Sudbury schools and democratic education in Knowmad Society

Sudbury schools and democratic education in Knowmad Society

by Christel Hartkamp

What form of education prepares youth for Knowmad Society?

In 2001, my husband Peter and I started a journey in search of alternative approaches to formal education. Our oldest daughter had serious trouble with learning in the traditional school system; she was demotivated and depressed by the age of eight. The teachers wanted us to believe that there was a problem with her, but we could not agree. We were sure that it had nothing to do with her innate learning skills. We were certain that it all had to do with the way she was forced to learn. We had her tested for “gifted underachievement,” and at the same time, I researched literature on motivation and underachievement in schools.

By studying these articles, we realized that in a traditional school, even in a Waldorf or Montessori school, the development of talents and capabilities of a child depends on so many factors that are not child-related. Metaphorically speaking, this is like placing your child in a big, black box. No matter the innate capabilities and talents, what comes out of the box after so many years is molded by numerous influences. Most of those factors are externally-driven that are hard to influence by the child him- or herself. Influencing factors include feeling comfortable with yourself, the influence of friends, the development of your brain, the expectations of the teacher, and the climate of the school (Jolles, 2012).

My husband, who works as a business consultant, linked these ideas with motivational factors in work. True motivation has to do with what people want to achieve; what they really want for themselves. Exercising and building up pressure do not motivate people. They should be attracted by their own internal needs and desires (see esp. Pink, 2009). So, in our view, what is right for adults in organizations is also right for children in schools. Ryan and Deci (2000) described, with their theory of self-determination, the contextual factors to facilitate healthy psychological development, namely: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Provided all three factors are met, this should lead to increased self-motivation, optimal growth, and psychological healthiness. Our daughter showed us so clearly that she needed autonomy, and that she needed to feel competent, understood, and accepted.

In an Internet search for resources and ideas, we came across the website of the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts. I remember the first time I visited their site: I really found it awkward. I could not imagine a place where kids were left free to develop themselves. It took some time before I started reading more about their philosophy of independence.

The fundamental premises of the school are simple: that all people are curious by nature; that the most efficient, long-lasting, and profound learning takes place when started and pursued by the learner; that all people are creative if they are allowed to develop their unique talents; that age-mixing among students promotes growth in all members of the group; and that freedom is essential to the development of personal responsibility. (Sudbury Valley School, n.d.).

Eventually, Peter and I both turned around. The more we read about it, the better we started to understand what this approach to schooling does for its students. We were determined to create a school on the same principles in The Netherlands. Today, there are three Sudbury schools in the country, and several other approaches to democratic education are growing in other schools. Our children were, among others, the first to have benefited from this new type of education. In this chapter, I describe what democratic education is, and, more specifically, what a Sudbury school is all about and how it supports the development of a knowmadic worker.

Our daughter opened our eyes, showing us that the new generation needs to be treated differently, as our world is changing at an increasingly rapid pace. As discussed in the previous chapters, the world is moving away from a curriculum centered on fixed knowledge towards flexible knowledge, creativity, and co-creation based on different talents. That is why, in my opinion, education for Knowmad Society should support the development of skills needed to adapt quickly to the challenges and demands that a person certainly will face in the future world. We best do this by giving them the opportunity to learn to adapt, to deal with change, and to be prepared for anything. But, we do not prepare them for anything specific, which is a challenge to the current educational system.

Skills needed for a future enveloped in rapid change and ambiguity include: creativity, flexibility, and open-mindedness. This requires students that are naturally curious, not afraid to make mistakes, and intelligent in ways to quickly learn new knowledge and skills. Other traits include being a “self-starter,” and showing initiative and entrepreneurialism, with the confidence to identify goals and make good decisions toward realizing them. This includes the development of self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-restraint to get to chosen goals. Finally, students need to be able to create new networks that are not dependent on physical borders or hierarchical structures (Hannam, 2012).

What approaches to education can best develop these students? In other words, how can we support a child best to adapt to perceived chaos and uncertainty of the unknown, and be successful? How can we best support a child in his or her development now for a world that will definitively have changed by the time he or she reaches maturity? How can we cope with our inability to know what knowledge is needed for future success in a world where uncertainty is the only certainty? Can we best do this through teaching? Or are there other ways, possibly better ways, in which we can support this development?

In a number of countries, projects have been initiated to identify skills needed for 21st century workers, and curricula have been designed to prepare children to learn these skills. In Cristóbal Cobo’s earlier chapter on Skills and competencies for knowmadic workers, he extensively discussed a number of these projects. These are powerful examples that generally make a good synthesis of the situation. However, most of the projects make one fundamental error, they are focused on adapting the current educational system to meet current needs. They focus on redesigning schools, but not on reinventing the fundamentals of the educational paradigm. It is as if we are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

The basic assumptions for the need to change education are in line with what can be found elsewhere in this book. A fascinating quote is one made as an observation of the English and French national educational systems in the 19th century:

National education […] does not seem at first sight to follow any kind of system, to be the logical product of an idea or preconceived plan; rather it seems to be the bizarre result of diverse and often contradictory forces; it appears to have developed from a purely coincidental accretion of traditions […] and all of this is completely abandoned to individual initiative with the public authorities abstaining completely from any involvement. (Bellaigue, 2004, p. 108)

The established school system is by no means evolved from any scientific basis; it just developed into what it has become today. But there is no reason to believe that this system is the only true system. In search for new educational approaches, we may have to move away from all that is so familiar to us. In order to move from a traditional system we need new thinking, as the next quote suggests:

As a worldwide interdisciplinary project, the Classroom of the Future aims to bring together theorists and practitioners from various domains who join efforts to adapt the classroom to that which it can be expected to resemble in the 21st century. The pressure of change is on the classroom; it is utterly unthinkable that it can continue to be built, structured and equipped as it has been for all these decades. It is rather grotesque that societies, which essentially depend on and intently strive for innovation and progress, should try to source the power and energy for their innovative and progressive future from the physical and conceptual conditions of the educational mills of the 19th century. The Classroom of the Future aims to bridge this gap and to actively fashion this process of change with the help of educational scientists, media scientists, architects, designers, and teachers, to just name a few of those involved. (Mäkitalo-Siegl et al., 2009, p. 19)

Most of the educational renewal concepts are still designed around a standardized curriculum. The curriculum fixes “what” to learn and minimizes the scope for “how” to learn. The standard control systems are kept in place; compulsory tests and evaluations on “what” has been learned. In fact, focusing on testing takes away the opportunity to learn which is, in my opinion, the most important skill: being a creative problem-solver. Creativity is nurtured in situations of freedom, play, and joy; and, in situations where people face their own challenges by addressing real life problems without predefined outcomes.

John Holt (2012) states:

No human right, except the right to life itself, is more fundamental than this. A person’s freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests you and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us. (p. 179)

Holt (1974) believes a standardized curriculum for all creates a schooling industry that lacks individual thought and freedom of choice. He further argues such requirements and actions are in, “gross violation of civil liberties” (p. 25).

The greatest contradiction in school reform is that nobody is questioning the standardized curriculum. For this, we need people that are capable of envisioning new concepts of learning that connect with principles of natural human development, e.g., as stated in Ackoff and Greenberg (2008):

Over the past 150 years, virtually everything has changed …except education. Schools were designed as factories, to train factory workers. The factories are gone, but the schools have not changed. It’s time for us to return to first principles … or formulate new first principles … and re-imagine education from the ground up. (back cover)

Ackoff and Greenberg, according to Gray (2008), go back to basic assumptions about education and our daily experiences, to consider how people learn, and how education might be restructured. The ideal schools Ackoff and Greenberg (2008) envision turn the modern idea of education on its head. According to them, “ideal schools represent a decentralization of education, and the devolution of the responsibility for each person’s education to that person throughout life. These schools are built on the premise that each school is a self-governing community, with limitations imposed solely by the collective decisions of the community, and by the realities imposed by the outside world. But removing state, or other outside control over the educational functions of these schools does not remove the state’s constitutional obligation to support each individual child’s education” (p. 153). The question arises: How did it come to be that schools in free democratic societies, like the United States, still condition children to be passive and to obey authority?

In this light, it is striking that, in 1938, John Dewey already recognized the strength of participation by the learner:

There is, I think, no point in the philosophy of progressive education which is sounder than its emphasis upon the importance of the participation of the learner in the formation of the purposes which direct his activities in the learning process, just as there is no defect in traditional education greater than its failure to secure the active cooperation of the pupil in construction of the purposes involved in his studying. (Dewey, 1938, p. 72)

Hannam (2001) conducted a study on the effect of student participation in secondary schools. Twelve secondary schools in the UK were selected that were more than usually “student participative.” These schools were traditional schools, in which attendance is compulsory and school cultures are often authoritarian. The vocabulary of “uniform” and “discipline” at first sight seems to have more in common with a military environment than “a democratic society in miniature,” according to Hannam (2001, p. 5). Moreover:

These schools, however, were on average doing better in “student participation” as for “learning to collaborate with others (peers and/or adults), in the identification of needs, tasks, problems within the school or the wider community, to ask appropriate questions and gather appropriate information, to discuss and negotiate possible courses of action, to share in planning and decision making, to share the responsibility for implementing the plan, to evaluate/review/reflect upon outcomes and to communicate these to others. (Hannam, 2001, p. 70)

He concludes that:

The investigation confirmed the hypothesis that ‘…in schools that are already taking the ‘participation and responsible action’ elements of the Citizenship Order seriously for significant numbers of students of the full range of academic ability, an improvement in attainment would be found across the full range of GCSE results, though not necessarily mainly at the higher grades.’ It further suggested that ‘… this might well be, in part at least, a consequence of higher self-esteem and a greater sense of ownership and empowerment of students leading to greater motivation to ‘engage’ with learning across the curriculum. (Hannam, 2001, p. 64).

If this positive effect is already acknowledged in traditional school settings, why isn’t it applied to a wider range of schools? Why is it so difficult to accept the power of self-determination and self-realization? Is it because we think children are not capable of making wise decisions? And, is this a result from our own childhood experiences in which we were told that we were not able to make wise decisions ourselves? Is that not, in itself, already a self-fulfilling prophecy? In moving to a new age, we desperately need to break with those perceptions and traditions.

According to Jef Staes (2010):

The chaotic period in which we now live and work is the fascinating but dramatic transformation zone in which we are switching from the 2D to the 3D age. The flat two-dimensional (2D) age, characterized by classroom learning, predictability and continuous improvement, is laboriously making way for the three-dimensional (3D) age. The latter is an age in which increasingly passionate talent will result in groundswells of new information and innovation. (p. 58)

Staes further argues that we must tear down fences that make people behave as sheep, and promote a diploma-free educational system (Staes, 2011). He states there is demand for people that know their talents and know how to find information they need. Innovative organizations need a management style that can gather passionate people together around a common vision and allow them the freedom to use any source of information needed. They need to trust people. He believes we should give children and people personal responsibility in order to develop creative minds and creative behaviors.

The paradox of designing schools for the 21st century

The paradox is, we are all products of a traditional schooling system, and we are tasked with trying to design a future-relevant education. This gravitates toward the reinforcement of old ideas, because our minds immediately translate the word “education” into the well-known environment in which we, ourselves, have been brought up. It is hard for us to imagine “education” occurring in different contexts.

Figure 4. “I expect you all to be independent, innovative, critical thinkers who will do exactly as I say!” (image by palomaironique)

Figure 4. “I expect you all to be independent, innovative, critical thinkers who will do exactly as I say!” (image by palomaironique)

Holt (1974) makes note of: “the right to learn, as opposed to being educated, i.e., made to learn what someone else thinks would be good for you” (p. 26). In principle, the word “schooling” has become synonymous with the word “education” in our minds. It is therefore very hard to imagine education as a place different from a situation where young people are divided into age groups, are told what to learn by a teacher, are tested for their knowledge with a pre-determined curriculum, and believe that “real” life starts after having passed the final exam. For the same reason, the word “teaching” has become synonymous with the word “learning,” and the word “testing” has become commingled with “knowing.” Therefore, it is hardly surprising that anybody is questioning the principle assumptions underlying our schools.

We need to invent a new language. Classrooms, age groups, teachers, lessons, timetables, curricula, tests, etc., all belong to the concept of “school” in our minds. This framework can hardly be left untouched as we seek to transform education. Usually, the reform is made by improving the curriculum incrementally (usually more of the same), increasing school hours, increasing requirements for exams, sometimes loosening the concept of classrooms by designing community learning centers, and by making use of new technology with the same purpose as we previously used books.

We need people that are capable of stepping out of this box, and who can look at the educational system from a distance. Or, in an expression attributed to Albert Einstein: “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” The paradox is that it is very hard to understand that we created a box, and that we are stuck in it. Our educational system has been so successful, that a vast majority of people all over the world has come to believe that this system is the only reality possible today.

Formal education was primarily designed to create an obedient workforce of factory workers and bureaucrats that could do the same job for hours at a time, day by day (Gatto, 2000). This compulsory educational system is based on the design developed by the totalitarian Prussian state in the 18th and early 19th century.

During the 18th century, the Kingdom of Prussia was among the first countries in the world to introduce tax-funded and generally compulsory primary education, comprising an eight-year course of primary education, called Volksschule. It provided not only the skills needed in an early industrialized world (reading, writing and arithmetic), but also a strict education in ethics, duty, discipline and obedience. Affluent children often went on to attend preparatory private schools for an additional four years, but the general population had virtually no access to secondary education. (“Prussian education system,” n.d.)

Based on this model, the Prussian approach to education was emulated in a number of other countries, including those in modern democracies. An important aspect of the Prussian system was that it defined what children were to learn, what was to be thought about, how long to think about it, and when it is appropriate for children to think about something else. At its core, it was a system of thought control, and it established a presence in the psyche of the German elite that would later manifest into what we now refer to as mind control (Richman, 1994). This is, in my opinion, brainwashing.

From the beginning, public schools have been antagonists of liberty and the spontaneous order of a liberal market society. In such an order, individuals choose their own ends and engage in peaceful means, competitively and cooperatively, to achieve them. Parents also raise their children according to their own values and by utilizing their own judgment (Richman, 1994). In contrast, public schools are designed to interfere with this free development, and mold youth into loyal, compliant servants of the state. Their objectives have required a rigidity and authoritarianism that is inconsistent with the needs of nurturing a growing rational being that seeks knowledge about the world. Thus, schools are a source of immense frustration for many children. It should not surprise anybody that those schools produce children who are passive, bored, aimless, and even worse: self-destructive and violent.

Schools today make use of new technologies and have adjusted their curricula around them, but the basics and purpose behind the schooling system are still to force children to learn and develop within certain pre-defined parameters (Gatto, 2002). Power resides within the government or the school, and not within the learner. Children are the slaves of this system; they still have to obey the orders of teachers, educators, and parents who were also products of this system. As Staes (2011) argues, our education systems are breeding lambs.

Another paradox is that teaching and testing of knowledge have become synonymous with the development of intelligence. In the past, building a vast amount of knowledge was highly valued. At that time, books were the only useful medium to store and retrieve information and every household with some status had an encyclopedia in the bookshelf. In those days, in many better-situated families, the boys were allowed to go to secondary school, high school, and university. Girls from those families, who were equally smart, often became teachers. A schoolmaster or teacher was someone with intelligence. Children could be motivated by the way a teacher could passionately talk about a subject, or talk about ideas that the teacher wanted to pass on. Over decades, standards for teacher training institutes lowered and increases in teachers’ pay did not appear to have kept pace with those in other professions. Over the years, the job of the teacher devaluated, teaching standards have been introduced, and methods replaced the teacher’s personal knowledge. Teaching itself became an industrialized process, based on methods and timetables, leaving barely any room for personal interpretations. School reform based on standardization and school accountability has a devastating effect in the classroom. It alienates children from the most important reasons to learn: their natural curiosity and motivation (McNeil, 2000).

Albert Einstein (in Hawking, 2009) reflected:

One had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year…. It is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wrack and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty. To the contrary, I believe that it would be possible to rob even a healthy beast of prey of its voraciousness, if it were possible, with the aid of a whip, to force the beast to devour continuously, even when not hungry – especially if the food, handed out under such coercion, were to be selected accordingly. (p. 346)

This de-motivation effect can be devastating, and Einstein was not the only one who had suffered from it. There are many examples everywhere, where children are completely de-motivated from learning by schools for learning. And, as Einstein is also attributed to have said: “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.” The need to do something about formal education to foster curiosity and motivation in learning is gaining increasing recognition. The question is, can we step out of our box, and design a new paradigm in education?

In order to transform our educational systems, we need to start looking with an open mind for evidence in different approaches already in practice. There are many examples of alternative educational designs, but one group that stands out and has grown over the past decades are democratic schools.

A different approach to education: Democratic schools

Democratic schools are designed around the concept that children are born into the world explicitly designed to educate themselves through their self-directed play and exploration. Much experience from all over the world has been gained from these schools that are specifically organized in such a way where children may take responsibility for their own learning and development (Gribble 1998). Democratic schools have existed since the early 20th century, and the Summerhill School in Suffolk, England, founded by A.S. Neill, is perhaps the oldest and best described in many books (see esp. Neill, 1995). In 1968, the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts was founded. The designers of this school abandoned the idea of a fixed curriculum and modeled their school structure to the style of democracy practiced in New England town hall meetings (Greenberg et al., 1992).

The Summerhill School is celebrated as being, “founded in 1921, still ahead of its time.” That is probably correct for all democratic schools. In a world that is becoming increasingly dependent on creativity and the sharing of talents, schools should focus on development of individual talents rather than collective knowledge.

Democratic schools recognize that kids are vibrant, energetic, interested, motivated, self-aware, and naturally inclined to learn (Gribble, 1998). Most of the students came from “traditional” schools and had to recover their natural self-esteem in their new learning environments. It sometimes takes weeks, months or even years to recover. And, luckily for them, their parents understand their need for a different approach. So, what makes democratic education so different? Moreover, what are the keys to its success?

Principles of democratic education

The basis of democratic education is centered on certain rights of students, which the European Democratic Education Community (EUDEC) defines as follows (based on the 2005 Resolution of the 13th International Democratic Education Conference); students have the right:

To make their own choices regarding learning and all other areas of everyday life. In particular, they may individually determine what to do, when, where, how, and with whom, so long as their decisions do not infringe on the liberty of others to do the same.

To have an equal share in the decision making as to how their organizations – in particular their schools – are run, and which rules and sanctions, if any, are necessary.

Specifically, EUDEC identifies regular democratic meetings with one-person, one-vote as a fundamental necessity of democratic education. Democratic schools are organized to allow students, from an early age on, to have an equal voice in the governance of their school. Most schools have weekly meetings, in which the school community makes decisions on governance issues. Because of this structure, students feel respected and empowered. The way the schools deal with rules, and more importantly, with breaking rules, is sometimes different. But, in general, a method is chosen in which the school deals with it democratically.

The basic need in free development is for a person to feel safe. Feeling safe in a community has a lot to do with a sense of justice, honesty, and being respected as a person. According to Maslow (1943), the basic safety needs are security, order, and stability. In traditional schools, safety is usually a policy, and actual safety is enforced top-down. Bullying is a common phenomenon in traditional schools, usually because of unequal relationships, peer pressure, unequal power, and a lack of a sense of responsibility (Strohmeier, 2008). In a typical democratic school, the sense of feeling safe is a responsibility of the entire community through a democratic process. People of all ages have the same responsibility to the community’s rules and values. Everyone is empowered, and respect for one another is valued highly. The sense of feeling responsible for your own community creates awareness. It is not said that the environment is completely peaceful, but the way the community deals with incidents that happen, often has a soothing effect.

The democratic organization and process is the first important pillar on which these schools are built. This empowers a sense of responsibility over your own person and the community, the way you behave, the way you think, and the way you act. Physical and emotional safety is also protected by the absence of external stress enhancing factors, like test scores and curriculum. Figure 5 illustrates the essence of the most important parameters in relation to Ryan and Deci’s (2000) self-determination theory (in Spaanbroek & Nijland, 2006).

Figure 5, Model for self-directed play and learning (modified from Spaanbroek & Nijland, 2006)

Figure 5, Model for self-directed play and learning (modified from Spaanbroek & Nijland, 2006)

Physical and emotional safety aids in the development of the second pillar: learning in a democratic school is self-determined. Students choose how to spend their school days, pursue their interests, and prepare themselves for their lives and careers. A democratic school is a learning community, where different age groups mix. In some schools, no age divisions exist. There are many ways to learn, including independent study, Internet-based research, playing games, volunteering, doing projects, visiting museums, traveling, and having discussions with friends and teachers. However, learning can also take place in classrooms, just like in conventional schools.

The way a school deals with intellectual freedom can vary between democratic schools. Some schools may require compulsory lessons; others make use of voluntary lessons or only provide lessons on request. The way schools give freedom of choice in learning is ultimately reflected in the level of responsibility at the general school meeting. In certain democratic schools, children share responsibility in the overall governance of the school, and, in other schools, they only have a say in their social world (Gribble, 1998).

In the matter of learning, motivation plays a vital role. Both internal (intrinsic) motivation and external (extrinsic) motivation types play distinguishable roles in learning. Intrinsic motivation is the natural, inherent drive to seek out challenges and new possibilities (Deci & Ryan, 2008). It is the most powerful driver behind learning.

In traditional schooling, extrinsic motivation is the most important driver for learning, in which the regulation of action has been partially internalized and is energized by factors such as a motive for approval, avoidance of shame, contingent self-esteem, and ego involvements. The goals established are not the goals of the “learner,” they are the goals traditionally determined by the curriculum. In the traditional schooling approach, we have come to believe that we have to suffer in order to become educated.

Intrinsic motivation in learning emerges when an activity itself has value to a person (Deci & Ryan, 2008). I often hear people comment that a student in a democratic school will become lazy, that they will only do what is easy for them and only do things they feel passionate about. But in practice, students show a strong perseverance in doing hard stuff, not taking the easy way out. They know that they have to sometimes do, or learn, things that are not of their primary interest. But because they recognize the need for the knowledge or the skill, they accept the consequence of practicing hard. The difference is, that it is their own choice; they decide what is good for them at that moment.

Gribble (1998) concludes that what matters is that school graduates should be literate and numerate, of course, but also happy, considerate, honest, enthusiastic, tolerant, self-confident, well-informed, articulate, practical, co-operative, flexible, creative, individual, and determined people who know what their talents and interests are. They should have enjoyed developing their talents, and intend to make good use of them. They should be people who care for others because they have been cared for themselves. Students leaving democratic schools are more likely to fit this description, according to Gribble.

Sudbury schools

Sudbury schools form a separate group of democratic schools and are modeled after the Sudbury Valley School. These schools practice a form of democratic education in which students are given complete responsibility over their education, which includes governance of the school. The entire school is designed in such a way that each student has personal responsibility and can act autonomously.

The school is run through a direct democratic process in a weekly school meeting in which students and staff members have an equal voice and an equal vote. In the school meeting, all decisions are made with great care, after vigorous and sometimes heated debates, by the vote of the majority. Everything that is voted on is real, including yearly staff elections. Most importantly, the boundaries to create a safe community are all set by the school meeting and violations of the rules are dealt with on a daily basis in each school’s judicial committee.

Freedom in the school is experienced as a freedom of choice, a freedom of action, and a freedom to bear the results of action. Next to that, there is an unlimited intellectual freedom, to foster the development of individual talents and the value of individual choices. Students individually decide what to do with their time, and learn as a by-product of ordinary experience and much less from classes or lessons. There is a strong belief in the right of self-determination of students. Sudbury schools are therefore not working within a prescribed curriculum or schedule of classes, but work solely on the demands of students in their need to become acquainted with a certain subject. These subjects can be centered on anything, and need not necessarily have anything to do with a standard curriculum. Furthermore, Sudbury schools do not perform evaluations, assessments, or recommendations of any kind. Students can choose to make use of some tests for self-evaluation, but they are never used as external evaluation tools.

How do children learn in a Sudbury school? The concept of “intellectuality” has developed over time into a synonym for “book wisdom,” steered by the knowledge bestowed by a curriculum. But, the principle behind some of the basic subjects in the curriculum has been related to the development of one’s own mind. Challenging your own thoughts develops intellect, not book wisdom. In a Sudbury school, all people are treated with respect; there is no fear or barriers to interact with others. One is free to interact with whomever one wants, and discussions around various subjects take place constantly. This is where a great deal of wisdom is created, in addition to the traditional ways of discovering new information. Free interaction is everywhere, in the formal settings such as committee meetings, school-based corporations, or the school meeting. This also occurs less formally, whether it is sitting on a sofa, reading a book, playing a card game, taking a cooking class, or whatever activity the students choose.

For many people, the basic principles of a Sudbury school are often frightening. Trusting a kid, from the age of four years old, to educate him- or herself can be scary. If you visit a Sudbury school, you will see groups of children sitting and talking together, playing games, computing, running outside, playing a ball game, busy in the art or music room, and eventually you might find a few kids that take lessons, are reading or are gathered in some sort of “class.” From the outside, it could appear to be a playground, and it could give the impression that nothing is really learned. But, in reality, a lot of learning takes place. In a Sudbury school, learning occurs most often in the “invisible” realm, as non-formal, informal, and serendipitous learning (Cobo & Moravec, 2011). Formal learning only takes place on certain occasions, but it is very limited. For this, age mixing and freedom to determine what to do are essential. As my eldest daughter explained to me, “you learn how to make use of knowledge at the moment you need it; there are no borders in learning anything, and you know that you can.” This is, in essence, the skill that is developed – the underlying ability to cope with all circumstances.

How do Sudbury schools prepare for Knowmad Society?

To become life-long learners

The Sudbury Valley School successfully opened in a period when the technology of today was not yet invented. The principles behind learning in such a school do not seem to be related to technology. Age mixing, in my opinion, is the most essential element in a Sudbury school. Most Sudbury learning takes place during formal and informal discussions and in communications between people of different ages and/or with different knowledge and experiences. This is crucial for building a worldview that is flexible and challengeable. It is also crucial in developing an open mind, critical thinking, and becoming an articulate communicator. Apart from that, learning takes place in almost anything you do, may it be reading a book, playing a video game, organizing an excursion, watching someone else do something, cooking, playing sports, or even daydreaming. These basic principles did not change over the decades. Modern technologies have also made a huge difference also for Sudbury schools. Although the essential elements for learning did not change, the availability of technologies enable the creation of a greater spectrum for self-directed learning in the school. In fact, the Internet permits new possibilities for information exchange and provides new ways to develop knowledge and skills.

It has become increasingly obvious that learning is not something that occurs only in schools, but occurs anywhere and anytime. The community is no longer necessarily restricted to the school, itself, but communications and discussions or other social interactions can continue anywhere and anytime. Because of the freedom provided in a Sudbury school, students can make full use of technological advances. They skill themselves in becoming a knowmadic worker, a person who knows how to develop the necessary skills needed, and who knows where to get information and how to co-operate with people in developing new ideas and expressing creativity. They have a great sense of self, have the courage to make choices, and seek training that is in line with their own needs.

Another aspect that makes a huge difference with respect to the added value of modern technology is the enormous impact that real-time, interactive computer games have on the development of social skills, intellectual- and strategic thinking, and language acquisition. Students today are well aware of the “world” around them. They learn foreign languages not because they are told to, but they learn them because it is essential for them. This is true for anything else they learn as well.

In The Netherlands, as in many other countries, learning at least one foreign language is essential. Kids are very aware of that. My own children learned to understand, speak and read English without one single formal lesson. As a parent and staff member, I was not aware that they did. But, by asking them later, they told me that they learned it by watching English-language spoken television programs, playing games, and by reading Harry Potter and other books in English. Recently, a young boy showed extraordinary language skills in English as he simultaneously translated the entire 90 minute proceedings of the school judicial committee from Dutch to English for a British visitor, which included a number of technical terms which many English children would have difficulty with understanding in their own language! He never took a formal lesson, and he is totally engaged with playing online computer games. Most of those games are in English, and a large understanding of the language is needed in order to take advantage of the experience. Another example is the story of a student in our school learning Japanese. She practiced by watching Japanese cartoon movies, first with subtitles, now without. On top of that, she started to learn Mandarin Chinese characters and Korean. Young students teach themselves how to read, just because they need it in the school to understand all the written matter or because they’re interested in it and think it is fun to master. One of our youngest students is learning how to count, not only in Dutch, but also in the Frisian language and in English at the same time. She practices the entire day, asks other students for their age, and puts their age in line with her row of numbers. Nobody tells her to do that, and nobody provides encouragement to do so. But, everybody is willing to answer her questions and to give her the attention she asks for. Sometimes she makes mistakes, but she is her own evaluator.

We underestimate the innate processes of learning (Gray & Feldman, 2004), and likewise miscalculate the enormous drive children have to master their world and finally master anything that they need to survive in a constantly changing world. In a free environment without any compulsory guidance or pre-set goals, they learn to become life-long learners.

Students, like adults, appear to be drawn together by common interests and play styles, personal attraction, and complementary desires to nurture and be nurtured (Gray & Feldman, 2004). Further analyses in Gray and Feldman’s article identified apparent contributions of such interactions to both parties’ physical, intellectual, and social/moral education. Adolescents led children to act within the latter’s “zones of proximal development” (term defined by Vygotsky, 1978) and children stimulated adolescents to make implicit knowledge explicit, be creative, and practice nurturance and leadership. These skills are invaluable for life-long learners.

To become creative minds

Free play is another important part of time spent in a Sudbury school. Free play is defined as an action that is chosen freely and has no pre-defined rules or outcomes. When children are together without interference of adults, they usually know how to play freely. Free play is essential in the development of 1) interests and competencies; 2) making decisions, solving problems, exerting self-control, and following rules; 3) learning to regulate emotions; and, 4) working together and experiencing joy (Gray, 2011). Play arouses curiosity, which leads to discovery and creativity.

Children who play do not draw an artificial line between work and play, according to Ackoff & Greenberg (2008). In principle, adults that are involved in work that they really enjoy experiencing the same emotions as we recognize in free play. Such a person is motivated, enthusiastic, attached, challenged to find solutions, and is creative in looking for solutions. Free play, according to Tim Brown, is an essential element in experiencing the freedom to be creative (TED, 2008). Most of the workplaces are not designed to give people the freedom to experience play in work, and is probably one of the most important aspects for the lack in creativity and the resistance against change in organizations.

Experience with De Kampanje Sudbury School

In the years since we started the De Kampanje Sudbury School in Amersfoort, we have experienced a lot of fun by being part of a wonderful community of people. Running a school may not be easy at times, and it forms a challenge, but it is very rewarding. We sometimes take in kids that are severely damaged by the regular school system. They lost their self-esteem, their motivation to learn, and, on top of it all, they have lost their trust in adults. They need to be left alone. We do not interfere with their daily activities. We make contact – we talk – but without any coercion or demands. After some time, you see them start to open up, interact with others, and dare to speak out their thoughts, wishes, and beliefs. For some of them, it takes years to recover from their negative experiences. It is a balance, and it needs an enormous amount of trust from parents as well. But, as soon as they know that they can trust the people in the school, they will feel safe enough to express their needs. They grow up being able to make their own choices. Some choose to take exams, some leave school to join vocational or high school, and some choose to work for a few years (including as entrepreneurs). But, for all of them, their motivation and self-knowledge steered them toward reaching their goals. Our operational record is still short, but the first signs of success are present.

As a staff member, it is always easier to trust a child, because we see that child every day, and we notice how he or she is doing. For parents, it is much harder. Parents often do not have the opportunity to see what their children are doing, and, most of the time, their children do not tell. From a parent’s perspective, letting go is difficult. Not being able to ask at home what the child has been doing or to form an opinion on his or her activity is challenging. Even unspoken expectations a parent might have will form a dilemma for a child to feel really trusted and free. This adds to the pressure that a child feels from friends, grandparents, etc. The supportive role of the parents is crucial in the success of the child in a school like ours.

Last year, we hosted a boy in our school who stayed only for one year. He found himself some friends with whom he could play a certain online computer game, and played for a solid year. After this period, he decided to continue in regular school to prepare for his finishing exam. Back in the formal system, he interviewed successfully, and was able to express his motivations and wishes in a very articulate way. His parents were astonished; they saw such a tremendous change in his whole attitude in only one year. On the last day in our school, I told him that I hoped that he benefited from his experience with us. Then he said to me, “I was able to think over carefully what I really wanted this year.” Just imagine, I only watched him playing computer games for this whole year. As outsiders, what do we really know is going on in the heads of these young people? Trust and freedom produce results that seem magical.

In conclusion

There is a growing demand in society for alternatives to the regular educational system. Although The Netherlands is famous for its diverse schooling options (i.e., Montessori, Waldorf, Dalton, Freinet, Jenaplan, etc.), most of the options have become standardized by the governmental regulations for public schools over the past decades. As a result, these schools moved away from their initial pedagogical approaches. The government is placing more and more emphasis and pressure on testing and exams. The system, itself, is outdated, and more kids are suffering, both physically or by being labeled and over-cared for. As a result, student motivation is decreasing. The time is ripe to develop real alternatives to the mainstream model.

A new era has begun, and, more than ever, there is a demand for innovative, creative thinkers. Society needs people that can adapt to a fast-changing world in which we do not yet know what kind of skills will be needed to be successful in the future. The only way to educate our kids is by letting them experiment with uncertainty. Our education systems need to make a U-turn. Continuing the practices we have been engaged in the past few centuries is out of the question. In order to find a new educational model, we need to diversify, and resist uniformity (which has been the practice for the past decades in many countries).

Democratic education is an example of an approach that has changed the concepts of “schooling.” These schools made the U-turn nearly a hundred years ago. They took education back to whom it once belonged: to the learner. By doing so, they made use of natural human abilities, by creating the circumstances for self-directed learning. They survived in the shadow of the traditional schooling system, which had created an efficient process to keep itself sustained. It is time that the world accepts democratic schooling as a valid, alternative approach for learning.

Democratic schools, and more specifically, Sudbury schools, are believed to support the development of skills that are essential in knowmadic workers. These schools are designed around freedom and responsibility. In Sudbury schools, the responsibility is real. This fosters the development of skills that are essential to Knowmad Society. Children grow up as self-starters, showing initiative and entrepreneurialism, knowing how to use knowledge, their talents and how to make decisions on the basis of their own judgments. They know how to steer their lives with the guidance of their own inner compass, and make use of all resources needed to fulfill their goal. They have developed self-confidence, can work effectively together with people of all ages, and take responsibility for their choices and actions.


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