This is an excellent article reported in a manner that suggests the author spent some time at the school and interviewed a number of people involved. Unlike other articles that I recall about this type of school it does not directly raise criticism or off-handedly scorn the differences but takes the more neutral approach of citing a notable critic’s concern. The criticisms represented are reasonable, although from my own experience and research into this type of schooling they only make sense because they miss important features of how this form of educational community works.
I have visited a
The criticism that is leveled in the article is from
In my view this criticism is based on an unfounded assumption about what is going on in
Kohn is absolutely correct that teachers are needed to initiate inquiries, spark interests, provide coaching, guidance and make observations. But as a criticism of this type of school it only makes sense if that role is exclusively fulfilled by adults who have coercive authority over the child. I believe it is untenable to insist on this narrow meaning of the term teacher. When the meaning of the term “teacher” is broadened to include anyone or anything that can provide those functions, then it is clear that the children in this school have more than 62 other people teaching them, plus an abundance of other teaching resources. In fact, when mainstream schools insist on making the adult in the classroom the only teacher they “miss a lot” more learning than the kids in a democratic school.
As with other articles on these kinds of schools, the portrayal is framed in terms of limited notions of what constitutes normal learning. The assumption that coerced adult-driven activities are inherently more valuable than child-directed explorations of an actively engaged resource-abundant community is evident in observations that completely miss the larger value of being engaged in democratic participation and minimizes the resources that are available.
“..it’s hard to see what academic learning takes place.” Is it safe to assume that some other kinds of learning were observed? If so, why is academic learning privileged as a form of learning that should be observed and valued more than those other kinds? If learning of other kinds were taking place, then how is that learning supposedly different from the academic kind of learning? This comment suggests that learning is observable. Instruction is observable, behavior is observable but the process of learning is not. This also frames the issue of learning in terms of academic versus other kinds of learning. In my view, it is the author’s clear sense of lots of activity that indicates that valuable learning is happening, not the presence or absence of things academic.
“Many younger students run around outside.” Leaving this sentence without explanation or further insight into the running around suggests to me that the author is implying that young children running around doesn’t involve learning. The author did not take the time to observe the young children to discover what they were doing, besides running around. After 15 years of leading children in a great variety of ways I don’t think I have ever seen a child over the age of 4 simply “run around.” The children always have some purpose, but you may have to be patient to figure it out. In fact, the imaginative play that was undoubtedly accompanying the observed running around was, I bet, very purposeful and could easily be interpreted as very educational if you were to make a careful study of the social skills, communication skills, physical skills, emotional sensitivities, and artistic creations involved.
“They have some resources available when they want them.” As I pointed out above, they do not just have “some” resources available. Because they are not restricted by the dictates of classroom managers to which resources they are allowed to use on an arbitrary schedule then they effectively have a vastly greater abundance of resources available than students in traditionally run schools.
The last section of the article describes the school meeting in terms of the apparently mundane issues of the day and finishes the entire article by emphasizing the participation of a small girl whose contradictory votes on the same request are both counted. My sense of the section about the school meeting is that in spite of previous statements that students “have a significant role in governing the school” and “Students at
Traditional schooling methods provide abstract descriptions or, at best, create games about civic engagement. The disengagement of the American public from our political process amply demonstrates that the real lesson that is learned is that you don’t make a difference, participation is irrelevant, and you are better off leaving such complicated things to bigger, smarter, and more powerful people.
The article, once again, is very well crafted. It is a good presentation from the perspective of someone who has expectations that have been shaped by the modes of thinking that are prevalent in our industrial schooling system. Unfortunately, that perspective cannot do full justice to the very different assumptions about education that inform non-industrial approaches.
One of the founders of the school sent me an e-mail in response to this blog post and gave me permission to put up this excerpt:
STEPHANIE SARANTOS wrote:
Thank you for your post in response to the Seattle Times article about The Clearwater School. I really enjoyed reading your post. After 11 years of involvement at The Clearwater School I have an ever growing admiration of the power of children learning with freedom. We see all moments in our life as full of learning, and as you mention, there are so many things to learn beyond the academic focus of traditional schools that help us become healthy and wise and able to contribute to our society. The Times article felt quite balanced, especially in comparison to other articles on Sudbury model schools. She missed some things--we do not actually count two votes. Young children often begin to vote by mimicking other people raise their hands. When asked whether they mean yes or no they learn that we want one vote or another. I recall that the girl answered these questions by saying that she wanted to vote twice. Which when you think about it could be a perfectly valid desire when faced with several life decisions.
What I am getting around to saying is that in Sudbury schools we all learn so much all the time. Adults have much to learn from children and all of us have much to teach and much to learn. Our school system imposes several assumptions on teaching and learning that you mentioned so well in your post. One of the other ways that schools do a disservice is by assuming that only children are learning.
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