“Good morning, do you know where the Wicklow Sudbury School is?”
This is the question I keep asking people in the street this morning, after I got lost and could not find the school that I am going to visit.
Winter is starting and I just arrived in Kilpedder, a small Irish town surrounded by lakes and mountains. I finally reach the address of the school, perplexed. Instead of a school building, I am facing a big house in a quiet suburb.
When I arrive at the Sudbury School (a branch of the democratic schools movement) in Kilpedder, three months full of pedagogical adventures have already shaken my ideas about education. Yet, I feel like I am stepping into the unknown here. Surrounded by children of all ages coming and going around the house all day long, it feels more like living with a large family than like visiting a school. The Sudbury pedagogy is at first surprising for it rejects all the traditional teaching concepts:
“In the school there are no classes unless the members want to organize them, there are no teachers (the adults are “facilitators”), no curriculum, no timetable, no homework…”
The paradigm on which the school is based acts like a demolition machine on mainstream education perspectives: learning is natural. The idea is quite simple but it questions everything: since children learn naturally, why is it necessary to teach them anything?
Five adults work with the 27 members of the school, aged from 5 to 18 years old, to experience this radical approach. Every morning, the children arrive when they want between 8:30am and 10:30, the only rule being that they have to be in at least five hours each day. Freedom is not for free: the cost of the (private) school is proportional to the parents’ incomes but it does not go under 200 euros per month. The fa are not even paid the minimum wage (they work part-time, some have another job on the side). Here, education is not a job but a political act.
So what do children do all day? Well, strangely, they do not seem bored. Everyone organizes their time as they want in a joyful atmosphere. The Sudbury model gets rid of all hierarchical structures: everyone has the same power, no one (adults or children) is allowed to impose something on someone else. The law, constantly redefined by the community, organizes this small democratic society. As a matter of fact, I have never seen a school so strictly organized: the book of laws of the school has dozens of pages and the children take every offense to the rules they have established very seriously.
What if a free children society created something that is not chaos?
Freedom is a right
The members of the Wicklow Sudbury School like going to school for a simple reason:
“We can do what we want.”
Indeed, the only limits to what is possible are those imposed by the constraints of space and by the collective law. As everyone has different interests, projects and learning rhythms, no one expects the children to do the same thing at the same time. The members choose individually what they feel like doing – which also allows them to work in groups.
This Monday morning, several activities are taking place: some children are drawing, others are baking a cake or writing a scenario for a role play and the youngest are playing in the garden while a group of teenagers are debating about veganism in the kitchen. In a corner, two teenagers are playing chess. It has been their common passion for a few weeks, they play all day long (recording the games on a mobile app to re-analyze them afterwards) and have reached a high level. In another room, children from 8 to 12 years old are organizing wrestling fights (they call it “to play tigers”). The game is highly institutionalized: after they have agreed on the number of participants, they remind the players of the rules and sometimes add new ones during the game. They explain to me how they also invented a sport (a mix between tennis and basketball that became popular in the school), whose rules are being written throughout the games.
As I walk around the school, I observe that the adults do not necessarily supervise all these activities. They are always available and active for the children but they do not try to guide or evaluate them in any way.
“Trusting children is one of the fundamental principles of the Sudbury pedagogy.”
Sudbury does not believe that adults know what is best for children; only the child can choose for themselves. Of course, children who are given such freedom will not always be doing “productive” activities according to an adult’s perspective. One rainy morning, I watch a group of five boys from 10 to 13 years old spend half an hour sitting on a table by the window, describing and talking about what they see. When I come back later, the boys are still sitting on the same table, imagining a future trip: they are discussing the destination in an excited voice, dividing the roles (Who will drive the car? Who will be in charge of the map? Who will choose the music?). Can we say that these boys “have done nothing” of their morning, that they lost their time? They were not engaged in any facilitated learning process, it is true. Yet, a child is never inactive: these boys at the window spent time developing their language, social and imagination skills.
Why are we so afraid that the children may not learn? This fear is, I feel, the symptom of a society where learning is thought of in terms of productivity and results. We therefore exclude free play, dreaming, creativity and social skills, which can hardly be measured.
“Actually, a child cannot stop learning just like they cannot stop breathing.”
The Wicklow Sudbury School works in periods: the swarm of activities often turns into collective trends. Some activities are practiced intensely by a large number of members for some time (everyone is going to write songs for a month, then they will start organizing tennis-basketball games, etc.) and then everyone moves on to something else. From one day to the next, the atmosphere can be either peaceful or very agitated; one never knows what tomorrow will be made of.
The young travelers
Learning is both formal and informal
Learning is natural for children, okay. Only someone who has never been to a Sudbury school can doubt it. A five minutes discussion with a student who grew up attending the school is enough to make the following observation: not only are the members of the school open-minded and confident but they are also actually quite knowledgeable. Most of them develop interesting skills, even though they have never been forced to learn anything. But then how do they learn? This is what I have tried to answer for a week. The freedom given to the children can seem dizzying; if they are never guided, how will they go towards activities that they do not know?
First, the fact that there are no mandatory classes does not mean that the children have to build their own knowledge out of nothing. The environment seems to be the primary source for learning. The children arrive here with their own experiences of the world and their interests, which they share with others; this kind of learning is called “informal”. I asked Lucy, 8 years old, who arrived two years ago:
“- How did you learn the piano?”
“I saw other members playing so I wanted to play. Then someone showed me.”
I get the same answer from all the members who play the piano. I even think that none of the adults can play. The school is therefore a perpetual mix of cultures which merge with social interactions. The space was also thought to encourage the building up of learnings: in the art room, the music room, the library, the study (quiet) room, all the material is free to use.
The informal learnings are efficient because they are entirely based on the children’s motivation. It is very likely that if someone had told Lucy, “you should learn the piano”, she would not have developed the same interest for the instrument.
Jimmy’s story illustrates this idea in a surprising way. Diagnosed dyslexic and treated by speech therapists since a very young age, Jimmy was 8 when he arrived at the school. Coming from a public school, he had very fragile reading and writing skills and he showed very little interest, if not complete aversion, for these activities. In Sudbury, he spent a year without touching a book or a pen before he was suddenly interested in dinosaurs. From there, his curiosity led him to draw dinosaurs, and then he wanted to know everything about them. He ended up reading all the books available on the subject and writing his own encyclopedia. Ciara, a facilitator:
“I was with Jimmy in his project. After three months of intense, autonomous work, he was still dyslexic but he could read or write anything.”
Even though professionals had striven to find the prettiest textbooks and the most playful exercises, only the dinosaurs taught Jimmy how to read.
However, these informal learnings are not the only way the children can get knowledge in a Sudbury school. The teaching is structured in “clubs” that build up projects around common interests; these are the “formal learnings” (but still optional). The school has all sorts of clubs. The music club (rock band of the school) rehearses in the music room. The activist club got interested in the matter of homelessness while I was there – they watched documentaries and organized discussions. In the electronics club, two members tried to code an LED connected to a computer (I attended the workshop but did not understand everything…). As for the bushcraft club, it takes place in the garden and is animated by Mark, a facilitator who worked in forest schools before:
“It’s about teaching children how to connect with nature through various skills: make a fire, build tools, climb trees, etc.”
Clubs can also be about more academic subjects:
“We don’t limit learning to academic subjects. Most children learn how to read, write and count naturally because these activities are part of everyday life. But if a member has a specific interest, let’s say about math, they can choose to develop their interest alone or to start a club.”
As a matter of fact, a club that prepares to university tests is offered by the facilitators to the students who want to go to college.
Far from being separated from “the real world”, the school is open to all exterior contribution. A student’s friend is coming this week to lead a rap workshop for instance. In the beginning of the year, a member suggested to hire a drum teacher (paid with the school’s budget), which was accepted by the School meeting. I was also told about a sexual education workshop about consent that happened last year with qualified people from outside the school.
That week, I attended a psychology course which was offered by a student’s mum. It is the fifth class of the year and it is directed at teenagers. Eight students are here, sitting in a circle on the carpet for today’s theme: the role of adults in child’s development. It starts with a video clip of the Twisted Sisters, then the notion of adults’ projections is discussed. The animator asks the students to analyze the character’s anger (while writing down their ideas on a paperboard), which leads to a reflection on non-violent communication techniques. I personally find this class fascinating and I notice that the relationship between the adult and the students is totally respectful. The students participate actively and are really interested, of course, since they have chosen to be here.
No assessment or evaluation process is planned in the school; the facilitators consider it unnecessary to judge the students’ activities. Nevertheless, a weekly gathering called the ‘Learning Circle’ has been happening for a few weeks: the members who want to can share their impressions about their progression and motivation and can ask for advice from the others.
Informal guitar lesson
The school is a mini democratic society
When one realizes that curriculums are myths – children simply cannot all learn the same things at the same time – one reaches the conclusion that age segregation is not natural. In Sudbury, mixed age groups create a joyful atmosphere where everyone helps one another and adults do not have to supervise everything. Bernard, facilitator:
“When you mix ages, you get rid of the notion of competition.”
Children who only spend time with others of their own ages will logically tend to compare themselves to them. However, fearing that one might not be good enough has never been a positive motivation for learning. In Sudbury, not only do the children not care about who is best at calculus, but they are aware that others can be a source for learning. Mixing ages therefore allows a wider variety of informal learning. The younger ones learn from the older ones obviously, but the opposite can also happen.
This kind of learning is free of obligations, expectations and judgements; it is just a free, shared exploration. This way to transmit knowledge works bidirectionally between children and adults. As there is no hierarchy, the domination relationship ceases to exist. Adults do not try to “educate” the children or ask them to meet their expectations.
Conflicts obviously happen from time to time. This afternoon, the mediators group (a facilitator and four teenagers) has a meeting to discuss them. They had a mediation training, which means that other members can ask them for help in conflict resolution. One of the mediators is questioning his own role:
“It’s hard to make both parties communicate. And sometimes the little ones don’t want to do mediation. I don’t like that they see us as authority figures.”
I think this 16-year-old boy probably shows more kindness and humility than a lot of adults. Thus, far from the chaotic environment one could imagine, everyone’s well-being is as important as individual freedom. This egalitarian relationship makes everyone care for collective interests, which is represented in one sentence that I often heard:
“We are a community.”
Nevertheless, this great picture of free, fulfilled, kind children that I have tried to describe is not something that can be achieved so easily. The Wicklow Sudbury School is the result of three years of collective construction, where rules have progressively been elaborated upon.
This is precisely the heart of the Sudbury model: everyone has to be accountable for their actions if they want to be free, which makes the school “democratic”. Even if adults’ authority does not rule the school, children have a deep understanding of justice and the book of rules is too long for anyone to know it entirely.
Two institutions (the same ones in all Sudbury schools) rule this small society: the School Meeting and the Judicial Committee. In the School Meeting, members can make proposals for new projects, rules, excursions, etc. It is not mandatory to attend (if you are not interested in the agenda, you don’t come) and decisions are made raising hands: one member, one vote. A young member explains excitedly:
“The best part of the school is you can make any proposals.”
In the Judicial Committee, conflicts that have not been solved by mediation are talked through. The member (adult or student) reporting a problem fills out a form and explains what happened. In the JC, no personal judgments are considered; it is simply about enforcing the law. Depending on the matter, people vote and a sanction might be applied.
Mixed age group in the Bushcraft club
Is freedom a natural capacity or a construcion?
The Sudbury model trusts children to be able to self-manage their learning and their environment. However, I wonder to what extent this idea can be applied in certain cases, for instance with video games. Throughout the week, I see a lot of children playing video games brought from home. Tablets, Nintendo’s and smartphones are everywhere, which I am a bit concerned about, as I don’t see much learning coming from them.
The facilitators agree that it is a problem that has to be talked about with the students, but they would never forbid them (it would be against the school’s ethic). One morning, Ciara starts a discussion with the boys in the living room:
“You know, video games are the easy solution when you don’t know what to do. But sometimes boredom can make people be creative.”
As there is really no judgement in her tone of voice, they decide to play a board game but, half an hour later, they are back on their tablets. Since some video games are addictive, I wonder: can children be trusted with self-management?
As it is private, the school in Kilpedder only represents privileged social backgrounds. Can we imagine the same school with children from different backgrounds? Basically the purpose of education is at stake here: can freedom be given to all independently from all social matters or should school help children escape their social determinisms?
A few more pictures:
As it questions both the pre-conceptions of the public school systems and, in a mirror effect, the very identity of the visitor, one can hardly remain indifferent when visiting a Sudbury School. I will not spend time answering those who are worried that children might not adapt to mainstream society: Sudbury students are adaptable and the studies about the first Sudbury School (founded 50 years ago) show that they become quite successful in life ; Sudbury is no longer a mere experiment.
Yet, I understand that people might be taken aback or weary. When we are adults who have had ourselves an education directed by adults (in school or outside, we have been used to being guided our whole life), it is hard to conceptualize learning mechanisms that we never developed. However, rather than treating children as a social group dominated by adults, couldn’t we learn something from the experience of their freedom? This is the point of the Sudbury education: allowing us to imagine, through this Copernican revolution of learning, the possibility of a new social organization.
“At Sudbury Valley, no child has been forced, pushed, urged, cajoled, or bribed into learning how to read. None of our graduates are real or functional illiterates. No one who meets our older students could ever guess the age at which they first learned to read or write.”
“It just seems so irrelevant to worry about how many days or years have passed since a person was born. At Sudbury Valley, everyone has time.”
“We have forgotten that children are designed by nature to learn through self-directed play and exploration, and so, more and more, we deprive them of freedom to learn, subjecting them instead to the tedious and painfully slow learning methods devised by those who run the schools.”
(Special thanks to Zoey Helgesen for correcting this translation!)
Any comments or remarks about this school? Leave a comment below.