Parents, students, and teachers face a false dilemma when it comes to school choice in America.  There really isn’t any school choice because all schools are structured by the same organizational architecture – a centralized hierarchy.  What does this mean?  It means that whether you go to a public school, private school, alternative school, or whether it’s funded with public money or private money, the schools by and large are organized the same way.

First, it’s hierarchical.  At the bottom, as always, are the students.  On top of them are the various teachers, administrators, public officials, and policy makers involved in the education system.  This is such a common organizational structure that hardly anyone notices it.  Second, it’s centralized.  All material decisions regarding standards and testing are made at a central point located increasingly further and further away from the individual student.

Recent calls to organize against what opponents are calling the “anti-public school agenda” of the Trump Administration are not concerned that charter schools or vouchers would change the organizational architecture of the education system.  In fact, any school that deviates from the orthodoxy of a centralized hierarchy would not qualify for a charter or vouchers in the first place.

Opponents to charter schools and vouchers are primarily concerned with the diversion of public money to private concerns.  Undoubtedly this major change in public policy deserves a proper debate.  However, we submit it merely alters the funding and control mechanism but does nothing to alter the organizational architecture.  In fact, it’s likely that increasing the influence of private interests will only accelerate the trend towards more hierarchy and more centralization.

Due to economies of scale it is widely understood that increased profits and efficiency can only be achieved by more standardization and more centralization within a system.  A system based on profit must continually generate more profit or else perish.  Is learning something we should attempt to commodify and efficiently deliver from centralized points far removed from the individual lives it shapes?

We are not discussing widgets.  We are engaged in an completely abstract debate about the control and direction of the individual lives of very real young people.  And we’re doing so without their input.  Is this right?

Students should have school choice because choice implies freedom and freedom implies responsibility and together they imply human dignity.  But real school choice would imply the existence of schools that are fundamentally different.  As it stands there is no fundamental difference between most schools in America.

Sudbury, however, is a fundamentally different school.  At the core of its difference is its organizational architecture.  Rather than a centralized hierarchy, Sudbury is a peer-to-peer school.  Every “node” (student and staff) in the school network is an equal.  Students and staff are free to interact with each other directly rather than having to pass through a centralized hierarchy.  For those with knowledge of computer networks, Sudbury is a distributed school system.

This organizational architecture creates an ideal learning environment flexible enough to adapt to endless possibilities.  It mimics the natural world.  Learning and development are organic and do not take place in a straight line with a perfectly ordered progression of steps as is contemplated by our centralized hierarchical school structure.  Research continually shows us that learning and development is an unpredictable and disordered process but out of this chaos comes order.

Order in the form of human meaning and understanding.  But this type of order does not lend itself to efficiency.  It resists standardization.  One need only look at the achingly beautiful structures that form in our natural world without conscious human intervention.  Mountains, forests, rivers, reefs, and clouds all stand as a testament to the beautiful forms that emerge naturally from our living world.  We should trust that young people free to learn inside an open-ended organizational structure such as Sudbury would give birth to such beauty as well.

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Credit: Emily Smith/Pittsburg High School

What happens when young people are empowered with the freedom to investigate someone who wants to manage their school?  Students at Pittsburg High School in Pittsburg, Kansas writing a profile piece on their new principal Amy Robertson discovered she had fraudulently misrepresented her credentials.  As the New York Times reported, four days after the students published their story in the student newspaper The Booster Redux the newly hired principal Amy Robertson resigned from her $93,000/yr position.

It’s a good thing the students actually investigated their new principal because she apparently managed to pull the wool over the eyes of the very people who were supposed to vet her in the first place – the Board Members of the Pittsburg Community School Unified School District 250.  According to the Board,  “District received multiple applications for this position, but Dr. Robertson’s diverse and extensive experience impressed district staff and leadership and repeatedly propelled her to the top of the candidate lists.”

How could this happen?  How could students be permitted to publish an unmasking of the newly hired principal in what most certainly was an embarrassment to the Board?  Well, thanks to a special state law students in Kansas have editorial control over the content of their student publications.  This is unusual.  In America students at public schools do not enjoy their full First Amendment freedom of speech rights and schools may, with the full blessing of the U.S. Supreme Court, censor student speech.  And, to her credit, the students received mentoring and encouragement from teacher Emily Smith.

At Sudbury students unquestionably enjoy the right to speak their minds.  This is the building block of the school.  Without an equal right to be heard and an equal vote, it’s not Sudbury.  In her role mentoring and encouraging interested students Emily Smith is the archetype of a staff member at Sudbury.  The students decided to write a story and came to Ms. Smith for direction.  This is how it works at Sudbury.  Not the other way around.

And who does the vetting and hiring at Sudbury?  The students and staff.  Every student has a vote on whether to hire someone.  Amy Robertson would not have survived the first round of questioning at a Sudbury school.  Sudbury staff are signed to a one year contract.  And those who wish to be rehired must submit to student vetting and questioning every year.  If a staff member is not contributing at Sudbury they have to answer to the very people whose lives they impact.  Now doesn’t this make sense?

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A “Must Read” for anyone interested in Sudbury

Peter Gray is an evolutionary psychologist at Boston College and author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life (Basic Books, 2013).  If you are looking for a different approach to education backed by research that embraces play and trusts the natural instincts of young people, then there is no better place to start than Peter Gray.

Dr. Gray is a contributing writer for Psychology Today and has published numerous research papers on the benefits of embracing freedom when it comes to education.  Links to his research papers can be found here.  In short, free play is THE fundamental human instinct that drives learning and development.

In Free to Learn Dr. Gray traces his research back to our deep ancestral roots by surveying how free play is the foundation of social existence for the few remaining hunter gatherer cultures that survived long enough to be studied.  See Gray, Peter. “Play as a Foundation for Hunter-Gatherer Social Existence.” American Journal of Play 1.4 (2009): 476-522.

It is interesting and critical to note that Dr. Gray was drawn into this field of study for deeply personal reasons.  Free to Learn begins with an emotional story of how Dr. Gray’s son ended up at Sudbury Valley School and how this experience changed Dr. Gray’s professional trajectory.  Dr. Gray is one of the only researchers who has closely studied Sudbury Valley School students and graduates.

Here is Dr. Gray writing in a study that followed Sudbury students after graduation: “Graduates reported that for higher education and careers, the school benefited them by allowing them to develop their own interests and by fostering such traits as personal responsibility, initiative, curiosity, ability to communicate well with people regardless of status, and continued appreciation and practice of democratic values.”  See Gray, Peter, and David Chanoff. “Democratic schooling: What happens to young people who have charge of their own education?.” American Journal of Education 94.2 (1986): 182-213.

Dr. Gray also writes about his extensive research into the benefits that accrue to young people who are allowed to play across ages.  The benefits are too numerous to list and the evidence so overwhelming everyone should be asking why our children are arbitrarily segregated by age.  See generally Gray, Peter. “The Special Value of Children’s Age-Mixed Play.” American Journal of Play 3.4 (2011): 500-522; Gray, Peter, and Jay Feldman. “Playing in the zone of proximal development: Qualities of self-directed age mixing between adolescents and young children at a democratic school.” American Journal of Education 110.2 (2004): 108-146; Gray, Peter, and Jay Feldman. “Patterns of age mixing and gender mixing among children and adolescents at an ungraded democratic school.” Merrill-Palmer Quarterly (1982-) (1997): 67-86.

Free to Learn is both life-affirming and joyful.  Dr. Gray gives the reader a new framework for understanding that free play is the genesis of learning and development and not just something that needs to be squeezed in if there is time.  And what is more life-affirming and joyful than young people at play?

Click here to learn more about claiming this book for free.

This is the first of our “Free Book” posts which will be an ongoing project of giving away our books.  Please click here to learn more about our free books.

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Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas (Basic Books, 1980) is a seminal book on the use of computers in education written by MIT professor Seymour Papert.  Papert, in addition to his interest in developmental theories (he worked with Jean Piaget at the University of Geneva), was also an accomplished mathematician and computer scientist who spent most of his career teaching and researching at MIT.  Although we may not be familiar with Papert or Mindstorms today, we have probably heard about the “project-based learning” that developed out of his ideas.

Papert believed, correctly, that computers would revolutionize the way we communicate and interact with each other.  In  Mindstorms he explains how computers (rare in 1980) could be used to create an interactive learning relationship with the student that would allow them to develop robust intellectual models of how the world worked.  It is fascinating to read about the free-form and deeply interactive relationship the students in Mindstorms had with these rudimentary computers.

Papert believed that learning was easy if one had developed sufficient intellectual models that could assimilate new knowledge.  Education, Papert writes, should focus on “creating the conditions under which intellectual models will take root.”  Papert recalls his early fascination with toy cars and mechanical gears which developed an intellectual model that later allowed him to easily grasp certain mathematical relationships.

Papert also believed that a student’s subjective experience – their mood, emotions, and feelings – was just as critical to learning as the objective cognitive processes.  Piaget focused exclusively on researching the development of cognitive processes.  According to Papert this misses a critical ingredient – the individual’s subjective experience.  Papert writes it wasn’t his interaction with gears per se that developed an intellectual model that allowed him to understand math, it was his unexplained joy at playing with the gears in the first place:

First, I remember that no one told me to learn about differential gears.  Second, I remember that there was feeling, love, as well as understanding in my relationship with gears.  Third, I remember that my first encounter with them was in my second year.  If any “scientific” educational psychologist had tried to “measure” the effects of this encounter, he would probably have failed.  It had profound consequences but, I conjecture, only very many years later.

Much of Mindstorms relates to how the programming language he helped develop called LOGO would assist young people in developing robust intellectual models.  Students interact with LOGO using written commands, unlike today’s touch screens, which move a “Turtle” around the screen.  By using code to manipulate Turtle young people learn mathematical concepts in a concrete manner.  By debugging their programs they solve problems and deepen their understanding.

Mindstorms is full of insights about the learning process and Papert writes with unbridled optimism about the future role of computers in learning.  But perhaps his keenest insight into learning can be summed up by Papert himself while noting that the laws of physics keep a downhill bike upright even without a rider: “Thus learning to ride does not mean learning to balance, it means learning not to unbalance, learning not to interfere.”

books-1562581Our bookshelves are beginning to overflow.  It’s time to clean house.  Today we begin giving away the books that have helped deepen our knowledge of learning and education.  We want to share these books with you.

Books have a tendency to sit, undisturbed, on shelves for years upon end.  Often, and we speak from experience, these books have only been “lightly” read if at all.  We cannot let this happen with the books that have been so critical in helping us learn about learning. We are compelled to act.

Sharing these books will keep them off our shelves and put them where they belong.  Into the hands of people who will read them and share the books or their contents with others.  Word of mouth, perhaps more so in our hyper-connected society, is one of the most potent forms of communication.

How Do I Claim a Free Book?

We will create a separate post for each book we are giving away that briefly summarizes the book with our thoughts.  The posts will be titled “Free Book X:…”  Search through them and if you find one you like that has not yet been claimed, please send us an email and tell us why you are interested in the book.  Please include a mailing address.

Is the book REALLY free?

Yes.  The book is free.  But we hope you consider it a loan to be repaid by passing it along to someone else when you’re done.  Pay it forward as they say.

Reading a book is like gardening your mind.  Some books plant a seed.  Some prune an unruly idea. Other books fertilize existing knowledge or guide it like a grapevine along a trellis.  And there is the rare book that rips up entire sections of the garden at the root and sows new and revolutionary ideas. However, reading without action becomes recursive and the garden stops yielding fruit.  So please claim a book, read the book and then pass the book along.  Then take action!

montesquieu-1Every month the Florida Department of Education publishes a memorandum to the various School District Superintendents with updates on the Florida Standards.  The Florida Standards is Florida’s version of Common Core which promises to impart high school graduates with the “knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college, careers and life.”  This is a mighty promise indeed.

Every Florida Standards monthly update contains a section that highlights some of the specific Florida Standards.  The August 2016 memo highlights, in part, Florida Civics Standard SS.7.C.1.1 which states as follows:

Recognize how Enlightenment ideas including Montesquieu’s view of separation of power and John Locke’s theories related to natural law and how Locke’s social contract influenced the Founding Fathers.

For those who know little about these standards the sheer bureaucratic specificity may come as a great shock.  But this is the reality of our attempt to standardize the learning process.  This is the outcome of distilling humanity’s collected knowledge into standards that must be applied to millions.

One gets the impression, upon closer inspection, that the standards were written by a committee of experts who had in their minds’ eye a Platonic abstraction (i.e. the “student”) ready to be “filled” at the appropriate time with the information and concepts deemed by each expert important to their respective areas of expertise.  Young people seen as objects to be worked upon rather than dynamic subjects endowed with unique genius.  A complex recipe suited for programming a machine instead of stoking the fires of curiosity that burn naturally within every young person.

Nevertheless, this standard, identified with seemingly satirical precision, provides the perfect illustration of how an academic philosophy of freedom endows any school that adopts it with inexhaustible flexibility.  Individual students at Sudbury schools around the world are encouraged to try this and report back their findings.

Sudbury students who read this post (if they want, lol) will become aware that Florida Civics Standard SS.7.C.1.1 requires every Florida graduate to, in part, recognize how Montesquieu’s view of separation of power influenced the Founding Fathers of the United States.  Many of them might not care nor investigate further.  However, merely reading this post may trigger the question, “Who was Montesquieu?”  Or any number of questions we could not possibly imagine.

And so might begin a freely chosen path of inquiry that could lead in any number of directions.  Perhaps directly to his magnum opus The Spirit of the Laws or the vineyards of Bordeaux where this French nobelman was born or anywhere else makes no difference at Sudbury.  The importance is freedom.  And who would deny that such an endeavor freely undertaken results in greater learning, better understanding, and more joy than one forced upon the unwilling?

Could any standard adequately capture the path of a young person who starts with Montisquieu and ends up studying citrus greening disease?  Or describe what “subjects” they learned along the way?  These standards are wonderful springboards from which young people may launch themselves into an array of directions as unique as each of them.  But to do the reverse seems a fool’s errand.  For it is our uniqueness that binds us together.  And it is freedom that gives young people the chance to develop the individual uniqueness that supports our common humanity.

pencils-1240400-1279x852In a recent front-page, above the fold article, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reported that students are skipping the writing portion of the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) at three times the rate of the other two portions.  The percentage of students who skipped the writing portion of the FSA contributed to four Volusia County high schools receiving “Incomplete” grades.

Why?  Why would so many students completely skip the writing portion of the FSA?  Volusia County School Board member Linda Cuthbert, a former high school English teacher, gives a reason that has solid evidentiary support.  It was refreshing to read.

But first, a little background.  The Common Core standards were written in 2009 by a group of D.C.-based organizations (the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve).  They were released in 2010 and aggressively promoted with the goal of creating nationwide education standards.  States were encouraged to adopt Common Core and measure for compliance using the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test.  Most states adopted Common Core.  Florida did not.  Well, at least not in name.  Florida developed its own standards called (drum roll) Florida Standards which are modeled on the Common Core standards but with some changes.  In order to measure compliance with Florida Standards the state licensed a test called SAGE from Utah and rebranded it the FSA.  FSA replaced the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) and was used for the first time in 2014.

FSA has three portions – writing, reading, and mathematics – and students are skipping the writing portion.  So why are students skipping it?  Here is Cuthbert:

Students are not allowed to use any creative thinking of their own.  Therefore, students can find them uninteresting or completely irrelevant to their lives, causing them to have no desire to answer this portion of the test.

BINGO!  Students skip the test because it is “uninteresting”, “completely irrelevant”, and because they have “no desire” to do it.  Judging from what we’ve seen of these tests this sentiment is understandable.  Although this may seem like common sense or a case of “too bad for those kids” it’s actually a critically important issue considering how much depends upon the assumption that the results of these tests are valid.

Perhaps Cuthbert is familiar with the work of education researcher Graham Nuthall who wrote, at the culmination of his 40 year career, that test results are “primarily the result of the students’ motivations and cultural background, and only secondarily about what the student knows or can do.”  In other words, Nuthall’s research confirmed Cuthbert’s intuition.

Nuthall’s research reveals that tests have little personal meaning for a significant number of students.  He found that the most important factor in testing wasn’t ability, it was student motivation and whether or not that student shared the same values about the test as the tester.

Many students lack motivation to take the test precisely because they do not see the value or relevance of the test in the first place.  Therefore these tests measure student motivation and the degree to which the student sees value in the test more so than student ability.  In other words, the tests we rely so heavily on produce invalid results.

Let that sink in.  These tests are invalid because they measure motivation and values, not what a student knows or can do.  The evidence keeps piling up that it is time for a paradigm shift in education.  Not new standards or different tests but a fundamentally different approach to education.  Until that happens we can expect to see more and more young people decide that the whole alienating process is completely irrelevant to their lives.  And that’s a test we do not have to face if we rethink education today.