by Hal Sadofsky, Sudbury Valley School Alumnus and Founder of Blue Mountain School,
The original version of this article can be found here.
The most fundamental educational lesson we hope our students will learn is that they are responsible for their own education, and in fact for their own lives. Actually internalizing this, and all that goes with it is the best lesson they can have for the rest of their lives. I believe that it is important for people to acquire knowledge and skills, but I don’t believe I can or should force them to do so. Much more important is for our children to learn that if they value something, it is worth working for, and that if they have a goal they care about, they need to take responsibility for realizing it.
The alternative, and the standard approach in our society, is to assume that the professional educational establishment knows what our children should learn for the rest of their lives, and that they are able to teach it to our children. I find this idea suspect on two counts. First, I doubt that any body of knowledge imparted in school is likely to be sufficient to last a person the rest of his or her life, and I doubt the efficacy of teaching students who aren’t strongly motivated. But more importantly, I question the accompanying attitude: that learning is centered on the teacher and the teaching institution instead of the learner. The effect of the standard model is to teach dependency; to teach that school is where you learn what you need to know, and then the rest of your life is something separate.
Let me try to describe in these terms what I value about our educational philosophy and contrast it with what I find most objectionable about conventional pedagogy.
One of the goals, stated or not, of most teachers in conventional schools is to be entertaining. This is not such a terrible thing in and of itself, and its easy to understand the motivation; regardless of whether it is a good teaching style, entertained students are better behaved, more attentive, and often better disposed to their instructor. I think this is something we don’t particularly want to emulate at Blue Mountain though. Entertainment is fine, and it is natural for people to want it, but I feel the entertainment shifts the responsibility for learning from the student to the teacher. By requiring school to be an entertainment we send the message that in order to learn, students need to have knowledge presented as an entertainment.
At the same time, the message is that the pursuit of knowledge and skills is supposed to be entertaining undercuts work and knowledge that isn’t always entertaining. I’d like my children to understand the rewards of difficult work that isn’t always entertaining. But I want them to learn this the only way I think is possible; by doing work they care about.
In particular, my response to a bored student in a class I’m teaching is essentially well, this is what I’m teaching, and I’m willing to discuss alternatives, but it’s really up to you to decide whether you are interested enough in the material to deal with your boredom.
But my response to a bored student at Blue Mountain is more along the lines of This is life! It is up to you to chart a course that you find interesting and worthwhile. We could entertain you and distract you from that job but ultimately it is your job, and ultimately, you’ll have to recognize that.
It is critically important that our school not interfere with the processes that occur in students as they mature, and as they learn to evaluate for themselves what they find interesting and worthwhile. This doesn’t mean a staff member can never approach a student he or she has a relationship with and say by the way, I just read this book I think you might like. What it does mean is that we don’t see it as the staff’s role to approach a 6 year old who can’t read, and say hey, want to work on your reading with me? It’ll be fun!
To have a chance to find pursuits that engage them, our students need to be free to pursue their own interests on their own schedule. There are both moral and practical imperatives here. The moral imperative is that I don’t believe schools and teachers really have the right to dictate to students what to think, what to think about, and what bits of knowledge to consider important.
From a practical viewpoint, its clear that coerced learning isn’t very effective; in addition it is strongly counterproductive to the goal of producing independent adults who are capable of pursuing paths that they find worthwhile. Note that this means we give our children the freedom to pursue their own educations not because we trust them to do what we believe is important, but because we trust them to (eventually) figure out what they think is important.
We can’t promise parents that their children will learn algebra. We can promise them that no one at Blue Mountain will give them an A in a class in which they’ve learned nothing. We can also promise that if a student truly cares about something, they’ll be able to think about it.
This comes back to giving our students space and freedom to think about, and work on, what is important to them. The sort of education I’m describing, and the model that Blue Mountain subscribes to, is very idealistic, and also rather difficult. In particular, it requires that we not be frightened by the fact that our children may not always be engaged in, what to us, looks like productive activity. We need to not be frightened by the fact that our children aren’t doing classes, and therefore must be falling behind, while our neighbor’s children are taking classes all day long (not necessarily learning any more, I hasten to point out). Finally, we must not be frightened if from time to time, our children complain that they are bored. This complaint is their first line of defense against doing the hard work that they will need to do to come to terms with their own interest, loves, hates, and so on.
The last context in which I want to discuss the role of boredom is in terms of responsibility. One of the things that Blue Mountain teaches most consistently, and in varied ways is that each of us is ultimately responsible for ourselves. This is demonstrated in numerous ways every day. Everyone needs to be prepared to clean up his or her own messes. Everyone needs to take his or her turn on the Judicial Committee. Everyone needs to face the censure of the school meeting, or possibly worse punishment, for infractions of the school’s rules, so that the school can function in a civil way.
Beyond this, because the school is run by the school meeting, students have the responsibility for making choices about not only the details of how Blue Mountain is run, but the big decisions about who to hire for staff, how to use the building, what rules pertain to campus versus off campus, etc. These are choices that may well impact the survival of the school, so the responsibility in this case is very real.
Especially significant from the point of view of traditional education, students are responsible for every aspect of their own education. This is both a blessing, and a huge responsibility. We’re saying in effect: this is your life, make what you want of it. This is perhaps the hardest part of being a student at such a school. Certainly this affects the youngest kids less, but the older kids are constantly aware that their activities will be determined by them, not by the school, and simultaneously that most other schools don’t think they are capable of dealing with this responsibility in a sensible manner. We do expect them to use this freedom well, but not because we expect them to buckle down and take the right classes, but because we expect this freedom to give them the space to explore their interests, and to learn what they care about. We trust that the knowledge they need will be accessible to them when they get to the point where they really care about it.
I wrote this note because I feel there has been an undercurrent of dissatisfaction at Blue Mountain coming from certain students. This is due to the fact that some of the older students feel insufficiently entertained. My point here is that this is not an accident. Entertainment isn’t our job, and it isn’t our job for a number of good reasons. Now, I’m not going to try to encourage students to remain bored, but I do want students to realize that their boredom means something, and how they ultimately choose to deal with it is their responsibility. Furthermore, the fact that they are forced to wrestle with that is one of the finest points of this type of education.
Copyright The Sudbury Valley School Press, Inc.