Letter from a concerned parent; Sudbury alumnus responds
The following two letters are excerpted from a discussion on the "Families of Sudbury Schools" email list. Someone from the Sudbury School of Atlanta shared this email from a parent, and the response below, from an alumnus from the Alpine Valley School in Colorado, was among the many thoughtful replies.
I appreciated the evening's discussion and would like to propose two topics, that are motivated for my concerns about the completeness of the Sudbury model, for next time. It seems as though many parents (including me) are concerned about what the children are doing in school and would like to understand how what they are doing is contributing to their education. My own, unfortunately brief and potentially unrepresentative, observations have been that they play with devices, watch each other play with devices, and exchange devices with each other. In addition, I have seen them clean up after school, and I know second-hand that they spend a lot of time running and playing with each other (in sometimes complex social games). Further, we've been told that the children learn to mediate their own disputes and organize their own resources together. There is a lot that they learn from these interactions. However, I am concerned that these activities do not teach everything that we want our children to learn.
The concerns I mentioned above are these:
(1) A lot of learning involves acquisition of skills by means of focused repetition. I am not sure how the Sudbury model encourages this (since repetition is not generally intrinsically interesting).
(2) Students require motivation to learn, and coercion is generally a poor motivator, but there are many things students might enjoy learning but are not sufficiently familiar with to be motivated on their own to learn. Good teachers can provoke that interest with well-chosen examples, experiments, thought-experiments, questions, or puzzles. I am not sure how the Sudbury model provides these kinds of methods to promote student interest.
So the two questions are:
(1) What activities do students engage in that encourage the learning of skills, including reading, writing, mathematics, science, history, that are necessary precursors to more advanced learning (and which, as I said, often require focused repetition). I try to teach my son at home as well, and it would be helpful to coordinate my attempts with what is going on at school.
This leads to the second question:
(2) Are there any activities initiated by teachers? If so, what are they? Can we, at home, build on any such activities?
I deeply appreciate the goal of building on the children's own interests and motivations to educate them, and my son has improved his reading and social skills quite a bit even in the brief time he has been at Sudbury, But, as I said, I would like for my son to take fuller advantage of his opportunities to learn.
Thanks for considering my questions and concerns.
I'm not a sudbury parent, but I am a sudbury alum [Alpine Valley School]. For context, I'm a deeply satisfied (apparently effective) adult with a lucrative tech job. I didn't go to college, and I didn't do anything that was too repetitious to seem like a good idea - a rule that has continued to serve me well into adulthood and professional life. I played a lot of video games, spent a lot of time with building toys (to include blocks, the sandbox, and the minds of my friends), and wandered around outside with tiny toy spaceships making spaceship noises. (Actually, I still do all of these things to some extent.) I will admit I require a robot to do my vacuuming, because there is no other way it is going to get done to the extent necessary to keep up with the three cats and a dog I live with. But, I have such a robot, and so, pass as an effective adult.
I've seen many systems that create an ongoing dependency to cover some perceived short-term deficiency. The team that requires someone else to test their software, because they do not have the skills and resources to test it thoroughly and early enough themselves. The codebase that keeps using a bad way of doing things because it got the project up and running early, even though it severely limits the approaches the team can take to refactoring in the future. The call center that relies more and more on automated break and lunch scheduling algorithms because it "improves coverage," ultimately at the cost of employees being able to respond to change and disruptions.
The learning system wherein learners are "exposed" to a variety of Appropriate Topics for Study at the expense of their own drive to forage for intellectual fulfillment.
These are all forms of debt, long term accumulated deficiencies in ability that have to be payed off at some point. Debt can be used responsibly, but what are you purchasing when you mortgage the effervescent curiosity of a child? And, how do you expect the natural curiosity of children to survive being held for years as inactive collateral to finance a parade of artificially constructed lessons?
If you do something for someone, they depend on you for it. If you attempt to synthesize curiosity and interest for long enough, it takes years to recover; some never do. There may possibly be times when this is appropriate, but...
Do you want to discover the world for your child?