Envision a school that is not compulsory or coercive, that is a completely student-directed educational environment. I toured one of those last week.
Two years ago I read Peter Gray’s Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, largely a manifesto for Unschooling. Although I attended traditional public schools up until college myself, I long held a growing intuition that the large-scale, top-down, one-size-fits-all business ran counter to the human spirit. Gray writes with warmth, but doesn’t hold back his criticisms about this sacred cow. “Children in school are not free to pursue their own interests, or to pursue those interests in their self-chosen ways. . . . Curiosity, playfulness, and meaningful conversation are all thwarted in school, because they require freedom. . . . It’s no wonder that the longer children are in school, the less interested they become in the subjects taught.”
Admittedly, I am biased toward personal freedom and personal responsibility, and advocate pushing as many aspects of society into that realm as is reasonably possible. My experiences in a traditional education setting were likely better than most, and yet, I was well aware of the crippling nature central to schooling. As Gray puts it, “children don’t like school because to them school is—dare I say it—prison. Children don’t like school because, like all human beings, they crave freedom, and in school they are not free.” One would be hard-pressed to refute that. Listen to the way most children talk about their time spent in those mandated spaces. This gargantuan institution is the closest thing to prison many people will encounter in their lives without having to actually do time. However, too many of us are forced to do time, completing our 12-year sentences.
As an undergraduate, I conducted research with a few professors of education which involved observations in schools and extensive review of literature into the role of education in democratic societies. During those 3 years, I was exposed to alternative educational philosophies like those espoused by Waldorf and Montessori schools. These more student-driven learning models resonated with me, but it wasn’t until I uncovered Gray’s work, that I became electrified. Had we been keeping our kids trapped in a system which was antagonistic to their inherent creativity, running counter to millennia of human learning?
The Unschooling Philosophy
When I discovered that my friend, Maddy Linder, grew up in a completely student-directed school, I jumped at the chance to visit. She graciously showed me around The Clearwater School, an educational community in the Seattle-Area founded on the Unschooling philosophy, or the Sudbury Valley model. The Sudbury Valley School was founded in 1968 in Massachusetts, with over 50 schools now tracing their philosophical roots to it. One Clearwater staff member emphasized that traditional schools make knowledge acquisition the primary goal of education, and that everything else is distantly secondary. Alternatively, the primary aim of a Sudbury model is to develop emotionally intelligent children who can live meaningful lives; everything else grows from there. This goal organically aligns with the way most people navigate life, wanting to understand themselves, discovering how to best relate to others, and how to tackle the purposeful challenges of existence.
On top of that, the Clearwater School’s rules are established, changed, and maintained through democratic means. Each child and staff member has a single vote, used during weekly meetings, where voices are of equal worth, wherein they determine community norms and protocol. This should offer some reassurance to those who are frightened by a school that has no structure. More accurately, the Clearwater School has no top-down or authority driven structure. Authority rests with the individual. They have plenty of structure, just as much as is needed and is appropriate given the interests, preferences, and cultural values unique to the educational community. Staff are seasoned collaborators in the community, not mandators or tyrants.
I saw many wonderful examples of this democratic principle. I’ll include one.
A few students had violated some of the “community norms” related to the computer room, so the computer committee, which consists of one staff member and several students, collectively decided to close the computer room until they could come to a resolution for the violation. Upon hearing this, another staff member commented that it would likely take a couple more weeks, adding that “it could be even longer if the weather clears up and the students became more interested in outdoor learning,” which gave me another insight into their incredible educational environment. “They go through phases all the time,” she said. Their learning matches up with the spontaneous nature of their interests, where their natural passions enable far greater learning than we see in traditional models. A child who is enthralled at age 12 with becoming a software developer is more likely to internalize what she learns about computer systems and logic systems than if she had hypothetically been “taught” or exposed to it six months earlier, based on a state-curriculum, when she may have had no interest in computers at all. We can’t fabricate student interest levels, but we can give them the freedom and resources to become learned when their curiosity reaches the necessary interest threshold.
These students are not compelled to learn a particular subject or topic. Nor are they forcibly grouped with an arbitrarily-defined segment of students, such as biological age as seen in traditional models. Children of different ages and skill levels group together voluntarily and collaborate in their learning. Sometimes a child is a mentor, and sometimes they are the student. Many tools and resources are available to them: books, other humans, a small nature preserve which the school restored through means of a grant, a kitchen, a student-made theatre space, a playground, and several very supportive staff who deeply respect student autonomy. Again, these adults are best understood as experienced collaborators. They do not dictate or even facilitate lessons or timelines for learning (for the most part). They study their passions and sometimes kids enthusiastically join with them. Other times, a student expresses interest in something they want to learn, or rather, something they want to play around with, like building a car engine, or writing a play, and then other students and staff join in, also learning and helping achieve the goal.
Student vitality is the first thing visitors will notice at the school. Children were being children, which is to learn and play, for these two things are the same until children go to school and they learn that learning is work, and then their curiosity and creativity are crushed. Here, I encountered so many vibrant, happy children. Sure, some were having rough days, but they were also allowed all the time in the world to explore and process their emotions, often with the help of their emotionally intelligent community members. This contrasts with the rampant bullying and emotional vitriol we encounter in traditional schools. Here, students focus on emotional maturity and spiritually nurturing their community, rather than settling for knowledge acquisition, or hollow academic marks. I saw a liveliness that contrasts with the sterile and hyper-orderly nature of traditional education models and public schools.
All types of students are welcome to enroll if they are interested in this freewheeling setting. They spend a week with the Clearwater community, and if they like it, they stay. No students are turned away, and only one student has ever been expelled during its 21-year history. Although tuition is relatively low for a private school, and scholarships are available, it can still be a big barrier. Notably, Gray highlights that the Sudbury Valley School spends less than half the amount of money per pupil as its state-funded alternative public schools do, and that’s by using what appears to be a superior educational model. This figure should grab the attention of any education reformers.
Students After Unschooling
An outsider may wonder what types of careers these students as adults. How do these kids thrive in a society so beset with structure and hierarchy? They do anything you can imagine. Stephanie Sarantos, founder of the Clearwater School, provided me with an extensive list of what her graduates are now doing: law-enforcement, social work, graphic design, culinary arts, professional dancing, computer science and technology, fishing industry and wildlife management, construction, business management, bicycle repair, biology, environmental and evolutionary science, deaf and hearing impaired studies, music and theater.
These Sudbury schools don’t use grades either, and the Clearwater School has had huge success with college. Maddy mentioned that nearly every Clearwater student gets into the college of their choice, submitting narrative-based applications and SAT/ACT scores, although others opt out of the conventional college track, already prepared to be successful adults, in part, because their educational community has been treating them as such since they were younger. Becoming responsible for your own education does that.
To The Critics, Those Who Demand Certainty
As one would imagine, Sudbury Schools have plenty of critics, parents worried about what happens when students are unmotivated. Sarantos asserts that “once you ask this question you are layering an outside, or adult judgment on the activities of children. Usually, this is said when kids are motivated to do things that other people don’t want them to do. In the course of the life journey, the model of freedom in the context of being responsible to your community is the best way to address a more profound personal experience of lack of motivation–the best way out is through self-reflection with the help of the people and culture that surrounds you.” One student spent the better part of a year playing video games. Inquiring what happened to him, my friend replied that “he moved on. It was just a phase.” Some students take a few weeks, and others longer, before they realize that pursuing meaningful activities and a personal vision make life more fulfilling. It’s difficult to justify wasteful behavior when one is fully responsible for their life. It’s easy to scrape by or do just enough to game the system in a traditional school because they’re barely responsible for their education. They’re barely free.
Traditional schools reinforce this implicit, and sometimes explicit, message telling students that if they do what they are told to do in school, everything will work out well for them. Gray asserts that “children who buy into that message stop taking responsibility for their own education. They assume, falsely, that someone else has figured out what they need to do and know to become successful adults.” This mode of thinking is carried into adulthood as a huge stumbling block, forging adults who tacitly accept what society dictates to them. Some say the amount of time spent going through this unmotivated phase was time wasted, but I’m inclined to view it as an investment. Just as the person who has been spurned by love is likely to know on a deeper level what it means to love than somebody who hasn’t experienced the loss, so it is with time poorly spent. A student has nobody else to blame but themselves. They have skin in the game.
To parents who worry how their children are going to learn to read and write or master the early fundamentals, Sarantos expressed minimal concern, assurance gained from her decades of experience as an educator. Regarding these fundamentals, most of the students are self-taught, and as Sarantos suggests, “maybe all of us are self-taught but think we learned because of the instruction we received.” From her observations, “most Clearwater kids appear to absorb these skills and have a hard time describing how they acquired them. The popular way to think about it is as an extension of language acquisition–extended to written language acquisition.”
In addition to the pressures parents feel from the dominant culture to send their children to traditional schools, Sudbury Schools face roadblocks preventing their proliferation. These include state laws where government schools are shielded from competition, local zoning laws, and the high start-up costs of beginning a business. To offset costs, the Clearwater School functioned many years with passionate volunteer staff who were compensated with free tuition for their kids. The largest looming challenge to the popularity of Sudbury Schools is the US education system itself, whose aim is to socialize kids in a calculated way. The US education system derives from the Prussian education model which aimed toward creating obedient soldiers and worshipful citizens, the Industrial Revolution which manufactured assembly line student-turned-workers, and religious orders who instilled a strict deference to authority and draconian social and moral codes.
Their alternative form of education doesn’t make Sudbury staff and parents completely unique though. They share the deep hope we all have that their students will find their own way and stay within the bounds of societal expectations, but they happen to believe those expectations are more malleable and nuanced. They are more comfortable with social and cultural innovation. It takes a lot to embrace personal freedom, maybe even more so when it’s your own child.
Unschooling is no educational panacea and has its own problems, but my biggest worry isn’t that these can’t be addressed or at least mitigated. I’m concerned that most of us traditionally-schooled people will not give Unschooling a fair consideration, because by acknowledging that educational environments exist which are superior to the ones that raised us, and by accepting that claim, we also have to sit with the anguish-inducing fact that our lives could be so much more had we been part of an Unschooling community.
Listening to Our Little Ones
One of my final moments at the school perfectly captured the spirit of the community. We met a student at the end of the day, eating her lunch, quietly, and on her own schedule. It was 4 in the afternoon. She appeared somewhere between age 9-11. Markedly, most of the staff only know age ranges of the students, which speaks to another incredible insight regarding the weighty assumptions we place on students because of their biological age (but that’s for another discussion). She didn’t recognize my friend, which was weird for such a small school community. I noted her self-assurance and her comfort level with talking to adults, which is uncommon to kids from traditional schools, much like the ones I attended. She had started at Clearwater this year, hence not recognizing Maddy, and when I asked her how it compared to her previous school, a traditional public school, her face lit up and she exclaimed, “I love it here! I just do!” And when I asked her what the biggest difference was, she gleefully replied, “Freedom!” as if she were Braveheart. She meant it with everything she had, with no better way to articulate it. She didn’t need to, for she took us to the core of human potential, where morality resides, to the center for so many wonderful aspects of the human experience.
This is the foundation upon which unschooling schools are built, so why don’t we give them a try?
Jeffrey is the Founder and Editor-in-chief of Erraticus. He also hosts and produces the philosophy-centric podcast Damn the Absolute!
He is a journalist and writer whose research interests center around bioregionalism, philosophical pragmatism, pluralism, and resilient communities. He lives in Southern Appalachia.