Freedom is one of the founding principles of a Sudbury school. In order to call itself a Sudbury model school students must have complete freedom to pursue their own interests in their own way. Recently this sort of academic freedom has been labeled unschooling. Sudbury applies this concept to an actual school instead of confining it to a type of homeschooling. Of course this freedom is not absolute. Sudbury schools are governed as a pure democracy and students who violate rules or interfere with the freedom of other students face discipline. But the guiding academic principle of every Sudbury school is freedom. This is the vital difference and the one that makes all of the difference.
Recently we briefly explained the Sudbury principle of freedom to a nine year old girl who was lamenting her short recess at school:
Q: You mean I could do anything all day that I wanted to?
Q: You mean I could spend all day outside on my scooter?
Q: Wow! What about video games?
A: What about them?
Q: Could I play those all day?
A: Yes, if you had them.
Q: Yes! What about comic books? Could I read those all day?
Q: What kind would I get?
A: Whatever kind you wanted to get.
Q: Wouldn’t you pick them out for me?
A: No. I don’t like comic books. Why would you want me to pick them out for you?
Q: Because you would be the teacher!
A: There are no teachers, only staff members.
Q: So who would pick out the books for me?
A: You would.
Q: You mean I could read whatever I wanted!
Q: And I could read all day if I wanted to? I love to read.
Q: I want to go to your school.
A: It would be your school too.
To a young individual used to having every minute of their time managed while at school this sort of freedom sounds glorious. To adults who have passed through this system (most of us) it sounds, at first, ludicrous. Perhaps that is because we’ve never given much thought to the idea of granting young people this sort of freedom. Perhaps it is because it flies in the face of everything we think we know about learning and education. But that is the operative phrase – what we think we know about learning and education. Freedom is neither glorious nor ludicrous.
Freedom is humility. Freedom says we do not presume to know what is best for you and your path through life. Freedom treats the individual student with respect. It treats them with dignity. It recognizes their unique backgrounds, passions, interests, goals, strengths, and weaknesses. It acknowledges how little we know about learning and education.
Freedom is time. Freedom gives young people the space they need to play and explore. It gives them time to discover their passions and develop their talents. It gives them the ability to pursue an interest, uninterrupted, to the very maximum of their abilities to where ever it leads. It gives them a chance to fail, pick themselves up, and learn from their mistakes. These are the skills students need to learn at school when they are young and they need time to do it.
Freedom is difficult. One high school student profiled by NPR who took a year off from the classroom found the freedom extremely stressful at first. Freedom forces you to make decisions about your own life instead of relying on others to make them for you. Freedom forces you to confront your own dreams and fears by giving you the chance to pursue them or face them respectively. It gives students the chance to be bored so they can learn from it. Freedom teaches you how to cope with being responsible for your own life.
Freedom is opportunity. It gives students the chance to make decisions. It challenges them to follow through. It shifts the burden of responsibility. It gives them a chance to prove themselves to themselves. This is how true self-esteem is built. To discover their own strengths and weaknesses. To grow. To develop. To figure out who they are and how to integrate into a dynamic global society.
Freedom is the guiding academic philosophy of every Sudbury school. It is so much more than simply no classes, no curricula and no tests. It is the reigning environmental condition that teaches students lessons that will guide them throughout the rest of their lives.