Why a Curriculum is Counterproductive

All too often parents, educators, and even students ask us why we are so adamant about not offering any courses at SVS, and why we only teach in response to the students’ initiatives. They wonder why we don’t just offer a few “required” subjects and thereby ease people’s anxieties and improve the school’s image as well. While we have many theoretical and practical reasons for our policy it is difficult to explain ourselves in ways which succeed in allaying people’s fears about our students not getting the education they will need to be successful as grownups in our society.

Last week I had a conversation with a student whom I shall call A., which shed new light on this subject for me. We were talking about spending time alone in the woods. A. told me that he never felt lonely there, but rather that he felt his mind was full of thoughts which were interesting and fulfilling to him. Then he continued by telling me that although he loved listening to music, he has lately come to realize that music expressed the ideas and thoughts of the musicians who composed it. These were their thoughts, not his. By listening to music all the time he felt he was depriving himself of his own thoughts. He now listens to music less often and uses it when he is in the mood, but not to fill his time. He needs quietude to be himself and he finds music distracting.

It took me a few days to understand what A. was talking about and then it hit me. That is exactly what we say at SVS when we tell our students to take responsibility for the use of their time and for their learning. We don’t want to fill their minds with our thoughts. We want to make sure that they are free to use their minds to think their own thoughts. That does not preclude us from answering questions or saying our opinions when we are asked to do so, and from generally being available to converse. But it does mean that we avoid offering them a curriculum to follow.

The minds of children aren’t blank or empty. They are busy all the time with taking in the world around them and trying to make sense out of what they see. When we as adults attempt to interfere with this natural process and take over their minds with our own wisdom, we take a grave risk of interfering with their own thought processes. This may result in their gaining some factual knowledge, but at a cost to their ability to think for themselves and to be original and creative. It boggles my mind that the attributes we cherish in ourselves and in our friends — being interesting, insightful, creative, and independent — is what we are willing to sacrifice in children in exchange for the acquisition of knowledge that some of us deem it necessary to learn. We adults need to have more trust in our children’s ability to figure out how to prepare themselves to be effective in this world.

Another thing that is important to me is the matter of time — what we consider to be a good use of it, and when it is wasted. Your time on this earth is your life. When somebody takes away some of your time, they are taking away a part of your life. One should be very careful in commandeering someone else’s time away from their own use. We do it to children too often, thinking to ourselves that because they are young their time is not as precious as our own. But in truth every minute that you occupy children with your own stuff is time you are taking away from them to use as they wish to use it. You are distracting them from their own lives. Not only is it an invasion of their privacy and disrespectful but it is also quite wasteful. The younger the mind the more effective it is in acquiring knowledge. Hence interfering with the natural processes of children as they are working to understand themselves and the world is even more harmful to them than to adults.
I believe that the net gain of some facts, skills and all the rest aren’t worth the distraction from the process that each child goes through on their own path. The adult’s job is to answer questions when asked, to provide tools and opportunities when requested and to stand aside and let the children do their work on their own. We must be very careful not to seek to fill our children’s minds with our knowledge; rather we need to let them find their own knowledge. We know we won’t be around to guide them all their lives, so we must allow them to develop the tools they need to be their own guides. And that is done by letting them struggle and figure things out on their own, and being ready to offer help when they ask for our help.

Perhaps a well known Zen story will express what I mean better than I can:

A Japanese Zen master received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. It was obvious to the master from the start of the conversation that the professor was not so much interested in learning about Zen as he was interested in impressing the master with his own opinions and knowledge. The master listened patiently and finally suggested they have tea. The master poured his visitor’s cup full and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the cup overflowing until he could no longer restrain himself.

“The cup is overfull, no more will go in.”
“Like this cup,” the master said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

From Hyams, Joe, Zen in the Martial Arts,

(St. Martin’s Press; New York, 1979), pp. 18-19

What I learned from this story is that as a staff member at Sudbury Valley, I have to take care not to fill the students’ “cups” with my own opinions and knowledge. They must fill them themselves, and I have to respect them and trust them to fill their “cups” wisely.

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Being Average is Not Normal

Cori, my oldest daughter and Kali, one of her close friends at SVS are having a good-humored debate about which one of them reads more books. This debate has been going on so long now that for Christmas their friends bought them each a special coffee mug that supports their side of the argument. They both read a lot. There is no surprise here, many SVS students are avid readers. I have a niece who graduated from SVS close to 10 years ago who reads a great deal. My brother-in-law, who graduated from SVS over 40 years ago, to this day always has a book in hand. It’s not necessary to have English, History and Art teachers giving kids reading assignments. Drawn by their own interests and curiosity, children will find books to read. In fact, I think it is pretty clear that having teachers dictate what books to read, and often the pace at which they should be read, has a negative impact on kids’ interest in reading.

At the last parent teacher conference while my youngest daughter Holly was in public school, the teacher explained to me that that she was a little worried about Holly’s reading level. She said that by that week of the school year Holly should be at level K, but she was currently only at “J”. I was uncomfortable with this at the time, but it took me a while before I realized why. For much of my career I worked in medical and social research. At the heart of statistical analysis used in that field is the idea that the measurement of most social and medical phenomena can be represented as a “normal distribution”. For any collection of normally distributed data, a standard deviation can be calculated that effectively slices up the normal distribution such that 68% of the data is within 1 standard deviation of the average, and 95% of the data are within 2 standard deviations of the average. The important take home message here is that when measuring anything in the social or scientific world where some degree of variation is expected, it will be “normal” for most of the data to be something other than average. Some thirty percent will be some distance from average and 5% will be quite far from average and that is the very definition of “Normal Distribution”! So for pretty much anything you look at, it is normal for 5% (or one in 20) to be “far” from average.

The Fountas-Pinnell Guided Reading system uses the A-Z scale to divide expected reading levels from Kindergarten through 6th grade into 26 levels. During each grade of school, children are expected to move through multiple levels of this system. A quick search on Google reveals that some children start to read at age 4, most will be reading by age 7 and some will not read until they are even older. To me that indicates that the normal distribution related to reading encompasses years, not weeks. To suggest that a student is not performing to expectations for failing to move between one of the reading categories and the next by a certain week of elementary school is not “normal”.
Cori, now 17, has been a voracious reader from a very young age. While Kali, now 13, came later to reading. Her mother wrote an SVS blog article about watching as one of her twins took to reading while the other twin, Kali, chose to wait. I find it inspiring to see that Cori, who has been reading for 10 years, and Kali, who has probably only been seriously reading for maybe 4 years, are now vying over the title of “who reads more”. It shows that the path to achievement can be unique for each kid. No one path is superior to another.
Children need not be held to the tyranny of the average. Just because you can calculate the average age at which a group of children achieve a certain reading ability, does not mean it is wise to try to force all children to conform to that average. Averages are mathematical constructs and should be not thought of as moral guideposts.

For reasons of family peace, I will decline to weigh in on the “Who Reads More” debate between Cori and Kali. But I do know that they both read a great deal, far more than I did at their age.

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A Spa for the Soul

One of our particularly lovely and fascinating bankers was visiting recently. It was not her first time, but being here makes most people, if they are even a little bit open to the environment, feel very good. She said, “I love to come here. It is a spa for the soul.” I thought, “Wow, what a great phrase; I think I need to write a blog about that,” but then I became uncomfortable with the beautiful phrase: a spa is generally where you relax and are pampered. A visitor feels the good vibes from the community washing over everyone (as we all do), and can feel like it is a balm for the soul.

But it is not really the place where people are relaxed. It is more the place where people are doing things that interest and challenge them. In fact, most people are exactly the opposite of relaxed. They are not tense, but boy are they intense! And yet, it remains true that almost all of them will, if you ask, stop what they are doing for a few minutes to chat, to meet someone and be polite, to do a quick errand, etc.

I walked into a particular room the other day, and sitting at the table were three kids, two playing chess, complete with one of those professional looking timers, and the third practicing the ukelele. All were kind of the same age – at SVS. The two chess players were 12 and 15. The uke player was 15 too.

I asked if I could photograph the chess players, because even my very quiet cellphone felt like an intrusion to the concentration. “Of course, no problem.” And no posing! Just the way I like it. I was gone fast. When next I passed the room that game had ended, and there was another child, much shorter but not younger than the first, across from the tall teen. It looked like age mixing, but wasn’t really, in and of itself – these kids don’t make age distinctions; they just know and respect each other’s abilities. However, standing beside the smaller 12 year old was a completely intent and absorbed 5 year old! I didn’t go in – too precious for me to disturb, but someone else had captured the scene! What can one make of these scenes? What better atmosphere could that 5 year old walk into than one in which she is neither coddled nor treated as if she is ignorant; just allowed to let her soul bloom!

The very same day I walked into the dance room. There are a lot of mats in the dance room useful for a lot of activities. These are large blue, heavy-plastic-covered, good quality mats that fold in quite a few ways: most are sets of four attached large size pieces (maybe 60″ or so by 30″) so there is are a lot of possibilities inherent in each set that you pull down. If you are strong.

On Thursdays, we pull out folding chairs and have School Meetings, but the rest of the time there is no furniture, a shiny wood floor, a stack of mats, mirrors – ready for the soul of the active, I guess! Acrobatics, yoga, dance all take place on mats that get unfolded; hair cutting (easy to clean) certainly does not! But it does take place in front of the mirrors. Those are just some of the regular uses of the room.

The level of imagination with which those mats are used never fails to amaze me. And the size of the people who move them determinedly into forts, houses, stores, floors, etc., is also spectacular. Somehow the youngest child can get a 30 pound mat off a huge stack. (They have a little more trouble putting them back, of course!) Last year the practice of using roofs emerged. Certain people were able to make roofs out of the mats that made a room within the room. It is devilishly hard to find people in these structures in general, particularly roofed. You can walk into the room, say, “hi?” and not hear a peep, even though there is a crowd in a relatively small covered mat house. You can’t use shoes on the mats, so the room often has shoes scattered about the floor; sometimes, the shoes and the lunches outside the door, where they shouldn’t be, gives you a clue that the room is occupied, or at least was at some point!

And then there is the inside version of Parkour, also using every surface of the room and the mats. All of these things take powers of imagination beyond my ken, because all of the games are made up anew, with elaborate rules agreed on by all involved.

But the most novel use I have seen for a while cropped up just a few days ago. Some kids had a pile of mats which they were using as a table, and then other mats which seemed to be chairs. On the table was a Dungeons and Dragons game in full swing. Five happy kids, 8 – 12! Four were writing or drawing; one seemed to be the dungeon master.

On Valentine’s Day there was a wedding. The day before, the youngest flower girl had a little attack of nervousness. “I am not sure where to go or when it will be or what to do.” Dan soothed her fears, and reassured her that it is normal to be nervous before a big event in which you have a part. There was music, a wedding planner, an officiator, a bouquet (thrown), a vast spread of refreshments, in the next room, where eating is allowed, including a four tiered home-made wedding cake. The flower petals were cleaned up shortly after the event, and the chairs put back in the closet for the next use of the dance room.

Recently Dan noticed a bunch of kids all feverishly using their cellphones. That is not all that usual, as there are always some kids using cellphones. But these kids were sitting with their friends and usually talk to them face to face. He snapped a photo and showed it to me. I said, “ewww, just what people worry kids do here.” He laughed. There was no way to tell from the photo that they were actually all playing a game together, phones to phones, just as they all play Risk, and Monopoly and Scrabble! Intensely.

The more I think about it, people doing what they want and need to do are in a spa for the soul. Spa is just not a place to spoil yourself here. In our case it is a place to do exactly what benefits you most! Most students want to get here in the morning and are not that eager to leave in the afternoon. This is where it’s at.

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