No Teachers, No Class, No Homework; Would You Send Your Kids Here?
In Massachusetts farm country, not far from Boston, a group of about 200 students of all ages are part of a radical experiment. These students don’t take any classes they don’t specifically ask to have taught. They can spend their time doing whatever they want, as long as it’s not destructive or criminal — reading, playing video games, cooking, making art. There are 11 adults, called “staff members”; no one technically holds the title of “teacher.” The kids establish rules and mete out punishments by a democratic process whereby each member of the community has one vote — which means the adults are “outnumbered” by the kids almost 20 to one. Unlike at most private schools, students are admitted without regard to their academic records.
Sudbury Valley School will this spring find itself one focus of a book by the psychologist and Boston College professor Peter Gray, whose own son attended Sudbury Valley in the 1980s. At the time, Gray was a professor and neurobiology researcher whose work focused on the basic drives of mammals. At his lab, he worked with rats and mice. The experience of his young son, who was struggling in school, convinced him to entirely shift the focus of his career.
“He clearly was unhappy in school, and very rebellious,” Gray said of his son in a phone interview. In fourth grade, the son convinced his parents to send him to Sudbury. It was obvious early on that he was “thriving” there, but his father “had questions whether someone could graduate from such a radical school and go on to higher education.”
Gray wound up becoming a developmental and learning psychologist in order to do a study of Sudbury outcomes. The results impressed him. Gray described his son as “precocious and articulate”; his problem was not with mastering the material, but with the “waste of time” that normal schooling, with its average pace and rigid structures, entailed.
But not all of Sudbury’s students and alumni were precocious learners: “Some had been diagnosed with learning disorders.” And while some came from privileged backgrounds with supportive parents who had deliberately sought out alternative education, other parents had been desperate. (Gray notes that most students when he did his study came from public school, not from another private school.) But most seemed to do well at the school, and alumni reported high satisfaction later in life. How was it that students who followed such an out-there program appeared to become relatively well adjusted adults? Gray began to inquire into why.