DIY School

by Michelle Hunt

“In today’s world, creativity is as important as literacy… degrees aren’t worth anything now. It used to be if you had a degree you had a job.” ~ Sir Ken Robinson

As an artist I hadn’t considered teaching until my employer asked me to train a group of people that was interested in the type of animation I was doing. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the experience and this led to the crazy idea of me becoming an art teacher in the public school system. The five years I spent in the trenches completely changed my view on education. Why was standardized testing so important and creativity undervalued to the point that funding for the arts was practically non-existent?

Frustrated to understand the problem, I started at the beginning. Our modern-day education system was created and financed in the mid-1800s by factory owners as a means to assimilate the millions of immigrants who were entering the US into a docile, obedient workforce. Over 100 years later, the system remains mostly unchanged: students are grouped based on age as if they had an expiration date, the bell rings to signal that students must move on to the next station (or class), and those who question authority are punished without a say in how the system is run. This is certainly an effective way to acclimate workers to a bleak and repetitive future in a factory, but not to the Knowledge Age of the 21st century.

“[Knowledge age worker-citizens] need to be able to think and learn for themselves, sometimes with the help of external authorities and/or systems of rules, but, more often, without this help. Nor is it viable to teach students any particular ‘one best way’ of knowing – or doing – things. Instead they need to teach students how to work out for themselves what to do.” ~ New Zealand Council for Educational Research at shiftingthinking.org

It all finally made sense to me. The current education system was designed for a bygone era. What we were doing to these children wasn’t going to help them thrive in the future. I ended my career as a public school teacher and set out on a new path to find alternative education models for my own daughter. Since 2009 I have been a staff member and resident artist at Sunset Sudbury School in Davie, FL.

Sudbury was conceived on a democratic model where students create their own community and system of rules. Do It Yourself School! At Sudbury schools, students are encouraged to use their natural thirst for knowledge, to explore the world, and to learn how to communicate with honesty and fearlessness. Curriculum is not proscribed, so students set their own goals and manage their own schedule without intervention or coercion by others. Much like in real life, students are responsible for their day – choosing the subject matter, the place, and the time for their pursuits. The students themselves, not the teachers, determine whether they wish to work on their own, in a small group, or in a structured class setting. Because they are free to choose what interests them, students quickly become experts in locating and processing information.

In this democratic environment, students are able to develop characteristics that are key to achieving success in the Knowledge Age. They are curious and enjoy learning new things, confident enough to rely on their own judgment, and capable of pursuing their passions to a high level of competence.

The Sudbury School produces graduates who have retained a vital curiosity and interest in the world around them. They tend to be highly adaptive to new situations and able to work productively alone or in collaboration with others. I believe that this creative approach to life and problem solving is the key to innovation in 21st century science, business, and the arts.

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