Unsought Learning

The Sudbury literature is full of assertions like the following: “Here, young people learn only what they choose to learn, what they’re most passionate about.” On the one hand, this is certainly true, in that no one imposes—directly or subtly—the expectation that our students should study particular things at particular times. Yet this “learn what you want” principle could lead one to conclude that students at Alpine Valley School have it easy, that they’re enabled in avoiding life’s hard lessons or confronting things they find unpleasant.

As they say, nothing could be further from the truth.

AVS students own a unique and full responsibility for ensuring their lives are, or become, what they want. Indeed, what more awesome responsibility can young people have than setting their own goals and then deciding for themselves what has to happen if they’re to achieve them? Within a supportive and respectful school community, they know that, ultimately, their happiness and success—as well as whether they’re making adequate progress toward those ends—are up to them. And they learn early and often that in order to get what you want, you have to do plenty of things you’d rather not.

How does this work? Unlike most places, at Alpine Valley School students make important decisions all the time. They don’t have their days scheduled down to the minute, with adults entertaining or distracting them, nor are they given empty promises and guarantees (Do what we tell you, and everything will turn out okay. Study these things, perform well on those tests, and life will be good). On the contrary: at Alpine Valley School, students have to grapple with the daunting realities of boredom and uncertainty; they have to judge for themselves what constitutes a good use of their time. And if there’s something they don’t like, they’re expected to take the initiative in doing something about it.

I can’t imagine this is always so enjoyable. After all, blaming others can be so satisfying—you get to complain, but you’re off the hook for doing anything about it; you don’t have to accept responsibility for your confusion, dissatisfaction, or mistakes. While being told what to do and how may be irritating, it’s certainly easier than having to make your own decisions. On the other hand, learning how to set goals and get things done, how to sort through infinite possibilities and chart a course for yourself—and on top of that, deciding how well you’re doing—these things are really, really hard! And so the term “unsought learning” occurred to me recently as a way to describe this important backdrop to pursuing one’s passions.

For example, I don’t believe many students who get attendance fines for not signing in; who are charged and sentenced for leaving things out; or who are caught in an intense, angry argument would say that they sought out these learning opportunities. I doubt they’d happily proclaim that their passion involves being held accountable or having cherished beliefs challenged. (Imagine a student in the throes of boredom proclaim, “This is exactly what I want to be learning right now!”) In my experience, though, unsought learning is just as much a part of a Sudbury education as spending hours plumbing the depths of the subjects nearest and dearest to one’s heart.

More importantly, it’s also a very authentic kind of difficulty. I think we can all agree that growing up (really, life) is full of challenges, and that the role of school is, to a large degree, to support students as they prepare to meet these challenges. Yet in most schools, most challenges that students encounter are either artificial or imposed—or downright unnecessary. Too many people seem to confuse inflicting unpleasant things on students with preparing them for life’s difficulties.

Authentic struggles, on the other hand, emerge out of the fabric of daily life, from the difficulties of the unknown as well as life in a community full of personalities and standards different from, even inconsistent with, your own. But these are the relevant, meaningful struggles; these are the ones that most frequently result in the sort of learning that sticks with you and helps you achieve your dreams.

Whether it’s discovering that your chosen career requires you to confront your math anxiety;  learning that you can, in fact, speak up for yourself; figuring out how to defuse tense situations; or learning how to let go of a pursuit or a connection that’s no longer working for you—just to cite a few examples—Alpine Valley School students learn the things that matter most. Some of these they seek, while others seek them. In the end, this combination of freedom, trust, and responsibility enables people to find their way to some very powerful learning and growth.

Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose

Nearly eighteen years at Sudbury schools has, for me, removed any trace of doubt that this model facilitates the most powerful, transformative learning. Yet explaining why and how this is so remains a bit of a challenge. Somehow, by letting kids do whatever they want—in mixed-age communities driven by respect and responsibility, where everyone has an equal say—they grow up as incredibly mature, self-directed, self-assured, and otherwise capable young adults. But how?

I’ve found a couple different things especially helpful in reinforcing my firsthand observations of places like Alpine Valley School. First and foremost, half a century’s worth of alumni represent vibrant, living proof of this model. (I highly recommend the many videos and books documenting alumni experiences, some of which are linked from this page.) Second, a growing body of evidence independent of the Sudbury experience also supports the principles on which our schools rest. Prominent in this realm is the work of people like Peter Gray and Lenore Skenazy (Peter spoke at Alpine Valley School in 2014; we’re pleased to be hosting Lenore this coming May).

It’s in this context that, watching an RSA Animate talk by Daniel Pink, I was shocked by how well his argument meshes with what Sudbury supporters have been saying for decades.

The author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Pink has studied findings in psychology and economics, as well as practices in the business world, and identifies three factors as particularly conducive to performance and personal satisfaction:

  • autonomy, which he defines as “our desire to be self-directed, to direct our own lives”;
  • mastery, or “our urge to get better at stuff”; and
  • purpose, the drive to contribute to making something better.

Pink zeroes in on autonomy, mastery, and purpose about five minutes into this eleven-minute talk (illustrated by animated notes and sketches that really bring Pink’s words to life).

As I said, what struck me was how amazingly consistent his argument is with the Sudbury Model: people of all ages prefer choosing their own activities, and tend to choose things because they’re fun, because they’re challenging, and because they help make a difference. Perhaps most importantly, this is only possible when people are given sufficient respect. In Pink’s words:

The science shows that we care about mastery very, very deeply, and it shows that we want to be self-directed. I think the big takeaway here is that if we start treating people like people, and not assuming that they’re simply horses—you know, slower, smaller, better-smelling horses—if we get past this ideology of carrots and sticks and look at the science, I think we can actually build organizations and work lives that make us better off.

Conventional thinking assumes that children are more or less incapable of directing their own learning—a view that, while prevalent, flies in the face of what Daniel Pink has found. In contrast, Alpine Valley School and similar schools tell our students, “You probably want to do something interesting. Let me get outta your way.” That’s why letting young people control their time and activities in democratic, mixed-age communities leads to incredible results: because it’s consistent with how we’ve evolved as a species, and because it fosters the qualities we most need going forward.

How can we maximize learning? By respecting individuals, by letting their innate curiosity and intense drive to explore and master things do its job. As Sir Ken Robinson and James Marcus Bach have both argued, human development is incompatible with industrial, assembly-line thinking. A far more accurate and helpful metaphor comes from traditional agriculture, where success follows from supporting natural growth processes without attempting to control them.

Under these conditions, children will throw themselves fiercely and happily into the very sort of playful challenges that enhance both their lives and the world as a whole. But it all depends on our choosing and sticking with the fundamental resolve to respect them and trust their natural drives toward autonomy, mastery, and purpose.




Weed Out Unnecessary Exams

I recently ran across an article with the eye-catching headline School Testing Under Pressure: Top Education Officials Aim to Weed Out Unnecessary Exams as Backlash Grows. Weeding out unnecessary exams? Sounds good, I thought—and then I read the following: “In a survey of its 67 members districts, the Council of the Great City Schools found that students sit for an average of 113 standardized tests between preschool and 12th grade.”

What a monstrosity! Divide 113 by 12 and you’ll see that kids in conventional schools get hit with a standardized test more than nine times every year—an average of one major assessment every month, and that’s on top of the “normal” testing load. (I happen to know that, in one of the larger districts in Colorado, teachers make their regular tests look like the high-stakes, standardized versions.) No wonder students, parents, and even many educators feel like testing has completely overtaken education.

It’s not as though this testing madness happened overnight: in fact, it’s been long in the making. The drive for so-called objective measures of student achievement began in earnest just as I was entering teaching 25 years ago. We are simply seeing today the logical conclusion of a system obsessed with measurement. What’s happening right under our eyes is nothing less than the standardization of our children. (Standardized people, for goodness sake!) Worst of all, kids learn early on that what matters most isn’t their learning, growth, or happiness, but their performance on these tests—in other words, how well they measure up to other people’s arbitrary standards.

This makes me even more grateful that at Alpine Valley School we follow a model that’s coherent, principled, and consistent, one that’s turned out amazing graduates for nearly 50 years. Our school, like others based on this philosophy of freedom with responsibility, holds these truths to be self-evident:

  1. People of all ages deserve to be valued, respected, and trusted as naturally curious, capable, and creative individuals.

  2. When no subject or form of learning is privileged, and when the value of learning from mistakes and failure is respected, people learn what they most need to learn.

  3. The most effective learning occurs when people choose, manage, and evaluate their own activities, thereby developing the initiative, persistence, and confidence to overcome challenges and achieve goals.

  4. The best way to grow is to enjoy full measures of freedom, respect, and trust while being held responsible both for one’s behavior and the welfare of one’s community.

  5. In a scaled-down version of the larger world, students will naturally learn everything basic to success in that world in a concrete and meaningful way.

  6. Every aspect of this school exists to support students’ innate drive to learn, ensuring they have a place to discover and nurture their unique abilities and interests without interference.

  7. The school functions best when all members of the community support it by fully respecting students’ privacy and autonomy, and by striving to understand and promote the school as best they can.

  8. Age-mixing is essential for personal growth and the well-being of our school.

  9. Access to educational resources is determined by the capacity to do so responsibly and safely.

  10. The best way for students to prepare for life in a democracy is for them to be immersed in a democratically run school.

  11. Students and staff, as School Meeting members, have the right to determine what can and cannot happen on campus

These eleven statements form the core beliefs of Alpine Valley School. They aren’t just some mission statement, but instead describe actual, daily life at school; they offer our students a firm foundation upon which to launch into the new frontier that’s emerging. Imagine giving your kids the opportunity to prepare for the future in a school that puts essentially no limits on what or how they learn. That is exactly what you’ll find at Alpine Valley School.

 We don’t need standardized people or test-taking robots.  On the contrary, we need to honor children and support their curiosity and creativity, their powerful and natural drive to learn. There’s no reason to wait: enroll now and let your kids thrive in an environment that treats them like the individuals they are instead of so much data.


Giving Thanks, Changing Lives

As our annual fundraising campaign, Colorado Gives Day, approaches its climax we wanted to give you a sense of the gratitude AVS families have expressed for the life-changing gifts they’ve received here.  After reading the following parent testimonials, please consider giving what you can and spreading the word so that more families might enjoy transformations like these. Schedule your donation today at this link and help us reach our goal of raising $22,750 for our Tuition Assistance Fund.

Sherry Cure

I am thankful to AVS for giving our daughters a place to grow in different and unexpected ways.

For example, during our first year here my youngest child—who up to this point had been carefree and left details to everyone else—decided she wanted to set up a field trip to a local pool. The night before the trip, she asked us to drive her there so she could make sure the details were taken care of (which was surprising in itself). When we got to the rec center the staff said, “Don’t worry about it, your teacher will make sure it’s all set up.” My daughter said, “No, it’s my field trip and I need to make sure everything’s arranged.” Since she was only 9 the staff was surprised to hear this, and it gave her the opportunity to talk about her school. And her field trip went off without a hitch. This was our first real glimpse of how AVS was helping her grow up into a more responsible person, and we were thrilled.

Our older daughter had always been the super-responsible kid—almost too much so, and keeping her opinions to herself. Through being part of AVS she has learned to speak out more, and she no longer blindly follows others’ opinions. She thinks about a situation, questions its validity, and makes her own decision. She is now comfortable speaking her mind. She has used this new ability to become active in the day-to-day processes of the school, especially the judicial system. We feel this confidence will serve her well in life, both during and after her school years.



Kaye Kamon

So deep and wide does my gratitude for AVS run, it’s difficult to know where to begin. With that in mind, perhaps it’s best to start…in the beginning.

I can barely fathom the courage, vision, and determination that drove the founders of AVS to create and maintain this opportunity that would, 11 years later, literally be life-changing (and perhaps life-saving) for us. We never would have discovered AVS without the guidance of educational consultant Jeffrey Freed, who urged me to give the school a chance and provided a bridge of courage and open-mindedness until…

…I had an opportunity to observe and interact with the “results,” the living embodiments of an AVS education—the alumni and long-time students. These young adults seem so involved, and so open about their experiences at AVS. Many alumni continue to support and enjoy the school community years after they’ve left. Repeatedly I’ve heard them publicly express their gratitude for this extraordinary school, some of them even moved to tears as they did so.  

Thank you also to past and current parents who have inspired and supported me. We are making an unorthodox choice, many of us driven by damaging and limiting experiences within the conventional paradigm. Some have the insight before their children ever begin school that the system’s flawed, or that an environment of freedom and self-directed education will result in happier, more successful adults. I have felt much deeper connections to the parents at AVS than any of the other schools my son attended before.

Any expression of gratitude would be severely incomplete without thanking the staff. I hold them in the highest esteem and deeply appreciate their “labor of love,” their dedication to protecting the learning environment for the students, and the magnitude of the personal sacrifices they have made. I know they could be making substantially more money, and certainly have more job security, working elsewhere.  I mean, come on! These folks have their jobs on the line every May as School Meeting votes on next year’s contracts. Talk about a performance review!

Last but certainly not least, many thanks to the students. You know full well that you’ve been given a unique opportunity to take responsibility in creating your lives, expressing your passions, and following your own paths to become effective adults in the greater community. And you are all assets to that greater community already: I know this is true because you have most certainly touched my life in a positive way.

CGD 2014_Master(WORKING)


The Power of Play

We had our first snow of the season a few days ago, and even though the temperature was 22 degrees outside many of our students were running around, chasing each other and throwing snowballs. The morning started out at 65 degrees, so their outerwear was light and their cheeks and fingers were red and icy cold, but that didn’t even slow them down. There were brief breaks for food and to warm up, but snow play quickly resumed.

I stood at the window, watching younger and older students romp around the yard, and then I decided to join the fun. As I stepped outside, the wind blew snow in my face and whipped open my jacket. My hands and ears felt frozen, and my eyes were watering.  After a two-minute walk around the building I’d had enough and went back inside. What was a fun activity for the students was not for me, and I wondered why the cold and blowing snow not only didn’t bother them but actually added to their enjoyment and seeming determination to endure the freezing weather.

Perhaps their innate drive to have fun, to enjoy the moment at hand, helps children focus more on the play and less on any discomfort they might feel. Perhaps when they are totally present and absorbed in a playful activity, they have more tolerance for bothersome elements and, in fact, are learning to deal effectively with challenging situations. My curiosity about this led me to Google the topic of children playing in difficult environments. What I discovered has brought me a whole new appreciation for the power of play.

In a 2012 study , David Kuschner writes about the value of play. Even in the most extreme conditions, such as: slavery, the Holocaust, difficult urban environments, chronic illness, and war, children find a way to play. Not only that, their games often re-enact what they witness in their lives, and in the process help them cope with the horrors that surround them: play becomes a way to confront their reality, by making a story out of heartbreaking circumstances.

Kuschner concludes his report on a upbeat note: “But I also feel positive about the state of play today because history shows us that the life force of play is difficult to extinguish. I have faith that despite any current and future circumstances that might not be supportive of children’s play, children will find ways.”

While the children Kuschner studied contend with conditions far more horrific than a snowstorm, I have come to believe that play is essential in helping our children learn to be resilient and practice ways to deal with their life situations, whatever they may be. I hope we can learn from our children that the freedom to play offers far more than just enjoyment; it develops the skills and readiness necessary to handle reality with grace and courage.

As I glanced back out the window and watched our students fully engaged in the fun, I felt immense gratitude that Alpine Valley School is here for them and honors their right to play. If you would like more families to have this opportunity, please consider donating to our tuition assistance fundraiser at CO Gives.

Colorado Gives—and You Should, Too!

This week puts us right in the swing of fundraising season! We’ve been preparing for weeks now and have started unveiling our various fundraising efforts over the last week.

Our goal this year is to bring in $22,750 for Tuition Assistance. We depend on our Tuition Assistance Program to offer an individualized, empowering education to as many people as possible. Here are are some simple ways to help us keep doing this:

  • Donating is very easy—just head to our Colorado Gives donation page and fill out the information needed. Be sure to click the “CO Gives Day” button to boost our share of First Bank’s Incentive Fund!

  • Want to see how others are helping Alpine Valley School reach our goal? Check out the fundraising pages associated with the school.

  • I’ve been putting together short videos that show different people’s perspectives on Alpine Valley School. Check them out at our YouTube page and on the fundraising pages above.

  • We’re planning on having a presence at the Colorado Gives Rally at the Capitol on Monday, December 8th, and we will be hosting a donation drive at Einstein’s Bagels here in Wheat Ridge on Colorado Gives Day, Tuesday, December 9th.

We would love to see you out at one of these events, have you share our videos or fundraising pages, and especially donate. Help us reach our goal and help more students have the unique experience of an Alpine Valley School education!

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