remarkable extent in hunter-gatherer bands, as it does at Sudbury Valley. According to anthropologists, the close-knit personal relationships, the age mixing, and the noncompetitive, egalitarian ethos of hunter-gatherer cultures worked effectively to prevent bullying. If one child appeared to be picking on another, older children would step in quickly and stop it. The same occurs at Sudbury Valley and, in addition, research at the school suggests that the simple presence of young children has a pacifying effect on older children …. Moreover, at Sudbury Valley the democratically created rules and judicial system prevent serious bullying. A student who feels harassed in any way can ‘bring up’ the offender, to appear before the Judicial Committee, which comprises school members of all ages. Because students make the rules and have responsibility for enforcing them, they have far more respect for the rules than do students in a standard school.

Immersion in a Democratic Community
…Sudbury Valley is administered through a formal democratic process, involving discussions and votes of the School Meeting. Immersion in the democratic process endows each person with a sense of responsibility that helps to motivate education.” (pp.100-102)

Gray also notes that, “A few parents enroll their children at Sudbury Valley with the idea that they will school them at home, but they quickly give up that idea. The attempt to enforce a curriculum at home is so much in conflict with the school’s philosophy that parents either stop the homeschooling or remove their children from Sudbury Valley. The staff members at the school are highly capable people, and they no doubt influence students’ learning through the examples they set and through conversations with students; but they have no interest in manipulating students into learning particular lessons. They believe strongly that children learn best on their own initiative, through their own self-chosen and self-directed means, and that the best way to help children learn is to leave them alone except when a child asks for help or advice. And even then, they believe, the help or advice should be limited to what has been requested, not more.” (p.98) Oh, I love that approach!

Ref: Peter Gray (c2013) Free to Learn Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. Basic Books: New York

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About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
This entry was posted in Metaphors and Narratives around children and learners, play, social and political contexts, Standardised Testing, Teaching excellence and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Sudbury Valley School – Peter Gray on why this alternative to schools works

  1. Joey Moncarz says:

    Aotearoa and it’s youth desperately need schools like this. We’re looking for interest in starting an Aotearoa version of the Sudbury Valley School model in Auckland.

    Check it out: http://www.kaitiakicollective.weebly.com

  2. Pingback: Kaitiaki Collective – democratic schooling in NZ | LiteracyNZ

  3. Pingback: My Home-schooling Journey -

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