But what about structure?

By Kevin Currie-Knight


“But do kids learn structure at a school like Pathfinder?”

    This is a fairly common, and understandable, question I often hear. The concern is that at Pathfinder, where students control their own time and learning, students will not learn how to deal with the structured world beyond school.

    I think the best way to answer the above question, though, is: “Yes, they will learn structure. But it may be a different kind of structure than we see at school.” Let me explain.

    When we talk about kids learning structure, we usually have in mind a particular kind of structure: a structure that is externally imposed by an authority figure onto the learner. From 9 to 10, we will learn this particular thing in this particular room in this particular way as assessed by this particular quiz.

    Schools do that kind of structure as well as can be expected. But there is another less obvious kind of structure: the kind that is dictated not by an external authority, but by the activity and situation. This is the kind of structure Pathfinder students will get most practice with.

    As an example, some kids will choose to climb trees. No one imposes a structure on them (we’ll climb at this particular time in this particular way). But the desire to accomplish the goal, “I want to climb a tree,” is self-created structure, and the physical activity itself imposes a structure. Students learn quickly that there are certain things you must know how to do to climb a tree, and that figuring out how to climb requires quite a bit of thought. What imposes the structure? Largely, the tree, the climber, and gravity. To climb successfully, the climber can’t just move any which way, but only in very specific ways. And no external authority determines whether the climb was successful; it was successful only to the degree that the climber was able to climb. Structure.

Students and visitor converse at  A&I  Baltimore. Credit: Hope Wilder

Students and visitor converse at A&I Baltimore. Credit: Hope Wilder

    Or consider the simple act of conversation, a popular activity at schools like Pathfinder. For conversation to work, it can’t be structured by some external authority (“Let’s talk from 9 to 9:40, and the conversation must be about insects!”) but must have an internal structure. Conversation has rules - about how to take turns, how to listen so that others will want to talk to you, how to change the subject, etc. And the only way to participate successfully in conversation is to learn those structures (in the process of listening and conversing) and keeping to those structures. But the structure isn’t dictated by some authority; it emerges as part of the conversation.

    In his book Freedom and Beyond, John Holt makes the point this way: ‘There are no such things as “unstructured” situations. They are not possible. Every human situation, however casual and unforced… has a structure.’ There is no such thing as unstructured learning. Everything we do - from playing video games and watching television to having conversation to researching a favorite band - has structure. If you want to learn something, learning to navigate structure just comes with that.

One thing that strikes me is that I know people who say to me, “Oh, I wouldn’t know what to do with my time if I had a month off.” And I think “What are you talking about? Just use your time.”

I never feel that if the structure in my life was lost, what am I going to do?
— Sudbury Valley alumnus

    Some parents may still be concerned, though, that their kids still need to learn how to deal with externally-imposed structure. In the workaday world, they will have deadlines, scheduled meetings and rules they have to abide by. How do Pathfinder kids learn that kind of structure?

    In his book Free at Last (about the Sudbury Valley School, where students also direct their own learning), Daniel Greenberg tells a story of a student who wanted to study photography. A staff member at the school helped him secure an internship with a working photographer. In exchange for agreeing to let the student intern, the photographer laid out several rules for the internship: here’s when to show up, here’s how to behave on a job, etc. Just like in “the real world,” learners at a school like this learn quickly that if they want to do a thing that requires someone else’s assistance, you must abide by whatever rules they put in place, or not receive their assistance.



At a school like Pathfinder, it turns out that you learn to handle both types of structure: that imposed by an external authority (like the intern had to) and structure imposed by the situation itself (like the tree climber). More traditional schools tend to give students practice only with dealing with externally imposed structure, getting students used to following teacher- and school-set rules.

Here’s a similar report from a Sudbury Valley school alum about having learned the skill of structuring their own time:

One thing that strikes me is that I know people who say to me, “Oh, I wouldn't know what to do with my time if I had a month off.” And I think "What are you talking about? Just use your time." I never feel that if the structure in my life was lost, what am I going to do?

I don't feel lost. My ego doesn't fall apart in chaos if I don't have a schedule. I just live. I make my time what I want it to be. I never feel like, “Oh, my God, what would I do without structure imposed upon me from the outside? So many people I work with talk like that.

Even about my job: in my job, we're alone most of the day, most of the time. I'm a social worker in a hospital setting and we're on our own to make our own schedules and get our work done. A lot of people come here and don't know how to do that. They say, “Well, I don't know how to structure. This day is too unstructured for me. I won't get my work done because I don't know how to balance my day to get it done.”

And that I can't fathom. That never happens to me. I wonder how I'm going to get my work done, but I appreciate having the freedom to organize my day the way I want to.”


When you think about it, most situations in life are about internally-imposed structure, where no one tells you specifically what to do, but you must figure out the structure the situation demands. Kids do learn structure when they have responsibility for their own learning.  They learn how to follow externally-imposed structure and create structure of their own.