The Sudbury Model

Our school is modeled after Sudbury Valley School, founded in 1968 in Framingham, Massachusetts.  The Sudbury Model was created to redesign school culture for the reality that is the post-industrial age. 

Our school is founded on the belief that human beings are naturally curious, therefore children needn't be forced to learn. We believe attempts by adults to force learning can actually discourage natural curiosity and intrinsic motivation. The Sudbury model enables students to thrive freely, self-regulate, and allow their curiosity to drive them. Here are some of our core values:

 

Play

Imaginative, interactive, student-led play is central to our school. Play functions as the major means by which children...

(1) develop interests and competencies;
(2) learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules;
(3) learn to regulate their emotions;
(4) make friends and learn to get along with others as equals; and
(5) experience joy.

Through all of these effects, play promotes mental health. (Gray, Peter. "The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents" American Journal of Play, volume 3, number 4.)

Democratic Decision-Making

All decisions governing the school community are decided by School Meeting, which includes all students and staff members. One person, one vote.

Everything from use of materials, hiring staff members, certification procedures, to the way the school's budget is allocated is presented, debated, and voted upon during School Meeting sessions. The responsibility of developing and enforcing these rules prepares the individual students to take responsibility in other areas of life. Formal democratic rule-making and conflict-resolution gives students ample experience with individual rights, equality, and self-regulation.

There is no arbitrary authority at South Jersey Sudbury School. Studentshave freedom from fear, bullying, and intimidation. Students can choose whether or not to look to the staff for guidance and receive it only when they request it. Many kids don't appreciate adult involvement in their activities unless they have specifically invite such involvement. The same goes for outside resources and experts from the community--they are invited or dismissed at School Meeting's request, giving students unprecedented responsibility for their environment.

Conflict Resolution

All students and staff serve on a rotating basis as members of the Judiciary Committee (or J.C. for short), hearing arguments from alleged rule-breakers and deciding what the appropriate consequences, if any, should be. This teaches the kids to coherently defend their actions, develop their empathy skills, and learn how to handle difficult social situations in a peer-to-peer context. Public schools acknowledge the efficacy of peer mediation, but we believe it is often futile and ineffective within an authoritarian school environment. At South Jersey Sudbury School, everyone is held accountable to the community, not to an authority figure. 

Curiosity and Creativity

These traits are synonymous with self-motivation. Human beings are naturally curious and simply need to be allowed to indulge their curiosity. Through play and exploration young people at South Jersey Sudbury School learn the most essential skills which prepare them for their dreams and aspirations . Play and experimentation in a real-world environment is essential for child development. Playful states of mind enhance learning, creativity, and problem solving. External expectations and evaluation (including rewards) deter intrinsic motivation.

Open Discussion and Exploration

Students have the time and space to play and explore their world within a safe and tolerant community. In school they can practice all the essential activities of childhood such as making friends, playing, exploring ideas and various materials, overcoming boredom, learning from mistakes, and developing passions. In fact, Sudbury schools are often full of impassioned debate. And why wouldn't they be? There is no censorship.

Humans are social creatures and interpersonal communication is an essential life skill. At our school, children are free to converse and discuss freely and openly. There are no required courses or assignments. Nobody has the right to tell anybody else to "sit down and shut up!"

Age Mixing

Older students mentor and nurture younger students; younger students look up to and inspire older students. Adults have a tendency to over-teach and become boring or condescending, while an older student may view a younger peer more as equal in status, but not in ability. The older student learns to model their expertise while the younger student learns to strengthen theirs. Read the science here and here.

We also recognize that access to knowledgeable adults is key. Student-to-staff ratios in Sudbury schools are much lower than in public schools. Staff members are available to all students as academic, artistic, and mentoring resources, if asked.  We believe adults have just as much to learn from children as children have to learn from adults.

No Exams or Labeling of Students

At SJSS, assessment comes from students' internal self-criticism. A child engaged in undisturbed "serious" play is often her own fiercest critic. Children want to emulate role models in the adult world and often hold themselves to a high standard. South Jersey Sudbury School believes in cultivating this natural drive by providing a peaceful, friendly environment.  

To become a responsible person, one must feel respected and be aware of the consequences of one's action. At our school, nobody plans students’ days or thinks for the student. That is the individual student's responsibility.

In this way, the school as an institution--including the staff--renders no judgement and conducts no formal evaluation of students.

A Culture of Trust and Equality (AKA Freedom from Fear)

Unlike most schools, a Sudbury school is a true community. It thrives from the participation of parents and knowledgeable citizens.

"It takes a village to raise a child."  —African proverb

South Jersey Sudbury School is dedicated to the celebration of difference in individuals to encourage creativity and open-mindedness. South Jersey Sudbury School is an environment that is open, honest, trusting, and free of fear. Children and adults refer to each other on a first-name basis, students can feel comfortable not having to use a locker to secure their belongings, and no one is required to ask permission to use the bathroom.

Required reading:


Ok, So You're Sort of Like...

— A Montessori School?

There are some ways in which the Sudbury model is similar to the Montessori approach. Children in both settings are allowed more freedom to make decisions about what interests them and how to pace themselves than in most other schools. Both models also hold the basic assumption that children are naturally curious and don’t need to be forced to learn.

But Montessori children may choose only between the specific options presented by the teacher, not from the full array of activities which life itself presents. Montessori educators believe that all children learn according to specific patterns and sequences. They base classroom activities on the model’s assumptions about what is “developmentally appropriate” for each age group, and restrict access to certain activities if earlier activities in the preplanned sequence have not been completed. The Sudbury model makes no assumptions about how individual children will learn at any age. There is no expectation that one learn multiplication before negative numbers or how to draw a circle before a square. Interest is the only criterion for engaging in any activity, and satisfaction the only evaluation of success.

— A Waldorf School?

Like Waldorf Schools, Sudbury schools care about the whole child. We are not only interested in academic success, but in the happiness and full human potential of each individual. Like Waldorf schools, we do not push children to read early, as traditional schools do. Both approaches value play, “deep” (intensely involved) play, in particular, as crucial to the development of children’s mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual selves, indeed as the fundamental “work” of children. We both respect the intuitive wisdom of children, and take their world views and interests quite seriously.

But the Sudbury model espouses no particular path of spiritual or emotional growth. Rather than listening to children in order to better guide them, we listen to them to respond to their self-determined needs. Unlike Waldorf education, we have no predetermined expectations. We trust children to make their own mistakes, work though their own problems, and come to their own solutions, with help, when it’s needed, but without the assumption that we know the best outcome. Waldorf educators endeavor to move children, and society in general, in a particular direction, and seek to set up an environment that fosters such social transformation. By contrast, Sudbury schools seek to create an environment where children can recognize and pursue their own agenda. Children and adults together assess and modify the culture of the school through the School Meeting. The Sudbury model simply aims to give children access to the full complexity of life, and the curiosity, confidence, and competence to participate in — and perhaps to change — society according to their own interests, experience, knowledge, and goals.

— A Progressive School?

Sudbury schools believe, as progressive school reformers do, that traditional schooling is not working. Both identify authoritarian teaching and administration as problems, and seek to reduce the stresses students experience in being coerced into learning and evaluated by standardized testing. But the Sudbury model also rejects the notion that the alternative to authoritarianism is permissiveness — timid teachers trying to prevent any unhappiness and bending over backwards to “make learning fun,” getting children to learn without them noticing they are learning. When kids are treated permissively they do not learn personal responsibility for their actions.

Adults in progressive schools retain the authority to grant or deny that second chance, to step in to resolve disputes, to establish the rules of conduct in their schools. There can be an illusion of freedom or democratic decision-making in progressive schools, but if kids make poor decisions, adults always retain the power to step in and solve the problem for them. In the context of learning, progressive schools often try to have the curriculum follow students’ interests. But the effect of teaching to a child’s interests is, as Daniel Greenberg has argued, like a parent waiting for a child to open her mouth to speak before popping in the medicine the parent wants to give her. Children who show an interest in playing Cowboys and Indians for a few hours, might be subject to six weeks of projects about Native Americans, regardless of whether their interest is sustained or not. The child given medicine in such a manner may learn never to open her mouth around a parent with a spoon; the student given education in such a manner may learn not to show interest, at least in school. Learning something new can be hard work, and children are quite capable of hard work — when they are working on something they want to do. When a student has a serious interest, there is no stopping her, and “making it fun” is often an intolerable distraction. When a student has an interest, we believe she should be allowed to pursue it only as far as she feels necessary. She may return to an important idea later, to deepen her interest, but forcing or manipulating her to deepen it will only serve to lessen her curiosity and sense of self-determination. Some progressive schools offer an array of courses, but do not require attendance. Sudbury schools do not have standard offerings, because learning to pursue one’s own agenda can be challenging, sometimes painful, sometimes boring. We think boredom is a valuable opportunity to make discoveries about one’s self. It is often easier to sit in classes, be entertained (maybe not as well as Minecraft entertains, but still better than nothing), and avoid parental pressure, than it is to schedule one’s own life, wrestle with one’s own questions, learn how to seek the answers, and master one’s own destiny.

— Homeschooling?

There is a particular philosophy of homeschooling, often referred to as “unschooling,” which shares many similarities with the Sudbury model. John Holt was its best known proponent, and his writings have been invaluable to us in helping to explain just how learning can happen without teaching, and why on earth a child might choose to learn arithmetic or some other supposedly dreadful subject. Unschoolers believe, as we do, that children are born curious about the world and eager to succeed in life and that kids learn best through experience and experimentation rather than by being told how and what to think. In the words of John Holt:

“Real learning is a process of discovery, and if we want it to happen, we must create the kinds of conditions in which discoveries are made. . . They include time, freedom, and a lack of pressure.”

But unschoolers, for the most part, see the family environment as the best place for children to grow, while the Sudbury model believes that, as the African proverb states, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Children and parents have complex relationships and interdependencies which make it harder for children to discover true independence within the family. In the environment of a Sudbury school, children face direct personal responsibility for their actions without the emotional baggage that family-based accountability can sometimes carry. In addition, children are more able to develop some important social skills in a democratic school — the ability to tolerate diversity of opinion, to speak out against inappropriate behavior, and to develop and carry out group projects, for example. In most homeschooling families, the parent sees him or herself as ultimately responsible for the child’s education, while at Sudbury schools, that responsibility rests squarely with the child.

— Student Governments in Traditional Schools?

Sudbury School Meetings are similar to student governments only in that they are composed of students and operate by majority rule.

But the School Meeting is a participatory democracy, where every student and staff member has the option of a direct vote in every decision made. Student governments are representative — students are chosen to represent the larger student body. More importantly, student governments are hardly ever given real power over substantive issues. Elected positions serve primarily as symbols of status, popularity, and “leadership potential” for college admissions purposes.

The School Meeting decides who will be staff each year, how tuition will be spent, what each and every rule of the school will be, and who will be suspended or expelled for violation of those rules. Staff members are involved on an equal footing, arguing their positions with gusto. But they are also equally bound to the rules of the school. As a free majority, students experience real control over their lives at school, and real consequences if they fail to meet the responsibilities such control requires of them. That kind of government brings a community identity and sense of individual empowerment no token school government could hope to achieve.