The Horrendous Hierarchy of Subjects

My niece, who is thirteen and lives in the UK, recently needed to choose what GCSE subjects she will take next year. It is that time in her life where she needs to sit down and decide her subject choices for the next two years.

Now, for most people that is normal. It is what you must do; it is what we all had to do. The school system is asking for them to choose and it is compulsory. It is the next step on the path of life. This act of choosing is a huge decision which will shape the future path of a child in a direction which will be hard to change.

‘Subjects’ in most traditional schools are associated with academics and usefulness for work. Which subjects are taught are decided on by someone. The content within each subject is decided by someone, and the standard a child needs to achieve is decided by someone.

These decisions are usually guided by a combination of tradition, a national or state curriculum, and the availability of teachers and the timetable structure at each school. Remarkably, that ‘someone’ who is making all of these choices is never the child themselves.

What people need to learn is a debate that has as many opinions as there are people with an opinion, and national curriculum policymakers decide for us what they consider essential.

There is a hierarchy of importance, with Mathematics, Languages and Science at the top, then Humanities, followed by the Arts, and then pretty much anything else the school can offer.

At many progressive learning establishments such as The Learning Project in Ibiza, there is no hierarchy of things a child might want to learn or be interested in. Who are we as adults to say that Mathematics is more important to someone than say, Dance? Try telling that to a professional ballet dancer. It is important that we as humans learn to read and write, as well as having some proficiency with the number system, in order to function well in society, and it is important to do away with hierarchy within subjects and let the child choose. 

A common argument for forced subject choice can go something like this: The world needs scientists so everyone should do science, because if a child isn’t exposed to science, how will they ever know what science is? 

A doctor who says, “If I hadn’t done science, I wouldn’t be where I am today”, usually gets the answer from me, “But you would be doing something else wonderful instead”. 

We need to get away from our worry that the world will not have scientists unless we force kids to do science. The world surrounds all of us with science every day and it is surely more important to encourage questioning and a love for learning, and then give opportunities for that curiosity to grow. Some of us will naturally lean towards science, and if there is a genuine interest, a drive, and all the time in the day to pursue that interest – wonderful learning happens.

Back to my niece. Here are her choices:

It is compulsory to do Mathematics, English and Science and then the choices are:

Select OneSelect OneSelect Two
Art and Design: Graphic Communication, Business Studies, Classical Civilization, Computer Science, Creative iMedia, Dance, Design and Technology: Resistant Materials,
Design and Technology: Textile Technology, Drama, Engineering, Food Preparation and Nutrition, Health and Social Care, Media Studies, Music, Philosophy and Ethics, Physical Education

I look at that table and think that what I would like to select are all from the final box. Or better yet, there are three others I am interested in spending my time doing – and they are not even listed.

Is it too much to question WHY this system still exists? WHY someone has decided that Mathematics is more important than say, Art and Design?

Often, even the choices in the final box are not possible if the class fills up and if your choices clash with the timetable planning. This system squashes a child’s innate desire to learn what they want to learn. It also re-emphasizes and continues the myth of a hierarchy of areas of learning.

The curriculum should indeed be only limited by the imagination of a child.

There are things you can do to change this. One is to consider another learning environment for your child which could include a more progressive school or homeschooling. An environment that allows children the option to develop self-agency now, where the child can explore their own world with the support of a caring community – to explore what they are interested in pursuing. For some, these choices are not possible, so another avenue is to question. Have this conversation with your school, your friends, and your colleagues.

At the very least QUESTION the status quo and never accept the ‘…because it is the way we have always done it’ answer.

I Just Need Some Time and Space

Many of us may have heard someone we love or care about say “I just need some time and space”. You may have said it yourself. This sometimes-earth-shattering phrase can be the ‘writing on the wall’ when it comes to a relationship or partnership. It can be a way of saying “I need to think, reassess, close my eyes, evaluate, reset – in a place of my choice”

Having worked in many different schools, I have come to hear children say this when the environment they are experiencing becomes too much for them.  “I just need some time and space”. When the bell goes every time they become intensely interested in something, when they’re told to learn something that doesn’t interest them, when the highly competitive nature of the environment praises for what they ‘can’ do, and makes them feel inadequate when they ‘can’t’.

If your child goes to school, look closely at the Mission and Vision statement the school offers. If you need to dig through multiple layers of the website to find it, then that’s usually a sign of how important the school sees it. If they don’t have one, then you might like to ask why. 

Mission statements describe exactly why a school exists, its culture, values, ethics and so on. A good mission statement has been the result of thorough contemplation and soul searching from the organisation, involving multiple members of the community. Try coming up with your own Mission and Vision for your family. Sit down with them with a blank sheet and really try to decide what your values and desires are for your family. It’s an engaging and thought-provoking exercise.

There’s a high chance that your school’s mission statement will say something like this

 “….we provide a high quality education that builds a foundation for life-long learning…”

Life-long learning appears in many, if not most school mission statements, but how many schools can actually say what Life-Long Learning is and how many can tell you exactly how they provide an environment that builds this foundation?

We know so much more about how humans learn best, through research particularly of the brain, than before. Children from birth, have a natural propensity to learn. Babies need no encouragement to engage with their environment. No coaxing or persuading is needed for them to build connections with everything around them. There’s no need for rewards to make them interested in learning, and yet, often when they enter the traditional school system, rewards and extrinsic motivation becomes the norm. Schools need to ask themselves why this is. What shifts when they enter an environment that surrounds itself with grades, comparison with others and a set curricula?

Ideally, children are brought up in a world where caring, nurturing adults offer them multiple chances to explore and where the adults (whilst wanting them to be safe) help them navigate multiple experiences, mostly though play.

It is important that children continue to be excited and engaged with the world around them and that they continue to be comfortable with making mistakes. We know that making mistakes is essential for learning. Wouldn’t it be great if we, like so many scientists do, start a sentence when we’re discussing what might be a contentious issue, with “I may be wrong, but……”

As the late Ken Robinson said in his famous Ted Talk Do Schools kill creativity? “By the time children get to be adults most have lost the capacity [to make mistakes] – they have become frightened to be wrong”. Studies have shown children actually lose their sense of enjoyment for learning and creativity as they progress though some traditional school systems.

Schools that truly believe they want to offer a foundation for life-long learning need to provide the time and space for them to explore, make mistakes and learn what they are interested in. They need to shift the responsibility for learning to the learner. 

We all face hurdles when we are learning. Hurdles that pop up, that we may need to jump (or run around) in order to achieve something that interests us. Anyone who has reached a proficient level playing an instrument will know that scales and arpeggios are not always the most exciting part of practicing, but they are a necessary hurdle to achieve a high level of performance. The same can be said for the athlete who endures those early morning runs. But when children chose a path for themselves, it’s much more likely that they will be willing to jump those hurdles to achieve what they want. If children are being coerced in to doing something they don’t want to, it’s a much longer, harder journey.

“I just need time and space” that’s what children are crying out for. Time to focus on what they want, and the space or environment to do it.

Schools like the Learning Project in Ibiza offer an environment where children can create, play, study, invent, make mistakes, rest – all on their terms in a community that celebrates creativity.  Adults are there to guide, support and teach in a non-threatening, non-judgmental way.

Intrinsic motivation is the key to truly “learning for life”.

My Journey to the Learning Project, Ibiza

In 2013, when my daughter was 5 years old, my wife and I decided we didn’t want her to go to a traditional school anymore. Things had been building up for a while, but the tipping point was when she was visited for a couple of weeks by her grandmother, and we pulled her out of school for that time. When she returned, she was told she needed to ‘catch up’ on her missed learning and ‘playtime’ was used to do the worksheets required. We were also concerned about the messages home about preparing the children ‘academically’ for first grade.

One of the problems we faced with her changing schools was I was the Middle School Principal at the Kindergarten through twelfth grade school she attended. It suddenly occurred to us that we didn’t want her to attend the school I was working at.Normally, parents would find a new learning environment for their child, more aligned with their philosophy of education. We decided to start a school.

In the summer of 2013, we moved from Belgium to the States and set up a school in rural Montana on a Native American reservation. A school where we trust children to take responsibility for their learning and their lives. 

There was always a dilemma for me when I was a teacher and then administrator in traditional schools, “How to engage and promote a child’s natural instinct for learning within an environment not set up for individual and personalized passions and interests? How do we move education to where children are in the driver’s seat of their own learning?

Children now are preparing for a world where some career options are not even known to us yet, and some jobs which exist now won’t exist in the future. Children today will likely have multiple jobs and professions throughout their lives and so they need to acquire the flexible and varied “survival skills” needed for an unknown future. Tony Wagner in his book ‘The Global Achievement Gap’ says that children will need:

  • Critical Thinking Skills
  • Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
  • Agility and Adaptability
  • Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
  • Effective oral and written communication
  • Accessing and Analyzing Information
  • Curiosity and Imagination

Children at self-directed, democratic schools are given an extraordinary amount of time and space to learn these survival skills. They are given opportunities to lead remarkable and interesting lives on a daily basis and they gain trust in themselves, and the tools and confidence to forge their own paths according to their innate drive and passion.

My career has taken me from inner-city state schools in the UK, to middle school Principal at two of Europe’s better known and prestigious International Schools in Germany and Belgium, to setting up my own school in the USA, and now, for probably the most exciting move, Head of School at the Learning Project, Ibiza.

I’m sure that The Learning Project will become an internationally known environment for self-directed learning. A place where children mix freely across ages and where the core of the philosophy is Freedom, Democracy, Responsibility and Respect.

As the new Head of School, I look forward to sharing with you the exciting learning opportunities The Learning Project can offer your children and how we can work together with your family to offer the best environment to nurture their natural instincts and keep their curiosity and passion alive into adulthood. 

My wife and daughter (who is now 13) and I look forward to meeting you in person.

Responsibility and Accountability

“If you take away the responsibility it is replaced with accountability,” Pasi Sahlberg, the educator, author and scholar, said in the context of education.

This phrase in a school setting can be better understood when we talk about GERM, which is another term that Sahlberg came up with which stands for Globalized Education Reform Movement. GERM is characterized by competition, prescribed curricula, standardized testing, and privatization of schooling – and many countries have moved more and more towards this approach, including the United States. GERM is not an accidental acronym – it can be seen to be spreading like a virus.

By saying, “If you take away the responsibility it is replaced with accountability,” he was talking about teachers. If you do not let teachers be responsible for what and how they teach, then you need to replace that decreased responsibility and trust with accountability. Public schools (or government schools) rely heavily on standardized tests to monitor student, teacher, and ultimately, school performance. This accountability often determines pay and school funding and is limiting and demoralizing for teachers who go into the profession to help young people and to teach them in a way that best meets their needs. It should not be that their jobs or pay are on the line if their students do not achieve certain levels of attainment. Teaching is a vocation and an incredibly demanding job. I can hear some of you saying, “What’s wrong with teachers being held accountable – many other industries hold their employees accountable for performance?” I do agree, teachers need proper training, experience, pay and a level of accountability in terms of performance to help them meet the needs of children. But too much prescribed curricula, testing and accountability takes away the creativity and personalization needed in the profession.

Now given this same phrase with students, “If you take away the responsibility it is replaced with accountability,” it can have similar affects. Children too, need to be given the space, time and freedom to be responsible for their behaviors and learning. Schools increasingly are not giving students time to be with each other. Students are not given a voice in the running of their schools, a voice in what they learn and so on. And with this increasing lack of choice and forced teacher/curriculum-driven environments, students are being held more and more accountable by an increasing number of standardized tests, as well as replacing free time with ‘academic opportunities’. If you increase the responsibility for students in schools, they will feel much more a part of the community. They will feel that their voice and opinion counts, and they will start enjoying the learning process.

The ever-changing world we are preparing children for requires for them to be collaborative, agile, curious, imaginative. This requires a school that shows agency for the students, that helps them find their passion, and offers a broad range of choice, as well as fostering autonomy and leadership. These skills are vitally important in a world that is changing fast, where technology will transform jobs and life beyond what we can narrowly imagine.


The decline of free, unstructured play and the rise of depression amongst our teens

Below, is an article published in the Missoulian newspaper on October the 5th by Ben Kestner in response to an earlier editorial.

I read the editorial section of the Missoulian this Wednesday with particular interest as a parent and as a teacher/administrator of some 25 years. Again, we see another report showing more and more of our teens are experiencing depression and suicidal thoughts (see Missoulan September, 30 2015). And again, there is a cry for more training for school employees, parents and peers in suicide awareness and prevention, which is of course, crucial. But instead of only looking at prevention we should also focus on the causes. The editorial, importantly, also says, “(p)arents, peers and others must help create an environment in which youth know their feelings will be taken seriously.”

Home and school are the environments where children spend most of their lives. So it seems logical to focus on these environments in order to reach the cause – like preparing the soil and conditions for a flower to grow. According to research including that of Peter Gray – (Ted Talk “The decline of Play and the Rise of Mental disorders) and his excellent book, “Free to Learn – Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life” – the correlation between the decline of opportunities for kids to experience unstructured play at home and school is directly related to the rise in mental disorders in teenagers.

Not so long ago, we could walk down neighborhoods and see children playing in the streets – the school days were shorter, the school year was shorter and there was a lot more recess time for kids to socialize and play in and out of school. Now, kids are put under more and more pressure at school and at home to succeed academically. They are taking high stakes tests and are being given more and more homework. The emphasis is on ‘core’ curriculum areas and, as a result, other subject areas that encourage and develop critical thinking and innovative practice are on the decline.

When do kids get the chance to experience the important aspects of play that we know helps them to structure their own lives and behaviors?

My plea to parents and educators is to look for ways where kids are given the chance to interact with each other away from adult control and influence. In schools, we need to restructure days to allow for longer recess. We need to cut down on homework. (Did you know, for example, that there is NO evidence that homework has any real benefit to elementary-school-aged kids? See Alfie Kohn’s “The Homework Myth”.) When kids are given more freedom and autonomy, they grow up to be happier and more successful members of society. We need to give children their childhood back.

A.S. Neill, a famous educator who founded Summerhill School in the UK, a democratic self-directed school once said, “I’d rather our school produced a happy street cleaner than a neurotic Politician”.

We, parents and educators, above all, surely, want our kids to be happy, right?

Student Empowered Learning

There needs to be a paradigm shift in the way that schools treat children and their approach to the learning process. Understanding how humans learn best is the key to understanding what strategic shifts are needed. Many anthropological studies show that we are, as Peter Gray describes it, ‘the Educable Animal’. We are able to learn to a degree that goes beyond any other species.

The capability of children has been, for a long time, at best underestimated, and at worst ignored. Children, as has been demonstrated by Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg, have the ability and power to influence, and yet many of our traditional learning environments do not promote or allow them to openly express their thirst for exploration and passion.

Children, if given the responsibility for their own learning, can achieve extraordinary things. They can pursue projects and passions at their own pace and with deep understanding and knowledge. Take a student at my current school who taught himself lock-picking. He spent many uninterrupted hours studying and practicing the art of lock-picking, to the point at which there aren’t many locks he can not pick. He is now pursuing a career as a locksmith. And take the studies conducted by Sugatra Mitra’s ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiments, where children, given just a computer and no English in India, were able to educate themselves to extraordinarily high levels of competence.

There are many educators who are promoting a change in the paradigm. Schools exist where children are given the freedom to control their own lives and learning, such as Glacier Lake School in Montana, USA, which is influenced by the self-directed/democratic school movement exemplified by schools such as Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts and Summerhill in the UK. Many parents too, provide an environment at home that encourages free exploration, play and the pursuit of passion. Take the famous now multi-Grammy award winning Billie Eilish, who was unschooled, who said:

Being homeschooled is all about self-discovery. It’s something that I’ve really enjoyed and thrived under. I’m not at a high school where I have to base my self-worth off what other people think of me. I have to think, “What would I like to be doing? How would I like to be as a person?” I think that’s an enormously positive thing.”

-Billie Elish

Learning environments need to provide room for growth, passion, play, exploration and enjoyment of the learning process.

Traditional schools have the constraints of exam-driven and standardized-test-based curricula. I have been a teacher and administrator in these schools for many years and I know that most of my colleagues are constantly trying to find ways of personalizing learning for the student in a system set up to be non-personalized. This is the dilemma – How to engage and promote a child’s natural instinct for learning within an environment not set up for individual and personalized passions and interests? How do we shift the control of learning from the adult to the child?

There are so many things a child could be interested in and yet they are rarely given the time or space to discover them.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book ‘Flow – The psychology of optimal experience’ says:

“It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than we were.”


“Contrary to what we usually believe, moments likes these, the best moments in our lives, are not passive receptive, relaxing times – although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile….for each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.”

Change can happen in all schools, and if we start with giving children much more freedom and ownership of the school environment through a more equal share in decision making in how their school is run, and which rules and sanctions are necessary, they will start to make change for good, from within. Finding ways to give children that sense of ownership and belonging, so that school becomes a place where they want to go, so that they can learn, be free, and push their boundaries and capabilities.

There are so many ideas all schools can implement immediately to improve the lives of our children. Ownership of the decision-making processes is one and choice in what to learn is another.

Like Malala and Greta, if you have the will – change can happen, and it can be the children who make it happen. We, as adults, need to provide them with that environment so that they feel empowered.

Competition, scores, metrics and targets. The Education Industry steams on, but where are the Children?

We need to face the reality of a modern school system that doesn’t recognize children as individuals, but rather as cogs in a machine that feeds the education industry.

Drawing on Plato’s allegory, imagine some people who live in a cave, their backs to the entrance. They are unable to turn around, so their view of the world is shadows on a wall. They play, talk, eat, read, study, always facing the back wall. They can see other people playing, talking, eating, reading and studying, but only as shadows. These shadows are being cast by the sun behind them, which they cannot see. The shadows are the peoples’ reality, for they are not able to turn around.


If they were to be turned around, they would see a world they would not understand: trees, the sun, clouds, fields, etc. What they would see by turning around is a different reality than the one they have experienced. It is the world of pure fact.

This summer, my family has been travelling in the UK and Germany to visit family and friends. Many of my friends have connections to the education industry. I say industry deliberately; an industry being the production of goods or related services within an economy. The modern schooling system has become an industry, where the currency is children and children’s scores. Children’s test scores have become the currency that governments use to measure success against other schools from areas within the country, and against governments across the world. This currency is not used for trade but for political points that they will use towards re-election.

What I hear time and time again from friends is that they are worried, tired and stressed. Friends who are pulling their hair out worrying about their children’s education or their own jobs within the machine that is the modern schooling system. The teachers and administrators are people who passionately care about children, who are stifled by a system that puts test scores, accountability and metrics above the needs of the actual child.

I often reminisce with a friend of mine, whom I taught with at a public school 19 years ago. We often share stories about our time being on the same teaching staff, although now he is incredibly frustrated about where things are for him. He feels that there isn’t time anymore to know the children he teaches. Too much of his time is taken filling in data for the education industry, of which he is a part. So much of his time is taken trying to meet standards that are set by people who do not know the child. He is a wonderful teacher and he finds time to connect with children when he can. Before visiting with him, I read a beautiful letter one of his graduating students wrote him this year, where she outlines the huge impact he made on her life. With teachers like him, school was a place she could take refuge from a difficult home life. He is only able to do this because he works ridiculously long hours, squeezing in time for connections like this one between the hours he needs to fill in paper work. This story sadly, is one I hear time and time again.

Testing is Big Business. For companies like Pearson it is a billion dollar industry and they have such political influence that they act like ‘quasi-government agencies’, as Diane Ravitch wrote. See this article .  And it is a business that feeds and controls the education industry. Companies make money from testing, and the testing can only be very narrow in terms of content and outcome. So far, there is not a test that measures important matters such as confidence, interests, passions, or opinions. So, they test for Math and English skills, and the ability to regurgitate facts which students have been told. Grading tests on a national level requires that the tests be easy to grade, so they tend to be multiple choice because a machine can easily mark and record the data.

As Charles Chu writes in this blog piece entitled: “How to Be a ‘Great Student’ and Learn Absolutely Nothing at All”

“This is what happens when you make learning about competition, scores, seconds, metrics and targets. All the complexity and wonder of learning is neutered reduced to numbers on a page. Education is no longer about learning, but about faster calculations, higher scores, competitive rankings.”

What we are losing is an education system that puts the child at the center. ‘Child-centered’ has actually come to be a catch phrase used by many schools, but sadly, most are far from that. A child-centered approach should be exactly what it says. Child-centered should mean that we get to know the individual needs of every child – teachers who know them well, a curriculum which is driven by their needs and interests, and a learning environment where they make real decisions about how that environment is run.

Because I am deeply involved in education, whenever I meet a child, I tend to ask them about school. Most answers are non-committal and fairly neutral: ‘School’s OK’, ‘I hate school’, ‘I get through it OK’, ‘At least I have friends’, ‘At least I’m good at sports’, ‘At least I play in the orchestra – I like that’. I rarely see a child’s face light up when I mention school. It seems to be seen as a journey they just need to get through. I might occasionally come across a child who says, “I really like school”. I relate comments like this to Stockholm Syndrome – feelings of trust or affection felt by victims of kidnapping or hostage towards their captors. OK, that might be a little harsh, but I bring you back to the Cave allegory.

So many children, parents and educators, through no fault of their own, are facing the back of the cave. They see the modern educational industry as ‘how it has always been’ and ‘the only option’. Therefore, I would like to share with as many people as possible that if they choose to turn around, they will see a reality for which there are alternatives. There are schools that have been around for countless years that offer an approach or philosophy that is truly child-centered. Many of these schools such as ours, Glacier Lake School, offer financial aid; but in a lot of cases, cost is still a barrier for families. Governments need to be brave enough to recognize this and either change the public school system towards a genuinely child-centered approach, or help families to send their children to a school where this is already the philosophy.

Ben Kestner

copyright 2017

What do you think? It would be great if you could share your thoughts and experiences of school and the school system you or your children experience. Please share your comments below.



Why Schools Need to Provide Children an Environment in Which to Flourish

A recent article in the British newspaper The Guardian entitled, “Schools Not Preparing Children to Succeed in an A.I. Future” highlights a British bipartisan education report that said, ‘Most of what people learn in schools and colleges today will probably be irrelevant by the time they are 40 years old.’ It then goes on to conclude, ‘[T]hey [children] need to be able to reinvent themselves again and again and again.”

In what way are schools not preparing children for the future? My answer is that the emphasis on core curriculum and high stakes standardized testing creates a focus on ‘hard skills’, which are skills that can easily be defined and measured, like math, reading, language arts, etc. In exchange then, there is a de-emphasis on what schools call ‘soft skills’, characteristics such as communication, listening, flexibility, time management, leadership, creativity, etc. ‘Soft skills’ are defined as personal attributes that enable them to interact effectively and harmoniously with others, which are extremely important, but very difficult to assess.

It is no surprise then that governments which introduce high-stakes testing focus on the skills that are easily assessed. How do you determine which skills to test, and which skills our children will need the most? The U.S. government spends billions of dollars a year on testing; and testing companies such as Pearson receive billions of dollars of income from the testing machine, which works to maintain the status quo. But, when the average student in the United States attending public schools takes some 112 mandatory standardized tests between pre-K and 12th grade, how is this system helping that child to grow into an engaged citizen of the world?

Teachers are trying desperately to give children an experience in schools which will help them to be better poised to meet the challenges of an ever-changing world. There is nothing they would want more than to focus on some of the essential ‘soft skills’ mentioned, but they are tied down by a system which demands the stress be on easily measured outcomes.

In 1843 Horace Mann travelled from the USA to Europe to study different models for compulsory education, which he was to recommend for implementation in the States. He came across the Prussian system which, by its own admission, was designed to suppress the masses, and to mold them into submissive workers who would not challenge the status quo. This is the system that was adopted across the United States and, by and large, is the system of education we see today in traditional schools.

Given the current political climate that we see in the United States and across other parts of the world, where there is an enormous disconnect between the general population and its leaders, it seems that citizens are not being given the opportunities to develop the skills that are required of an engaged citizenry. We need to provide the conditions for children to grow into curious, articulate, creative, passionate and critically-thinking adults. And if there is one thing that we can learn from the present presidential race we need a lot more of them.

Ben Kestner

How it feels to Send Your Child to a “Democratic/Free School”

by Mimsy Sadofsky, Co-Founder, Sudbury Valley School

by kind permission from Sudbury Valley School Journal, Volume 25, no. 4, March 1996, pages 6 – 12, published by the Sudbury Valley School Press, Framingham, MA

Over the years, we have found that the parents who choose to send their children to Sudbury Valley School have very few things in common. They don’t seem to come from the same socio-economic class. In fact, most of them seem to be impossible to “class”ify at all; certainly it is impossible from the cursory amount of information we collect from them. Clearly, however, there are always more parents who struggle to pay our modest tuition than parents who find it easy.

They also have widely different standards for all sorts of categories of behavior in their homes, or at least so they and their children tell us.

Very often they turn out to be parents who would not ordinarily be sending their children to private schools; that is to say, they are the kind of people who generally feel that private schools have an odor of elitism about them, and they find that odor unpleasant.

However, what our parents do share is an overwhelming desire to do the best they possibly can for their children. Even though they might be people who only questioned the process of public schooling because their children forced the issue, they are not people who accept the status quo in child rearing or in education.

We have written extensively about what happens to kids who have had all or part of their education at Sudbury Valley. It is also pretty obvious that their parents examine their own lives in many of the ways that we feel any Sudbury Valley student must do over time. That in itself is enough to scare away many parents who are not willing to accept this challenge. I think this willingness to undergo intense re-examination of their own lives is one of the few generalizations we can make about our highly individualistic parents.

So, let us say that someone has examined the philosophy of Sudbury Valley, feels confidence in their child’s curiosity and judgment, and decides to enroll that child. One might hope that the enrollment would signify the end of anxiety; that the decision to put full trust in the child’s judgment would be a relief to parents.

And it is a relief. But it also isn’t. This is a quote from the text (printed in the November Newsletter) of Will Twombly’s presentation to an informal Assembly meeting. Will is the parent of a teenager in his second year:

For Alex, the philosophy of this school made so much sense that coming here seemed like second nature. For us, however, slow learners that we are, the decision was much more an act of faith than one of reasonMolded by our parent’s values, our own educational experiences, and the predominate thinking of today, it was clear that in order to be “good” SVS parents we would have to let go of many deep-rooted expectations of what education should be. We needed to get in touch with what we felt really mattered about school, and disregard the rest. This reorientation process hasn’t been easy, and has offered a number of terrifying moments, as well as some extremely happy ones. I realize that in many ways hope is merely the flip side of fear. We hope that something good will happen, while fearing that it won’t. Some days one face of the coin is up, other days the opposite side is showing. This contributes to a pretty exciting ride on an emotional roller coaster, especially where SVS is concerned.

None of us lives in a vacuum. Everyone has friends, relatives, parents, sometimes other children, who feel that allowing a student so much freedom is tantamount to telling that child that no one cares what happens to him/her. Most everyone is in a workplace or a neighborhood in which such a brave decision is treated as a sign of abdication of the responsibilities of parenthood. And the very same people who might hesitate to tell us if they thought our child had been nursed for too long, or put in day care too early, or not forced to sleep through the night, have no trouble spending a great deal of time denigrating the educational philosophy with which we, as parents, are trying so hard to align ourselves.

Partly that is comforting. It opens up many forums for discussion. But partly it isn’t, because a lot of the people one has these discussions with are working from a very small amount of information—mostly from the tops of their heads or from what you have haplessly told them—or from a position in which many of their beliefs are threatened. A lot of the people each parent knows are sure, totally positive, that the structure of education that is most familiar to them—and it will almost always be a variation of the structure that most children are in today—is the only possible one that guarantees that we will not produce a generation of savages, ignorant savages at that. They feel threatened by the idea of the loss of adult power and control that such a “free” school as ours is predicated on.

But of course we too feel threatened. There we are, open for attack from all of those other people who already thought we were crazy, as well as from our own anxieties. It is very well to say in the abstract: “Sure, I know that my kids will grow up constantly busy learning things. I understand that to be the human condition.” But then when the things your kid spends time doing—perhaps Nintendo, or playing games in a tree, or poring over Magic Cards for months on end—don’t look at all like the things you did in school at that age, and don’t require that they learn the capitals of the states, or how to diagram a sentence, then it is not so easy.

In fact, sending a child to such a school is a courageous and still an almost unique choice. We all want our children to have even better lives than we had, no matter how good ours was. When we think of a better life these days, we don’t usually mean materially better, because most of us have had quite adequate material lives. We mean intellectually, emotionally and spiritually better. And it is hard to keep your “eyes on the prize” of the excellent, well-examined life when the life your children are leading is one in which they can play Nintendo as long as they want, or work with clay for months on end, or read a million science fiction books, or talk to their friends on the phone for hours and hours and hours—after talking to them all day at school.

Most of us went to traditional schools. They became the tradition because society was oh-so-heavily into educating for uniformity. Now that we are adults, we have noticed that uniformity is not much of a selling point when we want to get interesting jobs, or create a work or art, or create a new idea, or create a new product, or create a new way to market a product. In fact most of us are either in creative jobs, or at least totally excited about the creative activities that fill our leisure hours, and we realize that we don’t have to know exactly the same things as everyone else. Of course there needs to be some overlap between our knowledge and other people’s; being alive in the world makes us crave for that overlap, so we go after it. Often, we look for commonality with others even in areas that are of limited interest, because we want to have things in common with people who are not just like us. That is one of the social imperatives of life.

If you are now a parent , odds are that in your childhood you were educated mostly for a world that was going out of style at the time and is becoming a distant memory now, a world where uniformity was vital to the workplace. Since my childhood the possible ways of earning a living have changed from many, to incredibly many, to no-one-can-count-how-many, because new ideas of how to spend time are invented every minute. Your kids need to be educated for a world that changes even faster than today’s world. A hard thing even to imagine. But that is why we have to allow them to use their minds in their own ways—because that will guarantee the most complete possible development for them, which will maximize their chances of succeeding in a wide-open world.

It used to bother me—actually it still does—that I had no one to turn to for help with problems once the computers we were using at school had a certain number of programs on them. The configuration became totally unique, and there were so many possibilities that no one who had not studied our system could possibly be on top of them all, and be able to help us; and maybe not even then. The kind of anxiety computer problems raise in me are the same kinds of anxieties we have about our kids. These are control issues. They are already in a world that is out of our control, all day every day, bombarded with information we hardly have a clue about. We are raising them for a world where there are less and less secure answers, and more and more possible paths, and that means such a total and necessary abdication of authority over them on our part that it is terrifying. I think every one of us who has chosen to send a child to a school such as ours has contemplated that abdication of authority, that releasing of “power”, and everyone, no matter how secure, also has some residual worries about making a mistake.

So, now that we have taken a look at some of the things that are guaranteed to make one anxious if one is the parent of a child in such a school, let’s look at the other side of the coin.

What do kids learn at Sudbury Valley? Are there any guaranties? I actually think that there are, and I think the things that can be (almost) guaranteed are the most important things of all in an explosively changing world. A student learns to concentrate. A student gets constant opportunities to make ethical judgments. A student learns to be treated with total respect. A student learns to appreciate the outdoors. A student learns to be self-reliant. A student learns to be self-confident. A student learns what it means to set a goal and reach for it, to re-assess, to reach again, to achieve the goal, or to fail miserably, and to pick him or herself up and do it all over again, with the same or a different goal. A kid learns life skills. Real life skills. The skills that it takes to be successful at marriage, at child rearing, at friendship, as well as at work.

What does it mean when I say that a child learns to concentrate? It means that the person focusses in on the interest of the moment, or the hour, or the year, and pursues that passion until it is a passion no more. Which of course also means that the tremendous let-down of losing a passion and having to go out and find a new one is a frequent companion. I see this focus mirrored in students in our school every day. I see it in the student who at 17 has suddenly developed a passion for math, and spends hours a day grinding away at it. I see it in the determination of a kid to get up into the heights of the beech tree, a goal that can take years to reach—not that the goal will be pursued, of course, every minute of every day, but more as a theme of life—constantly working on climbing skills, and constantly working on what it means to look down 15 or 25 or 50 feet and know only your skills keep you safe. I see it in the kids who constantly design and re-design Lego planes, airports, and space stations; and play elaborate games with the structures they have made. I see it in the drive to learn everything a person has to know in order to be allowed to work in the photolab alone. Or on the wheel. And I know, because I have children of my own, and because I have seen 28 years worth of Sudbury Valley students, that I see only a fraction of a percentage of what is going on, of the concentration that is happening.

One of the hardest things for all of us to see and to understand is the work necessary for a teenager who comes to our school to do what s/he has to do first; to come to grips with who s/he is. To many people, a lot of teenagers look like they are wasting their time. They just seem to spend so much time hanging out, talking, drinking coffee, sometimes even smoking cigarettes unfortunately, talking some more, driving around. Yes, they read. Yes, they are wonderful resources and usually extraordinarily kind to younger kids. But what are they doing? Part of what they are doing is forgetting. They have to forget that they spent years hearing that other people had an agenda for them that was the “best” thing for them to pursue. They have to get in touch with the idea that the person who really knows what is best for them is themselves; that they can become responsible for their own intellectual , moral, spiritual, and even physical development. That is no small trick. And, yes, a lot of the time they are squirming, suffering, struggling to shoulder these burdens or to escape from them. The adults around them believe that, in the atmosphere the school provides, the likelihood of them deciding to shoulder the burdens is as high as you can get. So we let them struggle. We let them suffer. They offer each other a tremendous amount of support. All the adults in the school can do is tell them we understand how hard it is. But what every parent must understand is that support offered from the parent must, first and foremost, take the form of confidence that the struggle will be fruitful. This also maximizes the chances for it being fruitful.

We feel that the student who grows up learning that the most productive motivations is self-motivation, that s/he can in fact learn how to fail and how to succeed has the best chance for a life that is rich. We also notice over many years of history that children given the gift of trust by their parents become closer and closer to their parents, and often the kids provide the insights and strength to work to solve family problems that have developed over time.

And students at a school like ours will surely be practiced in ethical judgments. Moral questions are the bread and butter issues of Sudbury Valley and the schools like it. This community has very high standards for ethical behavior. Standards that have forced me, over time, to raise my own. The school is run democratically. That doesn’t mean that every kid has something to say on every issue. No one polls every person in the school every time something comes up. It does mean that for every issue that comes up, the School Meeting is a forum in which each person is treated respectfully and equally, and has an equal vote in decisions. But there is much more than that. The system for solving problems that have to do with behavior involve a changing sub-group of the entire population, a sub-group with total age variation in it, that investigates, reports on, and comes to grip with dealing with, problems of a social nature. This means littering, this means irritating noisiness, this means taking another child’s cookie, this means not doing the trash when it is your turn. It also can mean more serious violations of the community norms. Each community’s members spend a great deal of time informally and formally defining these norms, to themselves and to others, till they have worked out definitions that will serve them, at least till the issue comes up again.

I would like to end with more of the hopes and fears of Alex’s father, and then with the retrospective glance of a former Sudbury Valley student:

I hope that SVS will offer some opportunities to cultivate and practice these skills. Letting my imagination run wild, I hope that when Alex is ready to leave SVS, he will move on with an empowering sense of purpose and direction. I realize that this is asking a lot. It’s certainly not something I could have done when was his age.

Most of all, I hope that SVS will help each one of its students to find happiness deep down inside, to feel loved and appreciated, and to pass that love along to others. I don’t have too many fears about this, because it seems that this is what a whole lot of people around here are hoping for.

My very first impression when I enrolled was, “This is cool!” It was almost too good to be true. was responsible for my own actions! That was very clear. It was clear in a lot of my upbringing too, so it wasn’t a big shock. I think my parents recognized that when they read the school literatureThey knew the philosophy, but there was still some doubt. But for me, discovering how much time there was to waste or use constructively, and that I was in charge of that, was the key issue.

Does Your School work for your Child?

A.S. Neil, the founder of one of the world’s oldest democratic schools once said, “The school should fit the child, not the child fit the school.”

Too many schools set themselves up in a particular standardized way so that a child attending that school needs to fit in to that way of being. Often, public school administrators and teachers do recognize that all children are different and do make efforts to try and make the life of that child and the child’s learning as meaningful as is possible within the system which is set up. But the system does not make this possible.

Through my years of teaching and school administration I have spent hours and hours trying to make the curriculum and content I was responsible for delivering fit the children under my care, desperately trying to differentiate my lesson plans so that they could access the learning at their level.

DSCN5959The administration in schools spend hours, days, weeks and months tweaking or snipping around the edges of a school system with the aim of improving test scores and trying to help children understand and retain the information given.

Schools try instructional grouping (putting them in different groups in a particular subject based on skill) and tracking (putting a group of kids on a track that involves multiple subjects). They ‘fast track’ children into ‘gifted and talented’ groups for students who are advanced beyond the majority of the class, or ‘special needs’ groups for students who are deemed to not be able to retain and understand the information for whatever reason.

Labels like ‘gifted and talented’ are terms I have largely disliked in my career. In fact, when I was a school principal, a parent came into my office and proudly declared that at her son’s last school he had been ‘gifted and talented’. My reply was that all the kids at our school were gifted and talented in some way it was just that we needed to discover in what way they were gifted and talented. Equally, another prospective family came to my office and said that her child had ‘special needs’, to which my response was the same, “All our children have special needs, it’s just a question of identifying their strengths and weaknesses.”

I, of course was being a little facetious. I knew exactly that their previous schools were attempting to group their children with other ‘like’ children. But I also knew that under the system the schools offered, my school included, there was a reasonable chance that they would fall through the cracks.

So, despite the billions of dollars spent on education reform (which, as I described is just snipping around the edges or pasting up the cracks of a failing system) schools still lose kids. Many don’t just ‘fall through the cracks’; the system labels them at an early age and they are squeezed through the cracks like icing in a tube.

How does a school fit the child? How can a school fit every child that walks through the door? The answer is surprisingly simple. Schools need to recognize that it is not their right or duty to decide what a child must know. The vast amount of acquired human knowledge cannot possibly be learned. So we should accept that and not have the gall or audacity to think that we know what a child should learn. Let children be free to explore what interests them. It may take each individual a while, but children will eventually lean towards an area of human knowledge or discovery that interests them, and then they will study that in detail and with passion and with intrinsic motivation.DSCN5423

So many great thinkers, explorers and inventors turned away from traditional schooling and followed their hearts and passions instead. Shouldn’t all children be allowed that privilege?

Whether that ‘learning’ be the arts, design, Math, astronomy, cooking, music- it does not matter.

A school that is democratic and free gives children exactly that. A TRUE voice in THEIR school and the freedom to learn in the way they were born to learn.

Ben Kestner,Co-Founder and Staff Member, Glacier Lake School

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