From Education: Class Dismissed
It's every modern parent's worst nightmare—a school where kids can play all day. But no one takes the easy way out, and graduates seem to have a head start on the information age. Welcome to Sudbury Valley by:Hara Estroff Marano
So ingrained is the belief that kids learn only when confined to their seats and explicitly taught that most adults overlook obvious evidence to the contrary—the young struggle persistently against even their own clumsiness to master such formidable tasks as crawling, walking and talking on their own. "Learning and teaching have nothing to do with each other," declares Dan Greenberg, who, with his wife Hanna, is a founder of Sudbury Valley. In traditional schools, he says, teaching is driven by coercion, which breeds resistance. "Learning is driven internally by curiosity. Teaching can be effective only if the person you're teaching has sought you out to teach her." A physicist by training, Greenberg abandoned an Ivy League tenure track career in academia to start SVS.
Outsiders commonly choke upon hearing that no one even teaches reading. Sometimes insiders get a bit antsy, too. When Ben was in the second or third grade, anxiety temporarily overtook his well-read father, who offered the boy a dime for every 15 minutes he'd spend reading at home. Ben accepted the bribe long enough to prove he could do it.
But true to the Sudbury spirit, his reading proficiency took a huge leap forward only after he began playing with airplanes and then an electronic flight simulator—because that led him to read the flight manual. And that led to discovery of flight simulator communities on the Internet, which led to mock airplane battles, which led to communicating with squadron leaders, which led to spelling and writing, which ultimately got Ben into Swarthmore, where he is now finishing his freshman year.
Journey from Smoking Rock
Given the lack of formal demands, Sudbury attracts its share of sullen and shy teens short on motivation. Stephanie was sinking in her SAT-pressured public high school when she decamped in junior year for Sudbury (her friends derisively called it "day care") for "the sole purpose of avoiding college." For several months, she puffed and sunned her days away on Smoking Rock. In time, she drifted over to the music barn. There she picked up a flute again and began playing purely for pleasure. Two years later she selected a college specifically for its new arts center.
Jessica was severely depressed in her community's high school. Numerous friends "shared my indifference, but they were content with their apathy. I was tortured by it." Her parents agreed to a change, but adapting to Sudbury was difficult. Jessica was shy. She brooded. She sat at the edge of the sewing room, pretty much the crossroads of the school, a large space on the first floor of the mansion where there's always animated debate or a raucous card game around a huge table. For a long time she just listened. Eventually she began contributing to political arguments, discussions of personal beliefs "and philosophies of education and just about everything else." Conversation and debate, she insists, were the source of her education.
Current educational theory corroborates her assertion. Increasingly across all the sciences, there is an awareness of social capital. Researchers in a variety of disciplines believe that human interaction is critical for learning and the best learning comes about as a result of social participation. Relationships provide both the deep motivation and context for acquiring information; people are driven by the desire to understand the perspective of others. Studies have shown that peer engagement, for example, clicks on both intellectual engagement and learning persistence amongst students.