Sudbury has been offering a true personalized learning education since the original school opened nearly 50 years ago. Sudbury was way ahead of the curve. But there is a great chasm between the personalized learning at Sudbury and the type envisioned by folks like Mark Zuckerberg. Understanding this chasm gives one a deeper understanding of why Sudbury is a truly revolutionary education model that others are now trying to imitate in form but not in substance.
The personalized learning we hear about from the eduphilanthropists reminds us of Henry Ford telling his customers that they can have their cars painted any color they want as long as it’s black. It’s personalized pan pizza learning. It’s someone else setting up a limited mix-and-match menu you choose from and calling it personalized.
In the classroom this type of personalized learning means the implementation of software developed at places like AltSchool or Summit charter school. It means radically transforming the role of teachers. It means a structural justification for unlimited big data gathering. But one thing is does not mean is freedom. Students are still required to follow a path put down before them by someone else.
Sudbury offers a true personalized learning education because its students are free to take responsibility for their own education. The students do the personalizing at Sudbury and it is limited only by their imagination. This is critical. This is what sets Sudbury apart. Giving students the freedom to personalize their own learning is the education at Sudbury.
For a thought experiment let’s imagine a Sudbury student who spends an entire year playing the video game Minecraft every day. Her mom is worried that she isn’t learning anything. Staff members say not to worry. Her daughter is bright, curious, and generous. She is creating things with Minecraft other students did not think were possible. They can see her confidence build as she becomes an expert at Minecraft. People ask for her advice. She gives encouragement. She emerges from her protective shell. She makes friends. Mom also remembers that Sudbury requires parents to trust their children and, in turn, trust themselves. Plus, her daughter is joyful and loves Sudbury Beach School and no longer has the daily anxiety and depression she had at her old school.
Minecraft sparks an unquenchable passion for architecture. She starts researching architecture. She reads The Fountainhead and identifies with Howard Roark. She memorizes the names and details of the ten tallest buildings in the world. She becomes fascinated with the Burj Khalifa and emails Adrian Smith and is stunned and elated when he writes back. She studies ancient structures and learns about world history and the transmission of cultures and ideas. She decides she wants to design a house. She downloads basic plans from the internet. She teaches herself geometry and how to use measuring and drawing tools. She learns how to read architectural drawings. She experiments with plaster and cement and spends endless hours sketching. She gets a summer job with a carpenter and learns how to frame houses and use construction tools. Back at school she decides she wants to study architecture after graduation. And, as is expected at Sudbury, she does what she needs to do to make that a reality. This is true personalized learning.
True personalized learning must originate with the student. This is the only form that is not artificially limiting. Personalized pan pizza learning originates with the software developers and is necessarily limited to the subjects covered and the algorithms that power it. True personalized learning opens its arms wide enough to embrace the infinite paths of learning possible for each individual student. It frees a Sudbury student to gobble up an open source personalized learning software program like, well, a personalized pan pizza. If they want to of course.