Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Interview with Bruce Smith on the Sudbury Model of Education

Recently I interviewed Bruce Smith and toured the Alpine Valley School in Wheat Ridge, CO. The school is based on the Sudbury model, which rests on the premise that human beings are naturally curious, and that therefore the most effective learning is self-directed. Belief in freedom, respect and responsibility means that Sudbury schools are run democratically, with everything from the rules to the budget to hiring decided by voting among students and staff. The Sudbury Valley School pioneered this model in 1968 in Framingham, Massachusetts; currently over two dozen independent schools around the world pattern themselves after Sudbury Valley.

How did you come to be involved in the Sudbury model of education?

I was the public school dream student: I was good at verbal and math skills and I did not question authority. I became a high school teacher in a traditional public setting. I was idealistic and found a lot of resistance from students to the model that had worked fine for me. I took the effort to get to know the students and started to understand their feelings about education. I couldn’t deal with the cognitive dissonance of teaching in that way and enforcing policy I didn’t believe in, so I left teaching. A former student told me about Sudbury so I got some reading material on it and I couldn’t put it down. It really fired me up. I heard about a group in Chicago, where I was living at the time that was planning to start a school so I joined them to start it. I eventually ended up at Alpine Valley School in Wheat Ridge, Colorado in its second year.

What kind of kid does well in the Sudbury environment, and what kind of kid does not do so well?

Kids who are addicted to external evaluation and imposed structure, or who have difficulty with impulse control, self-control, self-regulation, self-discipline – those kids don’t do as well. It is a burden to decide what to do all day long and some don’t do as well as others with that freedom or responsibility. However, everyone has his own timetable to work through issues, gain proficiency and study what is of interest to him. Everyone has passions, and they don’t all have to involve linear, logical thought sitting at a desk. I think we disempower kids under the auspices of nurturing in a traditional setting.

What subjects are available to a Sudbury student and how much time is spent devoted to them?

Students here study whatever they are interested in studying – art, dance, history, math, reading, etc. But there is a paradigm shift in talking about this kind of school as opposed to traditional schools, and here a lot of the learning happens outside of classes. If students want to play outside all day, they can do that. The main “subjects,” I’d say, are self- and social-awareness: figuring out who you are, what you want, and how to make that happen in a community. Everyone goes at their own pace in whatever direction they are interested in going. If a student requests to study something that is not something we currently offer, we find a way to get that for him. Occasionally in classes we suggest a certain amount of outside study to maintain or acquire proficiency, but it is the student’s responsibility to do it or not, and then natural consequences arise from their decisions—like putting off further classes because it doesn’t make sense to go on until a certain level is mastered.

How are disciplinary issues handled in your school?

If someone is doing something another person doesn’t like or think is appropriate, that person can report him to the Judicial Committee. That is like jury duty, in that everyone has to serve at some point. Problems of behavior are addressed by everyone on that committee and each person (staff and student) gets a vote to determine consequence for the offense, or if there should be one at all. It emphasizes responsibility and empowerment. In this way there is nothing to rebel against here. That can be confusing to some students coming from the traditional model, but they eventually see that they have the power to change things.

What kind of technology is available to the students?

We have computers with Internet access. The kids can play video games and watch movies. Technology is available to us and it should be available to everyone - it is a democratizing force in that regard. It also gives them a certain degree of proficiency and practice and is simply another resource to learn.

What does a typical day look like to a student at Alpine Valley?

Students can arrive any time between 8:00 and 11:00 and the day is over at 5:00. As long as they complete 5 hours of school a day it doesn’t matter when they come and go. Usually the day starts in the common room; we have meetings, sometimes the judicial committee meets, people cook lunch in the kitchen or go off-campus to get some food. Classes happen just like meetings, and are at the discretion of the students. There will be a group in the game room, some playing outside. Everything happens organically in a multi-age setting without an agenda.

To learn more on Alpine Valley School, go to: http://alpinevalleyschool.com/

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