What we learned from Sudbury Valley School?

We can learn many things about learning/education from sudbury experiences. In fact, we can learn everything about learning/education from their practices. Here I want to list four of them for you to consider.

First, sudbury protects children’s feeling of space, either space of themselves or space of the surrounding. For example, children have the time to be with themselves without being interrupted by others. They are not timed with class clocks or any external schedules. They listen to their own hearts and they feel of themselves. They can also feel of the surrounding, and try to change it for the better. They equally participate in the process of making their schools better. In contrast, students in traditional schools have their feelings of the space constantly interrupted, destroyed and denied.

Such feeling of space is very vital of one’s learning. Without feeling of one’s internal and surrounding space, one is unable to learn. Self-reflection is the center of learning. However, many people coming out of school haven’t learned how to reflect.

Secondly, children are also a group of people. At any place that you have a group of people, you will have what a group of people will have. For example, how to clean up the place. People are different, and they have different likes and dislikes. Since they live in the same space, they need to resolve the conflicts. People want to form various interest groups. So as we can see in sudbury practice, they have the honor system, the personal account, Judicial Committee, school meeting, clubs, and so on. In traditional schools, since adults have the absolute power over children, they simply take everything under their control and simplify everything by making children simply being governed, thus denying children their feeling of the space. So this is why more and more people start to realize this is more about “how to be democratic”.

This alone probably makes sudbury very difficult to reproduce massively. Actually sudbury model is not too costly or complex to reproduce massively. The obstacle is mainly mental, e.g. people’s understanding of equality and how they trust children. This is a profound issue and it will take people many many years to truly understand it. But it doesn’t mean it cannot spread out to become mainstream. Especially with the help of internet and software, we will make that spreading happening faster.

Thirdly, learning is never separated from real life. As the principle of sudbury said, children learn little by little in their daily lives, and when they combine all those experiences together, they try to build up that knowledge. Since learning is never separated from your real life and what you do, learning can surely be driven by curiosity.

Fourthly, whether children should have the freedom of learning? Whether they can be trusted? I think this is a very deep worry in many people’s minds. From my own life experience, I strongly believe children should have that freedom and they can be trusted to guide themselves. I think sudbury experiences also proved so. If we want to talk about this philosophically, I can also talk convincingly why so. The practical question here is how to ensure children’s right in making decisions on their own learning be protected? Should we declare something like “Freedom of Learning”?

So if you are only working with adult learning, do sudbury experiences give inspiration to your work? We think they surely do. Although adults are not confined by schools and classes as how children are, adults are still confined by the conceptual model of learning they got used to after more than 10 or 20 years in school. So when they build online learning software, they still think in term of class based learning in school. Only after all these years, they start to realize little by little that they are not bound by anything on the internet and thus start to make learning a little more flexible (Khan Academy, MOOC, for example). Still the great potential of internet for learning is untapped. Few people are really building learning software that we need in the internet age.

So what kind of learning software we need in the internet age? I have been thinking and exploring this for many years. What have been really helpful in my exploration are: my own schooling experiences, especially my primary school experiences, which mimic sudbury experiences quite well; my broad learning experiences in various fields; my reading of works from John Taylor Gatto, Sudbury, Summerhill and all those unschooling practices. They are very rich nutrition; my broad teaching experiences of various groups of people (children, migrating manual labor workers, college students, young professionals, seniors…); the unique research methodology:exploration with software. If you are interested in seeing what kind of software we are building here, you can check out summarization of our work, and the projects page. Particularly I want to mention briefly knowledge engine here (a notebook to turn experiences into knowledge). It helps train people’s reflection skills and helps people feel of the space. By doing so, it also aids people learn in real life. Surely sudbury children are already doing so. Sudbury children are already very strong self-learners. But this tool still can help the self-learners with their learning, just as it has helped me with my daily learning. Also the result of learning and the knowledge constructed can be some kind of demonstration of what they have learned, and they can also use it to teach others. This tool is to make learning not separated from your everyday activities. It is to lower the barrier of self-learning and thus make learning truly pervasive, instead of being isolated and withering.

Sudbury experiences have shown us what learning really is. With that understanding, we need to build learning software that really helps self-learners and makes self-learning pervasive. Learning activities are definitely scattered and everywhere. Learning is never separated from real life. We are all self-learners. Together let’s bring out the true face of learning.

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