No Curriculum, Ever

(-> German translation/Deutsche Übersetzung)

I’d like to share some thoughts about why democratic schools should not have even a little bit of curriculum or mandatory guidance. Imposing even a single mandatory class, even just a mentorship or a morning meeting, is disrespectful towards students, and signals that the school does not take self-directed learning seriously. Sometimes, motivated by fear, parents attack this notion, demanding more guidance and railroading to make sure their children get where they want them to go. Every school responds in a different way. Only a clear “no” — the typical Sudbury response — makes sense, especially considering what democratic schools are for.

People, especially parents, always ask why the school can’t guide its students a little more actively. It is not that the guidance itself is a bad idea — in fact, I would say it’s vital that guidance be available in the school to those who feel they need it. But forcing guidance on students, even “just a little”, even just implicitly, by making some form of educational activity mandatory, is a signal of distrust. It’s saying, “we trust you to decide what to do with your time, so long as we have some influence on it”, or in other words, “we trust you entirely, except that we actually don’t”. It’s not only a mixed signal, it’s implicitly disrespectful, patronizing and demeaning — even if the guidance itself is presented by people who are respectful towards the students, and even if it’s done in a respectful way.

Schools should strive to produce graduates who are independent, creative, know how to manage their own time, and know how to plan out their own path towards their own goals. For this, the message must be crystal clear: we trust you to make your own choices. This is not part of what a Sudbury School does — it’s what the entire project is about. The opposite message, that there’s a standard “right” way to do things, is already on offer at every traditional school and from almost every person who ever went to one. Any student today is exposed to that message more than enough, even if they attend a school that is different. We do not need to do anything to integrate it in democratic schools, because the students’ families and hometown(s) already do that for us, whether we like it or not. Our mission is different. As person-centered schools, our job is to trust the students entirely.

Having a curriculum is bad, and not only when it’s mandatory. It is not better to “merely” encourage students to pursue some course of activity. When it is mandatory, at least everyone knows what’s going on, at least it is transparent. When you don’t force it but only make it clear that it is better, or that it is expected, or that it is the right thing to do, it’s no less distrustful, but you’re also endangering the relationship of trust between staff and students, giving students every reason to be cautious about the staff. Why trust someone with some external agenda, with some plans for what you’re supposed to do? Is that the kind of person you will want to turn to when you have questions? Is that the kind of person you will turn to when you need help? When you need someone trustworthy to talk about difficult issues with? The staff at Sudbury Jerusalem are the kind of person you would turn to, and I think a big part of this is that when they think you should do something, they just say so, and you know that’s just their own personal opinion. They’re not there to guide you, but they do offer advice when you need it (or when they feel like it), and they can kind of be guides when that’s what you need. To this day I still trust them like family. It’s not that staff should be forbidden from offering guidance, it’s that it should never be their job to offer unsolicited guidance in order to educate people. When that’s your job, you’re not someone to trust — just look at traditional schools.

But let’s look at another aspect, one of the goals I proposed above: creative problem-solving. It seems to me that any kind of focus, on behalf of the school, on state standards, goes against that goal. Many democratic schools today still make it clear to students that they should take state exams at the end of their secondary school years. Some schools quietly encourage it, in some it’s just the thing that everyone does, the goal you are there to work towards. This shows students, for better or for worse, that like most of society, the school endorses the standard path through life. However, unless you specifically really want to become a medical doctor, the standard way is not the only way. There are alternative ways, funner and less arbitrary, if you look for them. But unless a person already knows they have a goal that makes the standard way necessary, the school should be equally supportive of following alternative routes. The problem is that when everyone expects you to just take the standard route, you probably won’t even look for alternatives — why bother? If a school supports the standard way, its students will usually take that standard way.

If we are truly committed to producing the kind of graduates we should, there is no place for arbitrarily supporting any particular curriculum, any guidance not asked for, or any kind of standardized testing. These are anathema to our goals, poison against our success.

But I may be too radical about this. I’d love to hear some dissent. Feel free to leave a comment.

19 thoughts on “No Curriculum, Ever”

  1. I disagree with the unstated premise that a curriculum is necessarily limited to some form of mandatory imposition. I take a curriculum to be quite simply the systematic organization of educational experiences. And further I would contend that based on this definition Sudbury Model schooling has a curriculum in the form of the governance structures that enable the community to operate.

    I agree with you that Sudbury should be very careful about the kinds of curriculum it supports by ensuring that all forms of mandatory compliance are subject to recourse via one of the various boards or meetings in which decisions are made and can be reviewed. And that process is an essential part of the Sudbury curriculum. And it’s how the various Sudbury schools will distinguish themselves from each other; they will come to different decisions about what exactly each community requires of it’s members.

    And I also challenge your notion that Sudbury does not have any mandatory guidance. Your behavior is expected to meet standards explicitly stated in the governing documents of the school, explicitly enforced by the groups named by those documents, and implicitly defined in some way by the habits and rituals enacted in your community every day. Unless the school you went to is radically different from the schools I am familiar with there is mandatory guidance from the j-board in response to accusations that your behavior did not meet other people’s expectations. That’s a key component of the curriculum, in my opinion.

    And the vitally important lesson in that experience is that you are NOT radically independent, you are inter-dependent with the other people in the learning community. Quite contrary to your assertion that mandatory educational experiences are “disrespectful, patronizing and demeaning” they are exactly the opposite when they are offered in the form championed by Sudbury and other democratic schools.

    Here’s a link to an essay I wrote on curriculum.

    Enjoy,

    Don Berg

    Site: http://www.teach-kids-attitude-1st.com
    Free E-book: The Attitude Problem in Education

    1. Thanks for the dissent, Don. :)

      To me, a curriculum is a plan for what students are expected to learn (whether or not assuming a broad definition of learning, and in itself separate from any methods). So it’s not inherently limited to mandatory imposition, but yes, I had in mind the imposition, by whatever means, of a curriculum on students.

      I have heard this argument before, that the school’s democratic structure is what the school is teaching. I think it’s a fair interpretation, but it’s just not how I ever understood it, when founding the school, when attending it, or since. To me, the school’s democracy is simply a tool for living with one another more or less in peace. It explicitly requires people to learn how to tolerate each other, which I supposed could fall even under my (narrow) definition of curriculum, but nonetheless, that’s a requirement imposed by the school democracy, not one of the reasons — to me — to have it.

      I also would not define what Judicial Committee does as guidance. In fact, in Sudbury Jerusalem we more or less actively avoided that. The JC’s function, to me, is to receive complaints, find out whether the incident described took place, figure out whether it broke any rules made by School Meeting, and if so, propose a consequence. Even in cases where clearly the individuals involved needed some guidance, or when the incident was part of an ongoing dispute between two individuals, the norm — at least in my school when I was there — was for the JC to simply figure out some fair consequence for the incident, without trying to help the individuals involved figure out that they should stop. The consequences often did not even cause the incidents to stop, in which cases the JC would escalate the consequences, still avoiding actively guiding or giving advice. Once in a very long time, the JC would ask the parties involved in an incident or string of incidents if they would like help organizing a sit-down to figure things out, but this was a very rare occurrence. Often, however, members of the JC would approach the parties involved personally, not as representatives of the JC, and try to talk things through.

      It’s easier to understand JC as teaching people through punishment, but I eventually realized that is not the point at all. The point is that for the community to be happy, it’s useful to have the option of bringing someone up, and it’s useful that people who break school rules have some kind of consequence related to the violation, so long as someone cares enough to bring them up. It works particularly well when it’s carried out consistently and somewhat impersonally (though not entirely), which is why you don’t stop giving consequences just because they are not “working” (i.e. teaching the right lesson).

      You are absolutely right about the inter-dependence in the community, and this is what the JC is really about. It’s about maintaining a functioning community of inter-dependent individuals who share a small slice of space and time on a daily basis. Sure, it might be an educational experience for some people. But learning is more or less like breathing, and since we do not admit the dead, it’s fair to assume all individuals in the school are learning something or another at any given moment. I don’t see the JC as being there to produce a certain kind of learning, but as producing a certain kind of community in which individuals are not limited by one another’s whims and are free to deal with their own.

      I should get to class now (syntax of verbal arguments, yeah!!!), I just didn’t want to leave without any kind of reply. I might have something to add later on today.

      Cheers,
      Michael

      1. “I … would not define what Judicial Committee does as guidance. In fact, in Sudbury Jerusalem we more or less actively avoided that.”

        Perhaps we do not share the same understanding of the word guidance, but it seems to me that you can’t avoid it. To me guidance implies movement along a path with a guide providing feedback about how the mover is related to the boundaries of the path (particularly when the mover crosses the boundary of the path and is, therefore, “off track”.) Thus, the function of JC is to discern the path defined by the rules of the school and give members of the community feedback about when they cross those boundaries. This way of understanding the term guidance pretty well makes it absolutely fundamental to the function of JC to provide guidance to the members of the community.

        Given your description of the issue you faced in formulating the role of JC you interpreted the guidance to be of a particular character, no the lack of it. If I were guiding you on a literal path I could tell you that you are 3 feet to the right of the path or I could tell you that if you keep going the direction you are headed you will run into a brick wall. It sounds like you do not want your JC preaching to the parties in a dispute (telling them of dire consequences if they continue), but to simply issue consequences in accordance with their current understanding of the situation (giving them their current location).

        Given this understanding of guidance, then it is clear to me that JC is not about punishment, but about defining the path to conducive community relationships that are least restrictive to the constant learning that inherently goes on all the time. To use the breathing metaphor, JC points out where clouds of noxious gas have gathered and people entering those areas run the risk of toxic effects. Fortunately, most people are not interested in exploring those areas most of the time. But it’s crucial to the health and safety of the members of the community that guides are available (JC) to track those hazards and provide guidance when folks inadvertently encounter them.

        So, if I am off base here, please clarify for me how I am missing the point.

        Enjoy,

        Don Berg

        Site: http://www.teach-kids-attitude-1st.com
        Free E-book: The Attitude Problem in Education

    2. Don Berg writes:
      “I disagree with the unstated premise that a curriculum is necessarily limited to some form of mandatory imposition. I take a curriculum to be quite simply the systematic organization of educational experiences. And further I would contend that based on this definition Sudbury Model schooling has a curriculum in the form of the governance structures that enable the community to operate…….”

      That’s out of discussion Don. We don’t live in a vacuum, you know? We as a parents – and the school we choose for our children — have influence on our children by hook or by crook.

      Don Berg writes:
      “….. there is mandatory guidance from the j-board in response to accusations that your behavior did not meet other people’s expectations. That’s a key component of the curriculum, in my opinion……”

      The only mandatory guidance there is in Sudbury schools is the social system: the school governance. We must differentiate between the private realm (individual rights) and the public realm (law and order in the community).

      ~ David

      1. David,

        I suspect I am having difficulty understanding. In your first sentence are you saying I’m off topic by offering up my take on curriculum? I can’t think of what else you could mean, so I assume I am probably missing something. Then I agree with the following two statements, but don’t understand how they relate, once again, I assume I’m missing something in my reading.

        In the second response I don’t understand how what you have said is different from what I said. We seem to agree that the governance system is mandatory. I have asserted that this constitutes a curriculum. Are you disagreeing with me? If so, I missed the substance of your disagreement.

        An effective governance system is a feedback mechanism that ensure that the behavior of the individuals within the community conform to the expectations established within the governance documents. In the case of Sudbury schools there are expectations about how individuals within the community share responsibility for enforcing those expectations through the mechanism of the JC. Individuals write-up other individuals when the accuser decides that the behaviors of the accused violate the expectations of the community, as understood by the individual making the accusations. So, I am not sure where to make the differentiation between private and public realm when they are so interdependent. And I am also not clear what benefit is gained by making such a differentiation. Perhaps I am missing something in my reading, after all I am in the US and perhaps you are in a place where you have a richer depth of recent cultural experience with these issues.

        Don

  2. Thanks, David. I think David makes a very good point which may be the crux of the disagreement here: JC and SM are involved in steering the community, not guiding individuals. JC is not about causing students to return to the right path, it’s simply about reinforcing the decision of School Meeting about the kind of behavior the school community can accept as a community.

    Don, I don’t think you and I disagree so much about what should or should not be done; this seems to me more like we’re talking past one another because we use different terminology. It seems to me – and please correct me if I’m wrong – that I’m trying to stick to what I perceive as the normal, general, narrower sense of the words “curriculum” and “guidance”. In the case of the former, my understanding of the word may well be non-standard for English, because in Hebrew and in German the translation would literally be “learning plan”, and I have grown accustomed to that being the “curriculum” at the center of debate. Nonetheless, I think you expand the definitions of these words somewhat, considering their broader sense, as applicable to a broader variety of experiences and contexts. I should note I have nothing against taking these words in their broader sense, it’s just not the way I like to use them.

    Sorry to turn this to semantics, I just have a feeling we’re arguing over nothing. When I say “no curriculum, ever”, I mean “nothing that looks like a traditional curriculum, not even just a little, under any circumstances”. I think what you’re reading into it is something else, and I can see how giving “curriculum” a broader interpretation is a good idea when talking alternative pedagogy.

    As for “guidance”, I guess I may not have worded my post very well. Even taking into account the individual/group distinction that David suggests, I guess it’s splitting hairs to claim that JC is not mandatory guidance. However, it is strictly guidance about *behavior* within the community. And it is not generalized to all students, like with the “mentorship” system in place in most Israeli democratic schools (Hebrew: חונכות, [xɔn’xut]). It does not focus on the guidance aspect, which seems more central in systems (also very common in Israel) which use something called “bridging”, I don’t know the English term; this is the “sit-down” I referred to in my previous reply. Many Israeli democratic schools use this as a central problem-solving tool. Sudbury schools generally focus instead on enforcing school law, leaving the actual conflict resolution for the individuals to work out (or learn to work out).

    I guess my point is that individuals do not need guidance in order to learn (nor to learn better, nor to learn the things they need, nor to learn things the way that’s best for them). Individuals naturally figure out that stuff. This is the guidance I meant to condemn. Communities need tools in order to maintain some kind of livable stability, and that’s where the school democracy comes in. Any effects it has on learning are secondary functions, if not simply coincidence. At least as far as the school should be concerned. (The individuals involved in running the school are, of course, another matter entirely.)

    Michael

    1. Michael,

      On Sematics: Even if you prefer to use the term in the usual sense, then I think you are setting yourself up to fight a battle that you cannot win. I agree with you that there is a “normal” sense of the word and that what is “normally” meant is against the principles of democratic education. But I think it is a far worse tactic to reject “curriculum” than to give it a sensible meaning that is consistent with the more effective learning facilitation that is provided by democratic education. My sense of what is needed to strategically position democratic education for wider acceptance is to formulate our approach in familiar terms (i.e. curriculum, school, teacher, etc.) that have been corrupted by the dominant system. We just need to insist on using the terms appropriately for real life learning, not in the bastardized ways that are considered “normal” today.

      And just to be clear, I realize that others may feel that I am the one picking an unwinnable fight. But, I think that abandoning the terms of the discussion to the mainstream is a terrible idea because it allows them to maintain a certain kind of control over the debate. My proposed definitions do not take anything away from the normal meanings, but if the sensible expansions can be acknowledged as reasonable then we have a good chance of getting wider acceptance. Given my take on the issue then I also think that having this semantic argument is crucial to our long term success as a movement.

      On JC and Governance as Learning Plans: JC’s power is to impose sanctions on individuals, not the community, therefore it is not accurate to say that JC steers the community. As for the SM, I am not sure how you organize your schools but the schools I am aware of here in the US have a School Meeting that consists of the Staff, students and volunteers and another separate meeting, which I will call the Policy Meeting, that consists of members of the wider community including parents. The School Meeting is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the organization (which includes authorizing the JC) whereas the Policy meeting deals with the larger issues of policy that direct the School Meeting in terms of legal issues with the State, broad budget issues and relations with the wider world. So the guidance of the community is vested in four different levels of governance; Policy Meeting, School Meeting, JC (and other structures authorized by SM), and individuals. Together they define bounded regions of behavior, when individuals or a “body” duly constituted by one of the meetings violates one of those boundaries and then one of the higher bodies or meetings has that behavior brought to their attention by an individual then they are responsible for providing timely and appropriate feedback such that the individual or “body” learns from that feedback. It’s a learning plan therefore a curriculum. The school acts as a collective learning unit (as well as facilitating individual learning.)

      I strongly disagree with the idea that “ individuals do not need guidance in order to learn.” That is simply biologically impossible. If you cut off an organism from the guidance of it’s environment then it dies. Guidance is inherently what learning is, without a steady flow of information regarding performance, then no learning can happen. There may be many forms of feedback that are impediments to certain kinds of learning, but to posit the idea that guidance is totally unnecessary is absurd. (Perhaps this is another difficulty with different languages, because I can’t imagine that you really meant it the way I understood it.)

      What makes Sudbury Schools great is that they allow their students access to almost infinitely more feedback (thus guidance) from their learning environment than is available in normal schools. What Democratic Schools do is self-impose limitations on the forms of collective feedback (guidance) that individuals are forced to obey. They definitely give guidance through their governance systems, but they do so very judiciously and in moderation since there are only rarely individuals put into positions defined by the duty to guide (which is the norm for almost all adult positions in traditional schools.) The primary obstacle to learning in normal schools is the absurdity of forcing children to pay attention to only a select few sources of feedback in the form of authorized adults and the materials they have chosen according to their own purposes and cutting them off from the multitude of other sources of feedback that they could take advantage of.

      Don

      1. Don,
        On the strategy of how we use “curriculum”: I can see your point. Perhaps your strategy is viable as well. I feel rather that the word “curriculum” is too strongly associated with the way things are done in traditional schools, and so I reject it rather than re-appropriating it. I don’t know why, but it feels fake to me to talk about what Sudbury schools do as having a curriculum. This may be my personal quirk, and I certainly do not mean to imply that it’s a fake thing to do, it’s just that I don’t feel comfortable doing it. Maybe you’re right, maybe I’m right… There are people trying both approaches all over the place. I don’t think we’re going to convince each other over this blog which strategy is better. Time will tell. :)

        As for learning:
        I think what I’m getting at is that Sudbury schools, although they may have a system for “teaching” you to alter your behavior — by definition learning — they do not do this under the presumption that they are teaching you how to behave. Instead, the school does this because there are certain norms the school community insists on upholding. For instance, if you take drugs at school you’re going to be in deep shit with JC/SM, and people will be deeply concerned. If you take drugs after school, the school as an institution simply cannot have an opinion of this — it’s outside the school’s jurisdiction (but individuals in the school who know will probably still be deeply concerned.)

        Basically, the school — the school’s democracy — does not see itself as being in the business of teaching you how to live your life, how to speak, how to write, etc. The school’s institutions see themselves as protecting the school. It is not about the individual, it is about the school. It not about it being a bad life strategy to throw chairs at people, it’s about that being behavior that endangers the school. I think this is a major difference, and this is maybe what I’ve been getting at.

        This discussion is getting long and I’m starting to have a hard time following it, especially since so much of it is essentially about how we understand certain central terms. I find myself just responding right now, which is okay, because I wrote the original post a while ago (I wrote it in Israel, just edited and posted after I got back). So I’ll just respond to one last thing right now: “guidance”.

        When I said “individuals do not need guidance in order to learn”, I did not mean they do not need feedback, or that internally the organism does not need its guidance systems. I meant the opposite really — an individual needs their internal guidance, not *purposeful external guidance*. Perhaps I should word myself more carefully, I just try to drop extra adjectives to keep the text flowing. Guidance is not the same thing as feedback, not in general and certainly not in the implicitly limited sense in which I used it above. I have also made it amply clear that I do not think guidance as such is a bad thing, I hope. What is bad is the general assumption in traditional education — and in most democratic schools, unfortunately — that an adult needs to take an active role in guiding a child, and that all children need this and need not ask for it themselves.

        As you say, what makes Sudbury schools great is that they give students tremendous access to feedback. What is also great is that the school and its staff do not consider themselves obligated to offer up orientation feedback to other people just because they are students. This is what I was getting at.

  3. Thanks for having the patience to extend the conversation! Your feedback really took my thinking in a couple of interesting directions that it otherwise might not have gone.

    Enjoy,

    Don

  4. Learning is a process you do, not a process that is done to you. Traditional education focuses on teaching, not learning. It incorrectly assumes that for every ounce of teaching there is an ounce of learning by those who are taught. However, most of what we learn before, during, and after attending schools is learned without it being taught to us. A child learns such fundamental things as how to walk, talk, eat, dress, and so on without being taught these things. Adults learn most of what they use at work or at leisure while at work or leisure. Most of what is taught in classroom settings is forgotten, and much or what is remembered is irrelevant.

    see:
    Russell L. Ackoff and Daniel Greenberg (2008), Turning Learning Right Side Up: Putting Education Back on Track (pdf).
    Greenberg, H. (1987), “The Art of Doing Nothing,” The Sudbury Valley School Experience.
    Mitra, S. (2007) Sugata Mitra shows how kids teach themselves (video – 20:59).
    Minimally Invasive Education.

  5. Don Berg wrote:

    “I take the literal core meaning of curriculum to be the systematic organization of educational experiences……”
    [Don Berg, The Moral Path of Curriculum: Fulfillment Or Judgment?. Founder Attitutor Services.]

    I would take the literal core meaning of curriculum to be the the entire variety of educational experiences.

    One way or the other, criticism of learning theories that underlie traditional educational practices claims there is no need for such a theory. The attempt to comprehend the process of learning through theory construction has created more problems than it has solved. It further claims that in order to make up for the feeling of inadequacy in confronting a process that we don’t really comprehend, we label something “learning” and measure it. Then we’re comfortable, because at least then we have the feeling that we have a grasp on the problem. We don’t really follow the process, but in lieu of a profound understanding of what’s going on, we find something and say, “Let’s declare that to be learning, by consensus.” This is basically what the entire educational system the world over has done: quantify learning by breaking it up into measurable pieces — curricula, courses, hours, tests, and grades. The assumption is that psychologically one knows enough about the mind to identify aptitudes: the accepted (knowledge-based) conception of learning identifies four assumptions of the accepted view of learning: that (some) one knows what ought to be learned by people, why it ought to be learned, how it ought to be learned, and by whom each thing ought to be learned. Together these assumptions are the lenses through which people have been socialized in our culture to judge whether learning is occurring or not; and a further assumption is that once one knows aptitudes, one also knows how to track a person so he will in fact reach the goal that is being set out for him. The whole approach is the ultimate in pedagogical and psychological technology. The only trouble is that it is humanly absurd. In this society, such a process is exceptionally subtle, because it involves an authoritarian approach within a free culture. By employing a variety of ruses the system produces a process which allows it to inhibit personal freedom without really feeling that this is what is going on. The person doesn’t feel that something arbitrary is being done to him — which is in fact what is happening.

    see:
    Lois Holzman (1997). When Democratic Education is Developmental: The Sudbury Valley School Model,. Schools for growth: radical alternatives to current educational models.

    Daniel Greenberg (1987). A New Look at Learning, The Sudbury Valley School Experience.

  6. If I understand you correctly, another David, then you are claiming that a learning theory is unnecessary and that your claim is based on the view that the formal learning theories to date have created more problems than they have solved.

    I can certainly understand the inclination to chuck the enterprise when it seems to have failed, however, we humans operate on the basis of theories whether we want to or not. The theories are often unconscious, but they are there nonetheless. When our theories are unconscious they are called folk theories in some arenas. I think the inadequacies of our folk theories of learning are what give us the systematic problems we have now in most schooling.

    TED Talk by Jonathan Drori that exposes a few common folk theories (he calls them mental models) in science and explains how powerful they are.

    John Dewey realized the problem back in 1938. In his book Experience and Education, as I read it, he was saying that while he was clear about what does not work in schooling he could not say what does work until he had a theory of experience. He could not explain why one lesson would be engaging for one child but utterly boring for another, or why the engaged student would be engaged one moment then become utterly disengaged in the next. And until he could explain those facts he would not have an adequate educational theory.

    Experience and Education by John Dewey

    Personally, I think the development and progress of cognitive sciences gives us what we need to answer those questions, but I have not seen anyone propose a theory that encompasses those findings.

    Enjoy,

    Don Berg

    Site: http://www.teach-kids-attitude-1st.com
    Free E-book: The Attitude Problem in Education

    1. Don Berg wrote:
      “Personally, I think the development and progress of cognitive sciences gives us what we need to answer those questions”

      The experience of Sudbury model schools shows that a great variety can be found in the minds of children, against Piaget’s theory of universal steps in comprehension and general patterns in the acquisition of knowledge: “No two kids ever take the same path. Few are remotely similar. Each child is so unique, so exceptional.”

    2. Ok, So You’re Sort of Like — A Progressive School?
      by Romey Pittman, Fairhaven parent, co-founder and former staff member.
      http://www.fairhavenschool.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=57&Itemid=176

      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 retain 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 in 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.

    1. As far as I can tell, they exist everywhere, except in a vacuum. When you are surrounded by people who are doing all kinds of different things, you will never lack for input. Especially in a world like ours where books and internet are everywhere.

 

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