Democratic Free Schools basically apply the ideas of what we might describe as “classical democratic liberalism” to education. The children have real rights; they have a real vote in real decisions; they are autonomous. In short, they experience day-to-day life in a coherent, consistent classically liberal society, or as near as a school can match those ideas.
By contrast, most schools are radically different from adult life. Children in American Civics classes study such things as “presumption of innocence,” “freedom of speech,” “the right to be secure in our persons, houses, papers, and effects,” and most of all this curious thing called “freedom,” as if they were studying an alien culture with no relation to their own experiences.
They are supposed to live in the “Land of the Free”, but are not actually free – they must be at school. Hundreds of lockers can be busted open and searched without a warrant. Punishments can be arbitrary and out of proportion to the offense. Mock “student governments” have no actual control over anything useful or important. Every minute of the school day is regimented, as if children were a slave army.
Children eagerly anticipate manumission at age 18, when they hope to be treated as free people. Schools in other nations differ in detail, but one thing is common in most: children are not genuinely free and autonomous, until some magic age. Hearing about it, but not experiencing it, leads perceptive children to cognitive dissonance, confusion, and distress.
What if we treated children more as autonomous adults expect to be treated? What if students were allowed to be free? If, instead of artificial “choices” such as “Pick one of Consumer Math, Algebra I, or Geometry to satisfy the math requirements,” students actually were allowed to decide moment by moment whether to play, to study, to take a class, to practice trumpet, or any of the vast possibilities offered in the Real World to free people?
This idea may seem crazy. Can kids handle that much responsibility? Am I joking? Am I talking about some mythical, unrealized utopia?
In 1968, Daniel Greenberg and others established Sudbury Valley School, based on just this idea – that children can and should handle autonomy and responsibility.
Life in Sudbury Valley School – and many other “Democratic Free Schools” – is governed in a real way by a weekly assembly, in which children as young as four have one vote, just as do the staff members. This is a real governing body; it determines school rules; it hires and fires; the staff members (not called “teachers”) have no tenure, have only one vote apiece, and are greatly outnumbered by students. Their jobs depend upon the vote of the assembly, year to year. So does the budget, any plans for improvements, and so forth. This is radical participatory democracy.
The school rules are basically an elaboration of simple principles – don’t be violent; don’t steal; don’t make a mess of things.
Conspicuously absent are any rules requiring one to attend class; in fact, there are no “classes” as we understand them. There’s something a little bit like a class, but it has far less of a role than you might imagine – more on that in a minute.
So how do children learn? Any way they want to, with very few limits. (they can’t steal; they can’t be violent; they can’t rant without consideration of their neighbors) One child, for instance, spent four hours a day playing trumpet, every day, for years. He went on to become lead horn at a prestigious orchestra.
Another, called Bob, asked for some help with Chemistry, and was given a college text with these instructions: read this page by page. Do the exercises. See me if you have any question at all. Bob disappeared. The staff member was curious – he knew Bob had a history of behaving responsibly and completing projects – but where was he? Weeks passed. Five months passed. Bob popped in and asked for help: “Excuse me, I have a problem on page 252.” The staff member pretended to not be surprised. Minor problem resolved. Bob disappeared, finished the book, asked for another on Calculus, which he completed entirely solo. Bob is now a professional mathematician.
Please let that sink in: children reading a book cover-to-cover; being helped only as requested, but needing far less help than you might expect. What else is missing? Quizzes, tests, grades, monitoring, hovering, lectures, explanations – there are hardly any of the enormous array of involuntary impositions which we have come to expect as “normal” in school.
Not every child can be self-motivated, you might think. Odd thing is, just about every child at Sudbury Valley is highly self-motivated; this is the culture, the normal way of doing things. A survey of about 100 graduates showed that 80% had gone on to college, and had done well. The other 20% were neither layabouts nor unskilled laborers; they were mostly self-employed entrepreneurs, in a variety of fields.
What is a “class” at Sudbury Valley? It is only one of many ways to learn. It is a voluntary agreement between students and a staff member or even another student. Daniel Greenberg described one instance: about a dozen children, aged 9 to 12, demanded a math class. Greenberg agreed to give a 30 minute class, Tuesdays and Thursdays, for 20 weeks. The students agreed to show up on time, every time; the class would be cancelled entirely if any student or students were five minutes late for two classes. The students agreed to do homework, and an overall “test” to satisfy themselves that they had learned the material.
Stop right there: 20 class hours of instruction. Not 5 days per week, 180 days, times 40 minutes, times six years. Just 20 hours of instruction, total. What did Greenberg cover? All of K-6 arithmetic. Day 1 and 2 covered addition; day 2 and 3, subtraction, and so on, covering fractions, decimals, exponents, square roots, multiplication, division. Lots of problems, taken from an 1898 primer.
The students soaked it up; they aced the tests. They had a celebration when the 20 hours were finished. And they knew their arithmetic stone cold, better than many high school graduates.
Relating this to a math skills expert, Greenberg expected a hint of admiration, maybe a little astonishment or disbelief. The expert just nodded. Why? “The subject matter is not hard. What is hard is beating it into the heads of children who do not want to learn.” That is, they do not want to learn that particular math at that time; they are never given a choice – never permitted to say no, nor to do something else which, for them, would be a more profitable use of their time.
So why spend thousands of hours “beating it into their heads”? Has the beating any value? If it can be learned in 20 hours, instead of thousands of hours, why not use the simpler, far more efficient method: wait for the child to be interested? If it only takes 20 hours – and this has been demonstrated many times over – then what is the urgency to beat it in early and often?
Democratic Free Schools, and the entire unschooling movement, strongly challenge fundamental assumptions of education and child-rearing. They challenge us to treat children as if they were actually people whom we respect; as if they are entitled to vastly more autonomy than is their usual lot.
Now, I am not saying that all of what we experienced in school was bad, nor that all the tools were bad, in and of themselves. I speak not against tests per se (although I believe them to be greatly overused), but against their imposition from above; against the presumption that one cannot be educated without constant testing and monitoring and intervention. An autonomous person may ask for a test; an autonomous person may agree to a test; but an autonomous person should not be forced to take tests, nor placed in an environment where constant testing is their only option. An education might be much like Bob’s – 99% independent study – or it might be more like the math class described above – 80 or 90% independent study – or it might even be drill-and-kill, 10% independent study – but it should be an authentic choice of an autonomous child who knows something about the possibilities.
I have heard, for example, of some unschooled children – that is, children who engage in natural, self-directed learning, and are never forced to be “schooled” in the traditional manner – who ask for a lot more structure, with exercises and tests and external direction – but this should be a free choice, not the One and Only Way, nor the Default Way.
While I mention Sudbury Valley School as an example, it is far from the only Democratic Free School.
A great place to learn more about SVS is here:
To carry the discussion a bit further – what if we respect parents? What if parents were allowed to take charge of the education of their own? This is now legal everywhere in the United States. Some among these home educators sort of recreate the habits of traditional schools inside the home; most learn to be a lot more relaxed; and some call themselves “unschoolers” or “natural learners.” An important lesson learned from home education is this: when the child is interested in learning, the child engages a powerful set of skills which are much faster and more efficient than those used when the child is simply trying to please an authority figure by sitting through another drill-and-kill session.
For more info on unschooling – working with, not on the child:
Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College, has studied and written extensively about children, play, and learning. Many of his articles can be found at the Freedom to Learn blog
In particular, his four-part series about adult unschoolers relates to the outcomes of this style of education.