Where did you say that was?

Recently, an article was brought to my attention, entitled “Alternative Educational System Sudbury Valley as a Model for Reforming School”. It was a paper presented to the 4th World Conference on Educational Technology Researches, held in Barcelona, Spain in November, 2014. It appeared in May, 2015 in Procedia: Social and Behavioral Science, a peer-review journal published by the prestigious Dutch research publisher Elsevier.

The research was done by two people I had not heard of previously: Reza A. Valeeva and Ramilya Sh. Kasimova, academicians at the Kazan (Volga regional) Federal University in Kazan, Russia. I was intrigued. Kazan? Where on earth was that? It turns out to be an important city, located on the Volga river. As Wikipedia reports, it is “the capital and largest city of the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia. With a population of 1,143,535, it is the eighth most populous city in Russia.”

But what was most amazing was the Abstract, at the head of the article. It stated that “the article is devoted to the historical development, and the experience of the alternative education system Sudbury Valley School, founded in 1968 in Framingham Massachusetts USA. . . . We consider this educational system a positive model for reforming school in Russia.” And the research was funded by the Russian Government!

To say that I was amazed would be an understatement. A couple of decades ago, some academicians from Novosibirsk in Siberia had visited the school, and subsequently Hanna was invited to present the school to an education conference in Moscow. But since then, we had heard nothing at all from anyone in Russia, and figured that we had faded into the great unknown in that region.

It turns out, as we can see, that I was quite wrong. The article had five sections:
Introduction, about the development of alternative educational models globally;
Methods (of this research), involving, among other things, examination of theories of knowledge;
Theoretical Foundations (of Sudbury Valley);
Development of Sudbury Valley, a historical review of the development of the school – culminating in the spread of the model in the 21st century throughout the world, a phenomenon the authors find “demonstrates the high level of the Sudbury Valley concept development”;
Specific organization features of education in Sudbury Valley School, a section that begins with the author’s statement that “based on the analysis of students’ vital activity in Sudbury Valley schools [sic], it was concluded that the backbone of activities are creativity and play.”; and, finally, the section entitled
Conclusions, which finds the school to be “a promising model of education . . . compared with traditional school,” for several reasons the authors identify.

The reach of the Sudbury model is remarkable, even astonishing. We had no idea that any kind of research at all involving the school was being done in Russia. Its existence came as a pleasant surprise, and another sign that, year after year, more children everywhere are experiencing the intensity and joy that an environment such as ours provides.

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To Strew Or Not To Strew?


Strewing is one of the latest techniques used by educators and parents to lure children to learn things that the adults want them to learn at a time of the adult’s choosing. It has become especially popular among “unschooling” homeschoolers. Consider, for example, the following excerpt entitled “Some Ideas for Strewing”, posted on an unschooling website (http://www.racheous.com/):

(1) If applicable, set up a new area (even a simple shelf) related to your child’s interest. I love the planting table at [www.welivewelearn.com] as an example of this.
(2) Add new items from nature to your nature basket/tray/shelf/table.
(3) Leave out an invitation to be creative – with new art or craft supplies.
(4) Place together tubes and/or ramps with appropriately sized cars, marbles, or loose parts.
(5) Organise a new activity tray related to an interest (like ‘busy bags’ – lacing, sorting, matching, cutting, colouring, etc).
(6) Set up a small world play invitation with loose parts, animals or toy people.
(7) Leave something to take apart, with tools alongside.
(8) Reintroduce or introduce math manipulatives such as counters, connecting cubes, pattern blocks, tangrams, dice, a hundreds board, graph paper, or rulers with a material that relates to a current interest (i.e. some tanagram or pattern cards with animals that they are interested in, or various parts of figures of their interest and a ruler to measure and compare on graph paper).
(9) Put an interesting book beside a current project, open to interesting pictures. I have wrote about using books to enhance materials before.
(10) Magnetic letters, numbers or shapes set next to a metal cookie sheet.
(11) Set out a puzzle or game.
(12) For the older child – ‘iStrewing’ – adding a new interesting app to their device.

It is not a mystery to everyone with common sense and knowledge of childhood that the young are eager to figure out what the world they are born into is all about and to find ways to survive and thrive in it. That is as true now in the modern world as it was true from earliest times. In fact, most parents let their babies decide when to walk and talk and use a spoon to put food into their mouths. Of course, if you want your babies to talk you have to talk to them but you do not have to tutor them or entice them to learn. They will do so in due time when they are ready. It puzzles me why people don’t have faith in the natural processes that have evolved during human existence which ensure that our species will survive from generation to generation due to the ability and drive of our young to learn and understand the environment into which they were born.

The major tool for all this learning is curiosity. It seems to me to be obvious that all children are infinitely curious. It is not necessary to goad or entice them to learn new things. All you have to do is be there to answer their questions and make them feel safe.

At Sudbury Valley we do just that. The kids are surrounded by activities. They see adults as well as students engaged in reading, writing, using computers, phones, copying machines, painting pictures, doing pottery, fixing the roof or the plumbing, doing carpentry, talking and debating, laughing, playing basket ball, capture the flag and four square, climbing the rocks and trees and sledding and skating and on and on and on. They also see a lot of older kids taking care of younger ones when they are upset or need help to figure something out that eludes them. In short they are immersed in a peaceful, active and vibrant place where they can learn about the world and themselves when they are ready to deal with the information that bombards their senses in full force.

They don’t need strewing which is artificial and not organic or natural. Above all children dislike inauthentic behavior from adults. They seem to be averse to phoney activities and thus no benefit accrues from all the effort to expose them to this or that, facts or skills. Just the opposite will result: they will tend to avoid the very things that are set out for them and prefer to follow their own agendas.

So why not just trust in nature and let them explore and learn on their own? No strewing is needed, thank you very much; their own curiosity will lead them to lots of skills and knowledge they will need in order to grow up to be capable of functioning as effective adults.

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How DO They Learn?

It is the first question parents ask once they try to wrap their minds around the fact that students at Sudbury Valley are, in fact, free to use their time in the ways that appeal to them.

And even after we have gone through the whole bit; after one of us says, “Even I learn; all of us learn all day every day, whether we want to or not!  It is hard – maybe impossible – to stop.”  And then we point out that their children have been learning beings since they were born and (as we know now) even before, but the learning process is certainly observable every day – maybe every minute – after birth.  I blabber sometimes about how babies will learn to sit, crawl, walk, talk – all without help, even though loving care and the physical freedom to make these gargantuan gains helps – and how much harder that is than, for instance, reading.

I notice that most of this chatter falls on ears that either don’t hear, maybe because they feel that the stuff babies do is just “natural”, “normal”, “evolutionarily destined”, and therefore of no interest, because it basically happens to them all.  I think people want to know about how kids learn the things that regular, loved children sometimes don’t do, like geometry. How they learn geometry however is usually about where they go to school, and only sometimes about their interests in life. Somehow, it is hard to connect those entities in people’s minds: naturally being inquisitive and pursuing anything you want; school; life…

I have been thinking about “how they learn” a lot because at the latest Open House, a larger than usual number of prospective parents asked me that question, and of course I was unable to satisfy them, no matter how hard I tried. In the Spring 2017 issue of our Journal, and on the May 7 blog post, there is an article, The Animal Hospital, by Wendy Lement, about the work two of our very young students have been doing all year to formulate and then realize their ambitious dreams. Their dreams were to build a hospital (in miniature) that would be useful for every sort of situation – for instance, there must be emergency rooms, recovery areas, etc., and species of animals that do not get along with others would have their own areas of the buildings.  To me, the tireless research, planning, and building work they have done is mind-blowing. And to me, it says everything you ever want to know about how they learn.

However, neither of the (loving, interested, attentive) sets of parents of these children have any clue about how they spend their time at school. They don’t know if their kids are doing anything at all except getting older. And when you read between the lines of The Animal Hospital, you will have a clue about why. How do you explain to someone who lives quite literally in another culture (like your mom) how you pursue your interests; how far and how deeply you go to pursue your interests; how important it is and how completely non-play, because there is no line between work and play; how integrated the ways in which you follow your passions are; how you are not thinking about anything but finding out what you need to know and doing what you want, actually need to; and even more: how does this lead to being “educated”? How DO they learn?

Then people talk about “learning to learn”. That is a phrase I have no relationship to and no understanding of. “Learning to learn”. What? We all know how to learn. Does it mean gaining the skills one needs to do what one wants to do? Figuring out how to have fun? Figuring out how to obtain information? Of course, but doesn’t every young child every day pepper the air with “why”, “how”, and “what does that mean”? Not to mention, “when”, “where” and “are we there yet”. Kids’ first words, after they learn some nouns to get by with, are usually inquiries. They know how to learn.

I sometimes think about self-confidence. One does not usually see tots who are not confident enough to explore their world. But one often sees adolescents who are not. How do they learn that? Is that anti-learning? As a graduate of ours said once, “I thought every day you lived in the world and got smarter and smarter. . . . I thought there was no way to get dumber unless you were erasing stuff out of your brain.” Maybe a child’s confidence can be erased out of their brain by hearing really often that the things they were interested in doing are not worthwhile and that there were other things that they should be doing. I have seen kids that looked like that. But if they came to SVS they didn’t stay like that. At our school, they looked around, noticed that there were other ways of living, and slowly but surely recovered that confidence.

Then I thought about the animal hospital. I did not think that actual animals would be operated on there. What I thought is that a fantasy world had been built, in nature, with everything that they thought it needed after deep research, serious planning, careful gathering of materials, and – dare I say – happiness. There are few times when one can watch a process like this in action. One can watch a child develop in so many ways, but to see each point, as Wendy did in this project, is rare. And sublimely beautiful. This is what learning is, and this is what builds the confidence and gives a student the tools s/he needs to go on and on. Another alumnus said, “Everything you do helps everything else you do because if you’re doing one hard thing, it’s not that different from doing another hard thing.” The Animal Hospital was one hard thing, but of course that was not the idea behind it, nor the feeling while it was going on and on.

Emma Tunstall, a graduate who just graduated from Bryn Mawr, summa cum laude, wrote in a letter from college a few years ago. “School feels very far away but earlier today one of my friends asked me about a picture of the musical I have up in my room and I got pretty nostalgic. As much as I like them, no one here can ever really understand SVS.”

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