Trusting my child to choose his own adventure: democratic unschooling in action

Guest post by Amanda Klein
Sudbury Graffiti

I’ve been answering the question, “What grade is your son in?” for nine years, and even now I’m never quite sure what will come out of my mouth. In some ways, it’s actually getting harder to answer. The older G gets, the farther off the map of traditional education we seem.

G has been attending The Clearwater School since age four. Clearwater is a Sudbury school, a democratic school based on freedom, trust, and responsibility. Kids have as much of a say in running the school as adults. Not only are there are no grades, tests, or homework, there is no curriculum: G has total responsibility for his own learning. It is kind of like unschooling in a big mixed-age group.

When G was elementary-school age, people were often surprised to hear he spent his school days doing whatever he chose, but there is more mainstream acceptance of the value of play for younger kids. Now that he is 13, their surprise borders on alarm as they ask, “How long will he stay there? Won’t he go to a ‘real’ high school?” Somehow, it no longer sounds cute, and when I say he’ll stay there through high school if he wants to, I get looks of disbelief.

I chose this school because I didn’t want G to feel the pressure that kids can get “to live up to their potential.” I wanted him to know what makes him happy, and to follow his interests. I didn’t want his natural curiosity dulled by school, and it hasn’t been. Everything he’s learned has been something he wanted to learn — but usually he learns by doing things that society doesn’t recognize as educational.

Each student has a vote in all decisions about the school’s day-to-day operations, and the meetings can feature vigorous debate.

For years his focus at school has been computer and role-playing games, but now he also plays a lot of Ultimate Frisbee and soccer (he was in a neighborhood soccer league for two years, but he prefers the ambience of a mixed-age, co-ed, pick-up game — go figure). He is captivated by the party game Mafia, and often spends a few days thinking up a new permutation of the game, and then recruits a group of people at school to test it out. Right now he’s in an acting class, and recently recruited two other students to perform a scene from The Tempest with him at the annual school festival. As a member of the Computer Committee, G helps maintain all the school computers.

He is also increasingly active in the democratic life of the school. Each student has a vote in all decisions about the school’s day-to-day operations, and the meetings can feature vigorous debate. When G was younger, he didn’t participate unless an issue especially interested him, but he now attends every meeting. A staff member (at Clearwater, we don’t call them teachers) who has known G since he was four told me she appreciated his involvement in a recent discussion about a proposed rule. She was impressed by G’s heartfelt commitment to individual rights and the way he stuck to his guns. (My son’s version was “the whole meeting was basically just me and R arguing.”)

G on the fourth lap around Greenlake by Amanda Klein
Clearwater staff model a high level of respect for children and their interests, and relate to them without a trace of condescension. (Says G: “They don’t assume that just because they’re adults, they can help.”) Older students also treat younger kids like people — not that they’re always nice to the little ones, but they don’t put them down just because they are younger. G has friends of all ages, and is passionately against all age-discrimination. He’s argued to his grandfather that a four-year-old can be a valuable participant in making a serious decision. He’s taken me to task when I jokingly suggested that we not invite my parents to a party because “we can’t have as much fun with the old people there.”

Being involved in this community has shown me how much children are capable of, and recently I realized I’ve come to look at adults differently, too. I haven’t just learned to profoundly respect children — I’ve learned a lot about respect, period, and taking people as they come. I’m not free of judgment, but my mind is more open, and I’m more aware of my assumptions about what is and isn’t worthwhile — about judging books by their covers. If somebody’s hobby or job sounds weird to me, I put aside my knee-jerk reaction and try to find out what (for them) is compelling about it, just like I do when my son tells me about a new game.

The level of respect and trust I have for my son and his choices may seem radical, but to me it has become second nature. My confidence in this model of education has only grown as I’ve watched how it has helped G become the knowledgeable, eloquent, sensitive person he is. I don’t believe that spending hours on the computer designing cards for Magic: The Gathering is a waste of his time, and I think he has as much right to do that as I do to spend hours reading blogs. Sure, I sometimes suggest he rest his eyes or get up and take a walk, and he’s been known to say the same to me.

Once or twice when I’ve said he should do something “because I say so,” he’s shot back, “that’s not the way you raised me!” He’s right, and I’m so thankful.

Comments on Trusting my child to choose his own adventure: democratic unschooling in action

  1. That’s so cool! I went to a similar school. While we had set subjects (history, science, math, etc.) we could pick what we wanted to study within it. Not to mention that all the grades (4th, 5th, and 6th) were in the same classroom. I spent a semester in 5th grade studying Ancient China while my friends at other schools were learning about the revolution. Again. It’s so much easier to get good grades when you LIKE what you’re studying.

  2. The one thing I’ve always wondered about schools like this is what happens when the kids do go on to another institution.

    For example how do they go about applying to colleges or jobs when they have no formally recognised qualifications?

    I’d imagine it’s not so bad for those moving into something creative where a portfolio can count for a lot, but from my own experience I know many companies do not accept “Yes I use computers every day. Yes that includes Word and Excel”, they want to see a certificate to prove you’ve been formally trained or they disregard it.

    • If a student wants a job that requires a specific qualification, they will go after it, simple as that. See Ariel’s and my response below re colleges.

    • My 15 year old son has been a Sudbury school student since he was 7. He recently took the Compass test to place into a local college’s English 101, and passed.

      It was his first formal test, which is why I have any metric at all. I’ve always known he was doing fine, but it does help to have a little conventional proof for worried grandparents.

      Lots of Sudbury kids go on to college. It doesn’t take 12 years to learn how to pass a test.

    • I have had very different experiences from you; I have never had a job where abstract training for basic computer programs had to be certified, and I’ve never taken a class that I could apply as well as I could apply OJT.

  3. I like the idea of a school like this. My only question – if a student graduates from a school like this and wants to go on to university education, will he or she meet all of the application requirements? And do you think they would have a hard time adjusting to the stricter (in comparison) course frame work?

  4. Homeschooled and democratically-schooled kids often do well with college applications:

    “What we heard from the Deans of Admissions is that Sudbury and other alternatively-educated students are looked at quite favorably from an admissions point of view. The 4.0-student body president-football team captain-head of the debate team is becoming a kind of cookie-cutter applicant that colleges face en masse, a faceless young person who could come from anywhere in America. Colleges and universities in the 21st century want and are seeking out variety and diversity in their student bodies that matches the American landscape. Alternatively-educated students are able to bring different perspectives and experiences to college that others from traditional public and private schools simply cannot.” (source)

    More info.

    • Definitely agree about Sudbury backgrounds being attractive to admissions folks and getting their attention. SAT scores usually provide some reassurance in the absence of grades.

      I’ll add that Sudbury-educated students adapt well to college and structured environments–they are there because they want to be there, they are more responsible than typical age-mates, and they know how to focus on goals.

    • I get how they are well-recieved when it comes to admission to a college/universtiy, but it doesn’t change the fact that the way they will be taught can be vastly different from how they were taught in their respective alternate institutes. I’m sure they would be mature enough to accept that it’s different, but will they be able to excel in the same way?

      • As someone who went from alternative elementary schools to a totally mainstream public middle/high schools, I can say that while there was a transition, I went on to be a National Honor Student and totally excelled within the more traditional educational structure of public school.

        I realize my experience is a little different than transitioning from an alt-high school to a college, but I think alt-educated students who are motivated to learn will adapt to any educational environment that appeals to them. From what I’ve heard anecdotally, alt-schooled kids who want to go to college totally excel because they’ve learned how to learn, regardless of the format.

      • Yes, yes, yes! I am a recent grad of a free school (a democratic school model that’s very similar to the Sudbury model, though they don’t have as set as a internal structure). And I LOVED every second of it. Free schooling instilled me with self-confidence and really helped me own my own life; there is nothing more satisfying then setting your own goals and accomplishing them yourself, whether that goal is organizing a overnight school trip, making your own zine, or taking the SATs and getting into college.

        It’s my personal belief that any kid can thrive in a free-schooling environment; complete and utter trust in a child is a powerful life changing thing. I encourage everyone to check out Summerhill, by A.S Neill, any of Chris Mercigliano’s books or check out AERO (Alternative Education Resource Organization) if they are interested in learning more.

        Or heck, just go out and visit a democratic school! Manhattan Free School is always happy to show visitors around.

      • My kids go to the school Amanda discusses, and they also go to mainstream summer camps and extracurricular classes. They are highly adaptable to more-structured situations; one of the hallmarks of the Sudbury kids I know is that they do a great job of assessing the situation in front of them and responding to the local culture.

      • As an unschooler who went on to college, yes, I excelled. Honestly, I think directing your own education the way students have to while unschooling or at a free school is more similar to college than many traditional high schools. Many of my classmates floundered when faced with classes that didn’t take attendance, required critical thinking, and asked students to begin taking the role of leader rather than follower. It wasn’t nearly as much of a jump for me.

        In terms of pure academics, yeah, I had to play catch up in some areas. For instance, I took a “remedial” math class. And then excelled when I took “college level” math the next semester, because it was fresh in my mind while my classmates had to remember stuff they’d learned a year or more ago.

        The biggest thing I learned from directing my own education was not any one subject, but HOW to learn. As a result, I’m confident that I can learn anything quickly and comprehensively if and when I need to.

        Granted, many alternatively-schooled people don’t excel in certain learning environments. But neither do many traditionally-schooled people. The alternatively-schooled people I know who did poorly in college were generally less likely to take that as judgment of their potential as human beings, and more likely to move on to something where their skills and talents shone.

  5. This is really interesting. As a public school teacher I am always curious about ways that schools – and non-schools – choose to educate children. I have many problems with the traditional school system and struggle daily with integrating my core beliefs about education – that it should be self-directed and inquisition-based – with all of the “learning goals” that are laid out for public school kids. My concern with a totally student-driven curriculum, though, is that it might lead to a very lopsided education. I know that as a student, I was very into reading and writing and not a huge fan of math, but I am SO glad, now, that I was “forced” to take math classes, because I find the knowledge useful in my life. What’s your experience with this, Amanda? How does this school address kids’ (people’s, really) natural inclination to stick to the things they’re good at and avoid the things they’re not?

    • The school purposefully does not address it, and that can be an issue for some people. Some kids do become really focused on one thing, say music, and that becomes their life and they become a musician. Some kids have serial passions and as a result become well-rounded over time. Lots of kids get exposed to things that other kids or staff (not to mention their families) are interested in, or they realize they need to learn more about something to serve another interest. The average Clearwater student can converse on a stunning number of topics…

      My son has pretty wide interests, but I do sometimes get frustrated trying to get him to try new things. I’m not sure that “forcing” helps things much–when I look back on the classes I was forced to take, I sometimes developed an interest, but if I didn’t, I retained almost nothing.

    • Just wanted to offer another perspective on this.

      I’ve always been very self-motivated and inquisitive, and remember being very interested in numbers. I skipped preschool and stayed at home with my family, actively learning, and entered kindergarten ahead of most of the other students in almost every subject, including math (well, the kind of very basic math-type stuff you do in kindergarten, anyway).

      I then went to a “traditional” gradeschool and “learned” a lot of math that I didn’t want to. I really resented the system where we all were expected to be at the same skill level in all subjects all the time. I also disliked being pulled away from something I was really interested in, in order to start on the next subject. As a result, none of it really stuck beyond the end of a school year. I basically spent a lot of time mentally purging myself of any “knowledge” that I felt I was forced to learn.

      I then went to an independent-study high school where I had individualized instruction, and although math was still required, I had a nurturing instructor and could work at my own pace. We also spent half the year focusing on math and science, and the other half on English and history (with other subjects mixed in) so the math training was more intensive and I was more able to focus on it. For the first time in my career at school, I really excelled at math–and enjoyed doing it, too.

      I honestly think that the problem was just a fundamental difference between how I learn best, and how today’s standard school system works. Pretty much anyone in the Sudbury or free school system (or at my high school) would tell you that these systems of learning aren’t for everyone.

      I have 3 cousins (siblings) who were all at one time at a free school. One of them left in 4th grade for a traditional school, because she found that she just wasn’t self-motivated enough, and would just sit around feeling bored instead of learning. One of her sisters stayed there through what would have been 8th grade, and then decided to go to a public high school. The other one is very happy where she is and is staying at the free school until she’s 18. I feel like all three of them are bright, outstanding people, even though their interests and strengths are very different, and I think they will all excel in the world.

    • How much math to you use in your everyday life though?

      I could be wrong, but I suspect that the majority of us actually use a very small proportion of the math skills we learned in school. A lot of what you learn (like calculus) isn’t all that useful in one’s everyday life. Also, specific things (like math applied to a career) can be learned later on if need be, school isn’t the only time to do so.

  6. Amanda, you don’t happen to be a Johnnie, do you? The fact that you’ve memorized the beginning of the General Prologue makes me wonder. Whan that Aprill…

      • Hey, great to see other Johnnie’s here (Santa Fe ’06)! I always felt that what my public high school lacked, and what the college was great at, was encouraging curiosity. It’s wonderful to see that this works at all ages.

  7. THANKS for the encouragement! My oldest is fast approaching ‘school age’ and its been interesting telling people he’s not going to kindergarten. 😉

  8. Very interesting. I’m sure you have to answer a lot of question from people and I want to say thanks for educating us (me!) this way.

    I had typed some sort of question, but reading the wiki and thinking critically about myself (I have a broad range of interests) answered actually a lot. So again, thanks.

  9. I’ve seen my partner’s younger brother attend a Sudbury-esque (tho I’m not totally sure they 100% subscribe to the model) high school, and I’ve been really impressed with what the school offers. Like others have noted, it seems to be all about what the student wants to get out of it.

    What makes me sad is that this type of education seems to come with a really high price tag. Just in doing initial research in my state/area, it seems that Sudbury schools are between $7-11k/year in tuition. Yowch.

    • That tuition seems really reasonable to me, as Sudbury schools are private schools. In my area (Boston), most private schools, including elementary schools, are about twice that amount per year.

      • It is reasonable for a private school, definitely, but it’s still way too high for many of us to be able to afford. I think this is one reason why working to reform the public school system is so important – no matter how amazing private schools can be, they are going to be cost prohibitive for a large amount of people, always.

        • It can definitely be a struggle to pay tuition (though we are under $7K and there are other private schools in our area at $25K!). I do want to mention that Clearwater and a lot of Sudbury schools make a big effort to provide tuition assistance to those who can’t afford it.

          I would love to see change come to the public school system. Considering that a lot of people don’t even want to think about reforms like reducing homework, or eliminating standardized tests or grades, Sudbury model can be hard to sell to the mainstream.

  10. My boyfriend and I recently discovered the concept of Sudbury schools and we would love to support the model when we have children. I’ve found plenty of statistical material about the schools (the number of how many students go on to higher education are on par with normal public school educations, for example), I’d love to hear more anecdotal pieces like yours–I want to know about the people, not the numbers! I hope you return to post often over the next few years!

      • Sure! The website for the Sudbury Valley school (the first one) is here, and has lots of practical information about how the school is set up: http://www.sudval.org/.

        The Sudbury Valley School Press (http://sudburypress.com) has a lot of resources, including a book called Legacy of Trust, which explaints a series of studies of Sudbury school graduates–it was this book that notes that 80% of the students go on to higher education (and it was written in the early 90s, when public high school graduates who went on to college were only 60%!).

        They also have a resource section with articles written by parents, alumni, and trustees/school board members, including a good one on post-graduation life paths/ college attendance here. The articles I’ve read from this section do tend to be more anecdotal than statistical, but they also give you a really good idea of the general philosophy and mission of the schools.

  11. I went to an experiential College! Bennington College! I took a lot of children’s ed classes there as I thought I was going to be an art teacher. They would love this!

  12. I think this sounds really interesting, and it’s awesome that it works so well for your son and your family.

    I don’t think this would work for every child or family though. (I know it wouldn’t work for us) But then, I don’t think ANY method works for everyone. The brain is an amazing thing and people learn in very different ways. So I’m a big believer in choice. Charters, religious schools, military schools, boarding schools, Montessori schools, language immersion schools…the more the merrier, it’s all good! There’s no such thing as the one “right” way to educate.

    • It doesn’t work for everybody, but it works for more kids than you’d think. I often hear people say that a kid must need a lot of self-discipline to do well at a Sudbury school, and I just don’t think that’s borne out. Though you are definitely right that it doesn’t work for every family, it’s more common that it doesn’t work for the parents, honestly.

      • Sadly, I think I’m one of those people who would have done horribly (I hardly do anything except what’s required of me in school even though I always loved it) but I love the concept! I was actually just arguing on the internet for a greater need of gifted education, but this type of school might be a great alternative as they learn at their own pace.

  13. Does anyone know if there are sudbury style schools in Indiana? Besides Harmony in bloomington it is to far!

  14. I am so grateful for offbeat mama! though a bit preemptive, i have been searching for the perfect so-called “hippie private school” for my daughter, and this may very well be it in a couple years. i guess this means we’re moving north to seattle as opposed to south to tacoma!

    • Yay! Janet, feel free to get in touch with me through Clearwater when your daughter is older, if I can answer any questions.

  15. Have these schools been around long enough for their benefits to be proven in the real world? I would just be worried about my kid being able to get jobs, having thabilityto seek out secondary schooling (if he wants to), and being on the same level educatuonally as his peers… do they give a diploma?

  16. Hm, the only subject that worries me a bit is math. Is it possible for a school like this to turn out an engineer?

    • Sure. Kids who are into math learn math. Kids who are into building things and taking things apart can really dig in to that passion. Kids who don’t like math but later find that their math is insufficient for something they want to pursue will be motivated to learn more math.

  17. I attended private school and public school, as well as being home schooled. I made the transitions to each different school quite easily.
    For those that argue that alternatively schooled children won’t adapt well to college, I would have to say that I disagree. College is not at all like high school, so to assume that children who didn’t attend a traditional school will have trouble seems flawed. Look how many traditionally educated students have trouble with the transition!

  18. Choose your own adventure, indeed! Among many other things, I’ve taught at a Montessori school (ages 4-14). My youngest sister also attended Montessori until middle school. I’ve NEVER known kids more excited about learning. They set daily and weekly goals for themselves, and chose to add extra learning if they desired it. As for my sister-she’s a child psychologist who minored in astronomy 😉 Also, as far as Magic the Gathering goes, my math skills as an adult were greatly improved by playing in the Beta years.. Honestly, I’ve long been jealous of not having had that excitement for learning children in open education systems recieve!

  19. I love the idea of Sudbury schools for the majority of kids! I really wish we would adapt some of the ideas to public education. Where I live we have a curriculum we need to follow, and it is sooo boring sometimes! I try and try and make it interesting and challenging, but it just isn’t lol.

    I totally support parents who choose the Sudbury style for their children, I would just caution that all parents watch for learning disabilities. For example, I do think children start to read at a variety of ages and will not learn to read unless they are ready no matter how much poking and prodding parents and teacher will do. However, it does happen that the child may be ready to learn at 5 to read, but has a learning disability, and I do know parents who tried unschooling (homeschool style) and didn’t catch the disability and then felt that unschooling was a bad choice for everyone because of that. I personally think Sudbury schooling has the potential to solve that problem because you can have trained educators working at the school keeping an eye out for possible learning obstacles.

    Very cool article… I loved it!

    • Thanks! It is pretty common for Sudbury kids to be late readers, which provokes anxiety for parents, but they later become indistinguishable from their peers. It can actually be a great environment for kids with some so-called learning disabilities: the environment adapts to them instead of them having to conform to an environment that doesn’t meet their needs. There may be some learning disabilities so severe that a kid wouldn’t learn to read in this environment, but yeah, I don’t think it would go unnoticed.

  20. I wonder if the majority of the positive stats of Alt-Ed kids has to do more with the parents? I would imagine that a parent willing to go that rout is involved enough to do a ton of research, and pay the tuition. Where a big problem with public schools in my humble opinion (besides the crazy gov. bureaucracy), is many parents treat it as a tax paid day care. They have no idea whats going on with their kids, and some practically expect the teachers to raise there kids!

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