The UnSchool

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 8 2014 @ 5:16pm

Mark Oppenheimer visits the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Mass., where there are no required classes and students make their own rules:

In a 2004 study of 119 alumni who had attended the school for at least three years, over 80 percent had gone to college or university. Others became entrepreneurs, chefs, carpenters, artists, etc. The school is filled with books, most students have laptops, there is Wi-Fi. But students can roam outside and play, or tinker on the piano, or draw. Everyone learns to read, eventually, although I met a couple of students who confessed that, while they could write by hand, they did not know cursive. They may do and study whatever they like. They may learn by building robots, or making up role-playing games with elaborate rules, or by serving on the budget committee, or by participating in the school administration, or in countless other ways. The current head of the school—the actual head of school, elected by the community—is an 18-year-old girl.

The Sudbury Valley School is a dangerous place to visit, as I did earlier this month.

It upends your views about what school is for, why it has to cost as much as it does, and whether our current model makes any sense at all. But what’s most amazing about the school, a claim the founders make which was backed up by my brief observations, my conversations with students, and the written recollections of alumni, is that the school has taken the angst out of education. Students like going there, and they like their teachers. Because they are never made to take a class they don’t like, they don’t rue learning. They don’t hate homework because they don’t have homework. School causes no fights with their parents.

In short, Sudbury Valley students relate to their work the same way that adults who love their jobs—many artists, writers, chefs; the very fortunate doctors and lawyers and teachers—relate to work: They chose it, so they like it. Perhaps that’s because students at Sudbury are, in fact, treated as full adults. They have equal votes in making budget decisions, administering the school, making and enforcing discipline. There are currently about 35 Sudbury-model schools, in 15 states and six foreign countries, and one thing they have in common is their stance against age discrimination. They say that all ages are equal, and they mean it.