Sudbury School

The Sudbury model of democratic education is named after the school that pioneered it - Sudbury Valley School. Since it was founded in 1968, the Framingham, Massachusetts school has been a source of inspiration for dozens of schools and institutions, and there are currently over 40 Sudbury schools around the world. Certain facets of the model separate it from other democratic schools and free schools, although there are evident similarities. One central defining aspect is the non-compulsory nature of the model and the equal, nonjudgmental treatment of all activities (within the bounds of school rules regarding behavior and conduct) which results in a great de-emphasis of classes and other activities normally emphasized for their educational value.

profile from 2006 - It may be that the culturally rich environments at home contribute the lion's share to how they turn out, and the kids would do well in any school that didn't destroy motivation. It may be that the Sudbury-style schools work so well because they are small: Their values have a chance to spread by contagion, and bad choices are constrained by the power of social approval. No one can say for sure.

documented by author Daniel Greenberg

Daniel Greenberg's Free At Last ISBN:1888947004 (copyright 1987)

students aged 4-19 (Pre-School, Kinder Garten, Elementary School, Middle School, High School)

values: curiosity, individual responsibility

An example: taught a group of kids the 6 years of Basic Arithmetic in 20 class-hours. Wow! But when he told a math-teacher-friend about it, the friend wasn't surprised. "Because everyone knows", he answereed, "that the subject matter itself isn't that hard. What's hard, virtually impossible, is beating it into the heads of youngsters who hate every step. The only way we have a ghost of a chance is to hammer away at the stuff bit by bit every day for years. Even then it does not work."

A "class" happens when a group of students decide they need help to learn something, and they get together and make a "deal" with someone - who could be paid staff, or could be another student. The class deals have all sorts of terms: subject matter, times, obligations of each party... Classes end when either side has had enough of the deal... There is another kind of class at school, from time to time. It happens when people feel they have something new and unique to say... They post a notice... then they wait. If people show up, they go on.

They allow students to follow obsessions:

  • Richard practiced the trumpet 4 hours every day... for four years.
  • There are writers who sit and write hours every day. There are painters who paint, potters who throw pots, chefs who cook, athletes who play.
  • Luke wanted to be a mortician... By sixteen, he was ready for serious work. We took him out into the real world. The chief pathologist at one of the regional hospitals welcomed the eager, hard-working student into his lab... Within 5 years, Luke was a mortician... You get Luke as an assistant, free of charge because it is part of his education; in return, you give Luke this and that specific Job Training. The training is spelled out in detail... So far, only one ApprenticeShip has failed. That happened when the Master turned out to be too irresponsible to keep his end of the deal. After a while, the student gave up and looked elsewhere.
  • All Dan does at school all day is fish... Dan has learned other things. He has learned how to grab hold of a subject and not let go. And he has learned how to be happy... At fifteen, he had fallen in love with computers. By seventeen, he and two friends had established their own successful company in computer sales and service. By eighteen, he had completed school and gone on to study computers in college.

In close to two decades, there has never been a case of dyslexia at Sudbury Valley... It might just be because we have never made anyone learn how to read. (Reading) We don't have a single elementary reading Text-Book in the school... None of our graduates are functional illiterates. Some eight year olds are, some ten year olds are, even an occasional twelve year old. But by the time they leave, they are indistinguishable. No one who meets our older students could ever guess the age at which they first learned to read or write.

The one day several students got the bug for chemistry... Lab equipment carried price tags that were out of sight... Hanna had worked as a biochemist at MIT before getting involved in the school. Every year, people who would start new projects, always with lots of spanking new equipment. Every year, tons of old equipment and furniture were junked. She decided to go after the "junk", most of which was as good as new... Within a few weeks, she had every single piece she needed... In the back of the basement, far out of sight, they had built a methane plant!... I had always wondered what the Wilsons did with the waste from their rabbit operation. Now I found out...

...The materials for the methane plant had come from the Sudbury Town Dump. So did the materials for the four power mowers that cut the grass for several years... Every week, Hanna was corralled to take the Wilson gang and their buddies for an updated survey of the dump's latest acquisitions... We could never understand why schools always had to pay so much for new furnishings... Parents gave us their used sofas and rugs when they were remodeling... The beautiful slide and swing set... Much of the darkroom was donated, as was most of the library, and a good one it is. We never had to buy a refrigerator.

It turned out that lots of kids were interested in Cooking, year in, year out; and that we had a great cook on our staff... And several of our graduates have gone on to apprenticeships, or to advanced schools, and become master chefs themselves... (The old stove) wasn't only old, it was lousy... What was clearly called for was a "special expenditure", as such an outlay is called... So all the kids and staff interested in cooking got together and organized a series of bake sales to raise money for the new stoves... Little bake sales all year long... That's how it's been ever since... "If you really want it badly enough, you should be able to help defray the costs"... most of the time, the school goes 50-50 with them.

There are no fixed courses or departments. Everything begins and ends with the students' interests. This means we can really keep up with the times... In the mid-seventies, leatherwork was the rage... We developed a new twist for everyday expenses, one that later came in handy over and over. To cover current operations, the leather shop was run like a mini-business. Seed money came from the School Meeting, like a loan. This provided working capital for materials. The materials were bought in bulk at wholesale, and resold to people who used them in the shop, at a slight markup. It all ran on the Honor System... Then, almost as quickly as it came, it faded away... Soon, the equipment was packed up in boxes, and materials sold off... Along with everyone else, we had our fling with video games, hackeysack, ice skating, oriental religions, and gymnastics. Sometimes, a fad came to stay, and develop into a deep-rooted interest (computers).

We hit on the idea of a new creation, the School Corporation. This was to be chartered by the School Meeting for a defined purpose, and given the mandate to look after its goals pretty much on its own... The School Corporation became the formal vehicle for transacting "departmental business", with several novel features: it was open to everyone; it was democratically run; and, when its mission was no longer needed, it could gracefully pass into oblivion... Some Corporations have administrative tasks. The Source Corporation seeks outside instructors... The Library Corporation takes care of the school library, the Press Corporation prints and distributes the school's publications.

When someone cooks, or makes leather goods, or develops film, or throws pots on the wheel, they have to pay their own way for materials used... The idea came in the form of "personal discretionary accounts" for each student and teacher. We decided to become a mini-bank. Each person got their own account, into which they could put money.

Sometimes, they asked her to make something withthem, other times she would post a notice saying she would cook this-and-that on Tuesday and let people sign up to join her... If they paid for the ingredients, they could take the end product home. (Otherwise they'd sell the goods to students with them money going to the Cooking Corporation.)

Age mixing is Sudbury Valley's secret weapon... When the skills and rate of learning aren't all on the same level, that's when the fun begins. The kids help each other. They have to, otherwise the group as a whole will fall behind. They want to, because they are not competing for grades or gold stars. (Hmm, I never enjoyed this sort of experience when it happened in school. Not because of any competition thing. It just seemed like an imposition.)

Play is a big part of life at Sudbury Valley. And it s one of the prime factors lof learning here. But hwhat is learned is a different lesson than you might think. What is learned is the ability to concentrate and focus attention unsparingly on the task at hand, without regard for limitations - no tiredness, no rushing, no need to abandon a hot idea in the middle to go on to something else.

There are no bells at Sudbury Valley. No "periods"... School opens at 8:30 in the morning, closes at 5:00 in the afternoon. It isn't unusual to see someone go into the darkroom at 9:00, lose track of time, and emerge at 4:00 when the work is done... There is no lunchtime. Or rather, any time is lunchtime... Public time at school is as punctual as private time is loose... Classes meet promptly at the scheduled hour, or they don't meet.

The kids use other kids, books, instrument, and adults as they see fit. Their chief tol is their curiosity, which drives them to find, to master, to understand. They learn to see the world, because they look, and they are in it. They do not sit boxed in rooms all day... They learn to solve problems, because they have to... People say, "Let children be free to choose their activities, and they'll always take the path of least resistance.".. I always say to myself, "What children have you looked at recently?".. Most of the time, kids choose the path of greatest resistance.

There are no grades at Sudbury Valley. Students decide for themselves how to measure their progress... Often the process of self-evaluation against perfection is painfully frustrating... Occasionally, children look for outside criticism to help them perfect their work. They seek a critic, and demand honesty and competence. This is what happens in every ApprenticeShip program... If students ask someone to write on their behalf some letter of recommendation, it is a personal matter between the parties. If the person agrees to write such a letter, it is on personal stationery, not the school's... As far as we know, our policy on evaluation has never caused harm to any students as they move on to life outside the school The policy makes things a little harder for them, to be sure. But that kind of hardship is what the school is about: learning to make your own way, set your own standards, meet your own goals.

We have never seen it as our mission to entertain our students, to "inspire" them, to entice them to learn what hey "should" be learning.... For us at Sudbury Valley, exposure to reality is more important. For learning and growth, the everyday struggles, disappointments, frustration, and failures asre as essential as - even more essential than - the happiness and contentment sought by others.

Every student, regardless of age, has a vote at the School Meeting. So does every staff member. Since students outnumber staff by 7 to 1 or more, they effectively control the school... Everyone votes, if they come. Attendance is optional. There are no proxies... The agenda is printed in advance every week.... Every important motion put before the meeting needs at least 2 readings at 2 successive meetings, to give people a chance to think things over... Meetings rarely run over 2 hours.

Every child is free to go wherever they wish, whenever they want. Our is an open campus... We do draw one line, an invisible one, where the community and public laws have drawn one as well: at the shore of the pond... No one has gone into the water on or the ice when not permitted. There is no fence around the pond.

The whole school (runs on the Honor System). We don't want locks anywhere in the school. Everyone has their own personal drawer to keep things in at school... When someone breaks the code, reaction is swift. The person finds that such behavior is universally condemned.

But at the heart of the Honor System is the idea of certification, which underlies hundreds of activities. The school is full of tools and equipment that require special training... Anyone may use equipment if they have learned how. Once they know, they are "certified" for the object in question, and can use it at will... Experts do the certifying, and also certify other experts. Lists of certified people are posted, for all to see... No one is more careful than these youngsters, who are bent on proving they can match adults at their own games.

One day (a staff) woke up to the fact that tackle football had been played for fifteen years without any protective equipment... "There has never been an injury at Sudbury Valley in contact sports", said one burly teenager, "because we are careful not to hurt anyone. It's part of the game.

The nitty-gritty of everyday school administration is farmed out by the School Meeting to people called "clerks", and occasionally to a committee... The School Meeting defined (the tasks), made a job description, and then elected someone to fill the job... one of us - student or staff - who would take a turn for a year... Office Clerk, Buildings Maintenance Clerk, Grounds Clerk.. Bookkeeping committee, interior design committeee, public relations committee.

No mundane problem has occupied the school more than Cleaning. (When the school first started, the staff did all the cleaning... Parents fought against that but staff didn't give in.) After a few months, the staff felt it was time for the whole school to pitch in... We tried to set up a volunteer system... Cleaning went from once a day to once a week... Soon, only a handful of stalwart staf and students found themselves doing the whole job every week... Finally, in despair, we set up a compulsory cleaning system... The Cleaning Clerks now had a doubly difficult job: first, they had to organize the work; second, they had to get satisfactory results out of conscripted workers... They tried paying students to do the job. Hired help doing boring routine work with no particular motivation don't always give 100% either. The school gradually got dirty again... By now, the volunteer system is an ingrained tradition.

All teachers are staff, all staff are teachers. By the 15th year, frugal budgeting made it possible for full time cash disbursements to be $12k... Every year, in the Spring, elections are held for next year's staff (no tenure). Anyone who wants to serve has to place their names in nomination.

Every day we confront evidence of the difference between the youngest and oldest students. On the whole, the youngest are far more independent, more resourceful, more imaginative, harder working, busier... They look adults straight in the eye, talk openly, never flinch or waver... "You must have skimmed the cream with these students, (visitors) say. "They are all so brilliant, so alive". We explain that we have an open admissions policy. Anyone can come.

Generally, the transfer (students) fall into 2 groups: those who were successful ("A" students) elsewhere but not happy, and those who were at war with their former schools ("troublemakers"). Occasionally, someone is both. Which of the 2 types would you prefer? Experience has taught us some strange lessons... The "troublemakers" have done marvelously at Sudbury Valley... The reason is relatively simple: the very fact of being a troublemaker is a sign that they haven't given up the fight... Alas, the "A" students have a harder time. They are so used to pleasing their teachers that they are at sea when they first arrive... The kids, not the "troublemakers", are the real victims of society. After years of conforming to outside authority, they have lost touch with themselves... If they do not destroy, neither do they know how to build... Often the best medicine is a heavy dose of boredom.

Parents are voting members... So are students and staff... The membership is called the "Assembly". It meets once a year and sets all major policies... Once major policies are set, the School Meeting runs the school on a day-to-day basis all year round.

The elements of the school's judicial system are simple: there has to be thorough and impartial investigation of all charges, each of which is specific as to what rule was alledgedly broken; there has to be a fair trial before a jury of peers, with full safeguards for the rights of the defendant and with respect for the rules of evidence; and there has to be a fair system of sentencing... It runs smoothly, handling well over a hundred complaints a year... The heart of the system is the group that does the investigating. This is called the Judicial Committee... On it serve kids of all ages, a cross-section of the school, drawn by lot, and joined at each meeting by a randomly chosen staff member... Since the judicial system was established, only one student has been expelled by the School Meeting for bad behavior.

It took us over a year after we opened to figure out how to award a diploma... Our chief goal is to send out to the world students are are able to cope responsibly with th challenges of life in a free society. For a diploma, we institutionalized this goal. Students seeking a formal certificate of graduation get up before the school community and defend the thesis that they are ready to become responsible citizens of the community at large. They must make a presentation that is sensible and convincing to their peers and colleagues. Once they have made their presentation, they are open to challenges from the floor... Many students go out into the world without a diploma. To us, it hardly makes a difference.

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