Decisions, Decisions

The past few weeks have been full of great experiences. I got to spend a week with Emma, my girlfriend, in Portland. I’ve seen a number of schools and gotten deeper into some great books—namely Excellent Sheep by Bill Deresiewicz and Walden by Henry David Thoreau. And I’ve had some time to reflect.

In Portland, I visited the Village Free School, a free/democratic school located across the street from the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Like in most free schools, the students (ages 5-18) choose how to use their time. There are plenty of resources around, like books and computers, that the students take advantage of. There are also classes that the students can sign up for (and propose), including everything from “circus games” to chemistry. Students ages 9-12 have “project time,” which involves designing and completing projects. The activities you might find kids doing in a free school, even in a single day, are as numerous as the ideas those kids can cook up. The younger kids spend much of the day playing—though playing is an encompassing word that fails to describe the richness and variety of experiences involved in it. When you go (and I hope you do) to visit one of these free schools, I hope you’ll see that the separation between ‘playing’ and ‘learning’ is really an artificial one (you may have already seen this if you’ve closely observed a child absorbed in play).

I joined one class, called “Fairy Time,” which consisted of mostly younger kids and a staff member who take a short walk down to the shore of the Willamette River, where they read fairytales, act them out, and play. I spoke with the mother of one of the kids, who told me her son is actually homeschooled but comes to Village Free School once a week to spend time with other kids. As we talked and watched the kids play by the river—examining rocks and pushing logs out into the current—it struck me what this school was about: the kids are simply given room to grow into who and what they want to be. It was an important moment for me because I realized that that goal is enough.

Many schools claim to do it all—to put kids through a ‘rigorous’ academic curriculum while building responsibility, citizenship, and independence, all the while giving kids the space and freedom needed to find their passions and pursue their dreams. In practice, however, those ‘rigorous’ academics (the rigor of which is the subject of its own discussion), implemented through a system of coercion, are given primacy to the exclusion of the other values. In practice, most schools give kids little to no freedom to choose their own activities or to develop along their own path.

How can you develop independence, responsibility, or love of learning by making a child’s choices for them about where to be and what to learn? And is it so revolutionary to say that we don’t primarily care whether our kids go to the Ivy League or follow any of the prescribed paths to success? That instead our primary goal—way, way high above the others—is to help them develop into independent, responsible, engaged, and happy people?

One question that the phenomenon of free schools raises and that I’m still mulling over is this: which decisions are children capable of making for themselves, and which should be decided by adults? It seems obvious that young children shouldn’t be allowed to use or play with dangerous tools, or walk dangerously close to the raging waves of the ocean or the edge of a cliff. But should they be allowed to make decisions about what they want to learn? Does the same logic that pulls a child back from walking toward the crashing waves wean her from playing and place her in a desk? Essentially, do we protect our children’s futures by placing them in a compulsory system of learning in which they spend most of their time doing and learning things that have been determined externally? Or can children, when given the freedom to explore their own interests and choose their own activities, develop independence and responsibility from a much earlier age than a system of compulsion allows for, and also be able to perform in whichever field they eventually choose to go into?

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When he has obtained those things which are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to obtain the superfluities; and that is, to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced…Why has man rooted himself thus firmly in the earth, but that he may rise in the same proportion into the heavens above?—for the nobler plants are valued for the fruit they bear at last in the air and light…

–Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Instead of success, make the work itself the goal. That’s what I always come back to. When I start to care too much about rewards, I remember to return to the work—to the never-ending effort to perfect it.

–Bill Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep

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As I’ve had some time to reflect, what I’m learning now is as much about myself as it is about education. And now that I’ve taken a little time to step back, I’m seeing that I need to step back even further, that this is just the beginning of my soul-searching. I realize that I often seek personal affirmation in the opinions of others, that I tend to base my sense of self-worth on how others perceive me, and that somehow I believe that to lead a good life involves little more than to have others believe I lead a good life. None of these are ways in which I want to live my life.

I want to bring some genuine value to the world. I want to take some time to focus on bringing real value to, and finding real value in, my present moment—for it’s all I have, and it may be taken away any day. And I want to further develop my own passions, that I may find what it is I can and should do during my relatively short stay on this earth. In order to do these things I need time and as much freedom from external pressures as possible.

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Free, at Tallgrass Sudbury School

Riverside, Illinois, September 9th

When I arrived at Tallgrass Sudbury School, I met Natalie and Helen, the two full-time staff members. They gave me a tour of the school, which rents the second floor of a church building. There was a meeting room/art room with some tables, couches, and sewing machines. In the library—an isolated single room lined with books—a girl sat reading. Students can come to the library whenever they please to read in a quiet environment. In fact, the students may go anywhere in the school at any time, and may do whatever activity they’d like to.

Sudbury is a truly democratic model of education. Children choose what activities to do. It’s pretty much as simple as that. There are staff members around, but they don’t make requests for the kids to learn about this or that. If the kids ask the staff members to teach them something, that’s great. If not, the staff member won’t force a child to learn anything. The goal is to empower children to take control and responsibility over their own educations. In addition to choosing their own activities, children are responsible for creating and enforcing school rules—all through democratic processes.

Natalie said the students sign up for chores and have to clean up after themselves. “We’re our own janitors,” she said. If they fail to do chores or clean up after themselves, they may face disciplinary action from a committee made up of their peers.

In the hallway, a boy walked by us and introduced himself. I asked what he was up to. He said, “I think I’m going to draw.” A few minutes later he presented me with a comic drawn on a page—about a man in a restaurant who complains about an eyeball being on his plate. The waiter asks, “If you didn’t want an eyeball, why did you order the Mystery Surprise?” The eyeball proceeds to morph into a monster.

In the computer room, four kids were playing a video game on computers, talking casually.

There are a total of 17 kids at Tallgrass, ranging from ages 5-18. There are no grades or age groups. 5 year olds and 15 year olds are treated as equals.

Back in the main room, I met Karin, a teacher from Sweden who has been taking her two children to Tallgrass while they visit the US. In a few months they’ll return to Sweden. Karin, Natalie, Helen and I had a great conversation about education. Karin has been a math and science classroom teacher for 20 years. She said they don’t have anything like Sudbury in Sweden. Though she doesn’t know whether she’s entirely sold on the Sudbury model, she does see some benefits from it. She said something that stood out to me. She said that as a teacher, one of her most pressing questions is, “How do I get them to want to seek knowledge?” That is the question I’m asking in my project too. The Sudbury philosophy might say, “You don’t have to get them to. They will naturally.” Most adults aren’t immediately sold on that premise. My thought is that kids will seek knowledge naturally, but the difficulty comes in providing an environment stimulating enough to pique that interest. Adults don’t necessarily have to ‘create’ that environment artificially; they just need to know how to set up a child for meaningful exploration. These are just some ideas; I believe I still have a lot to learn.

Natalie talked about Peter Gray’s book, Free to Learn. I had heard of the book before, and was even planning on buying it. Natalie couldn’t stress enough just how good a book it was. I ended up buying a copy from the school, and I’m excited to start reading it. Peter Gray is slated to speak at Tallgrass in October (Thursday, October 16th to be precise. If you can, you should go. See the Tallgrass website for more info). You can read some of Peter Gray’s work here.

After lunch, a boy made an announcement: “J.C. meeting! J.C. in the J.C. room!” I had been waiting for this. J.C. stands for Judicial Committee. I had been told I could observe the meeting.

We sat down in the J.C. room (which doubled as the music room, equipped with a piano, a drum, and some smaller instruments) at an oval table. One boy, the J.C. clerk, initiated the meeting. Here’s how it works: anyone, child or staff, can fill out a complaint form. In it they record what happened and who the complaint is against (sometimes the guilty party is unknown). The JC, consisting of 5 elected students from across the age spectrum, votes on whether or not to investigate. If they vote to do so, they send for individuals, question them, and then deliberate until they reach a decision. At that point, they call the guilty party in, inform them of the rule they’ve broken (there’s a handbook with a number of school rules), and issue the resultant penalty (usually an extra chore). The child can choose to plead not guilty, but then some complicated mess occurs, they told me, and this rarely occurs (the suspect usually owns up to doing it or the JC doesn’t enforce a penalty). On this day, three complaints were lodged. Someone didn’t put away their drawing materials. Someone didn’t put away toys. And another person left a box of macaroni, a dirty bowl, and a fork out in the food room. All three incidents were solved and extra chores were dished out.

At first I was thinking it was all kind of silly. Why spend so much time and effort on addressing such little incidents in such a formal way? But then I suddenly realized that something special was actually happening. The point was not to punish seemingly minute infractions or to enforce nitpicky rules. The point was that these kids were partaking in a democratic process, one in which they were responsible and engaged participants. This was perfect practice for anything in the field of law. This was perfect practice for living in a democratic community. Actually, it was living in a democratic community.

As mentioned before, the structure of the school was pretty simple: The kids just did what they pleased. This included snacking, drawing, reading, watching videos on an iPad, playing card games, playing video games, talking with each other. At one point, a boy announced they were going to hold a ‘funeral’ for a girl’s macaroni noodles, which had met their fate on the floor. I attended the funeral, during which children pretended to sob and gave faux-heartfelt speeches while one played the low keys on the piano and another slowly beat a drum. It was a completely child-organized, child-led drama/comedy. This was unfettered childhood.

So no, I did not see many examples of learning in a traditional, academic sense. Although some chose to read, no one chose to learn math, science, or any other traditionally recognized subject. Is that a problem? I don’t know. But I can say that I was very impressed by the maturity and sociability of the kids here. The kids were active, responsible members of a social group that transcended the artificial boundaries of age groupings and cliques. The younger kids looked up to the older ones, and the older ones taught the younger ones—both directly and by example.

I imagine that the experience of a 6 year old here is much different than that of a 6 year old entering a classroom for the first time with 20 other 6 year olds. The 6 year old at Tallgrass seems to be on a smoother and more organic path of social and emotional development. They have role models and friends in the older students, and they naturally grow into older students who in turn can be role models and friends to new younger students. Everyone is an equal member of a democratic system, and each feels a real responsibility for their own actions (a natural result of their freedom). And the kids seem happy here, even if boredom rears its head every now and then for some of them.

I think the question I’m asking now, and the question Sudbury practitioners maybe ought to ask themselves, is how to create an environment that allows children to see all the many options of activities that are out there and from there pursue their interests. If the environment at Tallgrass is at all limiting it’s only because there aren’t all that many things to do in any school building, even a free one like Tallgrass. Books, toys, and computers can offer some meaningful experiences to kids, but if they had more exposure to other fields of knowledge and areas of practice, they might naturally engage in more academically demanding pursuits. This is just a thought—I really don’t know.

So even though I didn’t see very much observable, ‘classical’ learning taking place, there were some very special things going on at Tallgrass.

You can read more about Sudbury schools here.

TSS