Teaching and Structure vs. Sudbury Valley

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Teaching and Structure vs. Sudbury Valley

by Ari Armstrong

The following consists of three posts I wrote during a discussion of the educational methods of the Sudbury Valley school.

I became familiar with Sudbury Valley when a school modeled on it, Alpine Valley, opened in the Denver area (where I live). One of my friends is on its board of directors. So I was familiar with Dan Greenberg's arguments before reading his work.

Sudbury seems to believe that "teaching" is generally worthless and even counter-productive, but is this (or need this be) the case?

I think not. I believe that Sudbury sets up a false-alternative. On the one hand, they present "teaching" as something forced upon a passive audience, as something the "teacher" is trying to "do TO" the students, as something which prevents the natural development of thinking of learning in children. The alternative to this system is that of Sudbury Valley, in which students are left "free" to pursue their own projects with little or no supervision.

I think the root cause of this false-alternative is Sudbury's ("Sudbury" taken as short-hand for all those who support the Sudbury system) reification of the current American system of "teaching" and "education." I.e., Sudbury has taken the *present* model of teaching and treated it as if it is the essence of teaching per se. I think this is wrong, and intellectually dangerous.

The "third way" I propose is a system of teaching, entered into with the consent and interest of the students. I agree with Sudbury that students should not be forced to learn, which is a futile project anyway, and that students have to want to learn and learn "naturally" if given the opportunity.

But the fact remains that teaching is of great value. It is not the sum of education, but it is necessary for a timely and complete education. Teachers are able to organize information to students and make it more readily comprehensible; they are able to answer students' questions; they are able to help students learn much faster than they might otherwise; they are able to inform students about possible areas of interest and guide them into these areas.

This does NOT mean that teaching has to be forced. Parents and teachers can communicate with children, and explain to them the value of knowing certain subjects. Willing students will agree to "teaching", much as I agreed to go to college and fulfill a certain curriculum.

I believe Greenberg is fundamentally mistaken in thinking that children can master a full education efficaciously on their own. Greenberg writes:

The future belongs to people who can stretch their minds to handle, mold, shape, organize, play with new material, old material, new ideas, old ideas, new facts, old facts.
These kind of activities don't take place in the average school even on an extra-curricular basis. Let alone all day.
At Sudbury Valley, these activities are, in a sense, the whole curriculum.

I do not argue with Greenberg's assessment of the current political education system, which I think is horrible. However, this can hardly be taken as an indictment of teaching per se.

Obviously, children must learn how to "handle, mold, shape, and organize" material and ideas. It is my contention that teaching can facilitate this process. For instance, I was taught to read, by my mother (who taught others to read in her pre-school). I could hardly have "handled" written ideas without this knowledge. People cannot "handle" statistics and mathematics without a knowledge of mathematics, and such knowledge can best be acquired via an organized, hierarchical course on mathematics. It is true that people can ably learn math on their own from books, but it is equally true that a competent teacher can facilitate the learning process by responding to a student's individual troubles and questions. In "organizing ideas old and new", I have found it helpful to know grammar. And, it turns out that some of my grammar I learned from my ninth grade English teacher. (I learned most of it just by my own reading, I grant, but the teaching also was very helpful to me.)

In short, we do not help children "handle" ideas and knowledge merely by throwing them to the winds and encouraging them to "do things". We do them a great service by explaining to them the value of knowing certain subjects, and by presenting to them these subjects in an organized fashion once their interest has been peaked. I.e., by teaching them.

To support my claims, I offer several of my own experiences.

First I review an instance in which I indeed learned largely on my own, undirected. This to note that I do not disagree with Greenberg that children - that people in general - should pursue their own projects and learn independently. Indeed, I think "teaching" should play a relatively minor role in a person's life (certainly much less of a role than in the present system, in which "teaching" is typically atrocious). This case is of my learning of libertarian thought.

My father introduced me to two books: *Free to Choose* by Milton Friedman, and *Atlas Shrugged* by Ayn Rand. From these two works, which I devoured without any prodding, I soon discovered the works of the Austrian Economists, the Objectivist scholars, and assorted other libertarian authors.

However, I also joyously submitted myself to "teaching" in these areas. I have attended seminars on Austrian Economics, Public Choice Economics, Objectivism philosophy, libertarian theory, and "post-libertarian" thinking. These seminars consisted mostly of classes, with teachers and students. The students were willing and interested; the teachers were for the most part engaging and competent. This comes close to my ideals of "teaching".

I mentioned that I learned some grammar in political high-school. There too I learned quite a lot of math, despite the general incompetence of my math teachers. What was important to me was the structure, the deadlines, more than the teachers, but, with able teachers, the teaching part of school would have been much more meaningful to me. I willingly took my math work home to figure out the problems.

In college I had the best teacher I've ever seen in action. This was at Pepperdine, with a philosophy professor named David Gibson. I love this man, because of what he taught me. His classes are strict lecture format, with ample opportunities for students to ask questions. I never have taken notes so rapidly as I did in his classes; I could hardly make my pen keep up with my thoughts and Gibson's insights. Dr. Gibson presented his material in a highly organized and thoughtful way; he taught us the material. I learned more about philosophy from him in a short period of time than I ever could have learned on my own. I am eternally grateful to this man because of what he taught me. He was able to teach both history and analytical thinking; I had a logic class with him and am quite sure I would never have learned logic so quickly or ably as I did with him around to explain to me and answer my questions. (The teaching of logic closely parallels the teaching of math.)

So, the nature of knowledge as well as my own experiences support my contention that teaching is a necessary part of education (when pursued appropriately). I believe Sudbury does a great disservice to its students by discouraging the practice and art of Teaching.


Andrew Smallman has some concerns with my critique of the Sudbury approach:

I'm no expert on Sudbury Valley and never, ever want to claim to be, but I don't think it's their intent to discourage "teaching". I think what they are trying to do is eliminate coercion in education. There, indeed, are classes at Sudbury, but they are initiated by the students. Staff members, many gifted in the "practice & art of teaching", I'm sure, who facilitate these classes.

I am aware of these classes, and I grant you that Sudbury in effect "teaches" its students, if in a limited context. However, this practice is inconsistent with their rhetoric, for Greenberg writes:

Schools today are institutions in which "learning" is taken to mean "being taught." You want people to learn? Teach them! You want them to learn more? Teach them more! And more![...] But learning is a process you do, not a process that is done to you![...] People go to school to learn. To learn, they must be left alone and given time. When they need help, it should be given[...] Sudbury Valley leaves its students be. Period. No maybes. No exceptions. We help if we can when we are asked. We never get in the way.

Clearly, Greenberg is painting "teaching" as the evil which is to be replaced by "leaving students alone" and "giving them help when requested." In fact, I think that this "help-giving" can and in practice does take the form of "teaching, but this certainly isn't what Greenberg is writing. If he were, why wouldn't he simply write, "Teaching, when coerced, works poorly. Teaching, in the context of willing students, is an important part of education."?

Again I suggest that he is creating a false dichotomy between Statist-teaching and non-structured education. The third way is voluntarist-teaching, with no compulsory attendance, with willing students. Because Greenberg is trapped by this false dichotomy, he is unable theoretically to properly describe the actual activities of Sudbury Valley (which include "teaching").

Once we admit that teaching is (or could be) important to education, I merely take the step to suggest that, for many students, a more structured curriculum would be appropriate and helpful. Nothing coming out of the Sudbury literature comes to terms with this possibility.

I issue this challenge to Sudbury Valley: If curriculum is worthless, if "teaching" is worthless apart from classes constructed by the students, THEN WHY IS SUDBURY VALLEY NEEDED IN THE FIRST PLACE?? If the primary purpose of school is to "leave students be, period," then why do students even need to be at the school? It seems to me that they could be "left alone, period" much better if they simply stayed at home. Perhaps the Sudbury folk would answer, "The school creates a good environment for learning," to which I respond, "Who are you to decide what constitutes a good learning environment, if your goal is to leave students alone, period?" To this challenge, Sudbury can only respond, "We know what creates a good learning environment, and we believe students will choose to be here." But then I merely respond, "Many students will choose a more structured curriculum - one that will actually teach them a base of rudimentary knowledge - complete with structured classes and qualified teachers."

I do believe that, for the majority of students, exposure to a structured curriculum and teachers and lectures and homework will be much more valuable than the typical Sudbury experience. I mean, if students want play-time, I suspect they can find that at home or with friends; again, why do they need Sudbury for that? Let us not forget that students voluntarily hiked to (structured) school every day, "up hill both ways, through five feet deep snow," before compulsory attendance set in.

Kirk also responded to my post. I wrote:

Sudbury has taken the *present* model of teaching and treated it as if it is the essence of teaching per se. I think this is wrong, and intellectually dangerous.

To which Kirk responds:

I agree, and I'm curious: how do you see a danger in this?

It is dangerous because it blinds them to the value of structured curriculum and designed, taught classes. This is harmful to most students' education.

I also have to ask, since we both seem to question this theory, how do we respond to the claims of success Greenberg sites?

First, I am somewhat skeptical of anecdotal evidence in general. I could find top students from just about any school. It is very easy to "massage" stories to fit one's case. I'm not doubting Greenberg, I'm just saying that I'm not convinced Sudbury turns out students of remarkably higher achievement than other institutions.

Second, as you note, children from good, caring, intellectually active families are going to grow up intelligent, no matter if they go to the worst school, the best school, or no school at all.

Third, the Statist schools in this country are so bad that children probably would learn more by not attending school at all, or by attending any OTHER school whatsoever, such as Sudbury. I'm not arguing that Sudbury is bad; I'm just arguing that there is probably a better system yet.

I wrote:

For instance, I was taught to read, by my mother (who taught others to read in her pre-school). I could hardly have "handled" written ideas without this knowledge.

Kirk responds:

I think this could be considered a flawed example, since many children learn to read despite, without, or with adult teaching[...]

Without *adult* teaching perhaps, but not without teaching of any sort. Kids could probably learn to read by watching Sesame Street, but they won't learn to read just by staring at a bunch of words. Sheldon Richman spoke recently in Denver about slave children who learned to read from their free, schooled friends. But my point is not that children can't learn to read without adult teaching, but rather that they are much more likely to learn to read quickly and ably WITH adult teaching.

I think we have to make room for different kinds of learning.

With this I fully agree. Some students don't need school at all. Some, like Mozart, want only highly specialized instruction. My argument is that most students will not do their best at a place like Sudbury, that they would do much better in a more structured environment in which they agreed to participate.

I think the main point we should keep in mind is that, in a free-market for education, children and their parents would be left free to choose and financially support the educational institution which fit *their* needs best. I.e., there would be room for Sudbury and for the most stringent academic prep schools.


I here want to respond to Andrew Smallman's 12/95 article on PSCS's "environment." Smallman writes:

Put simply, I tell people that what I think families are paying for when they choose to come to our school is the opportunity to have their children be in an atmosphere where they are trusted and respected. That's it. If we did nothing else, that alone would be enough; the activities and projects students choose to do are the cherry on top, bonuses to the environment we provide.

I certainly agree that children must be "trusted and respected" if they are to gain any value from people around them. Without trust and respect, children still might succeed, but in spite of, rather than because of, the dis-respecting persons.

And today's political schools frequently treat students with a lack of trust and a lack of respect. Many students are treated as little more than objects to be processed through the system. Make sure they have the right number of "credits", a report card, and finally a signed piece of paper. Who cares about the student as a *person*? Subjects are thrown at students without any demonstrated real-world usefulness and in as boring and tedious a style as is humanly possible to concoct. In fairness, some political-school teachers are excellent; I had three such teachers who were my friends and who taught me a great deal. But "trusting, respectful" education seems to be the exception rather than the norm in K-12 education today.

That said, I think Andrew under-states the importance of "activities and projects" in which we as educators can help children participate. Part of respecting a student, a child, is to offer useful information to him or her concerning life and his or her future. A child might not care much about learning algebra, until the importance of the subject is explained to him or her and some interesting materials are provided to make the learning of the subject possible and fun.

After all, a child cannot learn in a vacuum; human life existed for hundreds or thousands of generations before Pythagoras figured out that the sum of the squares of the sides of a triangle equals the square of the hypotenuse. Calculus has existed only for a few generations. One of our most important roles as parents and educators and adults who interact with children is to pass on our knowledge of the world to the youngsters. Each of us has learned knowledge that took the human race hundreds or thousands of years to discover; we owe it to our children to transmit this body of knowledge to them. And this cannot be accomplished by "trust and respect" apart from extensive, planned learning experiences.

Here I want to address head-on a central tenet of the "Sudbury Philosophy": the notion that children can learn "on their own", "without supervision", that the main purpose of adults is merely to create the proper "environment" and then get out of the way of a child's learning. I think this idea, while containing quite an important grain of truth, is fundamentally false.

Rather, I believe that children learn *primarily* from adults, that adults are the *most important* contributors to a child's education, that a child will learn little or nothing apart from the active participation of adults (and older children who have already learned much).

I know this is a rather bold claim for this audience. But I think if you follow along with me through some examples and some reasoning, I'll be able to convince you that I'm correct in at least some important respects.

And I do want to emphasize how strongly I *do* agree with the "Sudbury Philosophy" on a number of points. I agree that children cannot be forced to learn, as so many "educators" attempt to do today. I agree that learning is in many respects "spontaneous" in that children love to do it; I agree that children have a natural love of learning that adults sometimes destroy. I agree completely with the "Sudbury Philosophy" on these points, and am grateful to educators in this line for making these points so cogently.

However, as I've written before, I believe that the "Sudbury Philosophy" as a whole is rooted in a false dichotomy, an illegitimate bifurcation. The Sudbury line of thinking holds that the opposite of FORCED teaching is UN-structured education. Thus, the alternatives with which we are presented are, on the one hand, chaining our children to their desks and drilling them until their eyes and minds glaze over with boredom, and, on the other hand, letting children "be" to do whatever they want to do without offering any structure in education.

But the "third way" I favor is to work hard to provide children with structure, with "projects and activities", that will help them learn the great body of human knowledge in a reasonable length of time, that will help them master skills and abilities that will help them through life. I do not believe children have to be *forced* into structure. I do believe that, as educators, we have a responsibility to children to explain to them the value of structure, of learning in a hierarchical way, of making plans and pursuing them, even if the process isn't always laughs and play. I believe that many or most children will actively pursue structured learning, because it is the most effective for many subjects, and joyfully submit themselves to classes, lectures, tests, and essay assignments, SO LONG AS the structure is offered yet not imposed, so long as subjects are taught in a "respectful, trusting way", so long as the structure actually helps them learn rather than hinders them.

(I am not an advocate of structure in education PER SE; I don't call for structure-for-structure's sake. Rather, properly structure is the way educators make a subject readily comprehensible to students. Structure is an aid to understanding content; it can never be an end in itself.)

With this ground covered, I can return to my main point, which is that children learn *primarily* from adults. What would happen if a new-born were put in a dark room on a flat surface with no sensory stimulation? The new-born would NOT learn "spontaneously"; he or she would simply go blind and deaf and would ultimately die. With new-borns, we do not simply "get out of the way" of the child. Rather, we work hard to provide visual stimulation, full of colors and different shapes; we work hard to provide audio stimulation, full of the sounds of language. We work hard to provide interesting toys and gizmos for the child to play with. In short, WE make an effort to reach out to the child, to PROVIDE what the child needs to learn. The child loves learning; he or she loves learning FROM PARENTS or from other older persons.

As a child ages, he or she needs more complex games, more complex stimulation, more mind-activating "activities". Again, the role of adults is not to "stand back" and let the child do whatever he or she wants, but rather to step forward and offer the child that which he or she needs to ably learn.

Finally a child becomes ready for advanced conceptual subjects; math, grammar, and the like. So should for these subject the adult merely "stand back and watch"? I would suggest that, again, the role of the adult is to step forward and offer to the child the materials, in this case the courses and books and lectures and classes and whatever is useful, so important for learning. I am NOT suggesting that adults should force children to learn. I am merely suggesting that adults should seek to inform children about the value of learning structured courses, and then provide this structure, and then help children master a core of subjects.

Children who are not provided with information about the value of mastering knowledge or with structured materials can still learn the subjects, BUT ONLY BY FINDING STRUCTURE on their own. E.g., a child whose parents will not teach him or her to read can still learn to read, by turning to children's books, educational television, educated friends, and so forth. But once we grant the importance of structure in general, we have every reason to become personally involved with making structured educational materials available to children.

The fundamental point here is that we all learn from others. We WANT to seek help from others, knowledge from others, instruction from others. And I fear that the "Sudbury Philosophy" does not adequately recognize the value of instruction, of structured education, of classes. Most of what a child - a person - learns is learned from others. Children have a natural love of learning, but they love learning from others and cannot learn without others. In reality, Sudbury offers its students structured education even while denouncing structured education. By recognizing the value of structure, Sudbury would be able to offer its students structure more mindfully, with better results.

But does teaching via structured education somehow limit the creativity of children? Certainly not! Rather, it frees children to invest their creative energies on new and useful projects rather than on "reinventing the wheel". Though we all learn most of our knowledge from others, we all too are capable of making original contributions to knowledge and to the world around us. By learning the foundations of human knowledge quickly and fully, we are enabled to push the boundaries of knowledge and to apply information to new problems. By refraining from offering structure, we merely relegate students to expending their efforts on boring and long-solved problems.

Of course, I am not saying that we should attempt to stop children from struggling all together. Struggling to understand, pondering in confusion until the aspects of a problem "fuse", working, groping, reaching - all this is a necessary and useful part of learning.

As Andrew put it:

With our incremental learning systems designed to stack little successes on top of little successes, we are trying to eliminate failure from the experiences of young people. But it is from failure that we learn fortitude, how to revise and test new hypotheses, how to improve ourselves. If failure was such a bad thing a toddler, having failed in her early attempts to gain her balance and walk, would never get up from the floor! What we should do is not try to eliminate failure, but focus our energies on the creation of environments where failure and mistakes are seen as opportunities to grow.

I more or less agree with Andrew here. However, I would add that as educators one of our roles is to guide students so that their failures do not become overwhelming, but rather the source of learning and "growth".

For instance, we do not throw a five-year-old a set of car keys and say, "Okay; go drive! Sure, you might fail at first, but you'll catch on!" We do not give a ten-year-old a calculus book and say, "Here, do these problems! You might not understand at first, but keep at it and you'll get it!"

I do believe that we need to educate through "incremental learning systems designed to stack little successes on top of little successes". For otherwise, children become hopelessly discouraged and confused. A child must learn how to add before he or she is able to learn fractions; a child must learn fractions before he or she is able to perform algebra. Building "success upon success" does NOT rule out failure, it merely controls it. Children love learning, to be sure; but try to teach the average ten-year-old calculus and I guarantee you that the child will NOT love the exercise.

A child must be able to succeed and must experience success. Failure compounded upon failure can only discourage and dishearten a student. The wise and prudent educator knows how to help a student balance failure with success, to push the boundaries of the child's knowledge without burying him or her in incomprehensibility.

I have seen the devastating effects of attempting to teach students outside of a sensible hierarchy. My sister's 8th Grade math book contained examples of trigonometry, economics, and a whole host of bewildering subjects, which *I* could not even completely solve (because some of the problems were literally unsolvable), and my sister HATES math. She says she hates it. But I hate to hear her say this, because what she hates really is not math, but rather math which is incomprehensible to her because of its senseless complexity and its reliance upon skills which my sister does not yet possess. I fear many students with such experiences will never learn basic math skills, because they have already been convinced that they are incapable of learning math and they have already been slighted on their basic mathematical abilities. I detest the authors of this textbook and the teacher who exposed my sister to it. (Note: In 9th grade, my sister is doing very well indeed in math, largely, she says, because her teacher is willing to work with her to make sure she understands each level of knowledge.)

To sum: We must not conflate "structured education" with "FORCED education". It is quite possible, and highly desirable, to educate children about the value of "structured education" and then to provide that structure. Many subjects cannot be mastered at all without structure, and most subjects can be mastered faster and easier with structure (permitting the child more time for other pursuits). The sum of human knowledge has been building for thousands of years, and children cannot ably master this sum of basic knowledge without a structured education. This is not to say that every child needs the same structure or that there is not plenty of room for different styles and methods of learning. But it is to say that educators and structured subjects play a crucial role in the education of children.

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