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.