No Teachers, No Class, No Homework; Would You Send Your Kids Here?

By Emily Chertoff

Democratic schooling may be the most radical experiment in education of the past 100 years.

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A.S. Neill in a Summerhill classroom. The image is undated. (Associated Press)

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.

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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.

Theoretically, a school doesn't have to be democratic to allow age mixing, and some Montessori schools (for instance) allow a limited amount of it. But as Gray notes, the rigid, age-tracked curricula that are used in most schools make meaningful age mixing almost impossible. Conversely, a Sudbury school where all the kids were the same age "simply wouldn't work."

In some ways, it's the democratic meeting that allows the school to run: It takes a potentially lawless and chaotic setup and gives it structure. It's a mechanism for dealing with bullying (which is almost nonexistent at Sudbury) and with disruptive behavior when just a warning from another student won't do. It's also a way of evolving sophisticated laws for the community. "The school," says Gray, "has a very thick rulebook."

He gives an example. "A number of years ago, there was a new teenage student who was coming to school in a black leather jacket with a swastika on it. And so, because it was offensive, it led to a desire to make a rule in the school meeting saying that you could not display a swastika on your clothing in the school." The proposed rule provoked a discussion over the limits of free speech that was, in Gray's view, "worthy of the Supreme Court."

Students quickly hit on the fact that there was a tension between limiting speech and the democratic values of the school. "There were all sorts of people taking part, mostly teenagers and staff, but every once in a while a young kid would say something too. And those who weren't talking were listening, rapt, learning about history, about Nazism, about why wearing a swastika might be exceptional, why it might be different, say, than wearing a hammer and sickle." The meeting ultimately decided to pass the rule, and it led in time to a larger rule prohibiting hate speech at the school, and distinguishing between hate speech and regular speech.

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Most of the major democratic schools that exist today have good track records. Sudbury's founders have been eager to tout their students' success at meeting the demands of the "real world." Gray tells me his research indicated that about 75 percent of Sudbury graduates went on to college, and that those who didn't reported fulfilled lives.

The measure of success partly depends on what you consider a good life outcome. When Summerhill -- the famous UK free school -- celebrated its 90th anniversary in 2011, the Guardian ran reflections from a handful of its alumni. (The British, who have a tradition of strictly hierarchical boarding schools, have been fascinated by Summerhill practically since its founding.) Among the group were several artists, a dentist, and a writer, and many commented that their education had made them "like being themselves."

As Gray admitted in our interview, it's hard to know whether other factors apart from school influence these students' success. Parents involved enough to research and send their children to such an unusual school probably already give their kids a leg up, compared to less attentive parents who expend less energy on school choice or have less time to focus on it. And with a yearly tuition of $7,800 (prorated if multiple children attend), many students who attend Sudbury are relatively privileged economically.

Writers like Jonathan Kozol have asserted that low income kids stand to benefit from alternative education methods as much as wealthy ones. The question of implementation, however, is vexed, and data on the efficacy of democratic schools are heavily anecdotal and therefore subjective. Since democratic schooling has never been tried at scale with kids from low-income or troubled backgrounds, it's difficult to know exactly how it would work for them.

As with all schooling, whether democratic school appeals to you may depend on what you value more. Would you rather your child be prepared to advance economically and socially, or would you rather he be an idiosyncratic thinker? Would you rather teach your child to operate successfully in the bureaucratic structures of the real world, or would you prefer that she learn to participate in a near-perfect democracy? It isn't an either-or choice, but democratic schools heavily stress the latter values. Even some parents and teachers who consider themselves progressive think the schools lack balance. The Sudbury model could be criticized for not teaching kids the basics they need to learn to function as adults, though proponents say most kids wind up teaching themselves the skills they need to function anyway. You could also argue that, on a more abstract level, a certain shared basic knowledge helps makes us human (or American), and that Sudbury students lose that. (This is the ethos behind core curricula at universities, for instance -- and one totally opposed to the Sudbury philosophy.)

Sudbury survived, but most of the democratic schools founded in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s failed. In an article Gray co-authored in 1986, he and Sudbury staff member David Chanoff asked themselves why:

It is true that numerous so-called free schools were started in the 1960s and the 1970s and that most of them failed as institutions. ... People do not want to take chances with their children. When parents and teachers see that children, genuinely given a choice, do not choose to engage in the kinds of activities that everyone thinks of as "school activities," they understandably become nervous. "What if my child falls behind and can't catch up? Maybe he is being spoiled in this school, developing lazy habits, lack of discipline. Perhaps he will be unable to get into college, get a job, keep a job. His life may be ruined." In many ways, conventional schooling may not be appealing, but at least it is known, and the known is less frightening than the unknown. The fact is that in the United States today we have virtually no models of people who have "made it" without conventional schooling. Consequently, we have a nagging feeling that such schooling, whatever its defects, must be one of the essential ingredients of success. ...

And so when an alternative school begins to look not at all like school, that is, when it becomes a real "alternative," it is seen by the adults (and many children too) as failing and is either closed or modified.

Many agree that the generation of Americans now in their teens and 20s had some of the most over-supervised and over-structured childhoods in U.S. history. It will be interesting to see whether these trends will continue, or whether these next-generation parents react to their own disciplined upbringings by becoming more hands-off. If they grow to resent the way they were raised, democratic schools may come to look like a pretty appealing option for their own children.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/12/no-teachers-no-class-no-homework-would-you-send-your-kids-here/265354/