Let’s Design a School1
My focus, as you might expect, is the concept behind Sudbury Valley School. I’d like to do this by pursuing the task of designing a school. That may sound like a strange way to go about it. After all, there are so many schools around, why bother re-designing them? But let’s just make believe that we’ve been assigned that task, and to carry it out we decide to go back to basic principles – that is, to the reason for having a school in the first place. The idea of going back to first principles is something that is particularly worth doing when you’re in an era of rapid change. That’s the time to sit back and say, “Wait a minute, let’s see if what we’ve been doing traditionally is compatible with what’s going on in the new state of affairs.”
I would like to digress in order to put this in perspective through an example from a completely different area. Let’s take ourselves back in time to the 1920's, the period right after the First World War. After that monstrous blood bath, the industrialized nations sat down and went through “military reform.” Most countries did what is being done today in education. They said, “What we have to do is fix our armed forces, because obviously they didn’t work out quite right when we look at the execution of the war.” So they looked at the way the war was fought and reacted in all the standard ways you’d expect: “We need more cannons, we need more big ships, we need more fortifications, etc.” and they went about doing all these things. The Western powers built many huge ships. The French built the Maginot line, which was basically a gigantic underground fork extending the length of much of the Franco-German border. The Poles built a tremendous army – a much larger army than the Germans had – and they trained the finest cavalry than any country ever had. Only one country thoroughly re-examined where the world was in the 1920's, and realized that a new era had dawned. They understood that the advent of the airplane and the tank had signaled a fundamental change in the way wars were fought. The German army had theoreticians and strategists who knew how to go back to first principles, and ask, “What’s an army for?” They focused on its main function – to destroy the enemy’s armed forces; and, taking into account the newly developed airplanes and tanks, they designed aerial and armored warfare, which almost won them the war until everyone else caught up. There is a tremendous moral in that story. All the money and all the effort to reform the military in every other country basically went to waste, because they were all following an obsolete model of war. Only one country went back to basics and understood there was a whole new way of doing things.
So I’m going to go back to first principles with respect to schooling, because we are in an era of rapid change. The very first question is: what is a school for? In fact, most everybody agrees on the answer: A school is a place where children can develop to be effective adults. It’s an environment in which children can make the transition from being children to becoming ready to go out into the world. That’s what school is all about. If it achieves that purpose, it succeeds; if not, it has failed. The key question then becomes: what does it mean to be an effective adult in today’s world? In order to answer that question, we have to take a close look at the world of the 21st century.
This is a hard task, because we are in the Information Age and it is really quite novel. It hardly existed even as recently as 1968, when we first opened our school. We could see it coming, but it hadn’t yet arrived. The whole transition has been going on for only twenty-five years or so. I’ve found that it’s hard even for people over the age of thirty to really grasp what the Information Age is about. The people who understand it best are young children – eight, ten, and twelve-year olds – who get it, and understand it even better than their twenty-year-old “elders” do. I’d like to discuss some of the characteristics of this age, so that we can understand what adults need in order to function well in it.
One of the key characteristics of the Information Age is rapid change. What I mean by this is that things are changing in a fundamental way over a period of years. We’re no longer talking about centuries or decades. Let’s look back at the course of history, to see how we usually measure the spans of historic eras. For the ancient world, we look at periods of thousands of years. For example, the various empires of Egypt extended over millennia. It’s almost unbelievable that we’re treating such a long time as a historic unit! We do this because, from our archaeological studies, we see that the key features of that world did not undergo fundamental change over a period of millennia.
The advent of phonetic writing completely transforms the way human beings function. As writing spreads, we find that things change in a matter of centuries. When we reach modern times, we’re not that comfortable with centuries. The measure of basic change shifts to half-centuries or a couple of generations. Thus, if we think of the world in 1800, and compare it to the world in 1850, we realize that in 1800 there were no steamboats, no railroads, no telegraph, but by 1850 all these things existed, and many more, and it was quite a different world! These were big changes, and they happened over 50 years. When we go from 1850 to 1900, we’re looking at tremendous technological changes that took place during that period, celebrated at the great Victorian exposition, which was a paeon to the birth of a new world. Indeed, many physicists of that time believed that there were no new laws of Nature to be discovered, and that all that was left to future generations was to mop up the details!
When we get into the 20th century, basic change begins to occur over a generation. To see this, we only have to think about the period from 1914 to 1940, or from 1940 to 1960. By 1960, whole eras spanned a decade or so! And by the close of the century, even a decade could comprise several fundamental changes. Historically important things are changing now in a matter of years. Take, for example, the personal computer, which is a pretty common item these days. As late as 1985, very few people owned personal computers. Our school bought its first computer in 1982, an Apple I. A couple of years ago, the school outfitted its office with state of the art PCs. We bought 400MHz machines, each with 8GBs of hard drive, and that cost us extra for being on the cutting edge. Today, those PCs – well, you can forget about them. Who would buy something like that? Today you can get a computer for half of the price we paid, that’s faster and has much higher storage capacity. All this in about two years!
That’s the kind of global change I’m talking about in every aspect of our culture. Consider the internet. I don’t know when you last used a search engine, but the one that prides itself on being the most extensive is Google, and when you access it, the first thing they tell you is how many pages they have indexed. You know they keep that number current, because their whole selling point is to be the best one available. Their latest number is over 1,300,000,000 web pages that they’ve indexed, one billion, three hundred million! Just a few years ago, if you asked people how many web pages there are in existence, the answer might have been something like 30 million. Nobody even pretends that Google is exhaustive – and it doesn’t include anything near the totality of information accessible through the internet, such as files you can download. All this in just a few years.
Everything is changing globally at a rate that you cannot even begin to measure. I have a year old cell phone that is already obsolete. Cell phones make it possible for people to communicate everywhere in the world, even in remote, underdeveloped countries, most of which will soon have direct access to virtually everything that the most developed country can access. This too is a cosmically significant change. That’s what I mean by rapid change.
What characteristics are required of an adult to function in this kind of world? I’ll name a few. One is flexibility, which means that you’re able to roll with the changes that are constantly occurring. When I use my PC, I’m always afraid that some new program will come along that I need, but don’t know how to use. I use America Online because it’s user friendly. That’s quite passe for anybody who really knows computers. And I’m using version 4.0 even though they announced 5.0 a year ago, and 6.0 is the one currently being distributed. I downloaded 6.0, but I don’t use it; because I’m not flexible enough! Flexibility means that you can keep up with rapid change in areas that you already use.
Then there’s adaptability, which means that you can comfortably transition from one branch of knowledge to another. For example, I just can’t handle palm pilots. You all know people in their 30s and 40s who walk around with palm pilots. Most of them are not really that comfortable with them either. Kids, on the other hand, have no problem at all using palm pilots. They don’t even think about it. That’s adaptability.
Perhaps the most important characteristic for handling rapid change is the ability to solve real problems. Why is that important? Because problems occur when unexpected things happen. Problems arise as a result of some conflict between what you know, and what you want to do. When you are in a world of rapid change, you are constantly confronted with problems. Solving real problems is not something you can fake or you can teach people how to do. You cannot teach it because teaching problem solving means setting up artificial problems for students to solve. People talk about algebra as being good training in this area. That’s laughable. Everything they teach in algebra has been known for a thousand years! Generally, they say to a student, “here’s a problem,” which may be new to the student – so in that sense, it’s a problem for them, since it’s not something they already know – but it’s something the student doesn’t care about. It’s not immediate to their lives; it’s not real for them. What they’re being asked to do is to bring the same adrenaline, the same passion, the same brain power, to something they absolutely don’t care about that they would bring to a non-artificial problem, and then they are judged as good or bad problem solvers! Nobody’s really a good problem solver of problems they don’t give a damn about.
The Information Age means a huge increase in information and knowledge. Everybody talks about this – the “information explosion.” The reason there’s a huge increase in information is, to be sure, that people all over are producing new knowledge, but in addition they also have the means to record it, communicate it, and make it available, which is why it gets added to humanity’s general store of information. Contrast this with what was going on three thousand years ago in ancient Egypt or in Babylonia; for all we know, every Babylonian was thinking up a whole bunch of great new things every day. But they didn’t write what they were doing; furthermore, even if they had written it down, what would they do with it? What use would it be to the rest of civilization? How many people could read a clay tablet? What if they wanted to show it to somebody else? They’d have to get somebody to copy it, transport it on pack animals, etc. – not a situation conducive to mass dissemination of a lot of material.
The information explosion of today started with the invention of the printing press. It has erupted with greater force in recent years because there are so many ways now to transmit, to record and to maintain information. We’re flooded because it’s all become easily available. Every person who has any kind of a new idea or insight about anything can broadcast it to the whole world, through web pages, through email, through a chat room, etc. Furthermore, it is even easy to put it in hard copy form, because you can now print, publish and distribute hard copy cheaply, in a few reproductions or by the thousands.
This is a tremendous change in our culture. What does it mean – to be an effective adult in a situation like this? The first thing that comes to mind is the ability to use judgement. Judgement means being able to identify what is important and what isn’t important to you. The words “to you” are critical. In those two words resides one of the great drawbacks of traditional education. There are some six billion different individuals alive today with six billion different needs. They each have their own private worlds, their own measurements and their own interests. What they have to be able to develop is judgement as to what parts of the incredible mass of existing information are useful to them. It’s precious little help for a bunch of brilliant scholars to get together and say, “Okay, we’ve decided what knowledge is really important in the world.” That’s a bad joke, because they are picking a teeny-weeny-weeny bit of information out of the enormous amount that’s available out there and they’re saying, “In our best judgement, this is what’s really important for everybody to know.” Why? How do they know? The fact is that there’s no way for them to guess what a guy who’s training horses in the Mongolian desert needs to know for his own benefit, or even what anybody in Canada or the United States needs. Because their needs depend critically on their specific interests, and that’s the flip side of the information revolution: the increase in information leads to an increase in specialization, which in turn implies an almost infinite variety of material that a person can pick out and identify as being critical to his/her existence.
This leads to another conclusion. One thing a person has to be able to have while wallowing in the current ocean of information is the ability to focus. One has to be able to identify specific areas and say, “This is what I need.” That skill goes hand-in-hand with judgement. In addition, one has to have the ability to concentrate. Concentration means sticking with whatever you’ve focused on for as long as it takes you to achieve mastery of it. That could take an hour, it could take a week, it could take a year, it could take a decade. True concentration, in turn, implies persistence: you have to not only focus and concentrate, but you have to be able to keep going back over and over again even though your early attempts don’t pan out – even though you haven’t been able to find whatever you’re looking for easily, even though your computer has crashed repeatedly, even though you’ve tried and failed to master the material.
Most important of all is being adept at self-initiated and self-motivated learning. When all is said and done, every person is alone in this sea of information. You may have colleagues, you may have people you can turn to for help, but basically you’re alone. So you have to have the get-up-and-go and the initiative to pursue the information and to do this basically on your own steam. That doesn’t mean you won’t get help at times, but it means that you’re the one ultimately responsible for going after what you need. You’re not going to be able to rely on somebody else to motivate you, to keep you going. Never has it been truer that “each person is an island unto himself.”
Let’s look at another feature of the Information Age. There’s a huge increase in the range of personal connections. The popular name given to this phenomenon is “the global village.” What does the global village really do? A lot of people have got it backwards. They say, “Cyberspace has caused people to become more remote from each other, because now instead of talking to each other face to face, they rely on some kind of anonymous and impersonal contact. They’ve lost the human touch.” That’s not the case at all. On the contrary, the advance in communications has made it possible for people to seek out soulmates, or at least other people with the same interests, goals, and aspirations anywhere in the world. This fact of the modern world is one of the most exhilarating aspects of life today. You can sense the excitement even in young children. What was more lonely than growing up in some little village, or even a big city, with some deep passion, and nobody around to share it with? As often as not, your interest would die on the vine. Today, you can go out into the world and locate others like you – communicate with them, form relationships, and ultimately sometimes even meet face to face. I see young children experiencing this every day. I’m totally blown away by it. At Sudbury Valley, we built an internet room, and you see kids of all ages in that room. They’re writing emails and chatting with people all over the world. The interesting thing is that they don’t think about it that way. I’m the one who thinks about it that way. I’m thinking, “Wow, this kid is talking to somebody in Venezuela,” but to the child in question Venezuela doesn’t mean anything distant anymore. The person they’re talking to is just another human being. They’re not talking to someone in some remote spot, they’re talking to another person. The Information Age has made it possible for people to connect as human beings as never before.
What kind of traits are required for an adult to be effective in this kind of an environment? The most obvious one is the ability to communicate. That involves being articulate, being able to express oneself in words. If you can’t get your thoughts put into words, you’re not going to be able to connect with someone else. It also requires a considerable degree of open-mindedness, because you’re dealing with a huge variety of people who could be very different from yourself. You have to learn how to deal with strangers, and make them feel comfortable with you. You need to have good listening skills, because other people are going to shut down if you can’t hear what they say. You also need good social skills, because you have to be able to get along with people once you meet them face to face, and especially if you work with them. You have to be able to deal with all kinds of people, from all walks of life. Once you find somebody whose interests are the same as yours, you can’t be deflected by concerns such as economic class, religion, ethnic background, etc. Your focus has to be on the person.
There’s another characteristic of the Information Age, one obviously linked to the others. Let’s back up for a moment. We don’t really know how many creative people have existed throughout history. Long ago, Aristotle made an interesting observation, in his study of cultural history. He pointed out that in order for people to be really creative, they have to have a certain amount of leisure, which implies a surplus in the production of the essentials of life. If all they’re doing is struggling for survival, they don’t have time to do much abstract thinking. But creative thinking can flourish where you have urban civilization, trade, and commerce, and can develop enough surplus in material goods to enable some people – a small group of elite people – to have enough extra time to allow their native creativity to flourish. Aristotle believed that everybody was equal in that respect, everybody was potentially creative. Which brings us to the present. Today there is a global surplus that is unprecedented. You cannot begin to compare the degree of leisure available to the human race today with that of any other era in history. What that means is that there are huge numbers of people now who are able to be creative, which is a major factor in the burgeoning increase in information. A tremendous number of exciting new ideas are being developed that have never been thought of before, and have never even been dreamt of.
I want to give just one example of what I mean. It is an interesting example that The Economist magazine discussed a while ago, and it expands our understanding of what is meant by “creativity.” The Economist pointed out that we usually consider creative people to be those who think up a new fundamental theory, or make a notable discovery, by contrast to the more practical side of things, which people usually consider to be more routine. That side is generally referred to as “R&D” – Research and Development – which supposedly takes creative ideas and converts them into practical use. The Economist pointed out that an enormous amount of creativity occurs throughout that second R&D tier. Here’s the example I was referring to, which is quite recent. Over forty years ago, at Columbia University, the mother of all lasers was invented. (Actually, that was the “MASER,” the predecessor of the laser; but this is a detail that doesn’t affect our story.) The people who invented it got the Nobel prize, which they richly deserved, since their invention was ingenious and important in the world of physics. However, nobody in the physics department – not the most brilliant people around – had the foggiest notion of what this thing could ever be used for in a practical everyday setting. They developed it to make some esoteric measurements of energy levels in molecules, and they were happy to have that because they couldn’t make those measurements before. If you told these people, “You know, you could do eye surgery with that, you could copy music using this in ways that never been thought of before, you could etc., etc.,” they wouldn’t have known what you were talking about. The R&D that led to all that was an advanced level of creativity. There is so much of this now that you can’t hope to keep up with it. You could buy The Economist, Barron’s, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes – all the business magazines you want – and you wouldn’t get an inkling of what is really going on in the world with respect to R&D creativity. That’s a key characteristic of the Information Age: the great flourishing of creativity.
What you need to be an effective adult in this world is to have the ability to be creative yourself. It’s something you have to allow to develop throughout your childhood and your youth in order to retain it as an adult. You can’t take somebody who’s been told “Don’t be creative” for twelve or more years and then say, “Okay, now you’re done, you’ve got your education – go out and be creative!” Because they don’t have the foggiest idea what it’s about. If you think I’m joking about this, let me tell you something interesting about the PhD degree. A PhD used to signify that you had done a piece of original research, which was recognized by the people in your field, and that you could now go out into the world and contribute as a creative worker in your field. Nowadays, however, most people with PhD’s – especially in the sciences – go through several years as “post-doc”s. What’s a post-doc? It’s a person who spends another five or six years trying to learn to become an independent investigator. Think about that. People cannot just become creative overnight. The reason that the PhD needs another five years to be a post-doc is because right through the time he’s gotten the PhD he’s never been allowed to really be creative.
One of the characteristics of a creative person is being comfortable making mistakes. All the great inventors tell about that – that 99.9 percent of what they do turns out to be wrong. Everybody knows the story of Edison, who searched for a filament for his lightbulb, tried hundreds of different things, all of which failed, until he finally found one that finally worked – and that it wasn’t long before even that was superceded. Being comfortable making mistakes means not only that you shouldn’t be penalized for getting something wrong, you should be encouraged to get something wrong. You should be told that getting something wrong is the only way you’ll learn. The same goes with not being afraid of failure.
Another trend of the Information Age is the growth of personal independence. This is a global trend. It has become increasingly possible for people to set out on their own, and realize their personal dreams. Perhaps a few examples can help. When I grew up, I went to elementary school in an urban setting. As nine or ten year olds, we used to talk about what we were going to do when we grew up. This was in a middle class neighborhood, yet for many of the children, their aspiration was to be union laborers! Union laborers had better conditions, better benefits, better salaries and so forth. That was the epitome. If you could make it into a union, you had it made for life, because you not only had benefits, you had tenure. I challenge you to find children in the country today who will say, “I want to be a union laborer when I grow up.”
Here’s another example. When we first moved into our house in Massachusetts, we had a problem with an electric switch. We found out from our neighbors that we should call Bobby LaPointe, who worked at the GM plant downtown as a union electrician. Within a few years, he no longer worked at GM, but struck out on his own; he got a truck, with his company name on it, and worked for himself. Today, every carpenter has a truck, every roofer has a truck, every electrician has a truck, all the trades are going that way. The trend everywhere, from the bottom up, is strongly towards personal independence. “I want to be my own boss.” Contract labor everywhere. Why? Because this is the way the whole world is going. Young people growing up, that’s what they’re thinking. You can see it in the way little malls and office buildings and office parks are springing up all over the place; what these represent is hundreds of thousands of people going independent, offices filled with people who, thirty years ago, and certainly fifty years ago, wouldn’t have been occupying their own offices.
What do you need to be an effective adult in this world? How can you further the ability to be independent and responsible? You need to be able to make plans, and to execute those plans. That means having practice in setting up your own goals, executing them, and living with the consequences of your actions – not only planning for success, but planning to find that your plans don’t work and learning from that. It also means you’ve got to be able to learn how to take criticism and feedback, and use that to improve yourself.
Finally, there is a global trend which I couldn’t talk about even twelve years ago: the democratization of society. This is a historical force whose progress is inexorable. One of the things I grew up with was my father telling me that there is one fundamental difference between Soviet-style communism and every other form of government – namely, that no country under Soviet-style communism has ever overturned it. It has built-in mechanisms for maintaining itself forever. That was one of the things that scared the West throughout the cold war: the iron grip of communism. Who, in 1988, would have predicted that a year later the entire system would collapse from within? What you’re looking at is a massive historic movement towards democratization, begun in the 1780's, but clearly visible only at the end of the 20th century. Cyberspace is one thing that has contributed to this greatly, because it is essentially democratic; it is a place where every individual can make his/her voice heard globally. When people can make their voices heard, and identify with other people who agree with them, this creates a force that nobody can withstand for any significant length of time. The world is going to be democratized to an extent that we’ve never dreamt of before.
To be an effective adult in this society is to be able to function in a democracy. Not only are political institutions turning democratic, but companies are turning more and more democratic. You can read about that in all of the most recent books on management. All agree that the way to create a vibrant large company today is to decentralize it, to give more and more power to individuals who work in the company, who are stakeholders in its success. This is what big name management consultants are telling their Fortune 500 companies all over the world. You are not going to survive in the old hierarcheral model; it doesn’t work anymore, because the whole world is democratizing. That means you have to have adults who are comfortable in a democracy. It has to be in their bones.
I’ll give you a perfect example of how important this is. There is a man named Ricardo Semler, a Brazilian, who inherited a company called Semco, which is one of the largest manufacturers in Brazil. When he took over the company, which was organized along standard lines, he decided that he had to democratize its operation. He fired virtually the entire middle management, and he turned over the management to subgroups of workers in the field. It’s an amazing story, one that he has documented in a book entitled “Maverick.” Workers set their own salaries, hours, and work goals, and he found ways to make it all work. In the early 90's, he came to realize that his biggest problem was that he couldn’t find enough workers who were comfortable functioning in a democratic environment. He asked himself, “What’s going on here? I’m empowering people right and left! People should be welcoming this!” He concluded that the educational system was at fault, and that he should create a situation where kids learn from a very early stage to be comfortable in a democratic environment.
We’ve pretty much gone through the list of Information Age characteristics. I think you’ll agree that what we have is a complex, very different new world. What I’m going to do next, briefly, is look at the kinds of natural skills that every child has that fits in with this new situation. The reason children naturally possess the necessary skills is that the Information Age has an amazingly close resemblance to the early pre-industrial civilization into which the human race evolved. The conditions that prevailed in the early days of homo sapiens have much in common with the Information Age characteristics I have listed, albeit on a smaller, village-sized scale.
One of the traits that every child has is a tremendous drive for independence. Anybody who has had a child knows that. Children strive to be independent from the earliest age, and they’re constantly challenging their parents in order to become their own selves. Anyone who’s tried to do for a child something that the child can already do for himself will have gone through that for sure – the child protesting, “I can do it! Don’t help me! I’ve learned how to tie my shoes! I know how to put on my own socks!” Children have to have this drive, otherwise the species wouldn’t have survived. Schools didn’t exist for a million of years; we would have been extinct long ago if children didn’t want to grow up to be independent adults.
Children have insatiable curiosity. They want to consume the world; they’re always busy exploring. There’s no such thing as a lazy infant. Laziness only begins to creep into our vocabulary when we start imposing things on children that they have no interest in doing, and suddenly they’re “lazy” in our eyes because they’re not doing what we want them to do. Take a child we might label lazy at the age of nine or ten because he isn’t doing his homework. If you watch that same child after school, when he’s free, is he lazy? Or is he eagerly doing something exciting with his friends?
Children have wonderful model building skills which are essential to creativity. By that I mean that they create whole worlds for themselves, and creating worlds for yourself is how you innovate. They do this from birth; they have to, because they have no idea what the world is about when they’re born. At birth, they’re inundated with zillions of impressions from the outside. To survive, they have to have the native ability to take this mass of information that is coming in, order it, organize it, and create models of the world out of it. Children create order out of chaos all the time. That’s what they’re best at.
Children have a great talent for playing. Play is one of the two great gifts that nature has given children. Play is about doing things comfortably for which you don’t know the outcome, for which the outcomes are not planned in advance. That’s what makes play fun. Children love to play – in fact, they love nothing better. They’re comfortable with the uncertainty of it all. They’re comfortable with situations where everything is rapidly changing. Play is the most wonderful teacher for coping with change, and for teaching the art of problem solving.
Children develop the capacity to speak at an early age. One of the major characteristics that sets off the human race from every other species is the ability to communicate through speech. That’s something that children are always eager to do. Ask yourself, “Why does an infant want to learn how to speak? What’s the benefit gained?” It is often claimed that the benefits are social – that speech enables people to do things together. You can’t build a bridge, you can’t create a culture, unless you can communicate with other people and get a group to work together. But a little child one year old is not thinking about building bridges or creating a culture; yet, they’re desperately trying to learn how to speak. In fact, it’s the hardest task anybody ever undertakes in their entire lifetime, barring none. Kids will persist at it for years. They’ll get it wrong, and they’ll still go on trying. Why this tremendous drive? The answer is the key to the main purpose of communication. What every child realizes is that speech gives them a link to the world – in particular, a link to somebody else’s mind, somebody else’s persona. Communication makes the task of creating order out of the world infinitely easier, because the child can tap into the experience of other people who have already done it.
Now, I’m being very abstract, but the child sees this intuitively because the child understands that you – whoever you are out there that s/he’s staring at – are doing things that they can’t do. You’re cooking, you’re walking, you’re driving a car, you’re doing a million things that are really appealing. And what the child realizes is that by speaking to you, and learning how to communicate with you, s/he can pick up clues from you, and therefore not have to reinvent the wheel. Adults are no less eager to communicate than children. If you ask yourselves how you spend your time (when you’re not just quietly reading or sleeping) you’ll realize that you spend a lot of it speaking to people about things, because that’s the major way to expand your horizons.
In effect, we have designed our ideal Information Age school – the Sudbury Model school. It’s a place where, in order to provide an environment where children can grow to be effective adults, we allow Nature to take its course. We allow kids to grow up freely, and do everything we can to get out of the way, giving support only when they ask for it. It’s a place where children are allowed to do whatever they want, because we know that they’re trying with all their might to become independent adults. We know that by Nature, that’s their main goal, and the best thing we can do is get out of the way and let them develop their natural skills, through play, through conversation, through mixing with each other, through pursuing their own interests wherever they lead and as long as it takes, whatever the interest may be. If we leave them alone to access information, if we give them the opportunity to interact freely with the world (for example, through the internet), if we step aside and provide them only what they ask for by way of support, we’re providing the ideal environment for children to grow up to become effective adults in this Information Age world.
In addition, because they take charge of their own lives, they walk in and figure out who they’re going to play with, who they’re going to talk to, who they’re going to do activities with. They learn to accommodate their personal will to the will of the community. If you let them have the freedom to figure this out over time, they will do it. They’ll learn from their mistakes, and they’ll figure things out through the feedback that they get every minute of every day.
I’ve left the idea of the school to the end, because I wanted you to see where our re-design project would lead. However, if you actually think about a place where kids play, talk, mix and interact freely; where they’re not forced to do anything against their will; and where they have a full and equal voice in running the community, your first reaction is bound to be, “This looks so weird! It doesn’t look anything like a school!” So in ending, I would ask you to remember the military analogy. It will help you bridge this chasm. Remember: when the Poles in 1939 looked at the German army, it was smaller than theirs. The newspapers in 1939 were full of the writings of military analysts who were sure that the Germans would never invade Poland because they were no match for the huge, well-trained Polish army. The Germans had none of the traditional formations: no large cavalry, no massed infantry. Yet, the Germans defeated the Poles in fourteen days, which is pretty staggering when you realize that Poland is a pretty big country. Similarly, this new kind of school looks mighty weird from a traditional perspective. But it’s a new age, with different requirements for adults in this era, and it calls for a completely different approach towards school.
1. This is an edited transcript of a talk delivered at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia on February 9, 2001. In editing, the flavor of an oral presentation has been preserved.
Copyright © The Sudbury Valley School Press, Inc.®