At a Sudbury school, students have complete responsibility for their own education, and the school is run by direct democracy in which students and staff are equals. Students individually decide what to do with their time, and tend to learn as a by-product of ordinary experience rather than through coursework. There is no predetermined educational syllabus, prescriptive curriculum or standardized instruction. This is a form of democratic education.
While there is no accepted definition of a Sudbury school, the intended culture within a Sudbury school has been described with such words as freedom, trust, respect, responsibility and democracy.
The name 'Sudbury' refers to Sudbury Valley School, founded in 1968 in Framingham, Massachusetts, the first school of this type. There are now more than 30 Sudbury-type schools around the world. These schools are not formally associated in any way, but are a loosely connected network that are mutually supportive of each other, operating as independent entities.
Sudbury schools are based on the beliefs that 1) children already have the main behaviours needed in adulthood, and 2) having full democratic rights in childhood is the best preparation for life in a democracy.
A Sudbury school includes such intangibles as freedom, trust, respect, responsibility and democracy. These words, with multiple meanings, are ripe for misinterpretation, making a useful definition unfeasible. A staff member at Cedarwood Sudbury School wrote that "a nearby alternative public school has a mission statement that sounds like Cedarwood's philosophy, but their school is completely different in practice."
Sudbury schools are based on:
- The educational belief that children are extremely good at (and therefore don't need to be taught) the main behaviours needed by adults, such as creativity, imagination, alertness, curiosity, thoughtfulness, responsibility and judgement. What children lack is experience, which can be gained if adults guide students in open ways.
- The sociopolitical belief that having full democratic rights in childhood is the best way to become an adult who is comfortable functioning within a democracy.
"The fundamental premises of the school are simple: that all people are curious by nature; that the most efficient, long-lasting, and profound learning takes place when started and pursued by the learner; that all people are creative if they are allowed to develop their unique talents; that age-mixing among students promotes growth in all members of the group; and that freedom is essential to the development of personal responsibility."
All aspects of governing a Sudbury School are determined by the weekly School Meeting, modeled after the traditional New England town meeting. School Meeting passes, amends and repeals school rules, manages the school's budget, and decides on hiring and firing of staff. Each individual present — including students and staff — has an equal vote, and most decisions are made by simple majority
School rules are normally compiled in a law book, updated repeatedly over time, which forms the school's code of law. Usually, there is a set procedure to handle complaints, and most of the schools follow guidelines that respect the idea of due process of law. There are usually rules requiring an investigation, a hearing, a trial, a sentence, and allowing for an appeal, generally following the philosophy that students face the consequences of their own behavior.
There are many ways to learn. Learning is a process you do, not a process that is done to you; The presence and guidance of a teacher are not necessary.
The free exchange of ideas and free conversation and interplay between people provides broad exposure to areas that may prove relevant and interesting to students. Students of all ages mix; older students learn from younger students as well as vice versa. The presence of older students provides role models, both positive and negative, for younger students. The pervasiveness of play has led to a recurring observation by first-time visitors to a Sudbury school that the students appear to be in perpetual "recess".
Implicitly and explicitly, students are given responsibility for their own education: The only person designing what a student will learn is the student himself. Exceptions are when a student asks for a particular class or arranges an apprenticeship. Sudbury schools do not compare or rank students — the school requires no tests, evaluations, or transcripts.
Reading is treated the same as any other subject: Students learn to read when they choose, or simply by going about their lives.
"Only a few kids seek any help at all when they decide to learn. Each child seems to have their own method. Some learn from being read to, memorizing the stories and then ultimately reading them. Some learn from cereal boxes, others from game instructions, others from street signs. Some teach themselves letter sounds, others syllables, others whole words. To be honest, we rarely know how they do it, and they rarely tell us."
Sudbury Valley School claims that all of their students have learned to read. While students learn to read at a wide variety of ages, there appears to be no drawback to learning to read later: No one who meets their older students could guess the age at which they first learned to read.
The model differs in some ways from other types of democratic schools and free schools, but there are many similarities:
- De-emphasis of classes: There is no curriculum or set of required courses. Instead learner interest guides things, with students studying what they want to study. There are generally no classrooms, just rooms where people choose to congregate.
- Age mixing: students are not separated into age-groups of any kind and are allowed to mix freely, interacting with those younger and older than themselves; free age-mixing is emphasized as a powerful tool for learning and development in all ages.
- Autonomous democracy: parents have limited involvement or no involvement in the school administration; Sudbury schools are run by a democratic school meeting where the students and staff participate exclusively and equally. Such meetings are also the sole authority on hiring and firing of staff, unlike most other schools.
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