There are many types of alternative schools that provide unique ideologies on teaching and educational values. Many of these approaches are based on student-centered learning methods. Social researcher Dr. Mujtaba Arman defines student-centered learning as a method that “encourages learners to be responsible for their own learning [to] become independent learners” (Arman, 2018, p. 65). The ideology that students should be brought into the center of their own learning processes is adapted into different curriculums. For example, Sudbury schools are a type of alternative school that implements a unique take on student-centeredness when it comes to the educational experience. This model focuses on the individual student and their personalized educational experience while bringing students and staff together in a broader, self-governing community. The student-centered educational method found in Sudbury schools provides K–12 students the freedom to choose what and how they learn. This approach impacts students' overall autonomy, learning mindset, and future educational experiences. This paper will examine how Sudbury schools approach education by explaining the origin, the intentions of implementing the model, and the application of student-centered methods. Additionally, the paper will state reported outcomes such as the benefits of mixed-age play, student autonomy, and obtaining a mindset of life-long learning. Lastly, it will discuss the challenges and concerns that arise with the Sudbury school model.
What Are Sudbury Schools?
Sudbury schools are private institutions run like a democracy where both staff and students have a leveled standing and where children have freedom and responsibility over their educational experience. There are now more than 30 of these independent private schools in the United States and more are found around the world (Hudson Valley Sudbury School, 2020). In this setting, teachers are referred to as staff members and only help, or teach, when called upon by the student. Their role is to “help students and support them, not to be an authority figure and tell students what to do or not do” (Tallgrass Sudbury School, The Sudbury Model, para. 5). Because students and staff members are seen as equals, they counsel together to make decisions that affect the entirety of the school. This provides an alternative schooling experience that uniquely focuses on the individual student by forfeiting hierarchy and systematic learning tailored to students in pre-K to 12th grade. In these schools, students are not graded, have no exams, and only have homework when designated by themselves (Wilson, 2015). They develop their own curriculum and choose how they spend their time (Tallgrass Sudbury School).
Origin of Sudbury Schools
The first Sudbury School was founded in 1968 in Framingham, Massachusetts when a group of parents and educators collaborated to create a school that would allow students autonomy (Tallgrass Sudbury School). The school itself is located a few minutes outside of Sudbury, Massachusetts, which is where this model of education, as well as the school, gets its name. Daniel Greenberg, a well-known educator, was the initial founder of the first Sudbury School. His purpose was to bring to life an ideology of an academic system that “combines justice, psychological comfort, and personal autonomy with everyday life” (Toraman, 2022, p. 68). Although a quick development, this model of schooling was not born overnight. There were many decisions that needed to be grappled with before it was officially launched such as how much control to give children over their educational experience. Greenberg mentioned in one of his journals about the Sudbury School model that there is a need to “reexamine what we’re saying in light of our most current thinking… [that there is] a great deal of refinement of thinking about the school’s philosophy and practice” (2000, p. 4). Although a lot of thought and refinement was put into the first Sudbury School model, when established, the school was not widely accepted because of controversy about the educational philosophy. Because of this, it was not until 1981 that the second school modeling the same system opened (Toraman, 2022). Greenberg stated that one of the reasons why it took so long to open the second school was because “the adoption of the system [required] people to give up industrial boundaries and linear thinking and accept returning to nature” (Toraman, 2022, p. 68). Although still uncommon today, Sudbury schools have become more accepted in society with the increase of alternative school choices. With the rise of alternative school options, many elements of the student-centered approach accentuated by the Sudbury school model are still widely applicable today.
Intentions Behind The System
The Sudbury school model was implemented so that each student would have the opportunity to learn in their own individualized way while growing through the values of democracy and personal responsibility. High school English teacher Christine Traxler wrote about her decision to send her children to a Sudbury school even though she herself worked in a public one. She argued that the standard educational system that has been implemented over time is made to reinforce that same system. The “system” institutes tests, grades, and physical evidence of a child’s progression only to check off the necessary boxes that will be analyzed to see the effectiveness of how they will fit into society after their schooling is over (Traxler, 2015). This ideology that children are meant to fit into the structure—to be seen but not heard—was a catalyst point for Daniel Greenberg when he first fostered the initial beliefs of the Sudbury school model in the 1960s. More specifically, Greenberg took the words of Aristotle who believed, “all men by nature desire to know” and created a system that did not institute externalized educational methods but rather a student-centered philosophy (Toraman, 2022). The same philosophy encourages the promotion of internal motivation for seeking greater knowledge and understanding across all ages. This ideology is what makes Sudbury schools so unique.
Sudbury schools are student-centered because they hold to the standard that all children have the freedom to choose what and how they study, allowing teachers only to help facilitate when called upon by the student. Dr. Mujtaba Arman's (2018) definition of student-centered learning entails that all learners should be responsible for their own learning in order to become independent learners. The belief that students should be brought into the center of the learning process changes the way people think about education. Sudbury schools model this change in thinking. They provide freedom to their students by letting them explore what they want to explore and learn what they want to learn. However, Traxler has asserted that there is more to the underlying understanding of what it means to tailor the educational experience to the student. She stated that with the Sudbury school model, students hold much more responsibility on an individual level as well as a communal level. She stated that “the cultures of self and communal governance train students to believe hard work is a prerequisite to accomplishment” without implementing extrinsic motivators that take away from the individuality of the child (Traxler, 2015, p. 289). Not only do Sudbury schools center on the child by providing freedom, but they also center on the child through a communal lens that provides even more support for student-centered outcomes. Because of this unique ideology, students of Sudbury schools have the opportunity to truly explore the world and their knowledge in a different way. This responsibility promotes student autonomy and focuses directly on the student’s passions, needs, and values because they have an individual mindset as well as a communal one. This method hands the reins over to the students with no strings attached.
Outcomes from Approach
Across multiple studies, research has shown that the implementation of the Sudbury school model results in many positive outcomes. This student-centered approach promotes mixed-age play, encourages the growth of student autonomy, and fuels a lifelong learner mindset. These three outcomes equip students with tools to create a successful and happy life.
Because Sudbury Schools allow students to explore their interests freely without implementing any set structure, students have the ability to engage in mixed-age play which allows students from different backgrounds and educational experiences to learn from one another. This creates a unique academic atmosphere not found in other schools where students are separated by age and year of graduation. Dr. Peter Gray (2007), who conducted a research study on the value of children's mixed-age play in Sudbury schools, elaborated on this point. Throughout time, mixed-age play has been a common occurrence that both human and pre-human ancestors took part in. Gray stated that mixed-age play is foundational to growth and is even built into the human DNA (2007). With the rise of public education, students have been separated by age into classrooms, which is a rarity considering that mixed-age play and learning were common only a few decades ago. Gray argued that society should connect back to its roots by implementing a system where children can learn from and support one another in their learning processes. This idea is supported by Dr. Jay Feldman, who conducted a research study on how children in Sudbury schools interact with one another, especially across different age groups. He found that “under free choice conditions, children assert responsibility for younger children” (1997, p. 1). Because the Sudbury School model allows student-centered learning by creating an atmosphere of free choice, children are learning from one another and are supported by each other. Dr. Gray concluded in his research that mixed-age play enhances both the learning of children and adolescents by providing younger students the ability to emulate an older role model as well as providing older adolescents an opportunity to learn through teaching (2007). This outcome reflects positively on the Sudbury school model and supports the intentions behind “the why” of the system.
Students who have access to the level of freedom provided by the Sudbury school model have a unique responsibility in their own learning process which helps distill a greater sense of student autonomy. This sense of autonomy is important across all schools because “when students feel their teachers are open to their ideas and allow them to make choices regarding their learning and schoolwork, they are more engaged in school, less disruptive in class, and report feeling a stronger sense of belonging and connectedness to their school” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021, para. 1). In the Sudbury school model, students have complete reign over their choice of how and what they do, not only on an individual front, but also on a communal basis. Dr. Marguerite Wilson, a well-published researcher with a focus on Sudbury schools, conducted a study centered around Sudbury students’ experiences with decision-making power in the school system and how it has impacted the school and students’ overall autonomy. She concluded that “having a democratic, heavy-choice-centered curriculum has not only affected the student’s foundational educational experience but their future educational experiences” in a positive way (2015). She also argued that students in Sudbury schools have more experience expressing their opinions and are more motivated to make decisions regarding their own learning (Wilson, 2017). This level of confidence was also emphasized by Toraman (2022), who asserted that this level of choice prepares children for adulthood. He went on to state that, “students have to learn the results of their own decisions [which] allows them to be aware of their strengths and, at the same time, allows them to seek the possible negative consequences that may be caused by their own decisions” (Toraman, 2022, p. 68). This process has a long-lasting effect not only on their educational life but on who they become. Traxler (2015) expanded on the idea of student choice and the importance of student freedom by contrasting it with the dangers that can arise from the traditional education model found today. She argued that “what we choose to attend to defines who we are. Attention is at the very core of our identity. If we continue to tell young people that their choices are irrelevant and meaningless through an increasingly larger top-down core curriculum, we deny their very existence” (p. 273). Traxler contended that the more choice a student has, the better equipped they are later on in life for making future decisions because of their practice and immersion in an environment where student autonomy is not only encouraged but expected.
Because the Sudbury school model is student-centered by allowing its students to converse with adults and take responsibility for their own learning, “it better prepares them to become life-long learners who are well equipped to experience life to its fullest and cope with its uncertainties” (Tallgrass Sudbury School, The Sudbury Model). This quote directly comes from the Tallgrass Sudbury School page and is, therefore, biased. However, because this model teaches students that learning is a continual process that happens at their own pace, it would make sense that they take these skills later with them throughout life. Because of the unique type of individualized-student upbringing, there are higher rates of self-actualism and overall happiness throughout life. Students are more likely to apply their learning atmosphere to their everyday lives because they grew up with the freedom to choose what to learn and how to do so on their own. They are better equipped to truly find what their passions are. This sense of self-discovery will forever be with them because they learned the power of choice and responsibility at a young age. With this type of schooling, there is a decrease in the risk of student, or learner, burnout because children have the ability to pace themselves accordingly (Greenberg, 2000). They learn more about who they truly are because the structure of society is taken away for a moment. They are able to see without any particular lens of expectations and are able to go back to the roots of what education used to be. Because of this student-centered approach, they acquire a level of personal obligation and curiosity to search for greater understanding not only in school but for their whole lives.
Challenges and Concerns
There can be an element of concern about sending children to an alternative school such as a Sudbury school because of the difference in structure and uncertainty with life after graduation. In modern society, there is structure and there is routine. Children are expected to be taught such structure and routine in order to be better equipped to fit into society after they have come of age. One’s education plays a huge role in this. In order to do well, one might argue that individuals need to know the system and how it works. When children are put into an atmosphere that does not follow the system, it may be hard to integrate back into it when the time arises.
Another concern that is presented in the Sudbury school model is whether students learn the fundamental skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Many Sudbury students learn to read and write at their own pace and usually with the help of upper classmates. They have complete control over when and where they learn these basic life skills. Although there is not a lot of research on the matter, parents most likely have a role in this area as well. It is important to keep these concerns in mind when sending children to alternative schooling options such as Sudbury schools.
Because this model is drastically different from those of normal private and public school institutions, it is hard for parents to get on board with sending their kids to schools that implement the Sudbury school model. At the same time, one might be concerned about how a child who attends such a school will integrate into college or university life. Although these are valid concerns, it is important to look at both sides of the situation and evaluate the apprehensions and the benefits. Limited research has been conducted on the topic but from what is found, it has been reported that most children who attend Sudbury Schools do pursue a higher level of education after graduation and that their transition is unique, but non-problematic nonetheless (Tallgrass Sudbury School). Providing valuable and personal educational experiences that are student-centered is the most important thing because decisions such as these should be student-centered themselves. They should be tailored to the individual and what works best for them.
Sudbury schools and their student-centered teaching pedagogy give students a sense of individualism that prepares them to become life-long learners. Sudbury Schools are unique in the way they give students full responsibility for their educational experience, with guidance as needed. More research into academic and affective outcomes is needed. Further research should be conducted on the transition from Sudbury schools to university life and from university life to the workforce noting how the viewpoints implemented by Sudbury Schools have affected future academic results. It would also be interesting to see how growing up in a heavily democratic setting has influenced post-academic pursuits as well as career choices later in adult life.
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