Democratic schooling may be the most radical experiment in education of the past 100 years.
In Massachusetts farm country, not far from Boston, a group of about 200 students of all ages are part of a radical experiment. These students don't take any classes they don't specifically ask to have taught. They can spend their time doing whatever they want, as long as it's not destructive or criminal -- reading, playing video games, cooking, making art. There are 11 adults, called "staff members"; no one technically holds the title of "teacher." The kids establish rules and mete out punishments by a democratic process whereby each member of the community has one vote -- which means the adults are "outnumbered" by the kids almost 20 to one. Unlike at most private schools, students are admitted without regard to their academic records.
Sudbury Valley School will this spring find itself one focus of a book by the psychologist and Boston College professor Peter Gray, whose own son attended Sudbury Valley in the 1980s. At the time, Gray was a professor and neurobiology researcher whose work focused on the basic drives of mammals. At his lab, he worked with rats and mice. The experience of his young son, who was struggling in school, convinced him to entirely shift the focus of his career.
"He clearly was unhappy in school, and very rebellious," Gray said of his son in a phone interview. In fourth grade, the son convinced his parents to send him to Sudbury. It was obvious early on that he was "thriving" there, but his father "had questions whether someone could graduate from such a radical school and go on to higher education."
Gray wound up becoming a developmental and learning psychologist in order to do a study of Sudbury outcomes. The results impressed him. Gray described his son as "precocious and articulate"; his problem was not with mastering the material, but with the "waste of time" that normal schooling, with its average pace and rigid structures, entailed.
But not all of Sudbury's students and alumni were precocious learners: "Some had been diagnosed with learning disorders." And while some came from privileged backgrounds with supportive parents who had deliberately sought out alternative education, other parents had been desperate. (Gray notes that most students when he did his study came from public school, not from another private school.) But most seemed to do well at the school, and alumni reported high satisfaction later in life. How was it that students who followed such an out-there program appeared to become relatively well adjusted adults? Gray began to inquire into why.
Nothing enrages parents like the idea that their kids might be educated to do or say or think things they don't agree with, by people they don't trust. Yet as different as parents might be, most could nonetheless probably agree on some things. Many would agree that schools should teach values and behaviors -- like sharing, thinking critically, or empathizing with others -- and not just specific skills. Most would approve a program that teaches personal responsibility. A pretty large number would probably also say it's important to foster creativity and allow the student to discover his or her own interests.
There are schools that purport to directly teach those values. They're called democratic schools, and most parents would never consider sending their kids to one. That's because they're run, in great part, by the kids themselves.
While democratic schools vary greatly, the basic concept is the same. When it comes to governing the school -- whether it's deciding what lessons will be taught or setting curfew -- the decision-making rule is "one person, one vote." A teacher's vote counts the same a student's, whether that student is six or 16. And since, at most schools, the body of faculty is smaller than the body of students, the kids ultimately do have it when it comes to making decisions.
Of the democratic schools that exist today, the oldest is Summerhill, a co-ed boarding school founded in 1921 by the British educator A.S. Neill. It opened at a time when a lot of experiments in bohemian education methods were sprouting -- and failing -- in England. But Summerhill still thrives, with a student body of about 100 and a large international population. The school went through a rough patch in 1999 and 2000 when it was nearly shuttered due to a conflict with Ofsted, Britain's national school accreditation body, over what inspectors described as the rude and unruly behavior of students. After a long legal battle, the school was saved, and by 2007, it had been accredited for the first time in its history. Inspectors gave it a stand-out review, praising the students as "well-rounded, confident and mature."
Sudbury Valley is to some extent America's Summerhill, although it is less well known here than its British counterpart is in the UK. The "free school" movement in the U.S. was at its peak in the late 1960s and the 1970s. To a great extent, its ideals meshed with the aims of the anti-war movement, black power, and other ideologies of the era. So did the schools' countercultural, vaguely anarchic vibe. It was in this context, in 1968, that a professor of the history of science at Columbia decided to leave his university teaching post and found a free school in rural Massachusetts. For the past four-plus decades, it has quietly and effectively graduated generations of students. The school is little-known outside education circles, but it has spawned about 20 schools around the world that are run on Sudbury (that is, democratic) principles.
When Gray began studying Sudbury, the school had been around for just long enough to have graduated its first students. Yet the the findings from his Sudbury study, limited though they were, inspired Gray to shift his research focus to the study of learning, play, and education. He has been a firm backer of both the unschooling movement and the Sudbury schools, both of which are prominently featured in his forthcoming book Free to Learn. In particular, he stresses the value of the Sudbury schools' age-mixed communities -- where children as young as four and as old as 18 regularly interact. "Young kids learn from older kids. They learn to read by playing games that involve reading with older kids who can read. They play complicated card games with older kids that they could never play by themselves." Older students benefit too: "They learn how to care, to nurture. They get a sense of their own maturity."
For the younger kids, age mixing replaces the teacher-student dynamic. Both traditional education and Sudbury work to some extent because they take advantage of the "zone of proximal development": the category of things that a child can do with help but not without it. Children learn, according to some theories, when they work with a more skilled person to master activities in their zone of proximal development.