By Debbie Ayala

I recently had a conversation with someone about what role adults play or ought to play, in a Sudbury School. In most educational settings, adults are in charge.  Adults take responsibility for the environment and education of children.  If a child/student is wasting time or acting out, it is usually adults who step in and redirect or solve the problem.  It is difficult to understand an environment where adults play a completely different role.  Even some students wonder what adults in this environment do and don’t do.  At Alpine Valley Academy, our staff members are instructed to consciously step back and allow students to solve their own problems, to take responsibility for their own learning.  The reason for this is that we believe children are capable of taking charge in these areas, and the benefit they gain by having this freedom and responsibility is priceless.  We actually believe that helping out, without being asked, can be harmful to this process of self directed education.

According to Daniel Greenberg, founder of the Sudbury School, there is nothing more dangerous to developing these skills, than a helpful adult. 

 “Self confidence is developed primarily through self-initiated activity.  The most important thing about self-initiated activity is that it really be allowed to go along without being bothered by other people all the time.  That’s where we make our biggest mistakes, as parents, as adults.  We see somebody start something and our instinct is to be helpful.  Always to be helpful.  We don’t intend any harm.  “We’re on your side.” “Can’t we support you in this?”  I learned this lesson when our first child was about 8 years old.  For over a year he had been passionately collecting rocks.  He found rocks where you wouldn’t even think rocks existed.  He’d study them, wash them, compare them, look them up in books.  We watched this, and we thought we’d do something really nice to help.  So we bought him, unsolicited, a rock polisher.  Isn’t that a sweet thing for supportive parents to do?”

“He never touched a rock after that.  He dropped his engagement with rocks completely.  We had taken over his activity. Innocently, with the best of intentions.  There’s nothing more dangerous than a helpful adult to squelch self-initiated activity.  It is the curse of modern pedagogy that teachers, “help motivate,” seize “teaching moments,” and try to “assist” at every turn.  By doing that, they rob children of the ability to self-initiate and to carry out an activity, and undermine their self-confidence in the process.” (Dan Greenberg)

Sudbury Schools are designed to provide an environment where students can learn to learn.  They are designed to have kind adults nearby who are available when help is asked for and/or truly needed. This is not possible with constant or even partial interference.  It is not possible without failure.  It is not possible when students believe they can only do things when adults are present.  I love that there is a place like this for my children!

In Utah there are approximately 360 public schools and 64 private schools.  There is only 1 that asks adults to step back and give students the gift of learning to learn.  In this one school, students are actually allowed to direct their own education without interference from anyone.  They are allowed to learn the skills that help them develop confidence to take charge of their lives.  They are allowed to learn to be adults.

Posted May 17, 2021


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