"It's so they can learn how to learn"

Traditional school makes people memorize a bunch of stuff that they’ll never need again, and they typically forget most of it within a few years of graduating. The stuff you learn in college may be relevant, but that’s because you can choose your major. But the stuff they make you learn before that? It mostly gets forgotten. (Pop Quiz! What’s a covalent bond?)

When I point this out, people sometimes try to justify it by saying that all this memorization “teaches you how to learn”. Nonsense! Children are born knowing how to learn. How else do they manage to learn how to walk and talk? What traditional school teaches you is not “how to learn”, but rather “how to shut up and memorize a bunch of pointless facts and then forget about it later”. Does that sound like learning to you?

Think of somebody learning something. Think of Thomas Edison, for instance, learning how electricity works. Do you suppose that he crammed for a test, memorized a bunch of facts about electricity, and then forgot it all once the test was over? No! He learned on a much deeper level, and he retained that knowledge for the rest of his life. True learning comes when the student is actually interested in the subject and the subject has some relevance to their life. (And since people design their lives based on their interests, these two things go hand in hand!)

Even if you know in advance that, for instance, your kid is going to need to know how to read when they grow up (and I agree that they’re going to need that), there’s no point in pushing them into it. Wait till the kid is interested in learning, and then provide the help they need when they need it. Pushing them into it doesn’t speed up the process; it actually slows things down! It’s like starting a race early, but the tradeoff is that you have to wear 60-pound iron boots. Oh sure, if seems like an advantage to get a “head start”, but you’re actually going slower, overall, than if you had just started at the appropriate time and run around on your own two feet!

Besides, learning is happening all the time! The 8-year-old kid who “isn’t learning to read” is actually picking up words all around him; they’re inescapable! Plenty of Sudbury kids have gone from “illiterate” to “reading for fun” very quickly, likely because they were subconcsiously picking stuff up even when they weren’t “officially” learning anything. And as for those things that the kid actually never learns, those are very like the very things that he will never need. Like the quadratic equation, for instance. It’s great for engineers and mathematicians, but it’s pointless for the other 99% of the human race.

So don’t tell me that this assembly line system is “teaching people how to learn”. It’s teaching them how not to learn. And while I acknowledge that there are teachers in the traditional system who do good work, they mostly accomplish things by breaking the rules of traditionalism, not by following them.

Want your kid to learn how to learn? Just give them resources, and watch them soar.

If high school is college, why go to high school?

I attended a prestigious high school, and while I was there I took 7 AP classes, which count for college credit. Then I went to actual college, and it turned out that college was easier than high school! In college you get less homework, and you can sleep in more often. In college you have more freedom to make your own schedule and to focus on the topics you care about. And all the while you're earning a degree that future employers will care about.

If you're going to attend a high school that's actually harder than college, why go to high school at all? Why not enroll in community college at age 14, and get your Bachelor's Degree by the time you turn 18? Or here's another route: At 14, enroll at a community college and take half the normal courseload. Over the course of 4 years, you'll finish two years of work and get an Associate's Degree. If you want a Bachelor's, and if you also want the real "college experience" with dorms and all that, then you can take your community college credits to a "regular" college. Thus, at age 18, you leave home and move to the dorms of your chosen school, and you start taking a full courseload. After two years, you'll have your Bachelor's Degree! You could have a Bachelor's degree at age 20 and you spent much less money on it than everybody else (because you only spent two years at the expensive "real" college, while the earlier part was cheap community college.) Plus you'll be able to tell your future employer that you have a degree from a "real" college, for what it's worth. Plus you still got the college experience of moving out and living in the dorms, and you did that at age 18 just like everyone else. And if you want more of that experience, just stay an extra two years and get your Master's Degree!

Maybe we should just transform our high schools into community colleges. Maybe every class should count for college credit, and there should be a lot more freedom when it comes to picking which classes to take and how to organize your schedule. And there could be less homework and less stress, and the whole thing would be paid for via the government.

Or you could get really revolutionary and attend a Sudbury school. But if you're not willing to go that far, skipping high school is still a step in the right direction.

Is Sudbury the cure for our social malaise?

Andrew Sullivan has written a post called Things are better than ever. Why are we miserable?

The gist of it is that while the world is objectively better on many fronts (reduced poverty, increased lifespan, reduced crime rate), people don’t seem to be especially happy about it. There are a few ways we can respond to this.

One option is to question the claim that people aren’t getting happier. Even if lots of people are miserable nowadays, maybe everyone was more miserable 100 years ago. That seems pretty plausible to me.

Another option is to take people’s complaints more seriously, and diagnose the modern world with some sort of spiritual deficit, some sort of strange social malaise. If it’s true that this vague feeling has gotten worse over time, then maybe we’re encountering the unintended consequences of modernity. Maybe the march of technology, the glorification of individual rights and the gradual loss of religion have caused these strange new problems.

But then again, what about Sudbury schools? Because it seems to me like they have the magic formula. I’ve seen such schools in person, for weeks at a time, and what I’ve observed is a modern world without the social malaise. These kids have plenty of computers and smartphones, and they’re encouraged to grow as unique individuals, and the community isn’t based on religion (though they’re not explicitly atheistic either), and yet….and yet everyone is happy and active and engaged, and there’s a wonderful sense of community alongside the wonderful sense of freedom and individuality.

In fact, psychologist Peter Gray has shown that one thing has definitely gotten worse over the last several decades: mental health scores in children. Children are more depressed now than they were 50s. Kids are more depressed now than they were during the Great Depression! And there's a clear reason why: Kids have less free time nowadays. They have less time for self-directed play and exploration. I'm willing to bet that this has had huge impacts on society, not just for kids but for adults as well. (Because today's children are tomorrow's adults.) In which case, Sudbury clearly provides a solution. Sudbury gives kids the freedom that they dearly need. This makes for happier kids, which in turn produces happier adults.

I highly suspect that such concepts can be scaled up beyond schools. In fact I saw a documentary once about the Hotel Associa in Nagoya, Japan, whose staff had a marvelous sense of community, much like the ethos of Sudbury schools. (Note: I don't think this is related to the other Hotel Associa, which is run by Marriott and is probably a perfectly standard place.)

Whatever problems we have are not inherently connected to technology or individuality or the decline of religion; there’s a way to live well without jettisoning the entire modern world. So let's embrace it!

The Downside of Sudbury Schools

Sometimes people ask me:

Is there a downside to Sudbury schools?

There is, actually. But it’s not inherent to the model.

The downside of Sudbury schools is that they tend to be very small and very rare. For most people, there's no Sudbury school nearby. You may need to start your own school, or else actually move to a place where a Sudbury school already exists. Starting a school is hard, and so is moving. So you may be out of luck there. Lots of Sudbury families endure long commutes in order to get to school everyday. (Though it can easily be worth it in the long run!)

Likewise, these schools tend to be very small. The average Sudbury school has maybe 20 kids and 2 teachers, which limits the number of potential friends you might find there. On the flipside, Sudbury schools tend to be very friendly places, so it’s not as restrictive as it seems. But there is a restriction nonetheless, and that’s unfortunate.

With such small numbers, how can kids participate in large group activities? There are workarounds, thankfully. There are a number of sports programs or theater programs that take kids from multiple school districts, and many Sudbury kids make use of those. But yes, it takes some effort to figure out the workarounds.

The thing is, though, it doesn’t need to be this way! If there were a groundswell of support for Sudbury schools, then the schools would be common and easy to find. And they’d get much larger, too! Both these problems could be solved if we just had more support for Sudbury schools. That’s one of the main missions of this blog, actually.

If you’re considering attending a Sudbury school (such as Riverwind), I strongly encourage you to keep on considering it despite these difficulties. Sudbury is still awesome.

How involved should the staff be?

Sudbury schools tend towards a “hands-off” approach. We don’t tell kids what to do, apart from basic rules like “Don’t hit people”. We don’t force them to take classes. We don’t give them assignments. We don’t force them to learn one topic or the other. And that’s great!

Some people take this too far, though. Some people think that the staff should never initiate any sort of activity. The staff’s job is to do clerical work and make sure that the kids are physically safe, and nothing else. What if some kids are bored, though? Well then, you’ve got to stand back and let them figure it out for themselves. If you so much as suggest an activity, you are automatically pressuring the kids.

I think this is based on a traditional view of how adults and children can interact. Our culture provides many examples of adults domineering kids, so some of us get the impression that dominance is pretty much the only possible way for adults and kids to interact. Therefore, the only way to let kids be kids is to limit their interactions with adults.

But it doesn’t have to be that way! Sure, sure, there are definitely pushy people out there, including folks who dress up their demands as “suggestions”. But there are also people who honestly respect the kids, who truly intend a suggestion as a suggestion and nothing more, and who are quite willing to back off when they see that they’re not wanted. It’s this latter group that should staff at Sudbury schools, and it should be perfectly fine if they initiate activities now and then, so long as nobody is actually pressured to join in.

The book “What it Means to Staff a Sudbury School” includes some discussions on this point. This is a great quote:

For me, the student-staff relationship at Sudbury schools is based primarily on the assumption that kids deserve respect and freedom like adults, and they should be treated as such, not less and not more. That means, while in traditional education staff assumes a role of false superiority and pretense of being an all-knowing guide, in Sudbury education I see the danger of staff assuming a role of fake inferiority and pretense of ignorance. In my understanding, in a Sudbury environment, staff should simply not fake in any way. Just like among a group of kids activities are always initiated by someone — I mean it’s not considered against the principles if one student suggests to a bunch of his peers “hey let’s play basketball”, but it is if a staff member does the same? Didn’t we then just turn the direction of discrimination around? The point I see in the whole initiating-activities problem is that staff must not feel it is their duty to intervene when students have a problem or are bored, and do so because they think this is their superior mission, so that students feel manipulated, but merely out of the question “would I naturally say this if I joined a group of adult friends”.

Exactly. Staff are different from students mostly in the fact that they get paid and therefore they’re obligated to keep the school functioning even if they have to abandon their own interests from time to time. But if the staffers manage to keep the lights on, and if they’re always available to any student who asks for help, then there’s nothing wrong with the staffers pursuing their own interests in whatever spare time they have, and there’s nothing wrong with them suggesting activities to whatever particular kids are likely to enjoy their suggestions. (Of course, any kid who wants to be left alone should have their wishes respected.)

By pursuing interests and suggesting activities, the staffers can actually model what Sudbury learning is like. Again, and of course, they shouldn’t force anyone to follow in their footsteps. The point is not to turn students into miniature versions of the staffers. The point is for staffers to show by example a few of the possible ways of being human, so that students can observe and react. Let’s say a staffer decides to build a model volcano, for instance. Some kids will see this and ask to join in, while others will see this and decide it’s not interesting. Both groups have learned something here! Both groups have learned a tiny tidbit about their own interests and personalities, by comparing and contrasting themselves with the staff. (And of course they do the same with their fellow students!)

But this only really works if the staffers are authentic. So basically: Show up, respect the community, and be yourself. That’s the Sudbury way.

If it happened to you

In my previous post, I wrote about how adults tend to be blase about compulsory traditional schooling, in part because they're not personally going through that experience anymore. But what if things were different?

Suppose that you are 40 years old. Suppose that the government passes a new law, the "Midlife Compulsory Education Act". Everyone who is 40 years old must now attend a special school. You will start at 13th grade and remain there for 12 years, until you graduate 24th grade at the age of 52. You will attend this school nine months per year, five days a week, whether you like it or not. You have no say in the matter. You cannot vote for new politicians who might change the law, because actually you have no voting rights. The government believes that middle-aged people are naturally incompetent and should not be allowed to influence governmental policy.

Who would agree with such a policy? Wouldn't it be a terrible violation of your rights, to be forced to attend school whether you like it or not? I'll grant that kids do have some advantages, like free room and board from their parents. But you know who also gets free room and board? Prisoners. And no one seems to think that prison is a fun place to be.

Humans, in general, need freedom. They need it whether they're young or old or anything in between. The only rules that can be justified are rules that prevent you from hurting people. But compulsory schooling doesn't make us safer; it just makes us sad.

School should not be compulsory. Innocent children should not be sent to a place which feels like prison. School itself should be something that kids enjoy. If they don't enjoy it, let them vote with their feet! Let them leave the building. Let them go home if they want to. Everyone needs to be free.

Convincing the Parents

A while back, I was helping out with a support group for LGBT teenagers. One of the teens had heard about Sudbury schools, and asked everyone to share their opinion. So we went around the circle one by one and shared our thoughts.

The teenagers were in unanimous agreement: Sudbury was awesome. They had never attended a Sudbury school personally, but they knew the philosophy (because I had explained it to them previously), and they all felt sure that they would do better in a Sudbury environment. The only negative emotions expressed was a sense of frustration and regret that they hadn't been raised Sudbury in the first place.

The adults (aside from myself) were more reluctant. Their feeling was that Sudbury might be good for some kids, but other kids needed structure. They seemed content to let the public school system remain in place, mostly unchanged.

In my experience, this is common. Kids understand what they need, but adults just don't get it. Partly this is because today's adults went through yesterday's schooling, back when things were a bit looser and there was less pressure and more free time. But mostly I think that adults have simply forgotten what their own experiences were like, and they lack imagination about possible alternatives.

Why do adults tend to think this way? Mostly because of school! The standard school system encourages conformity: obedience is valued and divergence is punished. By the time you get to be an adult, you've long since learned to silence your own intuition about the importance of personal freedom. By the time you reach your 30s or 40s, it's even easier to slip into amnesia about what school was really like, since it happened so long ago. And now that you're a full-fledged adult, you're expected to make a habit of ignoring children's needs and emotions. Of course the adults in this setting had expressly gathered for the purpose of supporting the kids in their LGBT-related struggles, and in that area they were actually quite supportive and helpful. But when it came to the topic of school, they were less helpful.

I honestly think we need Scholastic Abuse Support Groups, specifically designed to help kids who are burdened by the traditional school system. More than that, we need to treat kids as full human beings in all walks of life. If I'm ever in a room full of kids and they all say that they hate X and they prefer Y, I'm going to give some serious thought to the idea that maybe X is actually a bad idea for the vast majority of kids, and Y is a good alternative. I should not presume to know better just because I'm older. Maybe the kids know something that I don't.

In terms of Sudbury recruitment efforts, the easy part is persuading the kids. The hard part is persuading the parents. But we must convince the parents, because they hold the legal power to decide which schools their kids attend.

I feel bad for the kids whose parents just don't get it. I also feel bad for the parents who have apparently forgotten the value of freedom.

Why I do this

Kids need freedom.

They need to be free to run and jump and talk and laugh and play. They need to be free to follow their interests. They need to be free to make friends and have adventures and explore this amazing world of ours. They need to be able to see the world through fresh eyes, so they can fix the mistakes of previous generations. Today's children are tomorrow's adults, after all.

When I was young, I desperately needed freedom. But my parents, my school and the world in general wouldn't let me have it. They wanted obedience. They wanted homework and grades. And sure, they had a good side too, but even so they wounded me deeply, and they didn't even see what they were doing.

I know I'm not the only one who has this history. I've spoken to a number of people, especially children, who have shared with me their own struggles, their own need for freedom.

If today's children are raised properly, if they're given the freedom and respect that they need, then they'll grow up with joy and wisdom, and when they have kids of their own they'll raise those kids properly, and they'll grow up to raise their kids properly. If we can fix just one generation, we can fix countless generations, on down through the centuries.

Children have been mistreated in almost every culture for hundreds of years. It's time to change that. It's time to make kids free again.

No one should have to endure what I endured. Freedom must be provided to those who need it. And honestly, I think everybody needs it.

Sudbury is one way to make children free. Agile Learning Centers are another. Unschooling is a third way. I will do whatever I can, because this needs to happen. Some kids, especially teens, are actually driven to suicide by all the pressure, stress and confinement. Other kids live, but they die a little on the inside, and they grow up to become adults who have no idea who they really are or what they really want, and that discontent may well haunt them to their dying day, unless they come to realize what went wrong.

When innocent people suffer, it is our moral duty to help them. That's why I do this. That's why I'm founding a Sudbury School.