How do Sudbury Schools work: Why Not Offer Classes?

Fairhaven students playing “ninja” on the porch.

In the course of browsing content for our new website, we discovered on the Philly Free School’s site this article from our colleagues at Clearwater School. Since before we opened the school in 1998, people have been asking about classes, and they still do. The exchange below still applies.



by Amanda Klein, Shawna Lee, Stephanie Sarantos, and Nora Wheat

Reprinted from the April 2004 issue of The School Bull, the newsletter of The Clearwater School.

Amanda Klein (parent):

The biggest question that has been cropping up when I do informal PR about Clearwater with people, including my family members, who are fundamentally very sympathetic to many aspects of the Sudbury model, is: What exactly is wrong with adults offering optional “educational” activities to kids? An example would be the Summerhill-type model: “here are some classes on this, this, and this — come all the time, come sometimes, or don’t ever come if you don’t feel like it.”

I know I have heard staff members address this, but I’m still not fully clear on the thinking – and perhaps not always comfortable with this aspect of the model. My understanding is that offering something to a kid can have an element of coercion or condescension – even if it is just a suggestion and totally optional.

Stephanie Sarantos (staff member):

Class offerings distract from the purpose of education at Clearwater. That purpose is bare bones, stark and difficult: take responsibility for your life. If you want a class, ask. Staff will respond. The asking can be a direct request for a specific class, or a whisper of an idea about an interest. Staff may assist by teaching, helping find a teacher, or helping define a vague idea into a tangible plan. The important focus is that ultimately, students are in charge of figuring out what they are interested in and how they want to spend their time.

Offering a slate of classes can convey an official sanctioning of the importance of one activity over another. We do not believe in core subjects versus elective subjects. We do not see some subjects as essential and others as enrichment. And, we do not believe that classes provide a better or more meaningful way to learn than playing, talking, reading, and thinking.

Classes happen at Clearwater when they are the best method for gaining the particular information being sought. When there are faster, more efficient or more fun ways of learning something, classes don’t happen.

The longer I am here and the more classes I participate in at Clearwater, the less value I place on classes. They offer an efficient way to teach, but usually an inefficient way to learn. Certain subjects like dance or languages (or at times, writing) require interaction with others, and classes are good for that. When kids want to learn something quickly, individual effort – with help if needed – often works much better.

I also think that many things that happen at Clearwater – getting along with friends, mediation and Judicial Committee, School Meeting, clean up, understanding people whose behavior can be challenging, discussing world events – could be considered classes. These activities involve group interaction, learning skills practice and evaluation. It is important to realize that in other settings, classes are created to address these very subjects that are part of daily life here.

The most important part of my answer though is to return to where I started. The most lasting, useful and meaningful education is not about content knowledge, but about self-knowledge and responsibility. Kids at Clearwater learn that if they want a good life, they need to create a good life.

Shawna Lee (staff member):

My immediate, blunt response to “Why not just offer some educational activities that are totally optional?” is: “What’s the point?”

Who’s to decide what’s “educational”? Why is what students choose to do all day every day any less educational than some activity I, as a staff member, could offer? Or maybe that’s not the question. Maybe it’s really an exposure question. “How will kids be exposed to everything that’s ‘important’ if adults don’t present them with ‘educational’ activities?”

At Clearwater, by the time a student reaches the age of ten or twelve, her/ his working knowledge of the everyday world rivals that of most adults. I’m talking about the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, but also politics, art, culture, history, etc. I’ve been astonished more than once at the breadth of general knowledge that kids, my own included, have acquired by that age. Moreover, students that age and older have developed (and continue to develop) specialized knowledge that exceeds that of most adults, unless those adults have skill in that specialty. And they obtain it without me or anyone else needing to offer “educational” activities, just in case.

Many adults worry that children may not discover what turns out to be a lifelong passion or miss some essential piece of knowledge, unless adults offer educational content to the child. The possibility that either will happen is remote for several reasons. First, each person has the potential for an infinite number of passions and there’s no way to predict what will spark any particular passion. Second, the child’s interests will lead unerringly to at least one and undoubtedly more of those passions.

Third, educational content is so unimportant in the totality of a person’s life because it is so easily gotten at any time by anyone who is motivated to get it. People will find what they want when it’s important to them. What is important is that a person knows her/himself intimately and believes s/he is capable of working hard and learning what s/he needs to succeed, however s/he defines success.

Another thing I’ve discovered at Clearwater is that the means I choose to convey or teach “educational” content is probably a lot less efficient and effective than allowing students to discover and learn the content themselves in their own way and time. Students choose classes at Clearwater to see what that experience is like, or because they’ve decided it’s an efficient way to learn a particular thing at their level of knowledge. But they rarely choose pre-made “educational” experiences because conversation and play, independent, experiential learning, and unscripted, spontaneous discovery are just so delightful and life-affirming.

The last argument against offering optional educational activities is that students who come from traditional school backgrounds may perceive these activities as more “important” than talking and playing, because the activities are offered by adults and look more like what they’ve been conditioned to believe is “education.” They may sign up for these because they don’t yet believe that they are capable of deciding how they should spend their time. By offering activities we are undercutting our own goal, which is to provide an environment where children grow into free, capable, self-aware, responsible adults.

So I am left with the assurance that my time is much better spent being a part of students’ lives in whatever way they want to include me, whether it’s chatting, playing, fixing lunch, tying shoes or occasionally engaging in activities that look like school.

Amanda Klein:

This makes sense to me, but it kind of goes in and out of focus. I will say that what you two are saying is, in my mind, perhaps the most radical thing about Clearwater. I appreciate what Shawna is saying about the content the students absorb – but really you are saying that content isn’t important. I agree, but boy, can that be a hard sell.

The funny thing is, I went to St. John’s College, where we studied a “canon,” but at the same time as the school emphasized learning these crucial pieces of Western thought, it told us that the content could really be anything – it was learning analysis and discourse that was crucial – learning to learn.

Stephanie Sarantos:

I don’t think it is as straightforward as “content is not important.” It is more an adamant statement that universal content is not important. The content that I want to learn about and want to remember is very different than the content that my husband wants to know about – and still more different than the content that most of the other people I know are interested in.

Learning about content, gaining skills and thinking, thinking, thinking are universal human activities, drives and desires. The difference is that we do not impose a set of content and expect kids to enjoy it, benefit from it or learn it. This freedom we grant to adults more readily in our age of mass information, but we do not easily give this level of autonomy to kids.

There is an irony to what I said in the last paragraph, because there are some universal areas of content that everyone needs. The kids at Clearwater learn these “things” quickly, efficiently and matter-of-factly. In addition (as Shawna pointed out), the depth and breadth of content knowledge among Clearwater students, who don’t take classes, is readily apparent through casual conversations – let alone heated discussions – with our ten-year-old students.

So this is where the trust comes in. We trust that kids and adults will master essential content because they want to be successful, literate members of society. I find it instructive to observe the areas of content the students learn about and know well; these areas of expertise, knowledge and trivia are the “essential subjects” of our culture.

Nora Wheat (staff member):

Honestly, I too sometimes flirt with Amanda’s question. This is my fourth year at Clearwater and I’ve seen very few classes. I could be concerned as I wonder about all the missed opportunities – great classes with catchy titles and inspiring field trips – “The Geography of Seattle Beaches” or some such thing. I often interact with teachers, students and families who participate in schools where this romantic curriculum is the strength of the school. This is appealing: I think it would be great if my kids knew about the spawning cycles of salmon. I would be excited it they built props for shadow puppet performances. I want the world for them and for all of our children. They would be guaranteed exposure to fabulous artistic and academic content in any number of local progressive/alternative schools. As much as I’m attracted to this ideal of a well-rounded, cross-cultural, experiential, program, I know that these well-intentioned programs require a great deal of student manipulation on the part of the teacher, and still don’t meet their stated goals. In my observation, they are controlling, dishonest and ultimately damaging to a child’s sense of self.

The way I see it, classes make school life easy. They imply that teachers have to be prepared for only a limited number of topics, and that these are the topics about which students should be curious. They require prep time along a specific line that may or may not be of interest to students, while limiting time that might otherwise go towards building relationships or supporting student-initiated activities. I know that with “optional” classes, it may seem that a balance could be struck – but I’m not so confident in that. Once a class is scheduled, staff and students enter it prepared for this topic. Even if one student’s stray curiosity could be relevant or useful to the class, it’s hard to be flexible when others have taken the class expecting this content. Of course in regular schools, high-stakes testing plays into this drive to stay on task – but even in alternative models (like Summerhill) classes predetermine content, even if student interest shifts midcourse. At this point, a student with “freedom” would likely drop the class. All this may be fine, except that in an environment where classes are the sanctioned means to knowledge, the student may have less experience and support in pursuing that content on her own – and may instead wait for a class to be offered.

In the same way that classes make a teacher’s job “easy,” they make the task of being a student even easier. In a supportive environment, learning may be challenging, but is not difficult. Choosing what to learn is excruciating. It is this torture that most often leads me to consider the merit of offering classes. Give them something to soothe the pain: a class so they don’t have to think or plan or choose for themselves. In this way, I see having a schedule of optional classes as escape from the real work of being a student at Clearwater – discovering oneself: strengths, weaknesses, interests, abilities…

A final (for the moment) concern I have about a standing class schedule has to do with the way content becomes identity for students. In the larger world, adults identify and evaluate children by what they study at school and the grade they are in. Too often, I have seen children begin to claim these incomplete and confining snapshots as their own identities. This too is an easy out, eliminating any need to examine oneself and what personal information to share in building a relationship. It also leaves the student who chooses not to attend classes with no allies in explaining to the larger world that their school and learning experience is not dictated by classes. (For example: “What classes are you taking at school?” “Well, astronomy, geometry and Haiku poetry are being offered – but I’m not taking them.”)

I know that I haven’t even touched on the depth of content that Clearwater students do acquire – all the “fabulous” artistic, academic and physical activities they encounter and engage in, both in and out of school.

Amanda Klein:

Thanks for your great responses. It never ceases to amaze me how wholeheartedly and thoughtfully you all engage with these complex issues – the combination of your confidence in the model and the fact that you are so clearly in a constant state of observing it, questioning it, and learning from it inspires great confidence in me. This combination of trust and exploration that you model is one of the delights of being a part of this community, as is the satisfaction and growth I observe in my son.

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