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Sudbury Schools – What Exactly is Self-Directed Democratic Education?

Written by Jen Schwartz

For well over a century, the common belief has been that children will only learn if they are presented with a well-structured curriculum, overseen by a teacher who can ensure that students are on task and reaching appropriate milestones. Yet when we look at very young children, we see their eagerness to learn. They naturally explore their world and look up to people around them as role models whom they attempt to imitate. Almost all children learn to walk and talk without instruction, and they learn basic  concepts of math and science while interacting with the physical world.

Imagine for a moment a school where children are allowed to follow their natural curiosity as they grow, with the support of staff or mentors in a social structure that mimics that of the larger world. These schools exist: Sudbury Schools, modeled after the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts, give students the freedom to direct their own learning journeys while participating as members of a democratic community. (There are also other schools, such as Agile Learning Centers, that utilize similar principles.) Sudbury schools have four basic ideals that make them unique in the world of education.

  • Self-Directed Education: students in Sudbury schools are in charge of their own educations. There is no set curriculum for students to follow, and unless the school is required by their local laws to give tests, there is no required testing. In practice this means children playing, talking, “hanging out,” and sometimes creating classes or workshops based on their own interests. Some children in these schools teach themselves to read, while others may seek out help or direct instruction. Any subject matter may be learned in any number of ways – alone, with friends, or with an adult mentor; through books, online, or in classes; in small doses, or all at once.
  • A System of Democracy: Sudbury schools are run as a 1-person, 1-vote democracy. In practice, this means that every person, regardless of age or time they have been in the community, gets a say in any new rules that are written, how the school’s money is spent, and even in electing staff for an upcoming school This democracy is traditionally run through a weekly School Meeting, during which topics are discussed and actions voted on by formal motion. Not all students or staff attend these meetings, as they are not mandatory, so not everyone votes every time. However, any school member can bring a motion to this meeting to be heard.
  • A Formal Justice System: in most Sudbury schools, this is known as the Judicial Committee, or JC. Each school’s JC system is unique, and some schools have adopted processes similar to restorative justice or utilized mediation systems in connection with JC, but each of the schools has a formal process by which every community member, regardless of age, can address problems that are affecting the community (and can’t be resolved with a simple conversation). This helps eliminate the authority structure of adults being in charge and children being “in trouble.” (Most staff members in Sudbury schools have had to answer to their school’s justice system at least once for breaking a rule!) Committees are made up of students and staff, and are usually led by an elected student chair person. Every- one takes turns serving on these committees, so everyone gets to help maintain the integrity of their community.
  • Age mixing: there are no grade levels at Sudbury schools, so students are free to collaborate with each other in the ways that best work for them. Often students of similar ages will be found working or playing together, but there is no shortage of older students playing with or helping younger students. People in Sudbury schools learn to value one another for who they are, rather than by the measure of their age. This applies to adults as well – children will often refer to staff members as their friends, because true bonds of friendship in Sudbury schools know no age limits.

So what does this all look like in reality? Sometimes, it looks like organized chaos as people are pursuing different learning paths all around the school. Other times, it looks like a series of very organized meetings, very business-like and meticulous. Still other times, it can look like a playground on a Saturday morning, filled with laughter and joy as everyone enjoys the sunshine and time to play.

There are common questions we all hear in our daily Sudbury lives. Questions such as “What if they play all day and never learn anything?” and “How will they get into college?” and the inevitable “How will they get exposed to everything they need to learn?” Decades of Sudbury school experiences leave no doubt: students who want to go to college, go. They all learn toread and do basic math, though we can’t always tell you how or when they learned the skills they have. Sometimes they play all day, and that’s okay. Other days they build all day, or code all day, or read all day, or study for the SAT all day.

What they learn is HOW to learn, and the ways in which they learn best, which they can then take into anything they put their minds to – including getting into college and pursuing a career. I have often been asked if there is one thing that best describes Sudbury schools or Sudbury students, and after 17-plus years of experience I can say this: children who grow up trusted with their education and related to as responsible community members become respectful, responsible, driven adults. They live lives they love and follow their passions. Isn’t that what we all want for our children?

About the author

Jen Schwartz