"Democratic Schools"
April 29, 2001 7:51 PM   Subscribe

"Democratic Schools" Just saw this school on 60 Minutes. The kids hang out all day, play video games, go to class if they want to, learn if they want to. There's no principal or teachers, just "staff". I may be an old-school stickler but this strikes me as retarded. They had an eight year old on who couldn't read because he "wasn't ready for it yet"... c'mon.
posted by owillis (70 comments total)

that's one solution to overcrowded classrooms.
posted by register at 7:59 PM on April 29, 2001

Schools like this are the reason that our children are so far behind Japan. If I ever have a child, I'm thinking I need to homeschool him.
posted by TacoConsumer at 8:03 PM on April 29, 2001

Schools like this are the reason that our children are so far behind Japan.

This is the only school like this that I've ever heard of. Therefore, schools like this are not the reason our children are so far behind Japan.

I agree, however, that our schools suck. I wish I could afford to homeschool my 8 year old.
posted by jpoulos at 8:06 PM on April 29, 2001

hm, although this does seem a bit outrageous to many, the notion that these students are given such liberties and freedoms (which prolly none of the mefi folk ever knew) it needs to be noted that to a degree such ideas of students learning what sparks their own interest is a good idea.

think about in these terms, many times a student who is ready to learn.. will learn. and even those students who prefer recess over reading a book will let themselves gambol about for a while, but eventually will settle and take to interest.

and, yes there are those children who will simply refuse to learn or try to learn and lag behind the rest of the group, but this is not necessarily the problem on the part of the school, they have provided all materials for learning, they have the equipment, books, etc.

now, if that student does not learn to read or attempt to read. will forcing him to do so aid the situation. as a Junior high school student i see these same students who refuse to learn, and i say that such problems are no longer the problem of the school.

the student has obviously made a conscious decision on some level of other. and i think that it must be the student who must come to the realization of the importance of education, because it is seen too often (from personal experience) that coersion and the utilization of force to push a child to something he does not want to do.. acheives nothing for the child.
he hasnt learned anything.
he has just been told what to do.

and say 10 years down the road in HS, these same jerks and idiots are now akward fellows who: (a) get detention to annoy their parents (b) complain and whine in class, whining that they 'have to' be in school, but will not work, and so they just sit.

so what do these democratic schools do? it is my opinion that they would weed out such individuals early on.
posted by a11an at 8:12 PM on April 29, 2001 [1 favorite]

It is important to note that this is a private school. No one is forced to attend or buy into its philosophy.
posted by dal211 at 8:19 PM on April 29, 2001

It's so sick. A school that prides itself on having no class rooms or teachers, and that considers it's educating environment to be more "organic" than normal (whatever the hell that means), reminds me of the drugged up hippies that brought us constructivist math and the declining use of phonics. Sure, little Susie can't read, but at least she's being more organic - and that's something we can all sleep better knowing.

My favorite quotes from their site, which, I remind you, is in favor of the school:

"I didn't really think about getting an education... Outsiders would ask, 'What did you learn today?' and we'd think,'What did we learn today? What are you talking about?'

"Always there are people playing happily and busily, indoors and outdoors, in all seasons and all weather. Always there are groups talking, and always there are individuals quietly reading here and there."

"Hurry everyone! Sign up today! Who needs an education when you can have perpetual recess in some sort of Utopian bubble? Gather 'round Eden's rose garden for a sing-along and smores! But first, I'll need all your credit cards and your mother's maiden name..."

Ok, so I made up the last one.
posted by paddy at 8:56 PM on April 29, 2001

students learning what sparks their own interest is a good idea

a11an, is ignorance or bigotry a good idea?

I was looking through my high school yearbook last week and my quote for Goals was "to somehow incorporate skating into my future." had I studied skating instead of history or english, and come to the "realization of the importance of education" later, what good will all of that time spent studying skating have done me?
posted by register at 9:06 PM on April 29, 2001

a11an, you make some great points, IMO. Montessori schools have more structure than this school, but they also encourage students to find their real interests, and it works. Without a structure to react against, people will naturally start to gravitate towards what interests them, without all the loss of energy in friction. Of course, this kind of school is a polar opposite of the current schooling approach, but it shows a nice counter in a way. Some kids might respond well to more pressure, some might not - at least there's some experimentation going on here - other things being tried than just trying more rules and more restrictions in the current system. Eventually we'll find a new way(s) that works. In the meantime, let's give these ideas a fresh look - at this point, it certainly couldn't hurt.
posted by thunder at 9:43 PM on April 29, 2001

um... it would have taught you the history and technique of skating?

No one can force you to learn. You can be forced to memorize facts and spit them back, but if you do that you'll forget those facts the minute you don't need them anymore. Learning is altogether different. People learn things because they're interested in them, because they want to know more about a subject. You want to learn about skating? Great. Go for it. You'll probably love it. But if I force you to memorize nine hundred and ten things about the battle of Hastings, you'll soon hate history altogether.

Parents are amazed at how their six year old knows so much about dinosaurs but can't pay attention for ten minutes at school. The answer is simply that dinosaurs interest the kid, and whatever they're teaching him at school doesn't. If s/he doesn't learn how to read in kindergarten or first grade, you can be sure s/he will pretty soon, if only to learn more about dinosaurs.

Not a week goes by that I don't hear someone complain about having to learn so much math in high school. 'I never use the cosine, why the heck did I have to spend that much time learning it?' I'm a math major, I use the cosine every day, but if you don't, there's really not much reason to tie you down and make you learn it. I spent a year in biology learning all the names for the various parts of the intestinal tract of worms. I knew at the time I wasn't going into any field where that would be of use. I didn't find it interesting. I'll never use it again. That time would have been better spent learning about something else, even if that learning wasn't the sit-and-listen-to-a-lecture type of learning.

When I first got to college I was amazed at the attitudes of many of the students. They weren't there to learn, they were there to be taught. 'I'm here, educate me.' It doesn't work that way.

register: where on earth do you get your claim of bigotry? I see nothing on the site to justify it. And do you honestly think there are any less bigots coming out of public schools?

The responses on this page seem to indicate that people think everyone wants to run around and jump in mud puddles all day and not learn. Some people do, up to a certain age. Some people want to sit around playing video games all day, but at some point they say, 'hey, wouldn't it be neat to make my own video game?' At that point they are absolutely interested in learning. I don't think you can argue that this is not the case, if only because there's something to be learned in the first place. Books and classrooms are hardly necessary for human survival in the most basic sense, but yet we have them. Somewhere along the line someone said, 'Hey, that's interesting, I want to learn about that' or 'Hey, if I learned about that, I could use it to make my life easier or better or more interesting.'
posted by krakedhalo at 10:05 PM on April 29, 2001 [1 favorite]

Tie-Dyed, Pot-smoking, Good for nothing, Freeloading, Fourth Amendment right-revoking, Dirty Hippies!.

That all may be true but I'm told that kind of thing is conducive to learning. Step off.
posted by the_ill_gino at 10:09 PM on April 29, 2001

Speaking of being a stickler, 'retarded' isn't really the best word for something you disagree with.
posted by jragon at 10:18 PM on April 29, 2001

"Drugged up hippies" are responsible for what's wrong with American education? Good lord, the discourse on MetaFilter is going downhill by the hour. What's next, a good old-fashioned USENET-style flamewar?
posted by dhartung at 10:22 PM on April 29, 2001

I'll admit that the average "regular" school climate is such that it can pummel all the creativity out of a kid, but my belief is that this program pushes the pendulum too far in the opposite direction - when the nexus of goodness is probably somewhere in between.

Kids, especially young ones should be encouraged to be creative - but they also have some basics in life that they need to know: reading, writing, arithmetic...

And chances are they won't like it, but what kid does. I see a place for independent study in the latter years but to make a 5 year old do whatever he wants seems somewhat destructive to me.

Of course if I had been in such a program I would have finally had the time to master Metroid -- one of life's truly important things...
posted by owillis at 10:23 PM on April 29, 2001

"retarded": yes, I understand. bad habit I'm trying to break... (really)
posted by owillis at 10:24 PM on April 29, 2001

Kids aren't equipped with a big enough picture of the world to understand why they need to know certain things. We could spend lots of time trying to give them the big picture so they'll motivate themselves, and thereby waste their prime learning years (which are, IIRC, up to about 14 years of age). Or we could simply make them learn what we know they need to learn, and let them hate us for it now. They can thank us for it when they're 30.

That is not to say that kids shouldn't have interests or that those interests can't be employed in school. If the kid's interested in skating, show him how to do research and have him write reports on skating. Have him dissect the writing in his favorite skating mag and figure out why it reads the way it reads, then have him try his hand at writing in that style. Have him figure out why a 720 is a 720 and tell him to calculate it in radians too. There are plenty of useful ways kids' interests can be channeled into learning things that are useful to know, but it requires adult direction.
posted by kindall at 10:45 PM on April 29, 2001

One website and a 60 minutes segment, and suddenly we're experts on education. As if such a cursory examination could lead to ANY conclussion, either way. But, ya know, who ever needed facts to have an opinion?
posted by Doug at 10:47 PM on April 29, 2001

I remember most school between fifth grade and high school as being a waste of time. Before fifth grade I was in classes where I was allowed to do whatever I wanted. What I did was read. I was probably given subtle enough direction that I didn't read it as direction. I thrived in this system but for some reason I wanted to transfer to a "normal" classroom. Turns out that in normal classrooms what you do is sit, sit, sit, and maybe take a few tests.
posted by rdr at 10:49 PM on April 29, 2001

Sudbury Valley seems to be directly inspired by the legendary Summerhill School in the UK -- which, far from being founded by hippies, was created in the 1920s as a reaction to the authoritarian schools of the previous era.

Surely the concept that parents are most responsible for their children's education includes the possibility that some parents will choose home school, some military schools, and yet other parents will choose free schools such as these? Or are we hypocritical enough to know that this type of school is inherently bad and should be forbidden?
posted by dhartung at 10:49 PM on April 29, 2001

Private school for rich kids, but not just any, one that makes their already effortless lives easier.

There's this idea that if you try hard enough, in the right area, you'll get it, otherwise the film would be a bummer, right? No feel-good ack-shun here. Logistics and all that other stuff that gets skipped over in the background montage music just doesn't work on mass-scales, the entire reason our society is as it is today. It works, there are always ways to improve, but tearing everything down just to accompany the smallest of ideas is idiotic; revolution is pointless.

As Tevan there pointed out, it matters not only what you’re interested in; this schools thinks it is, they write things like 'the art of doing nothing' and all that other commie pink bullshit.

There's an article that says that two thirds go on to college, while the other choose to do ‘nothing’. I'm sorry for being skeptical, but how do you do ‘nothing’? Become a bum? Living on the street? That's not ‘nothing’ because there's usually matters of food and begging and all that. The two thirds that go to college are able to hand the workload easily? I'd imagine problems after years and years of practicing 'nothing'. So, even if one third can get through college, what kind of fucking result is that? Two Thirds of the attended become street bums, but maybe it doesn't matter because they'll always have the satisfaction of knowing they didn't have to take it from 'the man'.

Anyway, fuck rich kids.

Parents are amazed at how their six year old knows so much about dinosaurs but can't pay attention for ten minutes at school.

Is having interest in dinosaurs going to get them a job later on in life? I'm not sure how many paleontologists we need, but there seem to be enough these days anyway.

Math is boring, if compared to playing a sport; kids are fickle, they change their minds from second to second.

At a young age mathematics doesn’t even enter the mind, they simple don’t need it, nor do they need writing or reading. I’m guessing some of this comes in when they’re around 15, when child play becomes tedious and new ways to entertain enter, learning the basics at such ages is hard and would probably be abandoned with the development of puberty. What I’ve just described is basic functions of life, life as it probably was when we were living under a rock in animal skins.

The very point of our lives being to excel, to move beyond, beyond infinity and beyond us, to evolve, to see the monolith as it is. The schools serve as a way to discipline and guide, if it does not do that, it is not a school, and, thus, becomes useless.

I think the schools could improve on counseling, make it a class, encourage competition and all that sort of thing; otherwise the schools are pretty good, very free compared to a lot of the other 'leading'' nations, either turn up the memorizing, learning and cramming stuff a few notches, improving on the scale, in some pathetic attempt at showing American superiority, or leave stuff as it is: providing a filter, where one could go in endless possible directions, remembering that it's all up to him, thus, that being more free than any of the mentioned schools.
posted by tiaka at 10:52 PM on April 29, 2001

I saw that 60 Minutes segment, and I had a similar (negative) reaction that many in this discussion have. I'd love to see a longitudinal study of these kids 10 years down the road. My prediction? They'll be snotty little brats who get into frequent arguments with their college professors/employers.

I had a huge laugh over the schools policy that the kids decide which teachers are rehired for the next school year - very Survivor'esque.
posted by bicyclingfool at 10:56 PM on April 29, 2001

Learning and knowledge are two separate things. If I were left to my own devices as a kid, all I would've "learned" were stats of professional baseball players, the best weapon to use against each boss in every Mega Man game, and esoteric trivia about various types of dinosaurs and how medieval people kill each other during open field combat and castle sieges. Does this mean I was destined to become a sports statician, video game designer, paleontologist, or medieval historian? Doubtful.

What I do know is that, like most people, my interests as a kid and what I wanted to devote my time into as an adult were completely different. In fact, many of my latent interests didn't even begin to emerge until college. During junior high and high school, I endured my share of mind-numbing regurgitatory classes and summer school alongside many others, all in the name of "getting into a good college." However, one of these inane subjects eventually germinated into something truly fascinating once I've finally assembled enough tools to adequately study the field in earnest. To me, a structured learning enviroment opened intellectual doors, despite how decidedly unfun the process was. I'd venture to guess that most of us grew up in a similar structured learning enviroment, and that didn't prevent us from becoming interesting, creative individuals. Some would say this is despite the oppresive system, but for me it was because of it, to some part--and I'd wager that I'm not the only one.

There are certainly people whose lifelong passions are so clear to them early on that compelling them to spend time building breadth of knowledge in unrelated fields would be a complete waste of time. Fair enough. But how many of the children in this school will actually choose take the time and effort to learn about how sanitation habits affect the spread of disease, the fact that a bloody Civil War was fought in their country, or read about the Socratic method--instead of playing Pokemon?

The brochure mentioned that their kids "are acutely aware of their own weaknesses and strengths, and likely to be working hardest on their weaknesses." Bullshit. They'll move on to something that "interests them" more. The whole idea of using "natural curiosity" as a structure to determine what children learn reminds me of the failings of communism--human nature. (I'm grossly oversimplifying and not adquately addressing Marxism, Russian/Chinese politics, economics versus politics, etc.) But a more insidious reason the idea fails is because, in the process of building a basis of common knowledge for a well-educated citizen, the structured schooling that the school opposes actually forces kids to try different things, even if they hate it. IMO, self-knowledge is the basis of creativity. And I pity the kid who plays video games religiously while growing up in this school, thinking that he wants to put together video games and nothing else, regardless of his aptitude for it. Especially if he turns out to hate all aspects of programming once he actually gets out of school to do it--and then has to learn to read (long after his prime language-learning years are over) just so he could put a few sentences together.
posted by DaShiv at 11:17 PM on April 29, 2001

Ack, it took me so long to type that most of what I've said was already mentioned above. Now I know why some people are so pithy in their comments. :) Sorry for the verbiage.
posted by DaShiv at 11:32 PM on April 29, 2001

i watched this too, and you know what? i think it's a great idea. i decided long ago that if i ever have children, i'll send them to a montessori or sudbury school. why? because being forced to learn takes all of the joy out of the process itself.

when i was in elementary school, i went to a gifted program once a week that was very similar to what those schools promote. from week to week, i learned typing, facts about space, french, lego logo, different facts about biology, and every country on the european map (right after russia fell.) one year, everyone in the class dressed up as a famous person and went to a dinner in character, while the adults attending would quiz us until they could guess who we were. sounds incredibly dorky, but remember, we were in fourth grade. the important thing about this experience was that everyone was working at their own pace. i looked forward to going every week because in regular school i was doing things like memorizing the times tables and the fifty state capitals. important, yes, but when you put a kid who can memorize those things in a day or two in a classroom where it would often take at least a week, it led to boredom and acting out. there was no comparable program for junior high and high school, so by the time i graduated i'd been doing rote memorization almost longer than i had been going to gifted classes.

when i went to college, i found that the structure was more freewheeling than high school could have ever been, and very similar to my experience when i was young, except that *i* got to pick every class i'd take. i quickly switched from a science major to a liberal arts one, which allows me to do such things as *gasp* watch tv for a grade, and learn about the history of the gamelan. i have a basic understanding of the concepts of mathematics, but i will never take a math class again, because i simply don't enjoy it. i will never be an accountant, so why should i take calc III? i have conversational knowledge of a lot of subjects, and my interests are broad. i can discuss anything from politics to history to biology to media theory, and i really attribute this to the background i received as a kid, and my willing to go above and beyond what was being shoved down my throat in a high school that couldn't afford textbooks for everyone.

bicycling fool: They'll be snotty little brats who get into frequent arguments with their college professors/employers.

what would be so wrong with that? i can agree that no one wants snotty little brats, but frequent arguments? better to run their mouth than to submit blindly to authority just because.
posted by sugarfish at 11:32 PM on April 29, 2001


Didn't think this would make mefi and I'm disappointed by the comments so far, but if I had never heard of the school and saw that terrible 60 minutes piece, I would probably react in the same way.

But...since I helped start one of these schools (and there are something like 2 dozen of them in the US alone) in California and being heavily involved with one now in Seattle, I can tell you that while 60 minutes got some of the basic facts right, the overall picture was just wrong.

Voting for staff - yes, true. It is rare for any staff to get voted out and when it happens it is usually for good reason (like the staff member ignores the kids).

Every kid at Sudbury Valley does learn to read; yes, in their own time and once they learn it you can't tell the kids who learned at 5 from the kids who learned at 10. Sudbury Valley claims to have very few, if any, cases of dislexia. Kids do learn the basics. Know why? Because they are the BASICS. You need them to get along in life. Some kids learn to read because they love baseball and they want to read the box scores. Others learn math because they want to raise money for something. Just because people learn things at different times and in different ways (and why does 'learning' stop when school stops?) doesn't mean they don't learn or that they need to be told when or how to learn. Math basics that take 6 years to teach in public schools take only weeks to learn if you are motivated.

Notice how they did not interview any graduates. Too bad. They are usally successful, responsible people. Most Sudbury Valley grads go to college (I believe it's 75-80%) and most get into their first choice easily. Some even grow up to become geeks! Did you learn to debug that java routine in high school? Isn't it more important to understand yourself and how you learn so that you can tackle _any_ problem later in life?

There have been long term studies of these kids (Sudbury Valley has been around for over 30 years.) Check out the book Legacy of Trust. Check out any of the books - they give a much better picture of what sudbury schools are all about. They teach kids to be responsible, to learn how to learn, and to break out of the cycles of dependence so many people are stuck in today. Are they perfect? No. But I think they are a much better answer to the problems of education in the 21st century than any public school reform out there.

[alright so my first post is long and soapboxy, sorry; I've been lurking for a while to get a feel for everyone here and I felt it was time. Flame retardant undies on now...]
posted by dml at 11:34 PM on April 29, 2001

Why note have all different types of experimental schools, and have them all receive some type of funding or vouchers . We could have a small town consisting of nothing but home schooling families, and a college for their graduates where students can only major in government. We could have a total all-green leftie collectivist school for future WTO protestors. A Nation of Islam school. Single-sex schools. Rote Memorization schools. Free to Do Whatever Schools, of the sort described here. Schools Overseen by Students. Breakfast Club Schools, in which the regular students are alienated from and hostile to the administration, which consists of people their own age. Starchy Conservative Schools, in which students are required to read Harvey Mansfield's deadly, literal translation of Democracy in America and The Portable Edmund Burke in first grade. They could stress math, arts, engineering, astro-physics, whatever.

Government agencies, universities and think tanks could study these schools, and upon decades of scientific studies reviewed by three nonpartisan, competing blue-ribbon panels which all sides agree not to criticize, a three-judge tribunal will make its recommendations for a new national education system. Then everyone will agree to shut up or be shot on sight.

Next, the idea would be taken to the collegiate level. Then again, someone thought of this idea for the collegiate level about 30 years ago.
posted by raysmj at 11:43 PM on April 29, 2001

Sudbury Valley seems to be directly inspired by the legendary Summerhill School in the UK -- which, far from being founded by hippies, was created in the 1920s as a reaction to the authoritarian schools of the previous era.

You should go back a few more decades and mention Francisco Ferrer and the Modern Schools he started.
posted by gluechunk at 11:54 PM on April 29, 2001

Quick addendum to the post above: That would be why "not" have, in the first line. But then we'll have an "alternative spelling" school too, along with a All Bitchy Old-School English Teacher School, where people use "note" for "not" will have their wrists beaten with wooden rulers.
posted by raysmj at 11:58 PM on April 29, 2001

Aaron Swartz is rather outspoken on the topic--he's written a short essay in favor of them from a student's perspective. That's not to say that I support his general position (I don't), but it's still worth a look.
posted by disarray at 12:45 AM on April 30, 2001

Hmmmm.....there is one problem with schools like these.....when do the kids learn how to stick with something that IS boring and tedious? I love my job, but as with any job out there, there are times when what I am doing is not particularly interesting.......now I DID homeschool my kids for four years, for the very reason that they were bored spitless in regular school(in fourth grade all my son was interested in was football)......my goal was to get them interested in learning. But they still had to do math.

Since I put them back in school two years ago, they are all doing very well....the son in question has made nothing but A's-in advanced courses. He says he learned a lot more in homeschool, and I believe him, but he is learning things in high school that I never could have taught him myself-most of which have zero to do with academics.
posted by bunnyfire at 1:13 AM on April 30, 2001

dml : I'm interested in some of the specifics about starting one of these schools (what government permissions you need, things like that). You don't have your email address listed in your profile, so I can't contact you. If you've got time to talk about this, drop me an email. ccrouch@iastate.edu
posted by Rockames at 2:23 AM on April 30, 2001

Schools like this are the reason that our children are so far behind Japan. If I ever have a child, I'm thinking I need to homeschool him.

I went to university with a Summerhill graduate, and along with many of his contempories, he was Japanese. The Japanese schooling system is exceptionally rigid, and rote driven, so I'm told. Progressive parents seem to like nothing better than the exact opposite for their kids. Presumably, going to Summerhill is an extreme example of the kind of activity Japanese youth gets up to (and may even be encouraged to get up to) as an antidote to the formality of grown up life.

My friend at university was genuinely pretty wild, and extremely cool. He was a damned good guitarist and he dropped out of the physics degree after one year. Physics is probably second only to chemistry in the rote stakes...
posted by bloated_guts at 3:41 AM on April 30, 2001

I think the segment would be more interesting (tv) if we were given more info on what the parents are like, what they do, how they live--what has encouraged them to believe so strongly in this form of education. If this is their choice: fine. If someone chooses a religious school: fine. Home schooling: fine. But why each choice?
posted by Postroad at 3:50 AM on April 30, 2001

The flurry of posts on this subjects proves one thing:

GW Bush's political instincts and polling numbers are right about the centrality of education as an issue. It's got us as a people pretty damn riled up right now.

I think there is too much emphasis on how to teach and not enough on what to teach. Children have learned under a variety of different and seemingly contradictory schemes, including the Summerhill model As a general formula for all schools, though it's pretty clearly a disaster.

My wife teaches in a highly-structured Catholic school where most students outperform their public school peers because of the disclipline, homework and high expectations. But some very bright and creative students simply don't do well in this environment.

I think the government (us) should impose curriculum guidelines upon the schools and require students and teachers to pass tests to prove that they've achieved some mastery of the material.

The tests should be unranked and pass/fail, with the sole purpose of literally getting us all on the same page. Imagine a generation whose shared cultural memory included not only an abandoned shopping cart full of rock and roll lyrics, movie lines and favorite television commercials, but also 100 or so of the same poems, novels and works of non-fiction.

Just as it took the nation's leading red-baiter to finally get the U.S. to recognize Communist China, maybe a certified C minus student like Bush can lead the country to education reform. Joe Lieberman and Kerry of Mass. are right there. As John Kerry says, "You can't do this in some loosey-goosey, half-assed way."
posted by steve_high at 5:15 AM on April 30, 2001

I am a product of an awesome Montessori school, public education, private college, tutorial system, and grad school. The Montessori and tutorial systems where you either learn what you have an interest in learning or learn from your own research what you do not already understand are great tools. You not only retain the information well in this style of learning, but you get the skills to learn without formal structures. I have benefited greatly from this method of learning as it has given me great confidence in being able to grasp and learn what I need and want to understand.

Conversely, the structured methods of teaching in public schools and even grad school, which require you to learn math, sciences, and other areas, which may not be of personal interest have provided me with exceptional tools. These tools also give me a foundation to learn on my own. Without the problem solving skills from math/geometry/calculus and the categorization/classification and scientific method that puts logical structures to the world around us it would be difficult to fully grasp and master most subject areas.

I don't know that I would be as well rounded if I was not provided these varied learning environments. I do for work what is my passion. I have the foundation for learning and structuring what I do not currently understand so I can fill in the gaps I wish to solidify. Our formal education system in this country needs some help. Learning should be and based on desire as that is when lessons are retained and made usable throughout life, but there needs to be structure to learn the process-based foundations that can also provide for life-long learning.
posted by vanderwal at 5:43 AM on April 30, 2001

This country has compulsory education laws because we as a nation place a value on schooling. The 60 Minutes piece stated that Massachusetts does not (cannot, I believe was the term) control the curriculum of private schools. If this is so, how is a 'school' defined? What is to prevent a parent from dropping their child off at the mall for a daily dose of 'education' there?
I contend that a school by definition must have a curriculum. The question here seems to be "Can the 'curriculum' be NO curriculum? How can this 'school' prove that it meets the purpose of compulsory education laws? A philosophy alone does not a school make.
posted by tenbroeck at 6:37 AM on April 30, 2001

I've been having this discussion/argument for YEARS, and one thing I've learned is that it's almost impossible for people to discuss school rationally. Criticizing someone's ideas about education often provokes similar reactions to maligning Allah in a mosque. We have WAY too much baggage when it comes to school.

Those of you who are opposed to the "democratic" school system should try a simple thought experiment: imagine a world in which it was PROVED that such systems work. In this world, students at schools like Sudbury Valley learn more than average, are happier than average, get accepted to top schools, and get great jobs. If all this were true, how would you feel? Try to be honest with yourself. Would you then (CALMLY) say, "Oh. Ok then. In that case, I guess we SHOULD have schools like that"? Or do you still have a knee-jerk reaction against such schools? If you do, try to figure out what offends or scares you.

Those of you who are pro such schools should look deeply at your underlying assumptions. Do you believe all children are inherently good and curious? What's your evidence for this?

And EVERYONE should think about how their own schooling affects their views. Most of us get very emotional about our school days. Some were popular and successful in school, and they want to maintain a status quo in which they thrived. Many of us hated school. Sometimes that hatred takes a pathological form in which, as adults, we wish to inflict our horrible schooling on others. Some of us simply want to save others from what made US miserable, without taking into regard how others may differ from us.

Those of you who say things like "If I could have done whatever I wanted, I would have spent all day playing video games" are looking at the situation through a distorted lens! You COULDN'T do anything you wanted. For you, video games were an ESCAPE. Not so for kids raised in a democratic environment. You can't judge them by your own standards or your own psychology.

School structured our lives for two or three decades. It's hard to give up or alter a structure -- even one you dislike. It's scary.
posted by grumblebee at 7:17 AM on April 30, 2001 [1 favorite]

To reply to DaShiv......

If I were left to my own devices as a kid, all I would've "learned" were stats of professional baseball players

Lots of useful math skills to be learned in baseball stats ... addition, subtraction, multiplication, percentages. Sounds like your basic math skills would have been fairly firm.

the best weapon to use against each boss in every Mega Man game

So you would have learned deduction, and problem solving skills....

and esoteric trivia about various types of dinosaurs

With the side effect of teaching you a goodly amount of biology and geology ....

and how medieval people kill each other during open field combat and castle sieges

Giving you a firm grounding in history, and perhaps physics, if you were interested in siege weapons at all.

Not to mention how quickly your reading skills would progress when you were reading about something that really interested you....

Does this mean I was destined to become a sports statician, video game designer, paleontologist, or medieval historian?

No, what it means is that you have inadvertently proved the argument made by the school ... that kids will learn better when they are interested in the topic, and when it seems to have a relevant, real-world application to them.

This is especially true in math ... little kids (say, under 12) can have a very hard time with math because its so abstract. However, give them something concrete to connect it to (like how to re-calculate batting averages or how many more home runs Mark McGuire needs to hit to reach 70) and they'll get it much faster.

The goal here is not for elementary age children to figure out their life-long passion and begin to prepare for their career. The goal is to encourage children to learn ... really learn the basics, and learn them well.... and the best way to do that is to relate the basics back to something that has already captured their imagination ... be it Medieval history, diosaurs, or video games.
posted by anastasia at 8:03 AM on April 30, 2001 [1 favorite]

"to somehow incorporate skating into my future."

That is fucking awesome.

As a nerd, with a child, I must say that I will do anything in my power to keep him out of public school (he's only two now so I some time to figure things out). For us, this isn't about elitism or anything, it's about keeping them out of an environment I experienced as violent, hostile, and soul-crushing. I would cry my eyes out every day if I was dropping him off at public school.

Not sure if that was relevant, but wanted to get it off my chest.
posted by glenwood at 8:48 AM on April 30, 2001

Grumblebee - what you said! *grin* Seriously though - it IS a basic framework issue. Reminds me of a quote from the Matrix, when Morpheus was telling Neo that most people aren't ready to be unplugged from the Matrix and that most of them would probably be staunch supporters. (And I don't say that derusively.) It's the psychological equivalent of blowing up a platform while standing on it. I think discussions like this help us to see what we're standing on and then, if we want to, build another kind of platform to migrate to. :-)
posted by thunder at 9:28 AM on April 30, 2001

My sister and I had a discussion about Sudbury Valley last week (she's a "graduate", which doesn't make me any kind of expert or anything) and it went something like this:

Me: So, say you wanted to learn calculus, and you went to Danny (staff/co-founder) and said, "I want to learn calculus," what would happen?

My sister: He'd say, "You don't really want to learn calculus. Why do you want to learn calculus? Think about it."

It's an interesting idea -- that you should really WANT to learn what you learn. And, if you don't want to, why do it? What's the point?
posted by MarkAnd at 10:09 AM on April 30, 2001

And, if you don't want to [learn something], why do it? What's the point?

Uh, so you don't grow up pig-ignorant?
posted by kindall at 10:48 AM on April 30, 2001

What about artisans? One of the biggest problems I have with public schools is that they don't provide early venues for non-intellectual students to become expert craftsmen.

Some kids are natural do-ers, and they'd rather be fixing cars or building furniture than learning in a standard intellectual way. Intellectual learning can then take place as an adjunct to the students tackling the next, bigger project.

As we've drifted away from the apprentice/journeyman/master system of education I think we've lost a lot of ability to engage kids who want to work more with their hands than their intellects.
posted by brendan at 10:54 AM on April 30, 2001

Hey Rockames -- sorry, forgot to check that 'show email address' box when I updated my profile. I'm at dml@sublimemedia.com and I'd be happy to talk to you about starting a school like this - Sudbury Valley even has a publication about it.

Each state is different but the requirements for a 'school' are usually minimal - students have to show up for a minimum number of hours per day. If a school wants to offer official 'diplomas,' I believe the requirements are increased a some, again depending on the state.

There are so many comments I'd like to reply to but don't know where to begin. I think others have hit the important nails on their heads over the last 24 hours. anastasia got it right about how kids learn and that they learn best when they are interested.

To those who think you have to learn how to do boring and repetitive things (hey let's all go to military school to learn to take orders!), I'd say you do learn those things. How long does it take to learn a curve ball? How many times do you have to practice the same notes to play Bach? When something is important, you do what you have to.
posted by dml at 11:00 AM on April 30, 2001

kindall: Uh, so you don't grow up pig-ignorant?

We're all ignorant of most things. I think that there's this idea floating around in this thread that if you don't get a "normal" education then you're not learning anything at all -- that kids, given the opportunity to choose what they want to learn, will learn nothing. And that's just dumb.

I'm not arguing that Sudbury Valley would work for everyone, but it clearly works for some.
posted by MarkAnd at 11:02 AM on April 30, 2001

[studying skating] would have taught you the history and technique of skating

krakedhalo, right! it's likely that neither the history nor the technique of skating will ever come up in my professional career. that's not to say that the hobby was a waste, but had it replaced my high school education, I wouldn't be literate enough to have a professional career.

if I force you to memorize nine hundred and ten things about the battle of Hastings, you'll soon hate history altogether

memorizing ten of those 910 facts about the battle of Hastings will prove more valuable academically than studying what temporarily interests me. skating was a passing phase, and though I showed a dedication to skating I had not seen in anything else (inspiring in retrospect), I had plenty of time to obsess with the hobby after school. I never liked history, but that doesn't mean it wasn't important to learn. I didn't like english either, but now I'm in love with it.

where on earth do you get your claim of bigotry?

if I'm raised by a racist or a sexist, who will be there to tell me I'm wrong, or at least show me why I might be wrong? like kindall says, if you learn only what you want to learn, you'll grow up to be ignorant, if not just plain annoying.
posted by register at 11:18 AM on April 30, 2001

kindall says.
posted by register at 11:19 AM on April 30, 2001

Sounds like a typical British primary school when I was a kid. Bet they get to wear their own clothes as well. And of course, you'll bring in stickle-bricks and your arch-enemy will be there with a Game and Watch and lots of friends.
posted by feelinglistless at 11:42 AM on April 30, 2001

I'm kind of surprised at the vehemently negative response to this idea. Having attended a mildly alternative college, I've found that self-directed learning, while not for everyone, really can work. What I think a lot of people are missing is that people, children especially, really do like structure--so much so, that they will create their own if one is not imposed on them from the outside. If there are professionals around to help kids come up with workable and productive structures for learning, they'll probably do so, and in ways that probably fit them better than any cookie-cutter solutions. This works especially well when the kids are given responsibilities at the same level as their freedom.

As well, most real-world subjects are inherently cross-disciplinary, something that traditional schoolong often artificially hides. The world is not made up of discrete subjects. If I had attended one of these school, sure, I would have started off as a one-subject kind of person--in my case, literature only. But if you study literature for any length of time, you'll find that you eventually need to draw on other languages, history, economics, religion, philosphy, and the sciences in order to understand things. If the resources (and guidance) to do so had been avialable, I would have done so.
posted by feckless at 11:43 AM on April 30, 2001

anastacia: I agree, there are very useful things to be learned in whatever one has an interest in. But is that enough? Tracking baseball statistics would've never taught me things I learned in junior high, like how to solve parallel systems of equations (which I continue to find useful in solving problems in day-to-day life--of course, after learning linear algebra simplified the process even more). I wouldn't even have known these methods existed, let alone how to use them. Things like this, to me, make all those awkward hours in phys ed worth it. And learning about the hows of history will in no way illuminate the whys; learning about feudal warfare does not illustrate the fundamental political differences to why France unified early while Germany did not do so until the 19th century (except in the Holy Roman Empire). Because of this, I believe that laying out a basic structure and letting interested kids expand on that in their own time is the right way to go. Kids are prone erroneously believing that they really understand what's happened in the medieval age just because they've learned what a trebuchet is; seeing the "big picture" comes from being exposed (even if inanely) to different things, which I don't believe is characteristic of most youngsters' short-sighted interests.

Also, do people have the links to studies on the performance of unschooled children (or those in "unschooling schools")? I'm interested in seeing if these studies are adjusted for the fact that their subjects are a selected (and often self-selected) pool, in terms of socioeconomics (a major problem with SATs), motivation, and creativity. These studies really need to track students who have comparable results in a diverse battery of tests (which begs the question: how does one measure motivation and creativity?) before and after unschooling, against a similar group who went to public schools. It doesn't mean much simply say that most unschooled "graduates" have no problem continuing on in life. Given that these are privileged and/or gifted children with the resources for private schooling or parental facility to create a fertile enviroment at home, it's hardly surprising that they fare as well or better than children growing up in problem areas of public education, such as rural or inner-city areas.

And that really is the basis of my skepticism towards unschooling. I realize my earlier post was harsh--I certainly don't mean to say that unschooling automatically makes people ignorant or that it's an evil practice that should be immediately ended for the sake of the kids. In fact, I'm happy to see those with the means and desire to experiment with education continue to do so, whether it's through homeschooling, unschooling, or some other alternative. But to extrapolate the results with this limited and selected test group into "the evil system stifles creativity and we should adopt this instead" is just as much of a knee-jerk reaction as saying "unschooling makes people ignorant." Much of the problem in education lies in building some common base of knowledge (or chipping away at the general ignorance, if you will) in unmotivated students with unsupportive and problematic families, so that they can at least have some understanding of the world beyond their day-to-day life. (Everyone's vote counts the same, in theory.) The current, flawed system at least addresses this in certain ways; I'd hesitate to declare that unschooling is its replacement just because it works for certain kids.
posted by DaShiv at 11:55 AM on April 30, 2001

I think that there's this idea floating around in this thread that if you don't get a "normal" education then you're not learning anything at all -- that kids, given the opportunity to choose what they want to learn, will learn nothing.

I don't deny they'll learn things more or less by accident. But given the number of things that can be learned, the odds against them stumbling against something useful by pure chance are pretty small.

Luckily, we have thousands of years of culture that helps us determine what might be useful things for people to know. We have a canon of sorts, and although it is not as inclusive as some would like, it is far better than none at all.

Children do not have the perspective to make all decisions about what to learn on their own. If they do not receive guidance, the decisions they make are likely to not be particularly useful.
posted by kindall at 12:00 PM on April 30, 2001

I do want to add: I'm interested in looking at books on unschooling to give me some insight to the process of continuing to educate oneself as an adult. If anyone has any specific recommendations, I'd be happy to consider them. :)
posted by DaShiv at 12:00 PM on April 30, 2001

Children do not have the perspective to make all decisions about what to learn on their own. If they do not receive guidance, the decisions they make are likely to not be particularly useful.

Granted, but guidance is not the same thing as a mandating exactly what you must learn in what order and priority in order to pass specific tests by a certain age, which is the direction we seem to be leaning in education these days.
posted by feckless at 12:12 PM on April 30, 2001

So, what did you learn today?

And when's the last time anyone asked you that?

It's been years since I was asked "What did you learn today?," but I keep learning.

Yesterday, at the American Museum of Natural History, my mother asked me and my partner "How do you know all this?" as we talked about the fossil we'd gone to see, and history of dinosaurs, and their relations to birds, and such.

As it happens, my mother has a more advanced education than either of us, and she and I went to the same high school. But I know all this stuff because it caught my eye, and I read about it, and followed cross-references, and go to museums, and otherwise find out more about things because finding things out is fun.

Where does that attitude come from? How can we nurture it? How do you teach curiosity? How do you teach people to look for those connections?
posted by rosvicl at 12:34 PM on April 30, 2001 [1 favorite]

Given the high standards and general effectiveness of the standard school system, it is hard to see how this school could possibly do any worse.

I remember little of the data I learned in school and use even less of it. What really matters, in my adult life, is that I know how to learn and how to communicate. This school's contention is that these skills are necessary - intrinsic, maybe - to the successful pursuit of one's own interests. I'd have to agree with them.

posted by Mars Saxman at 12:59 PM on April 30, 2001

you know... I can see either side of this argument. I think any system that attracts good teachers is a good system. That's really the issue, I've realized that. I learned more on my own than in school because I didn't have very good teachers. But having finally, at the age of 19 and in my first year of college, had a good teacher, I must say it's much better than teaching yourself. If you have willing kids, a good teacher can make any subject interesting.
posted by dagnyscott at 1:03 PM on April 30, 2001

1. We're all ignorant. Education merely makes you less ignorant (and anyone who describes him- or herself as "learned"--isn't).

2. It's dangerous to argue that something is "useless" because "irrelevant." Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle was of absolutely no use for my Ph.D. in English, but the gawd-awful experience of trying to calculate it did, strangely enough, prove "useful": I never could manage the equation, but having seen it, I knew that any postmodern-type who cited it as proof that "all things are uncertain, there are no absolute empirical truths" was, um, bonkers. You never know.
posted by thomas j wise at 1:05 PM on April 30, 2001

there are plenty of kids in public schools and traditional private school who don't learn anything... this is intriguing. Imagine paying $4000 so your kids can go to school and do what they want. Sounds like a wacky idea, but I would have learned more at school if I didn't have to take all the stupid requirements.
posted by seosahm at 1:17 PM on April 30, 2001

Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle was of absolutely no use for my Ph.D. in English, but the gawd-awful experience of trying to calculate it did, strangely enough, prove "useful"

I would never say any kind of math or science is useless. But they are the most abstract types of thinking possible, and only certain people will gravitate toward it. That doesn't mean everyone shouldn't learn it just because they don't like it. Everyone should, preferably while their mind is at its most pliant.
posted by kindall at 1:47 PM on April 30, 2001

next year, i'm going to a college that will give me an education that many people have described to me (not alumni, just People) as worthless or irrelevant. i won't be learning computer skills, i won't be learning business skills, and i won't be learning how to manage people. when i graduate (without a major and without knowing my grades), i will have a degree in liberal arts. however, i will have a lot more than that. i'll be able to read critically, discern wheat from chaff in supposedly great books, understand the world better than when i went in. that's why i'm going to college. a lot of people are going to college for a career. this is just as admirable. i have different aims. they would say my degree is useless, and i would say that theirs is shallow, but we will both lead successful lives. they will be happy with their choices and i will be happy with mine. if there was a formula, it would have been worked out by now. there is no One Right Way To School, or every school would be like that.

my comparison is a little off because these are almost opposite styles of education. st. john's' style works well for me. this private school is probably most similar to hampshire college, which is also a great school and also churns out great students with very independent ideas. you can go to opposite sides of the spectrum and make them both work. if this is working for kids, fine. if it's not, fine again. it's a private school. if parents were unhappy with the education their children were receiving, they'd stop paying for it. it's not like your kids will accidentally be railroaded into such an "awful" environment.

to me, this is no different than hardcore science magnet schools. if it works for some people, great. more power to them. the ones that it fails for go to another school. everyone learns differently and everyone has different aims in life and education. while there are some skills that you need in order to lead a relatively competent life, no one really *has* to know linear algebra. there are people who don't know it who seem to be doing just fine. maybe not by your standards, but if they're happy and they're not bothering anyone, who cares about your standards? this is up to the parents. if this works for their kids and for their philosophy, then they could probably tell you exactly where to shove off.
posted by pikachulolita at 2:51 PM on April 30, 2001

Wow, I'm surprised by the amount of near-vitriolic responses in this thread. I'm a very happy and proud graduate of two alternative education programs. And I know I wouldn't be where I am today without the experience I gained in those programs.

From the age of three until 8 (when we sadly moved to another state), I attended a wonderful Montessori school. I remember spending hours writing stories and drawing pictures every day. I called my teachers by their first names: Patti and Linda and Eileen, I was in a class called "double red circle" with kids who were between the ages of 5-7. There were no grades and we were free to walk from one classroom to another to mix with older kids or younger kids.

I never felt as stifled as I did the first day at my new school, forced to sit at a desk with my hands folded and told to call my teach "Mrs." I adjusted, but I missed those days of drawing and thinking and studying what I wanted.

In high school I joined an alternative program again, and for three years I called teachers by their first names, sat in a circle on sofas instead of in rows of desks. We read all our papers aloud and were critiqued by our peers. We voted on due dates, we decided thing democratically.

It was an amazing experience. My writing got so much stronger as I rewrote papers over and over again. My public speaking skills were developed from standing in front of a room of 100 people during our weekly town meeting, discussing whether we wanted to include affirmative-action in our admission's process. I can't tell you all the things I learned during those years. Heck, in 10th grade I took an English class called, "Individuals and Institutions" and we read Summerhill and talked about alternative education, and discussed what we could be missing by not partaking in traditional schooling.

Alternative education may not be the thing for everyone, but please let's not dismiss it as somehow less sufficient than traditional schooling. I've found when I arrived at college I'd read far more books, had a greater exposure to different viewpoints and lifestyles, had more confidence in my writing and analytical skills, and had a happier outlook toward education in general, than most folks I met. And I went to a very good private college on the east coast, where many students came from prep schools.

It's also a shame to see people in this thread quickly dismiss children as lazy and unwilling to learn "important" things too. I don't remember a single kid at my Montessori school not actively engaged in some project at almost every moment during the day. People were always building volcanos out of clay, or drawing, or growing tad poles, or writing reports on animals.

Needless to say, when I have children, I'm going to look into all kinds of different schooling systems, and if there's a Montessori nearby, I'd be happy to have them attend.
posted by megnut at 3:04 PM on April 30, 2001 [1 favorite]

Others have already mentioned unschooling on this site.....I think if someone wishes to go that route it would be better to take the money he or she would have spent on tuition and use it on books and supplies for home use. There are lots of "unschoolers" in the homeschool movement.....I myself gravitated more to an eclectic mix-math was kinda formal, language arts a bit less so-history and science were most of the time simply a pile of library books and a Geosafari......my son was interested in history and read a ton of it.
But the point is they do need SOME direction. Math in particular needs to be step-by-step (we used Saxon Math).
And for the dear soul who mentioned military school-interestingly enough my son and oldest daughter both are taking Air Force JROTC-and the youngest girl has signed up for it for next year(her first in high school). THEIR choice. And neither me nor my husband have any connection to the military...go figure.
posted by bunnyfire at 3:23 PM on April 30, 2001

Last fall I seriously investigated the Sudbury School and spent a day there observing and talking to students and staff. I have also read the essays that all Sudbury students write as part of their graduation. The topic is something along the lines of "Why I am ready to become a responsible member of society."

I can then clear up one misconception that might have been made in this discussion. Most of the teenage students who attend Sudbury work part-time to full-time jobs outside of school. Some pay their own school fees, some are even self-supporting. They are undoubtedly learning how to do boring, repetitive tasks in those jobs that they wouldn't do if they weren't paid to do them. Many of them are also working tremendously hard at some beloved activity - academic or not - that requires them to engage in boring, repetitive tasks in order to accomplish a self-selected goal. (The younger-than-working age students don't work at for-pay jobs but can be seen at the school engrossed in activities both singly and in groups.)

In other words, Sudbury students are living their lives in relatively the same way adults live their lives. That is the principle behind the Sudbury school: when given the same rights and responsibilites as adults, growing up in a literate, self-organized society (both in school and out), children will learn self-motivation, self-discipline, self-responsibility and the knowledge and skills they need to reach their personal goals.

Sudbury Valley School has done surveys of its graduates the results of which I have also read. I would say that it doesn't appear that they are living lives too different from most working and middle class Americans. Perhaps a greater percentage of them are small business owners or entrpreneurs but not overwhelmingly so.

When I first heard about the Sudbury model several years ago, I too thought it sounded annoyingly idealistic. Even now, I don't know why I was annoyed. But this emotional reaction is a tough one to lose. The more rational but equally poorly considered belief that children won't learn unless they are made to learn is even harder to shed. I would never believe that an adult would actually learn something if he or she was forced to learn it in the same way that children are. Children are a lot easier to force than adults but that doesn't mean that they will learn any better under those conditions.

For a child's education to be successful, there must be a good match between the school's expectations, the child's learning styles and the family's expectations. One type of education doesn't fit all, one type doesn't even fit the majority. We are a pluralistic society and a wide variety of schools and educational methods is where we're heading.
posted by jeannepickering at 3:41 PM on April 30, 2001 [1 favorite]

im thinking that part of the misconception in these 'liberal' schooling opportunities is that many people view these places in a negative fashion simply because they themselves have never been allowed to do such, and other's should conform to their 'accepted norm' ,

lemme ask you this... why be normal?
posted by a11an at 8:00 PM on April 30, 2001

The United States and Canada are supposed to be free countries. I am surprised at the number of people here who beleive that we should force our children to all learn the same things. How limiting is that? What future creativity leading to wonderful inventions will we stiffle? There is an ocean of knowledge out there, and a person can only learn a cupfull in a lifetime. Who is to say which cup is worth more? If we all learn the same cupfull, will all the rest be lost? What a shame to try to force everyone into the same mold.

A school like Sudbury Valley school allows people to find their own shape. People who send their children there, trust them. They trust that they will find their place in life. Children are naturally driven to learn. They are driven to figure out the world around them from the minute they are born - constantly exploring. It is our survival instincts that make this possible. How could we possibly survive in a world we don't understand?

Children learn to self evaluate at Sudbury Valley school. They don't need someone else to come in and tell them that they did a good job or that they are worthy. They learn to do this for themselves. They follow through on their learning until_they_are _satisfied that they have learned what they set out to know. We are all ignorant of something. I don't think that someone who doesn't know calculus is particularly ignorant. I took calculus in high school because it was a pre-requisite for my flying carreer. I couldn't tell you anything about it now! Does that mean that I am more ignorant?

Children will learn the basics because they need them to function in the world. When they are responsible for their own education they take this resposibility seriously and will learn the basics when they see the need. How many students in traditional schools don't learn the basics? The difference is that they don't feel the responsibility for it. They blame the school or the teachers for not having done thier job when they don't learn. I think that some people here aren't giving children enough credit. They can show more responsiblity than you think. They need to be given the freedom to prove it. The trust has to come first.

Once the basics are mastered, education should be an open slate. Sudbury Valley has proven over 30 years that all the students learn the basics - it isn't even a question. It's the open slate to explore the entire ocean of knowledge that is so captivating about the school. Children can learn all the basics in about 100 hours once they are motivated and ready to learn. I have read this in several different publications - mostly homeschooling publications. After that 100 hours they have all kinds of time to discover the world around them. In traditional schools we spend several hours every day pounding information into little brains that don't want it or aren't ready yet, for years. Such misspent time.

I find it a sad state that most people are put off by the sight of children playing and having fun. When did this become such a horrible sight? Reports show that our children are becoming ever more stressed at such young ages. Is this what we really want for our children - a life of stress and ill-health? It really doesn't have to be that way.

Also, for those of you who believe that these children will never stick to anything that is boring or tedious, actually the opposite is true. These children learn to focus and persevere. They will do anything to reach a goal that they have set for themselves - even the boring and tedious!

As for the Japanese - they have been looking towards Sudbury Valley School in the last few years to see what they can learn! What does that tell us?

May you all find the educational environment to suit your needs. But please, this is a free country - let's keep it that way and appreciate the differences in us all. Diversity is the key to the future.
posted by CindyK at 7:55 AM on May 1, 2001

"When Arlington's H-B Woodlawn opened 30 years ago, it was called 'Hippie High'—a groovy type of school where students could design their own courses in intellectual pursuits such as postmodern screenwriting, or postmodern revolutionary movements.

It was a place where no student could fail for missing class and no one needed a hall pass. Students were even allowed to paint graffiti in the halls and on the cafeteria walls. Woodlawn was a haven for that quirky breed of student who might be brilliant but felt suffocated under the constraints of a traditional high school."

H-B recently turned 30, and I applaud plans that help students learn—and more-importantly enjoy doing so—rather than simply remember and regurgitate information.
posted by terrapin at 8:54 AM on May 1, 2001

[Long Post Ahoy]

Like Meg, I, too, am a believer that alternative schools are a good thing - my high school was based on a combination of influences, including Summerhill, Quaker schools, and other visionary education ideas of twentieth century. Granted, my school had more structure than this place, but it also enabled me to shape my own education (5+ credit years of History, asking for and getting an AP Art History class, reading everything from Shakespeare to Kundera, learning practical applications of geometry, 4+ credit years of Art, plus standard runs of science and math) to an extent my brother in public school never had the opportunity, much less the encouragement, to do.

That structure was evolving, and continues to evolve to this day: It was students who asked for grades to go with their progress comments, and who later asked to refine the grade system in the 1970s (to better appeal to the colleges they wanted to attend). Still, it was the comments that truly mattered - to me, at least. When something was announced, people could question it - they could ask why and get a real answer or a discussion about it in our morning meeting.

The school was built around the very simple concept of "With Freedom Comes Responsibility" and it manifested itself in all sorts of ways - you got the privileges of our community (ranging from calling the staff by their first names to the fact that your opinions and actions mattered) and you had the responsibility of making the community work (coming prepared to classes, being honest, helping to maintain the school facilities, treating each other with respect).

I emerged with a great education, a love of learning that had been fostered and deepened, an appreciation for individuality and creativity, the experience of trying on many hats, and the tools to be successful (an inquiring mind, strong critical muscles, the ability to look at things from different angles, the creativity to find new solutions).

It wasn't a school for everyone. You had to participate in your own education. It wasn't a place where knowledge was applied intravenously. People who were unwilling or unable to abide by the few rules of the community were not successful and didn't return. It was a place for people who felt unfulfilled or unserved by traditional schools.

For me it was heaven. In elementary school, my so-called gifted classes (coincidentally, containing all of the children of professors, teachers, and guys from the military intelligence center, and none of the farm kids or kids from the trailer park) were busy work that devolved into races to see who could get done the fastest. I developed some very bad academic habits in elementary school. The "gifted" kids were thus obviously isolated (building an us-vs-them mentality early on), bored to tears, and uninspired.

Thank goodness, I escaped that.
posted by julen at 10:02 AM on May 1, 2001

I find it a sad state that most people are put off by the sight of children playing and having fun. When did this become such a horrible sight?

Actually, the ideal of childhood as a carefree idyll is a completely modern development. It is a luxury that we, the wealthy of the industrialized West, have been able to buy for our children and that the poor, even in this country and certainly not in many many others, usually cannot. It is certainly not how childhood has been lived for most of humankind's history. Is this a positive or negative development? Hard to say, hard to say. But it is erroneous to believe that play is the natural, unspoiled state of our children. It is a gift that we give them, not a moral imperative.
posted by kindall at 11:29 AM on May 1, 2001

I recently began homeschooling my 9 year old daughter and in the process of researching homeschooling, I learned about Sudbury and it's philosophy. The ideas were new and startling to me, but after reading all that was offered on the web site and a few of their books, I would enroll my daughter in a Sudbury model school in a heartbeat if only there was one nearby.

I feel this way even though I received all my education in public schools and, over all, had very positive experiences there. I came through all the imposed curriculums with my curiosity and deep love of learning intact and yet I see the same system having the opposite effect on my daughter.

There are so many different ways of learning. We are all individuals. Having many choices - diversity - is a strength. I am not ever going to say that _all_ schools should adopt the Sudbury model, but I do know that I want to have a Sudbury-type school available as an option to me because of how my daughter is. Perhaps, if I ever have another child, I might be thankful that military school is an available option!

It doesn't have to be either/or. As someone said earlier, no one will ever be 'forced' to attend a Sudbury school. So those that find no value in it will never have to attend one or send their children there, but there are those of us who do see value in it and are thankful that there are others who have worked for more than 30 years to keep that option open. I, personally, am grateful to them.
posted by jburns at 7:28 PM on May 2, 2001

It seems to me that a lot of the hostility to the Sudbury model of education is based on the assumption that what kids learn is mainstream school is material they need to know in order to succeed in life.

Personally, I don't buy it. Aside from reading, writing and basic arithmetic, I don't think there's much of anything that we adults use in our daily lives that we learned in school.

Don't agree? (Most don't at first.) Try this: ask yourself what did you learn in K-12 that you actually used this past week. Okay, how about this past month? This past year?

When I first gave myself this quiz and came up totally empty I thought perhaps I was unusual, so I started asking other folks. Try it sometime, it's a great conversation starter. But prepare yourself for a long and somewhat uncomfortable silence at first while people wrack their brains to come up with at least one thing they learned that they actually find useful day to day.

So far, by happenstance, my personal non-random sample has been primarily people with graduate degrees from places like Yale, NYU, UCLA, Michigan and the like. I point this out only because these are obviously people who, myself included, bought into mainstream education in a very big way, and had to have put a pretty high priority on classroom learning for a very long time in order to get into these places -- and even we don't use our K-12 education in our daily lives. (In fact, it came out as we talked about it we found that most of us use very little of what we learned in college, graduate or professional school either.)

What then did we get out of all the time we were forced to spend in school (and for most of us, the hours a day, every day, after school doing homework as well)? And what, really, can we say that kids at Sudbury or other alternative schools are missing our on that they'll need later in life?

posted by stevevoltz at 10:54 PM on May 2, 2001

Yes, I am a parent of a student at a Sudbury model school. And in the eyes of a portion of the people posting here, I'm sure you assume my ignorance as much as I assume yours.

My son was in a pre-school setting that was structured after the mainstream education system. He was constantly acting out, never ate at the 'prescribed' time and was very unhappy. I thought it was my abilities as a parent that caused this.

After enrolling him in a Sudbury type school, our lives have changed for the better. He eats when he's hungry, there are no bells that make him respond like Pavolo's dog and no more pent up energy that gets released AT me.

If he were in a mainstream Kindergarten, I'm sure they would of recommended Ritalin by now. A sorrowful excuse for a child that is more PHYSICAL in his learning than LINEAR at this time of his life. You should see him shoot a basket. What a feat for a 5 year old.

Interestingly enough, he comes home asking about addition, spelling and other such basics. And I gladly answer his questions. He's writes checks to get his money out of the internal bank, goes to the pizza place to get his lunch on rare occasion. He socializes with people of all ages without fear. There are no bullies around in such a setting.

Yes, there are people that NEED the accolades of their parents, the clapping, the grade, the constant reassurance that they are making the adults happy. A setting like Sudbury would not be the answer to that kind of child. Just as adults have different work environments and we all find the one that fits us best.

I find it hard the grasp the concept of why such a school would anger so many people.

Especially since I saw some of the postings were from people whose ancestors excommunicated Galileo for claiming the world was round way back when. *tongue in cheek*
posted by kolleen at 11:53 AM on May 3, 2001

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