One of my goals for this blog is to provide a view into different ways of learning and teaching, and how different schools or non-schools are set up.
Before I get into this, I want you to know: as someone who loves alternative education in general, I’m unlikely to be completely unbiased in any of these reviews. I’ll try to present some pro-and-con, but primarily in the links that I post rather than in the central description of the school and its methods.
With that in mind, I present the first installment:
Sudbury Valley Schools
I’ve been fascinated by the Sudbury Valley School approach since I first heard of it. Here’s the basic way it works:
- Students must be at the school for the state-mandated time per day and days per year.
- Adult staff are on hand. (There is no teacher/staff distinction.)
- The school is democratic. Everyone gets a vote in the running of the school: staff, students, and parents, one vote each.
And that’s more or less it. There are no regular classes; thus, no grades or homework. There are occasionally classes taught by staff or by students, but no “Algebra II” or such. The hours of the school allow flexibility in when students arrive and leave. When students are admitted to the school, there is a vote (typically just a formality), but no lengthy vetting process. Instead, the student (and family) faces the central question: “Can I learn in this environment?”
The original school is in Framingham, Massachusetts. If I refer to SVS, that’s them. If I refer to “a Sudbury school,” thats a school that uses their general model. There are some Sudbury schools in other locations, with varying degrees of success, as is common when trying to spread an approach to a school.
I got to visit SVS during one of their open houses. As with many New England private schools, it’s centered around a single old building. There’s a kitchen, a pool table downstairs, a TV, some computers, a dance studio, and thousand upon thousands of books lining the walls. There are some outlying buildings as well; barns and such where student bands often practice, a small pond.
Something one might not expect from such a “hippie” school: there are rules for everything at Sudbury. Everything. You want to use the computers? You need to be certified for the computers. You want to use the crayons? You have to be certified for crayons. (Naturally, the process is not exactly strenuous.) Want to fish in the pond?… It seems like the sort of thing that might be overwhelming if you’re not used to it. In the “How to Run a Sudbury School” book that they sell there are dozens of pages devoted to the various signs and notes that are hung up around the school. There are also informational items around, such as reports from the judicial committee posted near the room where they meet.
The school stretches across a wide age range, from grade school through high school. There is no attempt to segregate by any measure. Ten-year-olds can easily serve on the judicial committee, or learn computer programming if they so desire.
The core idea of the school is, essentially, that students are mental sponges that pick up knowledge and ideas all the time. Children learn, it’s what they do. Their students learn to read, but not because they’re in classes for it. They learn because reading is so mind-bogglingly useful that to do the things they want to do, they realize that they’ll need to learn how to read. Those who want to go to college study for the SATs, or apply to schools that don’t care about them, because that’s what you have to do if you want to go to college.
Here’s some more useful information
- The school’s official FAQ
- Wikipedia’s pages on the SVS and Sudbury Schools in general. I include these to note that these pages are on the low end for Wikipedia articles, so seek other sources as well.
- An article from the Seattle Times about the Clearwater School, a Sudbury school
- A review of a book about SVS’s graduates. The comments are also worth reading.
- An article on the school from Psychology Today.
- An opinion article in the journal Science Education.
I would be glad to answer what questions I can.