Understanding Sudbury Model



This essay tries to explore and form a deep understanding of the Sudbury Model, and what it means for the education innovations around the world.

The Sudbury Model is very rich, beyond what can be put into one article. Here I only choose some elements that I personally consider to be the very core of the model. For me, the Sudbury Model is love at first sight. After 20 years of practice in the education field, I feel it is about time for me to reflect on the Sudbury Model again. From my reflection, I feel that the very few essential elements of education that I have summarized after all these years of education practices, are right in the heart of the Sudbury Model. Please note here the I use the word Education in the most general sense as education is indeed everywhere in our lives and work,


I heard of the Sudbury Valley School from John Taylor Gatto for the very first time in 2004 or 2005. I loved it right there when he talked about it. The SVS (Sudbury Valley School) is a safe playground to me from the very beginning. Large groups of children can play there, which I always feel is the deepest core of the Sudbury Model. When a large group of children can play richly together, learning needs arise in a natural way. After you have the learning needs, the ways of learning is numerous, taking lessons being only one of them. This is what is actually happening at SVS. There are so many ways of learning. Even though there are a few very short term lessons, they appear naturally and disappear naturally. There is never such a thing called curriculum.

This model is quite similar to my childhood experiences. When I first heard of SVS, I was doing my graduate school research on elearning. I was very frustrated with what has been going on in the research and development in the academics and industry. Sudury Model is kind of what I had wanted to realize when I decided to devote my career to education 5 years before then. I thus changed my major and successfully applied an elearning graduate school research project. However, all the researches on elearning I had read then were so far away from what was on my mind, and very often the very opposite of it.

Learning/education has to have a Playground. Learning is everywhere. Play/Learn/Create, the three in one activity is the pervasive life activity in our daily life and work. When we talk about education, it must first have a Playground. Education is everywhere, not just at those formal educational places or scenarios. It is safe to say that life is full of education opportunities. We can even consider psychological consoling also part of education, since the root of many psychological problems are rightly due to the kind of education the person has been through. When we understand education in this general sense and we practice broadly in various educational settings, I believe we will all discover one thing: education must have a Playground.

Build a Self-Directed Explorative Learning Environment

Once you have the learning needs, how do you set about learning it? It is people’s natural innate exploring capability that SVS counts on.

To build a self-directed explorative environment, you need rich resources, so students can feel richly and strongly in this rich environment, and thus they can make choices, to accomplish self-directed explorative learning.

Thus in SVS, books are everywhere. SVS intentionally has all walls occupied by bookshelves that take up the whole walls. And the bookshelves are full of all kinds of books. These rich resources, are the explorative space for children, meeting their various learning needs. From learning perspectives, these resources are also Playground. Rich resources provide the possibility of choices, so students can feel of their own needs, and choose the appropriate resources for their learning. This kind of learning capacity, is what they need in the real world, because not all knowledge will be made into lessons in the real world. You just have to use your senses, to sense yourself, to sense the resources, and know when to skip ahead if it is too simple, or when to draw back if it is too difficult for now. In deed, learning in the real world requires very complex skills of sensing and exploring.

So the books and the various activities at SVS, can be all seen as Playground. Students need to sense their own interests to make choices.

We can also consider the age-mixing at SVS as a way of protecting children’s capability to feel, because the different ages create diversity. For example, in the book “Free at Last”, as the kids playing basketball together, the older kids know to sense the capacity of the younger kids, so that they won’t make moves that might hurt the younger ones. For those younger kids, by playing with older kids, they can feel the bigger challenge that they don’t feel when playing with kids of similar ages.

The staff at SVS (adults are called staff at SVS, not Teachers), are also resources that children can use. Furthermore, the staff at SVS do a lot of work to make a self-directed explorative environment for the students there. The book “Free at Last” outlined many such things.


SVS intentionally builds up bookshelves for all walls. I think it is to set up the awareness of “Knowledge” in the environment. Knowledge is not those categorized subjects or majors in schools. And not just the textbooks are knowledge. All these different books are knowledge, and we are all creating our very own knowledge.

When students have this strong consciousness of “knowledge” on their mind, they will try to create their own knowledge from their rich experiences. And in SVS you never lack rich experiences since SVS is such a self-directed explorative environment, like we said earlier.

SVS has a designated conversation room, where people can converse on any topics. This kind of conversing, is also a process to promote the building of knowledge and its expression. So knowledge is not just what the teachers teach in the classroom. When we converse, we are sharing our own knowledge, and we have to express it in our own words.

Dan, one of the founders of SVS said that knowledge is the model in people’s minds, everyone is creating one’s own knowledge.

When I read of the books by SVS founders, they questioned deeply the categorized subjects and majors in the modern education system. I think SVS’ filling up all rooms with books, is intentionally to break the wrong concept of knowledge that modern education has brought up on people. The more years I have practiced on education, the more I realized that the deep damages the concept of categorized knowledge had done to people.

So, the books everywhere in SVS, is to establish the concept of “Knowledge” in children’s consciousness, so they can disassociate the concept of knowledge from categorized subjects and textbooks of modern education. This is dismantling the concept of knowledge of modern education theory.


Mimsy, another founder of SVS, has talked many times about the universal conversations at SVS. This kind of equal conversations exist between students and students, students and staff, as well as staff and staff.

We said earlier that learning is everywhere and education practice has to have Playground. So in an educational environment that has rich playgrounds, the conversation among players sharing similar interests and Significant Experiences, are natural and common. It is like conversations among children, or like those between old players and new players, it is friendly and equal. When this kind of conversations happen, it is already the best education environment you can have. However, modern education has formalized education so much, and made it so separated from real life, knowledge and teachers become the authority, and equal conversations are not possible anymore, thus true education is lost. People influenced by modern education, deeply locked up by the wrong concept of “knowledge”, have lost the ability to make such kind of conversations.

Naturally conversation is equal, and equality is the foundation of friendship. And such equal conversations are usually sharing of Significant Experiences and abstract knowledge models. The flow between significant experiences and knowledge models in conversation is free and agile. But modern people, who are bound by the wrong concept of knowledge of modern education, lost the skill to engage in such conversations.

If they are still capable of such conversation, then their families are the best education place, and playing pokers, chess, basketball, soccer can all be very good playgrounds. Parents who excel at equal conversation can be the best educators.

So the universal equal conversations at SVS, is dismantling the way of teaching of modern education theory, which is based on classroom/lesson/homework/tests.

Judiciary Committee

SVS Judiciary Committee has a session every day, and all students take turn to be on the committee. It is a very essential part of Sudbury Model.

The relation between individuals and groups and how individuals participate in society, are very important to everyone’s life. But in the modern education system, there is rarely any chance to think and practice in this aspect. Most people still don’t know how to handle these even after they have retired from their careers.

For example, how to take the traditional ethnic values in your own culture? What I see is that many college students still stick to those values like primary school students, while some students who have been exposed to society in college start to abandon all ethnic principles immediately, doing whatever to achieve their goals.

How individuals participate in society? This is not what ought to be learned in modern education system, but it is what one has to tangle with throughout one’s life.

Where in SVS, students have full practice on this through the Judiciary Committee. The Judiciary Committee has to have some adult members. And from my memory, some senior students should be on the committee because they have been through it many times, and they are more able to think abstractly than younger ones. Younger ones often are not able to articulate things very well, so these senior students will guide them to learn to articulate it, like when and where what happened, just stating the facts instead of subjective opinions. And they also do investigation and collect evidences. So the whole process of Judiciary Committee session is a very good practice of many things.

What SVS students are practicing in these Judiciary Committee sessions, are what we lack very much in our society. Many graduates from universities, including those with very high GPAs, are unable to think clearly and comprehensively. They are very confused about rights and obligations.

Trust in LIFE

I think the above are all based on trust in LIFE. This is completely different from modern education. Life, if you give it rich soil, it will grow healthily. The goal of education, unlike that of modern education, which is to produce skilled industry workers, should be about letting life growing up to become themselves.

The Implication of Sudbury Model for Education

Knowledge is universal. Learning is universal. Education is universal. Sudbury education, is about going back to life and nature.

The Sudbury Model we summarize here, is not an education model only targeting children or a specific group of people, but an education model for all people to be used in their everyday lives. We hope educators can find these principles helpful when making educational designs in their specific learning environments.

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