Fwd: FW: Comparing the Sudbury Model

Coby Smolens (cobys@webtv.net)
Thu, 20 Mar 1997 23:22:27 -0800

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I'm sending this along in the interest of sharing an elegantly simple
and clear piece on a subject close to my heart these days, and in the
interest of stimulating conversation and thought (not necessarily in
that order) around what I view as one of the major forces contributing
to the wheel-in-the-rut effect by which humankind continues to be guided
towards destinations not of it's conscious choosing: i.e., the way we
raise our children... Regards to you all, and lemme have it!

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Date: Thu, 20 Mar 97 02:32:51 UT
From: "Coby Smolens" <CobyS@msn.com>
Message-Id: <UPMAIL02.199703200355420478@msn.com>
To: "Coby Smolens" <cobys@webtv.net>
Subject: FW: Comparing the Sudbury Model

-----Original Message-----
From: Demstartup@aol.com
Sent: Monday, March 17, 1997 12:35 PM
To: Demstartup@aol.com
Subject: Fwd: Comparing the Sudbury Model

Forwarded message:
From: romey@wam.umd.edu (anne romeyn pittman)
To: Demstartup@aol.com
Date: 97-03-16 10:14:44 EST

Dear Demstartup Folks

A few months ago I mentioned wanting to put together an essay
distinguishing the Sudbury model from other types of education. Here's
what I came up with. Its nothing terribly new, but it has already been
helpful in clarifying the philosophy for people. I'd welcome any crits
or revisions. Anyone who wants to can use any or all of it


After hearing a short explanation of our school's philosophy, many
people understandably try to link it with something already familiar to
them. The most frequently mentioned "so-you're-sort-of-likes" are listed
below. We have tried to be fair, but clear, in distinguishing ourselves
from other philosophies. However, all the subtleties of these educational
models are not laid out and comparisons are not made from every angle. We
hope that the explanations below serve to clarify what the Sudbury model
is really about, and what it is not.

There are some ways in which the Sudbury model is similar to the
Montessori approach. Children in both settings are allowed more freedom
to make decisions about what interests them and how to pace themselves
than in most other schools. Both models also hold the basic assumption
that children are naturally curious and don't need to be forced to learn.
But Montessori children may choose only between the specific options
presented by the teacher, not from the full array of activities which life
itself presents. Montessori educators believe that all children learn
according to specific patterns and sequences. They base classroom
activities on the model's assumptions about what is "developmentally
appropriate" for each age group, and restrict access to certain activities
if earlier activities in the preplanned sequence have not been completed.
The Sudbury model makes no assumptions about how individual children will
learn at any age. There is no expectation that one learn multiplication
before negative numbers or how to draw a circle before a square. Interest
is the only criterion for engaging in any activity, and satisfaction the
only evaluation of success.

Like Waldorf schools, Sudbury schools care about the whole child. We
are not only interested in academic success, but in the happiness and full
human potential of each individual. Like Waldorf schools, we do not push
children to read early, as traditional schools do. We both value play,
"deep" (intensely involved) play, in particular, as crucial to the
development of children's mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual
selves, indeed as the fundamental "work" of children. We both respect the
intuitive wisdom of children, and take their world views and interests
quite seriously.
But the Sudbury model espouses no particular path of spiritual or
emotional growth. Rather than listening to children in order to better
guide them, we listen to them to respond to their self-determined needs.
Unlike Waldorf education, we have no predetermined curriculum. We trust
children to make their own mistakes, work through their own problems, and
come to their own solutions, with help, when it's needed, but without the
assumption that we know the best outcome. Waldorf educators endeavor to
move children, and society in general, in a particular direction, and seek
to set up an environment which fosters such social transformation. By
contrast, Sudbury schools seek to create an environment where children can
recognize and pursue their own agenda. Children and adults together
assess and modify the culture of the school through the School Meeting.
The democratic process in a Sudbury school can be loud and contentious; it
involves special interest groups politicking, voters making judgments,
defendants being sentenced. It is "real" and not necessarily
"enlightened" (although always respectful). The Sudbury model simply
aims to give children access to the full complexity of life, and the
curiosity, confidence, and competence to participate in -- and perhaps to
change -- society according to their own interests, experience, knowledge,
and goals.

Sudbury schools believe, as progressive school reformers do, that
traditional schooling is not working. Both identify authoritarian
teaching and administration as problems, and seek to reduce the stresses
students experience in being coerced into learning and evaluated by
"objective" testing.
But the Sudbury model also rejects the notion that the alternative to
authoritarianism is permissiveness -- kind teachers giving kids second and
third chances to shape up, trying to prevent any unhappiness, and bending
over backwards to "make learning fun," getting children to learn without
them noticing they are learning. When kids are treated permissively they
do not learn personal responsibility for their actions. Adults in
progressive schools are still retaining the authority to grant or deny
that second chance, to step in to resolve disputes, to establish the rules
of conduct in their schools. There can be an illusion of freedom or
democratic decision-making in progressive school, but if kids make poor
decisions, adults always retain the power to step in and solve the problem
for them.
In the context of learning, progressive schools often try to have the
curriculum follow students' interests. But the effect of teaching to a
child's interests is, as Daniel Greenberg has argued, like a parent
waiting for a child to open her mouth to speak before popping in the
medicine the parent wants to give her. Children who show an interest
playing Cowboys and Indians for a few hours, might be subject to six weeks
worth of projects about Native Americans, regardless of whether their
interest is sustained or not. The child administered medicine in such a
manner may learn never to open her mouth around a parent with a spoon;
the student administered education in such a manner may learn not to show
interest, at least in school. Learning something new can be hard work,
and children are quite capable of hard work -- when they are working on
something they want to do. When a student has a serious interest, there
is no stopping her, and "making it fun" is often an intolerable
distraction. When a student has an interest, we believe she should be
allowed to pursue it only as far as she feels necessary. She may return
to an important idea later, to deepen her interest, but forcing or
manipulating her to deepen it will only serve to lessen her curiosity and
sense of self-determination.
Some progressive schools offer an array of courses, but do not
require attendance. Sudbury schools do not have standard offerings,
because learning to pursue one's own agenda can be challenging, sometimes
painful, sometimes boring. We think boredom is a valuable opportunity to
make discoveries about one's self. It is often easier to sit in classes,
be entertained (maybe not as well as TV entertains, but still better than
nothing), and avoid parental pressure, than it is to schedule one's own
life, wrestle with one's own questions, learn how to seek the answers, and
master one's own destiny.

There is a particular philosophy of homeschooling, often referred to
as "unschooling," which shares many similarities with the Sudbury model.
John Holt was its best known proponent, and his writings have been
invaluable to us in helping to explain just how learning can happen
without teaching, and why on earth a child might choose to learn
arithmetic or some other supposedly dreadful subject. Unschoolers
believe, as we do, that children are born curious about the world and
eager to succeed in life and that kids learn best through experience and
experimentation rather than by being told how and what to think. In the
words of John Holt: "Real learning is a process of discovery, and if we
want it to happen, we must create the kinds of conditions in which
discoveries are made. . . They include time, freedom, and a lack of
But unschoolers, for the most part, see the family environment as the
best place for children to grow, while the Sudbury model believes that, as
the African proverb states, "It takes a village to raise a child."
Children and parents have complex relationships and interdependencies
which make it harder for children to discover true independence within the
family. In the environment of a Sudbury school, children face direct
personal responsibility for their actions, without the emotional baggage
that family-based accountability can sometimes carry. In addition,
children are more able to develop some important social skills in a
democratic school -- the ability to tolerate diversity of opinion, to
speak out against inappropriate behavior, and to develop and carry out
group projects, for example. In most homeschooling families, the parent
sees him or herself as ultimately responsible for the child's education,
while at Sudbury schools, that responsibility rests squarely with the

Sudbury School Meetings are similar to student governments only in
that they are composed of students.
But the School Meeting is a participatory democracy, where every
student and staff member has the option of a direct vote in every decision
made. Student governments are representative -- students are chosen to
represent the larger student body. More importantly, student governments
are hardly ever given real power over substantive issues. Elected
positions serve primarily as symbols of status, popularity, and
"leadership potential" for college admissions purposes. The School
Meeting decides who will be staff each year, how tuition will be spent,
what each and every rule of the school will be, and who will be suspended
or expelled for violation of those rules. Staff members are involved on an
equal footing, arguing their positions with gusto. But they are also
equally bound to the rules of the school. As a free majority, students
experience real control over their lives at school, and real consequences
if they fail to meet the responsibilities such control requires of them.
That kind of government brings a community identity and sense of
individual empowerment no token school government could hope to achieve.

(Romey Pittman is a founder of Fairhaven School, a Sudbury model school
opening in 1998 in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. For more information about
Fairhaven School, call Romey at (410)798-6759, Alice at (410) 757-8312, or
Sharon at (301)812-0999, or write to Fairhaven School, P.O. Box 184,
Davidsonville, MD 21035. For more information about Sudbury Valley School
and its philosophy, write to the school at 2 Winch St., Framingham, Mass.