A new-skool school

Most schools are machines for breaking children. Most of what goes on in regular schools is completely contrary to the way kids work, and the only way to get kids to comply is to break them.

Children were never meant to:

  • Sit still
  • Focus on only one subject at a time
  • Spend most of the day not playing
  • Be quiet
  • Follow a learning plan

Keith Johnstone (the legendary master of improv theatre) said once that when he needed to come up with new, fun improv tools he just thought about what we do in schools and created exercises where people do the exact opposite.

So what does a cool school look like? A new-skool school, if you will. Here’s an excellent video from the Fairhaven School in Maryland where the students explain how it works and what it’s like (via boingboing).

Students and teachers run the school democratically. There are no classes and students choose themselves what they want to do every day. It is based on the first school to adapt this model, the Sudbury Valley school.

So how do students ever learn anything, if there are no classes? Well, when they’re ready to learn they must seek out a teacher themselves. Here’s Daniel Greenberg’s tale of one of the first times this happened.

Sitting before me were a dozen boys and girls, aged nine to twelve. A week earlier, they had asked me to teach them arithmetic. They wanted to learn to add, subtract, multiply, divide, and all the rest.
“You don’t really want to do this,” I said, when they first approached me.
“We do, we are sure we do,” was their answer.
“You don’t really,” I persisted. “Your neighborhood friends, your parents, your relatives probably want you to, but you yourselves would much rather be playing or doing something else.”
“We know what we want, and we want to learn arithmetic. Teach us, and we’ll prove it. We’ll do all the homework, and work as hard as we can.”
I had to yield then, skeptically.

According to conventional wisdom no child will ever learn arithmetic voluntarily. If we left it to the students themselves, they’d play all day and never learn anything. Apparently conventional wisdom is wrong, Who knew?

Class began — on time. That was part of the deal. “You say you are serious?” I had asked, challenging them; “then I expect to see you in the room on time — 11:00AM sharp, every Tuesday and Thursday. If you are five minutes late, no class. If you blow two classes — no more teaching.” “It’s a deal,” they had said, with a glint of pleasure in their eyes.

The result:

I knew that arithmetic took six years to teach in regular schools, and I was sure their interest would flag after a few months. But I had no choice. They had pressed hard, and I was cornered.

They were high, all of them. Sailing along, mastering all the techniques and algorithms, they could feel the material entering their bones. Hundreds and hundreds of exercises, class quizzes, oral tests, pounded the material into their heads.
Still they continued to come, all of them. They helped each other when they had to, to keep the class moving. The twelve year olds and the nine year olds, the lions and the lambs, sat peacefully together in harmonious cooperation — no teasing, no shame.
Division — long division. Fractions. Decimals. Percentages. Square roots.
They came at 11:00 sharp, stayed half an hour, and left with homework. They came back next time with all the homework done. All of them.
In twenty weeks, after twenty contact hours, they had covered it all. Six years’ worth. Every one of them knew the material cold.

How could this happen? Daniel asked a friend who was a math specialist.

“Because everyone knows,” he answered, “that the subject matter itself isn’t that hard. What’s hard, virtually impossible, is beating it into the heads of youngsters who hate every step. The only way we have a ghost of a chance is to hammer away at the stuff bit by bit every day for years. Even then it does not work. Most of the sixth graders are mathematical illiterates. Give me a kid who wants to learn the stuff — well, twenty hours or so makes sense.”
I guess it does. It’s never taken much more than that ever since.

Amazing, huh? This is the school of the future, this is the way to teach children, to allow them to grow up into happy, self-confident, democratically minded adults.

18 thoughts on “A new-skool school”

  1. Hello and Thanks,

    I’m the filmmaker and I just wanted to congratulate your more full understanding of the model. An excellent (short, concise and well-written) article has been published this month in Psychology Today about Sudbury Valley School and the model. The full length DVD of the documentary is available at my site:


  2. Thanks Danny, and thank you for making the movie, and for bringing a much better approach to schools to our attention!

  3. My son is one of those in the trailer, and in The New American Schoolhouse documentary, which I strongly recommend to anyone interested in this topic. The original posting is among the most thoughtful I’ve seen, because it goes beyond the simple, immediate response of “how can young people learn if they are not taught?”.

    Because of my son’s six years at Fairhaven, or perhaps *inspired* by those six years, he is an original. He is himself, crafted by himself over 13-19, hanging out and doing what he wanted. Six years during which he took no classes, but had the opportunity to excel in the ways he found, and wanted, to excel, in an honest and functional educational community.

    Because of this, he is now a successful freshman in a small liberal arts college. His professors’ only laughing complaint: he is too eager to learn. He puts his peers to shame, because he wants to understand.

    He is also whole, and unique. He hasn’t been homogenized. And he’s been free for the last six years. Will he succeed “in life”? I think so.

    On the standardized SAT he took pre-college, he got a 99th percentile on the verbal, and upper-third on the math. He got a scholarship as a consequence. More importantly, he is someone who can make choices on his own, can make eminent sense in any public setting, makes evidence-based decisions, knows what he thinks, and is a pleasure to talk to.

    I think that’s a recipe for success in life.

    Education shouldn’t be about making good consumers, or good order-followers. We need good decisionmakers, and good leaders, who make positive change in the world. We need to see more schools like this one, to help enhance original thinkers, and produce whole human beings, not just functional adults.

  4. Wow!!! I’m jelous – I wish I went to a school like that… it would have been amazing. The students really seem mature and articulate at all the ages.
    I loved high school and I could tell you that I can’t remember anything I learnt outside of art class, things I learnt in sports, chats with my friends and a little bit of history… and i took a wide range of course and was a great student. If I was free to learn what I was interested in… well I can’t imagine the difference that would of made.
    Impressive… obviously it raises red flags and would seem a little hippy dippy for some… but I think that if it ensured that my child would learn enough to get into college, I’d be all for it.

  5. Thanks Michael, it’s great to hear from people directly involved with the school that it actually works the way it’s intended.

    To my mind, the only real problem in this kind of school is this: if the learning environment is so effective that six years of learning can be completed in 20 weeks, what are the kids going to do the rest of the time?

    The answer is of course that they’re going to be kids. They’re going to play and do whatever they want to. The end result seen from a “kids-go-to-school-to-learn” point of view will be the same or better. But the process that gets them there will be way, WAY better.

    Lucia: You can bet I’m envious too. The schools I went to were fairly traditional, and while I excelled at almost every class, I did it for the grades and for the praise that got me, never out of any particular liking for the subject. Like you I can only imagine what a genuine liking for the subjects would’ve meant for me,

  6. How I wish more people knew about alternative ways of learning exemplified by such schools as Sudbury Valley. The pervasive attitude still is that children and young people have to be “taught”, that they have no innate desire or ability to learn. Without a “teacher” in the traditional sense of my own experience, how different learning might be, how much more powerful and empowering!

  7. A good friend of mine’s daughter is among the Sudbury Valley graduates: well adjusted, now in the midst of her doctorate in Egyptology. I will always remember my one visit to SVS back in the early 1980s; wonderful that the model is finally catching on elsewhere

  8. Hey
    I’m a thirteen year old who is doing a report when i found this web site i thought that it is excelent and am going to tell my teachers about it but if it wouldn’t be to much trouble i was wondering if you could put more information on the conputer so i could have a little bit more to refer to.

  9. I’m 13 years old and in the middle of Algebra 1 in seventh grade. I’m in GT and the eighth grade math class. I thought i was doing pretty good. But i watched the video and there are normal 11 year olds doing the same thing. I find it remotely interesting but the homework really doesn’t give me enough time to live. But to actually want to learn the material, I’m sure that would make a difference. I really want to come to this school.

  10. How do we find such a school? Is there certification, or, could anyone just get a building and open the doors…..(wait – that was a movie – “Accepted”….)

  11. O_O I WANNA GO TO THAT SCHOOL!!!!!! It would be WAY better than staying here and watching a teacher’s (mostly failed) attempts at craming information into students! And it makes sense too because Einstein became a genius because he didn’t bother exceling in EVERYTHING he focused on one area and became THE genius. These kids can CHOOSE classes and CHOOSE an area to excel in instead of having teachers smash info into you while you hate every minute of it. Kids tend to remember good memories more easily and associate the memories to stuff so that school created an AWESOME enviornment that would make kids remember the stuff they learn forever. ALL the schools around the U.S are like machines that are anything but free. And people drop out too…I can’t imagine anyone ever wanting to drop out of that school…I REALLY wish I can get on a plane and move to sudbury valley…

  12. I literally cannot make myself believe that this kind of school actually works as it’s made out to work. Not to put anyone down, but this sounds like some half-baked summer comedy flick. I’m a 17- year-old high school student, and I honestly don’t think I would have gotten this far if I didn’t have a structured education. Sometimes, you need rigidity to open doors for you. Homework does seem pointless, but it prepares kids for the real world. I don’t see kids enjoying a perpetual free time making it to college- and even if they somehow get accepted, they’re in for a rude awakening. Plus, what about a future career? I’m sure their boss isn’t going to be so open. I think it’s wrong for this school to be teaching children from a young age that life is a smooth, easy ride where they can do whatever they want. We all wish we could go to a school where we enjoy absolute freedom, but the truth is, the rest of our life isn’t going to be so easy.

  13. Wow! I looked up “I hate homework” And found all this!
    I really wish my school was like that… No more pressure! That would be a much more stress-free way to learn.

  14. woahhhhhh
    I have a ton of hwk this weeked, and on google i typed in “i hate hwk” just like the middle skooler above me almost a year ago…. this came up, and it sounds cool

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.