Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Children Educating Themselves

Free to Learn by Peter Gray

Chapter 5 - Lessons from Sudbury Valley: Mother Nature Can Prevail in Modern Times

"People naturally want to make sense of their world."

In chapter 5, Peter Gray explores the Sudbury Valley School, founded by Daniel Greenberg and others. Greenberg had wondered, "What is wrong with our educational system that prevents students from developing passionate interests and then pursuing those interests in their education?" He founded the school to create a democratic institution in which students could pursue their own interests and come to their own conclusions.

I found the description of this school very interesting. The school is administered by the School Meeting, with every person in the school (students and adults) having one vote in the proceedings. The meeting discussed and decided all rules of behavior, hiring decisions, budget and expenditure decisions, and so forth. The rules are enforced by a Judicial Committee comprised of student representatives and one staff member.

Students move freely throughout the grounds all day and associate with anyone they choose. Staff are adults that serve as resources and do other appropriate work (including ensuring safety and giving comfort as needed). Students can use whatever resources are available onsite as they choose - books, computers, equipment, adult staff, and one another. (Students must be "certified" to use expensive or dangerous equipment; they receive training as needed and show proficiency before they can use on their own.) Classes in specific subjects are offered at students' request and last as long as interest continues. Students older than 8 can leave the campus anytime; under 13 must be accompanied by another student and sign out. No set scheduled or set classes/subjects. Students are not grouped by age or in any other way (except as they choose). The school has no established curriculum, no testing, and no student ranking. If students want to receive a diploma, they prepare and defend a thesis explaining why they are ready to graduate and how they are prepare for responsible adult life; this is evaluated by outside reviewers.

"The basic premise of the school's educational philosophy is that each person is responsible for his or her own education."

Through this example, Peter Gray concludes that these conditions optimize children's abilities to educate themselves effectively--

  • Time and space to play and explore (unscheduled time, space to roam, choose for themselves)
  • Free age group mixing
  • Access to knowledgable and caring adults
  • Access to equipment and the freedom to play with it
  • Free exchange of ideas (all ideas are on the table)
  • Freedom from bullying (a safe environment)
  • Immersion in a democratic community

I'm very intrigued by the idea of the Sudbury Valley School. I agree with the basic premise that each person is responsible for his own education. I think that kids need more freedom to choose and pursue their own ideas and interests with less constraints. I think that many adults feel a need to exercise more control than they need to do.

I'm unsure that this philosophy could be replicated on a large scale throughout the country. But I do think that the education system could incorporate more of those conditions above and create environments that allow children to educate themselves more. I also think that we as a nation need to think about approaching education in some different ways, not just tweaking the existing system but creating a new one.

Kids want to explore their world. They are born ready to do it. We just need to find ways to get out of their paths.


  1. A nice summary, but please, one correction. The founder mentioned is NOT David Greenberg, but Daniel Greenberg, who (both alone and with others) has written numerous books about the Sudbury valley School, its philosophy, operations, and results. More information is available at www.sudval.org

    1. It's fixed; thanks. (Guess I can't read my own writing sometimes!) And thanks for the link for more information.