So, are you like...
... a Montessori school?
Our program and Montessori are similar in that children are given more freedom to make decisions about what interests them and how to pace themselves. The Montessori model asserts that a specially trained and caring teacher can guide a pupil to gain developmentally appropriate abilities better than a student could themselves. In contrast, our model gives students even more freedom to choose any activity, and makes no assumption about how individual children will learn.
... a Waldorf school?
Waldorf and Pathfinder both care about the whole child. Both models do not require that children learn to read early, and both value deep and intensely involved play as crucial to the growth of children. The Waldorf model as founded by Rudolf Steiner has a specific developmental theory that informs timing and access to media and technology, and endeavors to move children in a particular direction of spiritual and social change. In contrast to Waldorf, our model espouses no particular path of spiritual, social, or emotional growth.
Our program is similar to unschooling at home in many ways. You could see our program as an "un-school." Both value self-directed learning without the use of coercion or extrinsic motivators and both trust that children will learn what they need to when they need it. However, students who attend our program get more time away from their parents in a consistent community environment of other children and adults, with different rules to navigate than at home. This enables them to take on much more responsibility for their own choices. It also enables them to practice living in a democratic community with all of its rewards and challenges.
The thought of children playing all day without anyone forcing them to sit at desks may conjure up images of a day care. But because students at Pathfinder are not told what to do and are certainly not entertained, they must constantly decide what to do with their time. Freedom is not as easy as you may think, especially for older children who are not practiced in it, and responsibility is even harder.
A Typical Day
What does a typical day look like?
There really is no typical day in a self-directed learning environment. Each day is rich with opportunity that is only limited by the students’ imagination and interests.
When students arrive, they sign in, put their lunch away, and usually go look for their friends. Throughout the day, there are children at the computers, some eating lunch, some in the art room, and some playing a board game or working on a puzzle. Often groups of students organize a game of tag or an impromptu talent show, while one student is making a video, one is playing the piano, one is working on their math, and another is catching bugs outside.
Is there any structure in your program?
Students can choose to structure their day however they like. Although they are free to do whatever they want all day long (within the boundaries of safety and respect), the community has two very important structures that make up the heart of the it: 1) The student-led justice system where rule infractions and disagreements are handled daily and, 2) the weekly community meeting where the rules, processes, and budget are decided democratically by students and staff. In addition, students can form or join clubs for specific purposes (like art, music, cooking in the kitchen, throwing parties, etc.) and join committees to help run the school.
Discipline & Safety
Is your community like “Lord of the Flies”?
This is many people’s initial reaction to hearing that children participate in our governance. The truth is that most children value the sense of order that exists in our community due in large part to our student-led justice system. For example, anyone can say "Stop" at any time to any other community member, and that person must stop their activity immediately. Everyone gets the message that freedom does not mean license and that with freedom comes an enormous responsibility.
What are the rules and what happens if someone breaks them?
The core document that shapes our thinking is the Pathfinder Bill of Rights, which includes protected freedoms as well as accepted responsibilities.
Specific rules of the community are posted where they apply and in our Community Agreements that members sign when they enroll. The rules are created collaboratively and democratically by children and staff as the need for them arises, with all voices heard. In general, the rules provide for the protection of individual rights while maintaining an atmosphere of safety and respect.
Anyone in our community can request mediation with any other community member. Once per day, a student-led mediation circle gathers to facilitate conflicts and offer space for reconciliation and mutual understanding.
How does your community handle bullying?
Like at most other schools, bullying is taken very seriously here. But unlike most other schools, the adults don’t automatically take care of it. Instead we encourage students to use the student-led justice system. This is very empowering for the “bullied” student, who learns to stand up for themselves against any bully in the future and is less likely to see themselves as a victim. And it is often a transformative experience for the “bully” who gets firm but respectful treatment from their peers.
Is it safe to let a young child play with a preteen?
Age-mixing is one of the most natural things for kids to do. Younger children emulate and enjoy being nurtured by older children, and older children learn caretaking of the little ones, as well as enjoying an extended childhood of free play. Not only is age-mixing safe, it is one of the key ingredients that make our model so successful, and is a proven anti-bullying strategy backed by science.
What about exposure to sexual content, violent content, or profanity?
First of all, no illegal activities are allowed, including access to X-rated or pornographic materials. Additionally most self-directed learning centers have rules against profanity and violent content in public spaces to protect members from unwillingly being exposed to explicit content without their consent. However, the rights to privacy, freedom of speech and free access to information are core values of our school, and exposure to "real world" controversies does happen via the news, media, and free conversation. Our end goal is to prepare students to live as adults in the real world; therefore we believe students should make their own choices about when they are ready to interact with various kinds of content.
How will my child learn the basics: reading, writing, and math?
When someone is ready and willing, the basics like reading, writing, and math are quite quickly and easily learned, especially in the enriched environment that a self-directed learning center provides. Real-life goals for students such as communicating with one's friends via text, keeping track of pocket money, and participating in the written judicial and meeting processes of the school provide ample incentives to learn basic skills.
Further reading: Children Teach Themselves to Read by Peter Gray
TED talk: Why Math Instruction Is Unnecessary.
What if my child just plays all day long?
“Play is the highest form of research.” ~ Albert Einstein
Play is exactly what your child should be doing! Play is learning. There is a reason that nature has endowed children with an intense need to play in their earliest years, at a time when they are learning the faster than at any other point in later life. Through play they also practice their physical, intellectual, social, and emotional skills.
What if my child doesn’t want to do anything all day?
“If you force kids to study things that they are not interested in, they may come to appear to be lazy.” ~ Jerry Mintz, founder of Alternative Education Resource Organization
Depending on how many years your child has been in a traditional school setting, they may go through a period of de-schooling when they first arrive our program. We see this as a valuable and necessary transition time in which the student gets back in touch with him or herself. This may include long periods of doing nothing at all. You need to accept this as part of the process before choosing to enroll your child.
How will my child know what they like if they are not exposed to it (with classes, etc.)?
“When you teach a child something you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself.” ~ Jean Piaget
We live in the information age, where knowledge is available at your fingertips. Students are free to explore and interact with students and adults of all ages all day long, so they are exposed to a wide variety of conversational topics. Ultimately, everyone has gaps in their education no matter their schooling, because no one can learn everything there is to learn. Schooled children all learn the same sliver of information, self-directed children learn the sliver that best applies to their own lives.
Read more about parents' and staff struggles with their need for structured "classes" in this conversation from Clearwater staff and parents.
How will my child set personal goals?
“Children learn how to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.”
~ Alfie Kohn
Even though adults may not notice it, children set goals for themselves all day long. When they are young, the goals are usually small: making a card for a friend; learning how to play a game, balancing a stick. Some goals are larger, like proposing a new rule or planning a field trip. In our program, children learn how to accomplish these goals for themselves. As their confidence grows, so do their goals. The important thing is that students don’t rely on anyone else to set goals for them.
My child follows an online curriculum. Does that work with your school?
“Just as eating against one’s will is injurious to health, so studying without a liking for it spoils the memory, and it retains nothing it takes in.”
~ Leonardo da Vinci*
Some people immediately see the social value of our program and think they can fill the perceived academic void by having their child follow an online curriculum at home. An online course is fine if it truly is your child’s choice. However, any type of academics or extra-curricular activity that is forced upon your child is contrary to our program’s philosophy. It sends a mixed-message to your child that our program is for playing and the “real” learning takes place at home.
How will I know my child is learning if they are not being tested?
“All I am saying … can be summed up in two words: Trust Children.” ~ John Holt
Science has shown that high stakes testing doesn't significantly improve learning, and may in fact contribute to stress , depression,and anxiety disorders. A big leap that any parent must make before enrolling their child in our program is the willingness to trust them. You must trust that they will learn what they need to in their own way and in their own time. Once you shed the notion that real learning can be measured, you will begin to see your child in a different light and trust your own instincts about whether or not they are growing.
How does your program measure growth or evaluate progress?
“Nobody grew taller by being measured.” ~ Roland Meighan
Staff members in our program strive to be non-judgmental of students and their interests and skills. We enjoy celebrating successes, but we do not compare students nor assume to know what is best for them. Instead, we encourage students to trust their own assessment of themselves and of their efforts in meeting personal goals and challenges.
What if my child spends all day on the computer?
It is quite possible that your child will spend all day on the computer. With all of the negative media attention surrounding screen time, it is not surprising that many parents are concerned about this. We recognize that computers are the most important tools of modern society and that there are many advantages to playing with them. Furthermore, computers and gaming are very social activities in our community in which students engage with each other, learn from each other, and constantly problem-solve together.
You can read more about the cognitive benefits of video games here.
What if my child plays violent video games?
Many parents are concerned about violence in video games, and imagine that their children will become more violent if exposed to such graphic images. However, developmental psychologist Peter Gray reassures that kids know they are playing at violence as way to understand real-world violence, and likewise are very aware that it different from perpetrating violence in the real world. He asserts that if we want to shield children fom violence in play, we need to create a better world first.
Here is a conversation from concerned Sudbury Valley parents about their internal process around violent video games. We also highly recommend the book Killing Monsters to understand the psychological need for children to work with imaginary violence.
Life After Pathfinder
What if my child transfers to another school?
“When kids are constantly having to make decisions [in a democratic school], they begin to know who they are, and to know how they feel about almost everything. When these kids go into an authoritarian situation, they do not feel threatened about losing their identity; they see the situation, instead, as a game that has to be played in a certain way.” ~ Jerry Mintz, founder of AERO
Here are some stories from a kindred program at Sunset Sudbury about students who transferred to a more traditional system. One was required to take a test to determine appropriate grade level and did so without a problem and two others were placed in their age-appropriate grade and excelled. In all cases, parents and teachers were surprised at how well these students performed. This is not surprising to us because we know how demanding a self-directed program really is when it comes to personal responsibility and self-regulation. In any other program where someone tells you exactly what is expected of you is easy in comparison.
How will my child get into college? And will they be ready?
There are 50 years of alumni from self-directed Sudbury Valley School, as well as peer-reviewed studies of unschoolers who are now adults. The history of Sudbury graduates is that 80% get into the college of their first choice because of their ability to articulate what they want out of college. Once they arrive, they are often more prepared for college life than many of their peers because of their well-honed “real world” skills of self-motivated learning, communication, and time management. For more reading and statistics, see the Circle School's Alumni Studies here and Writings on Sudbury Valley Alumni here.
What happens when my child gets out into the real world?
“Education is a social process. Education is growth. Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.” ~ John Dewey
A self-directed learning center is much more like the real world than traditional schools. Multiple peer-reviewed surveys of graduates from Sudbury Valley School has shown that the vast majority are living lives that are congruent with their values. In other words, graduates know themselves, know what they want, and know how to get it. These adults don’t just settle for a paycheck, they seek out meaning in their work and in their personal lives. They are happy and content with the life they create for themselves. Self-directed learners are also particularly prepared for a fast-changing world in which self-initiation and lifelong learning is a must.
Will my relationship with my child change?
“We don’t yet know, above all, what the world might be like if children were to grow up without being subjected to humiliation, if parents would respect them and take them seriously as people.” ~ Alice Miller
Your child may mature and grow in unexpected ways while enrolled in our program. That is the beauty of Sudbury schools! As with any other relationship in which one person is changing, the other may have to make adjustments as well. You can expect your child to demand more autonomy and respect at home. If you are open to making changes in the way that you relate to your child, then your relationship, and your child, will blossom.
If my child becomes a self-directed learner, will my role change from parent to friend?
“If I had to make a general rule for living and working with children, it might be this: be wary of saying or doing anything to a child that you would not do to another adult, whose good opinion and affection you valued.” ~ John Holt
The reality of the matter is that parents will continue to make the most important decisions in their children’s lives as the adults in their household. We believe that parents should be sensitive to the responsibility and power that entails, and treat their children as respectfully as possible, much like you would treat a friend.
We don’t have a democracy at home. Does that work with your program’s philosophy?
We recognize that parents make the biggest decisions in a child’s life. Not everything has to be put to a vote, but the more your child feels control over his or her own decisions and the more his or her opinions are valued at home, the better this program will work for your family.
Many parents report feeling lighter as they see their child become more capable, independent, and responsible for themselves through making their own choices.
See Lenore Skenazy's fabulous essay: The School Project that Sets Parents Free
Students and staff
Is there a specific “type” of child that would benefit more from a Sudbury model school over a conventional school?
Sudbury schools have welcomed every ‘type’ of child – from the highly academic student to the traditional school ‘drop-out’. Students who are best suited for Sudbury type schools include: bright, highly motivated kids who want to surge ahead and challenge themselves; kids with unique learning styles who want to move at their own pace; kids who are ‘different’ in some way and want an atmosphere of tolerance and friendliness; social kids who want to be part of a democratic community; little kids who are passionately engaged in exploring and creating; high-energy, restless kids who want to be active; frustrated kids who are sick of schooling; shy, sensitive kids who want to pursue their own interests; and self-directed kids who are ready for responsibility.
Do you accept children with autism or other special needs?
Prospective students will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. As with all of our students, a decision about whether Pathfinder is appropriate for a child would depend on the child’s ability to learn to take responsibility for his or her actions. Our program is not equipped to handle a student who experiences severe difficulties in learning independently or in self-correcting negative behaviors.
Why don’t you have teachers? What is the role of staff?
“What I have learned, very slowly and painfully over the years, is that children make vital decisions for themselves in ways that no adults could have anticipated or even imagined.” ~ Hanna Greenberg, founder of Sudbury Valley School
The adults at Pathfinder chose not to call themselves teachers because everyone and everything is a potential teacher. We do, however, recognize our special role in the community. Staff members are ultimately responsible for the survival and smooth functioning of the program. On a day-to-day basis, staff members focus on holding the space in which children can be free within the boundaries of safety and respect. Although we practice non-interference as much as possible, we are always available to help students if and when they ask, and sometimes that might be in the role of "teacher."