In our culture today, there are many routes through which children can apply their natural drives and instincts to learn everything they need to know for a successful adulthood. More than two million children in the United States now base their education at home and in the larger community rather than at school, and an ever-increasing proportion of their families have scrapped set curricular approaches in favor of self-directed learning. These parents do not give lessons or tests, but they do provide a home environment that facilitates learning, and they help connect their kids to community activities from which they learn. Some of these families began this approach long ago and have adult sons and daughters who are now thriving.
My colleague Gina Riley and I recently surveyed 232 such families. According to these families’ reports, the main benefits of this approach lie in the children’s continued curiosity, creativity, and passion for learning, and in the freedom and harmony the entire family experiences when relieved of the pressures and schedules of school and the burden of manipulating kids into doing homework that doesn’t interest them. As one parent put it, “As an educator, I see that my daughter has amazing critical thinking skills that many of my adult college students lack … My daughter lives and learns in the real world and loves it. What more could I ask for?” But not every family has the ability, means, or desire to facilitate their children’s self-directed education at home. For many, a better option is a so-called democratic school, where kids have charge of their education in a setting that optimizes their opportunities and where there are many peers with whom to socialize and learn. (Such schools should not be confused with Montessori schools or other types of “progressive” schools that permit more play and offer more choices than standard schools but nevertheless maintain a top-down, teacher-to-student system of authority and a relatively uniform curriculum that all students are expected to follow.)
Over many years, I’ve observed learning at one such place, the Sudbury Valley School, in Framingham, Massachusetts. The students, who range in age from four to about 18, are free all day to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t break any of the school rules. These regulations, which have been created democratically by the children and staff together, have nothing to do with learning; they have to do with keeping peace and order. The school currently has about 150 students and ten staff members, and it operates on a per-child budget that is less than half that of the surrounding public schools. It accepts essentially all the students who apply and whose parents agree to enroll them.
Today there are about two dozen schools in the United States that are explicitly modeled after Sudbury Valley, and still others that have most of its basic characteristics. Compared with other private institutions, these schools charge low tuitions, and some have sliding tuition scales. Students come from a wide variety of backgrounds.
To people who haven’t witnessed it firsthand, it’s hard to imagine how such a school could work. Yet Sudbury Valley has been in existence for 45 years and has hundreds of graduates who are thriving in the real world.
Many years ago, my colleague David Chanoff and I conducted a follow-up study of Sudbury Valley graduates. We found that those who had pursued higher education (about 75 percent) reported no particular difficulty getting into the schools of their choice and doing well there once admitted. Some, including a few who had never previously taken a formal course, had gone on successfully to highly prestigious colleges and universities. As a group, regardless of whether or not they had pursued higher education, they were remarkably successful in finding employment. They had gone into a broad range of occupations, including business, arts, science, medicine, other service professions, and skilled trades. Most said that a major benefit of their Sudbury Valley education was that they had acquired a sense of personal responsibility and capacity for self-control that served them well in all aspects of their lives. Many also commented on the importance of the democratic values that they had acquired at the school. More recently, two larger studies of graduates have produced similar results.
Students in this setting learn to read, calculate, and use computers in the same playful ways that kids in hunter-gatherer cultures learn to hunt and gather. They also develop more specialized interests and passions, which can lead directly or indirectly to careers. For example, a highly successful machinist and inventor spent his childhood playfully building things and taking things apart to see how they worked. Another graduate, who became a professor of mathematics, had played intensively and creatively with math. And yet another, a high-fashion patternmaker, had played at making doll clothes and then clothes for herself and friends.
I’m convinced that Sudbury Valley works well because it provides the conditions that optimize children’s natural abilities to educate themselves. These include a) unlimited opportunity to play and explore, allowing them to discover and pursue their interests; b) access to caring and knowledgeable adults who are helpers, not judges; c) liberal age mixing among children and adolescents (age-mixed play is far more conducive to learning than is play among those who are all at the same level); and d) direct participation in a stable, moral, democratic community in which they acquire a sense of responsibility for others, not just for themselves. None of these conditions are present in standard schools.
I don’t mean to paint self-directed education as a panacea. Life is not always smooth, no matter what the conditions. But research in these settings—both mine and others’—has convinced me that the natural drives and abilities of young people to learn are fully sufficient to motivate their entire education. We don’t have to force them to learn; all we need to do is provide them with the freedom and opportunities to do so.
Of course, not everyone will learn the same things, in the same way, or at the same time. That’s good. Our society thrives on diversity. We need people with different skills, interests, and personalities. Most of all, we need people who pursue life with passion and who take responsibility for themselves throughout life.
This article covers research and ideas that are developed more fully in the author’s book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life (Basic Books, 2013).