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Flower children or the Real Deal?

By Murray Bourne, 15 Sep 2005

Sudbury Valley school is an independent school, with some really interesting approaches. There are 210 students at the school, ranging in age from 5 to 19.

Key concepts:

  • There are no structured classes, unless students request them.
  • Students are not grouped by age. They naturally undertake activities with others (including the adults) who have the same interests.
  • Students take great responsibility for their own learning.
  • Students are encouraged to follow whatever they are passionate about - and learning occurs as a result of whatever they are doing. (One example given was about 2 boys who spent hours fishing - but also spent hours researching fish. They learned because they were following their passion. They went on to have successful careers in computing.)
  • Staff are chosen by a one-person, one-vote system, meaning the students are empowered with a lot of responsibility. Staff are given one-year contracts.
  • The physical location of the school (in New England, USA) means that students can spend a lot of time outdoors, exploring, playing sport or letting off steam.

From the Sudbury site:

The fundamental premises of the school are simple: that all people are curious by nature; that the most efficient, long-lasting, and profound learning takes place when started and pursued by the learner; that all people are creative if they are allowed to develop their unique talents; that age-mixing among students promotes growth in all members of the group; and that freedom is essential to the development of personal responsibility.

From our traditional backgrounds, we have to ask whether students from such a system can cope in college, especially if they need to pass some entrance tests, or SAT or the like. Sudbury address this issue in their site, saying that their students perform very well, since they are able to effficiently prepare for such tests when the need arrives.

Sudbury's approach is similar to the ideas of the older Summerhill School in the UK but have made it even more free.

It reminds me in some ways of my days teaching in outback Australia. There were some students who learned via School of the Air (a distance education mode that used shortwave radio in those days) during their primary (elementary) schooling. Those students were just great once they got to secondary school, because they had learned how to learn. they were in much better shape than the 'town' kids who grew up in the conventional system.

I liked a lot of what I read about Sudbury - especially...

  • The bit about Japan's NHK TV doing a documentary on the place. (There are many cracks appearing in Japan's education system and they are looking at alternatives. Sudbury's approach is very different to Japan's...)
  • What they said about their students spending hours doing video games.
  • What the school's alumni said, eg "School was something I looked forward to every day."

Now, how would this approach go down in Asia...?

See the 2 Comments below.

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