More and more, we are hearing debates and complaints about the education system not only in the United States, but worldwide. Education reform has been a huge topic in the United States. According to the website Great Schools, American students scored in the middle range of worldwide test-takers, with Finland at the top. In 1964, the United States ranked second to last of students worldwide.
But what if test scores and grades aren’t all there is to getting a great education?
In 1921, a revolutionary school was founded in Suffolk, England. The founder, A.S. Neill, wrote, “All crimes, all hatreds, all wars can be reduced to unhappiness.” The school was named Summerhill, and their website claims:
Today, all over the world, education is moving towards more and more testing, more examinations and more qualifications. It seems to be a modern trend that assessment and qualification define education.
If society were to treat any other group of people the way it treats its children, it would be considered a violation of human rights. But for most of the world’s children this is the normal expectation from parents, school and the society in which we live.
The response to this strong statement is Summerhill’s democratic education model, in which students and staff have a say in all that is done in the school through meetings. Summerhill’s opening in 1921 has led to a reform in education in which many more schools like it around the world have been founded.
One of the biggest networks of these schools are Sudbury schools. Sudbury Valley School was founded in 1968 in Framingham, Massachusetts. Inspired by A.S. Neill’s school, the founders of Sudbury Valley created an environment driven by the students, fostering creativity, freedom, and responsibility. The students are not separated into grades, or separated at all. Students are left to individually decide what they will do with their time, and the only requirements in most Sudbury schools are time spent while at school or serving on the Judicial Committee.
There are over 35 schools worldwide. The basic tenets of the schools are educational freedom, democratic governance, and personal responsibility. It is up to the students to decide what they will do while at school, ranging from classes they organize themselves, reading, playing video games, playing other games, cooking, theatre practices, playing outside, playing music, and more. At Sudbury schools, the whole world is available to students. The only limit to a student may be lack of staff well-versed in a certain subject or money, but there are avenues in the schools to remove those obstacles.
Because students are directing their own learning, they grow as individuals. The theory is that people learn no matter what they are doing. Playing tag can foster communication and teamwork. Reading can open a person’s mind to countless theories, stories, and more. Building things with Legos can teach someone how to design structures and inherently teaches about math and geometry. While students are doing these things, they do not necessarily consciously realize they are learning these things, but the fact remains that they are. As Sudbury Valley’s website says:
Students are able to develop traits that are key to achieving success: They are comfortable learning new things; confident enough to rely on their own judgment; and capable of pursuing their passions to a high level of competence. Children at Sudbury Valley are adaptable to rapid change, open to innovation and creative in solving new problems. Beyond that, they grow to be trustworthy and responsible individuals, and function as contributing members of a free society.
The last point, “they grow to be trustworthy and responsible individuals, and function as contributing members of a free society,” is also fostered through the democratic process in which the schools are run. Every student has the same vote as a staff member. Everything is decided through meetings. The school’s administrative structure can be broken into: The Assembly (students, staff, trustees, parents, and other members who are voted in; everyone gets one vote in the yearly Assembly meetings), the School Meeting (students and staff; everyone gets one vote), and corporations or committees that are in charge of the more intricate workings of the school (such as buying computer equipment, taking care of the kitchen, being in charge of art supplies, etc.). Most decisions are made in School Meeting, such as hiring/firing staff or amending existing or creating new laws. Meetings are run according to Robert’s Rules of Order, much like a town meeting. Discipline is approached in a very different way than more traditional schools through the Judicial Committee.
Each school has its own law book, in which the rules are laid out. Every school has its own process for bringing people to the Judicial Committee, but essentially, when a student or staff member witnesses another student breaking a law, they fill out the details on a form, which is submitted to the Judicial Committee or JC. The committee consists usually of one staff member, one younger student, one middle-aged student, and one older student. There is also a JC clerk, who runs the JC meetings as a chairperson. The people involved in the cases brought before JC are given time to testify. Then the JC decides through a vote whether or not to charge a person with breaking a law. That person may plead guilty or not guilty. If guilty, they receive a sentence, voted on by the JC. If they plead not guilty, there is a separate trial, in which another group (literally, a jury) hears testimony again from both sides and makes a decision. Sometimes, in extreme circumstances, the case will be deferred to School Meeting for a harsher sentence.
Through being involved in the “fate” of themselves and their peers, students learn how to communicate in respectful ways and come to recognize when they are doing something not respectful. They learn to take responsibility for themselves and the choices they have made. Being left to make their own decisions about what they do with their time also causes them to be more responsible, and to realize that in order to get a certain outcome, there are steps that must be taken, whether they like them or not.
This type of learning experience strengthens transferable skills that must be used when transitioning into the world beyond school. Each Sudbury school has a different process when it comes to graduating. Some schools require a thesis to be written, usually about how the student has become ready to be a responsible adult in the community at large. The student’s request to graduate is then voted on. In other schools, there is no such process, and a student can leave when they feel they are ready. Because of their time being their own bosses at the school, they are aware of time management, responsibility, respect, and self-direction, which arguably are skills that every employer would like his or her employees to possess. They are able to focus on the tasks at hand and are driven to succeed, by whatever measure. Many students transfer to university; if that is their goal, many study for the standardized tests they will be required to take. Some start with community college and then transfer to a 4-year college or university. The possibilities are truly endless.
Is this type of school for every child? Probably not. There are students who have a hard time with the freedom they are faced with at Sudbury schools. In general, many students benefit from schools like this. They end up at schools such as Oxford and Wesleyan, or NYU. They get jobs and climb the ladder, becoming leaders in their companies. They study physics. They open their own businesses. They work at Google. They travel the world. They do whatever it takes for them to be happy in their lives, no matter what shape that takes. (These are all examples of what friends of mine, graduates from Sudbury schools, have actually done.)
I personally went to a school like this. This article may seem a little biased because of this fact, and it is. If I had never gone to a Sudbury school, my life would have been drastically different, and probably not for the best. Because of my time at one of these schools, I know myself, my passions, and how to communicate respectfully with others. I solve problems. I find the answers to my questions, and I enjoy learning new things. I challenge myself, because I know no other way. I will support these types of schools for the rest of my life, and I hope that you are leaving this article knowing there are options for kids, and even parents, who can learn so much from their children when they attend a school like this. There are many particular areas of this type of education that can be examined more in depth, but for now, this is an introduction to this very different, and very successful, type of schooling.
For a list of Sudbury-type schools that exist worldwide, please visit Sudbury Valley School’s website.
***This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z April challenge. Starting with A, every post in April will be about a topic starting with a letter of the alphabet, consecutively. For more information, please visit the official page.***