A Different Class of Citizens

Chances are, if you follow the news from Denver, you’ve heard about a controversy in our local public school district over proposed revisions in Advancement Placement (AP) U.S. History. Protests (including walkouts and sick-outs) ensued over the following proposal:

On Sept. 18 the Jefferson County Board of Education met and proposed setting up a committee to ensure that the [new AP] courses “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respects for individual rights” and don’t “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

It’s inspiring to see students, teachers, and parents demonstrate against what they regard as politically motivated censorship, saying things like “there is nothing more patriotic than protest.” What really concerns me, however, aren’t disagreements over what people, events, and concepts are to be covered in classroom discussion, but rather the fact that conventional schooling allows most people very little power.

Ironically, the educational system in the United States features some of its least democratic institutions. Citizenship is a topic in required courses, yet it doesn’t have a home in the structures and daily life of most schools. Those directly affected by decisions regarding curriculum, personnel, finances, and conflict resolution have next to no voice in those decisions.

I recognize that many good people are working very hard to help these students, but consider for a moment the inevitable effects of centralized, factory-like schooling. When distant officials decide what is best for students, when they control teachers’ actions and pay, lopsided power struggles become more likely, not less. Instead of allowing young people’s natural drive to learn blossom, students are left with the options of either complying with or resisting a pre-packaged curriculum delivered by adults exercising arbitrary authority.

Let’s take another look at the school board’s statement. Notice that they mention “patriotism” immediately after “citizenship,” implying that one can’t be a good citizen without a healthy “respect for authority” (as opposed to thoughtful, responsible participation in the political process). Observe the concern that classroom lessons could “encourage or condone” disorder and lawlessness. How very revealing this is: when order is given top priority, when a person’s only form of meaningful involvement is protest, you’ll see exactly the sort of struggle now unfolding in suburban Denver.

Fortunately there are alternatives far more closely aligned with the ways people naturally learn and the skills needed for success in this Information Age. The Sudbury Model of education was explicitly designed to reflect such bedrock principles of American democracy as consent of the governed, due process, and a jury of one’s peers. We prioritize “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all, regardless of age.

In practice, this means autonomy and freedom in learning (freedom of movement, time, assembly, etc.) within a culture of both respect for others’ rights and responsibility for the welfare of the school. Rather than simply getting their citizenship training from textbooks, AVS students learn from immersion in a self-governing community: they assume leadership roles on school committees; they debate, vote on, and enforce school rules. Students can participate as equals in every aspect of school management, including personnel and the budget.

I have great sympathy for those in Jefferson County seeking input into what they’re allowed to study. Actually, my sympathy is independent of the political ideology driving the proposed changes. Rather than simply wishing the protestors success, I am holding out for much more. Instead of imposing any agenda on young people in the hope of molding society in one’s vision, I advocate for allowing all people to learn what they choose, however it best suits them, in order that they can become self-actualized and empowered, respectful and responsible.

One of my favorite quotes comes from civil rights leader Howard Thurman, who said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” This is exactly what we offer at Alpine Valley School: people-centered, passion-driven learning. And this, not a solid AP history curriculum, is what the future citizens of this country most need.


Students protest outside Standley Lake High School against the curriculum review. (credit: CBS)

Looking for This Year’s New Thing

I read plenty of news sources—papers, Internet, Twitter feeds, news aggregators, etc. As you would imagine, my attention focuses on education, where over time I’ve noticed some common assumptions. One is that the system is broken but a “fix” is possible, and if we just apply this “fix” all will be well. Curiously the system itself isn’t challenged, even though it has been “broken” at least since the time of Sputnik, nearly 60 years ago! Shortly after the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) precisely to push science in schools because our students had clearly fallen dangerously behind.

But how much have schools really changed since then? It seems to me we’re still waiting for a scientific fix. Before starting Alpine Valley School, I was a public school teacher and administrator, trained and licensed with a master’s degree. Back then my colleagues and I all joked about “This Year’s New Thing” (TYNT), introduced (or foisted upon us) each fall by the new administrator, knowing full well that we’d be that new administrator very soon, expected to bring about change and improvement.

The history of school reform reads like a list of slogans: in my previous career the TYNTs included Back to Basics, Mastery Learning and Outcomes-Based Education. Now, here in the 21st century, schools are looking to a new savior: STEM Education.

The central mission of the STEM Education Coalition is to inform federal and state policymakers on the critical role that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education plays in U.S. competitiveness and future economic prosperity. STEM education must be elevated as a national priority.

  • Our nation’s future economic prosperity is closely linked with student success in the STEM fields .
  • The U.S. must expand the capacity and diversity of the STEM workforce pipeline.
  • Policymakers at every level must be informed about policy issues related to STEM education.
  • Effective policies to promote STEM education should be bipartisan and evidence-based.

I added the bold type above because I want to make something very clear: STEM education is not about the individual child. It is about the state or nation, the economy, society; it is about seeing children as a singular body or aggregate. This leads to some troubling questions:

  • Do the state’s needs outweigh those of the individual?
  • What were the results of the NDEA push for more math and science in the 1950s?
  • Why is it that when the “nation” becomes fearful of something that we take it out on kids?

This obsession with STEM and, frankly, science in general is seriously misguided. If education reform were as easy as forcing more children into STEM…or music…or allowing late start times for teens, adding more PE, banning letter grades, obtaining special dispensations from the federal Department of Education, or whatever solution-of-the-day you like, children would all be “performing” just as we “want” them to. Surely, after more than 100 years of professional educators being in charge, you’d think they would’ve figured it out by now. Oftentimes the STEM/TYNT push is predicated on perceived failures of the students as an aggregate compared to other nation’s aggregated children. Well, Alpine Valley School’s building literally rests on a bed of aggregate, but let me assure you, each and every one of those rocks is unique.


the aggregate under our new patio at school

Missing from discussions about the so-called failure of America’s schools are two key points: conventional schools are performing just as intended (i.e., to create compliant workers, passive citizens, and eager consumers), and they are (and have been) bastions of “scientific” authoritarianism. Our country was founded on individual liberty, but with the exception of Sudbury schools students’ right to self-determination is at best an afterthought. I think it’s time to acknowledge that children are individuals who have inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Science is a useful tool; no one denies this. Any of us who work with children know that they (and we) enter the world as natural scientists. Being as curious as we are social is what makes us great as a species. Unfortunately, too many of us rely on science to tell us more than it really can—and we also tend to put down anything that doesn’t have the veneer of statistical “proof.”  What about the kids who are dreamers, artists, writers, poets, or philosophers? What about those whose development follows a different pace or course? Even Einstein believed that “imagination is more important than knowledge.”

By elevating STEM to its current place of honor we are, no doubt, raising generations to think that it’s the be-all and end-all of education. But every time society uses schools to reduce its fears, the children suffer. Ironically, society suffers as well because we fail to recognize the unique genius of each and every person.

A ten-year-old at school asked me the other day, “Larry, why did you start Alpine Valley School?” I answered, “because I believe that children should be free.” That’s the short answer; the longer one keeps going:—“…to become who they want to be.”

Haunting Conversations

Lately, there has been more talk among the students about zombies, ghosts and other spooky characters, as well as preparation for elaborate costumes like The Joker, Riddler, and Poison Ivy. Here at Alpine Valley School, students have the time and space to follow their interests, and right now many of them are engaged with Halloween fun.

Why is this worth noting? Because with the freedom to pursue what interests them at any given moment, with no one judging whether their activity is worthwhile, creativity flourishes. There is collaboration among students on creating a particular look or costume, and discussion on how to make that happen, but no one is peering over their shoulders making unsolicited suggestions or evaluating their ideas. It is a playful activity pursued because it is enjoyable, and when the activity is finished the students are the ones to decide if they are satisfied with the end result. It is this difference between children measuring their own success and what is valuable and meaningful, versus an outside authority deciding all that for them, that allows for creativity and innovation to thrive.

This freedom to play and explore different activities with other students of varied ages and interests leads to lively conversation, imaginative free play, and unique and novel ways to solve challenges and invent new games. All of this stimulates and promotes creativity.

Some people might downplay the importance of creativity. But consider the following: a 2010 IBM study surveying more than 1500 chief executive officers from 60 countries and 33 industries worldwide found that “creativity is now the most important leadership quality for success in business, outweighing competencies such as integrity and global thinking. The CEOs told IBM that today’s business environment is volatile, uncertain and increasingly complex. Because of this, the ability to create something that’s both novel and appropriate is top of mind.”

According to Dr. Peter Gray, in a Psychology Today blog, “Creativity is nurtured by freedom and stifled by the continuous monitoring, evaluation, adult-direction, and pressure to conform that restrict children’s lives today. In the real world few questions have one right answer, few problems have one right solution; that’s why creativity is crucial to success in the real world.” Yet as Dr. Gray points out:

More and more we are subjecting children to an educational system that assumes one right answer to every question and one correct solution to every problem, a system that punishes children (and their teachers too) for daring to try different routes. We are also, as I documented in a previous essay, increasingly depriving children of free time outside of school to play, explore, be bored, overcome boredom, fail, overcome failure—that is, to do all that they must do in order to develop their full creative potential.

We have been taught that learning is hard work and requires compulsory schooling, and that play is not productive and serves no purpose. I think it’s time to question this premise and open our minds to a another choice, like Alpine Valley School. Come find out why letting children play and have fun leads them to become creative, happy, fully functioning human beings.

Connie's blog pic

Natural Learning – In and Out of School

Talking about Alpine Valley School can sometimes be a challenging task. It is a way of schooling many people have never considered, and I often am asked “Well, are the kids learning anything?”

I always give an emphatic “Yes!”, but it still seems hard for many people to grasp how children learn without direct instruction to do so. I’d like to illustrate this point with a true story from my life outside of school:

The other night I was out to dinner with a group of friends. Our conversation wandered over many subjects and areas. There were moments of frivolity, joking around, moments of quiet interest as we listened to a personal story.

At some point our conversation touched on rabies, and for some reason the subject stuck. After some assertions were made about the disease, two of my friends pulled out their smartphones and began researching the questions left unanswered by our limited knowledge.

A few of the things we touched on:

  • the two types of rabies

  • how one contracts the disease

  • how many instances of rabies occur in a year in this country, in the developed world, and in the developing world

  • how likely a person is to die if they contract rabies and do not receive treatment immediately

  • how soon “immediately” means

  • things that were considered cures in the past (there are some strange ones!)

  • the possibility of cures now

  • the possibility of having an immunity

We probably touched on even more, and all of this in only about ten minutes, or less, of focused interest.

The above interaction seems so normal to me, as something like this is likely to happen anytime I’m interacting with other people—and it’s no different at my work. It’s one of the things we are referencing when we talk about the Natural Learning Environment at Alpine Valley School.

In our Natural Learning Environment students interact freely with each other and the staff. In conversations every day, something like the above inevitably comes up and everyone interested delves into the subject. Their interest may last three minutes, it may last months or a lifetime, but what it leads to is real learning, learning where the learners are truly interested and are much more likely to retain what they discover.

Informed Leaps of Faith

In some long-ago conversation, my colleague Connie raised a question that’s stayed with me for years: Why is it easier for us to see that Sudbury schooling works? What made it possible for us—the staff and parents of Alpine Valley School—to make this leap of faith?

I’ve learned time and again the difficulty of communicating between educational paradigms. Differing assumptions about human nature, about what children need and how they learn, can make it seem not so much a gap as a perceptual Grand Canyon. Even the vocabulary of conventional education and Sudbury schooling—teacher, classroom, curriculum; staff, School Meeting, Judicial Committee—can lead to conversations reminiscent of traveling in a land with a curious dialect: even where there’s mutual goodwill and openness to new perspectives, the simplest conversations can be tricky.

This makes it all the more mysterious that many of us somehow knew, immediately and deeply, that self-directed learning in mixed-age, democratic communities makes enormous sense. In my own case, it started with my initial career as a teacher in a conventional high school. As early as my first year, I knew that much of my frustration had nothing to do with being new, but consisted of things unlikely to improve over time. Before long I found that I could no longer push people to learn things of questionable relevance in a rigid, authoritarian environment.

Soon after leaving that world I stumbled upon Sudbury Valley School (at the suggestion of a former student, interestingly enough), and immediately I just knew that this was right; that it was better than any school I’d ever imagined; that it works. In a sense, I suppose it wasn’t a big leap of faith for me, given what I’d seen and lived through. And thankfully, my seventeen years of Sudbury experience have only reinforced that initial intuition.

Of course, everyone who’s embraced the Sudbury Model has had their own blend of reasons for doing so. For many, it was the suffering of their children in conventional schools. Others experienced various life detours and disruptions, such as job loss or the ending of relationships, that underscored the superiority of adaptability and resilience over any particular set of information or academic abilities. This, I would speculate, makes these people more likely to appreciate the fact that a Sudbury education develops this sort of personal strength.

It’s not too surprising that unpleasant past experiences can make us more open to new ways of thinking and doing things.  But as I implied above, when it comes to Sudbury schooling, the term “leap of faith” doesn’t quite fit. Those of us who made this leap might have been predisposed to see Sudbury for what it is, but in fact it’s the rich abundance of evidence that really seals the deal. After nearly fifty years, the living example of Sudbury students and alumni provides many vivid illustrations of how and why this model works so well.

Consider for yourself how many of the things you studied in school you actually use today. Consider how, when you have to learn something now, you find a way to do it—because you see a need, because it helps you achieve some goal of yours. Reflect on the rapid pace of change in today’s world, the veritable tsunami of information out there, and the need for our children to retain the powerful, insatiable curiosity with which they were born.

Then do yourself a favor and watch videos of alumni from Alpine Valley School and elsewhere. Read their stories, gathered in such books as Kingdom of Childhood, Legacy of Trust, and Pursuit of Happiness. Don’t simply take my word for it, but see for yourself why it is that so many of us happily took the Sudbury plunge and consider it one of the best decisions we ever made.

Guest Blog Post: AVS Parent Stacey Bloomfield

[Today's blog post comes to us from Stacey Bloomfield, a parent at Alpine Valley School. This post about her experience enrolling her son in our school was originally shared on her blog Trees in the Sidewalk.]

You never really know where you are going to find happiness. I can count the amount of times I was sure that I was about to do something amazing only to find myself feeling let down by the ordinariness of the day. Conversely some of the greatest points of my life have happened out of nowhere, or during moments of doom (my son’s new favorite word). From the look of the world out there everyone seems to be looking for the happiness formula, as if it is something that you can create through science, or worse, mimicking someone else’s experience.

I was so sure I knew what would make me happy, make my family happy. We have spent eight years fighting for the creation of a life that never fit quite right. We never quite got a handle on all the important details that seemed to keep the contentment and happiness away. Then a few weeks ago there were some changes that had to happen and suddenly (I do not use that word lightly), as the changes happened, I found a sense of peace that I haven’t felt since I was a child. No, my life isn’t all sorted out. But there is a certain feeling in my inhaling that has never been there.

As for the Interstate, it is on these morning trips west along the interstate, while my son counts the lamp posts or cars with roof racks, that I feel that joy distilled.

After two years of trying to force my child to fit into traditional school, as well as attempts to learn with him at home, he has found his place.

Every morning he gets up and asks when we can leave, and in the afternoons he is often sad when we go. As a mother, feeling the calm and happiness that has come to my child infects me. When I let go of how I was going to give my child what he needed, and explored how he could get what he needs without depending entirely on me to support, I found there was a place where he can have more freedom than I could ever give him.

Now it is up to me to find how I can reignite my passion and find how I can grow in this new happiness we are cultivating.