Saturday, August 6, 2011

Sudbury: the Unschooling Schools, a Guest Post by Bruce L. Smith

I've wanted to share some guest posts on freeschooling and democratic schools on this blog for a while now, and with the recent article on CNN talking about both unschooling and Sudbury schools, this article seems particularly relevant!  So I am very happy to present to you Bruce L. Smith on the Sudbury model schools:

After a few years’ teaching in the public schools of Columbia, Missouri, Bruce L. Smith left to find his true calling as an advocate for the Sudbury model of education. Bruce has founded and/or worked for Sudbury schools in Illinois, Florida, and Colorado, where he’s been on staff at Alpine Valley School since 1998. In 2005 he created the Center for Advancing Sudbury Education to promote the visibility and viability of this uniquely empowering form of schooling. More of Bruce’s writings on the subject can be found at and

I’ve known about unschooling for a long time, and I’ve long been struck by its resonance with the Sudbury model of education. For the past fourteen years I’ve worked for these “unschooling schools,” so when Idzie called for guest posts on the subject, I was excited at the chance to share my views on our respective approaches to self-directed learning.

The Sudbury model was first unveiled in 1968 by Sudbury Valley School in west suburban Boston. Since then it’s spread to a few dozen schools (about two-thirds of them in North America), all based on two simple premises: first, that children are innately, powerfully curious, driven to understand and master the world around them; and second, that the best education recognizes and respects this basic truth, allowing all young people the freedom and responsibility to discover their individual paths.

While a number of schools talk this talk, I find Sudbury unusually thorough in also walking the walk. As with unschoolers, Sudbury students freely chart the course of their days, months, and years. There’s no hierarchy of pursuits (e.g., academic vs. hands-on), and all learning happens organically—self-initiated, self-directed, and self-evaluated. Classes and other structured learning situations (e.g., internships) do have a place at Sudbury schools, but only as students seek them out. The bulk of learning at Sudbury schools comes in the course of daily life, and much of it takes the form of play and conversation.

In fact, the philosophical similarities between unschooling and Sudbury schooling are so extensive, I’ve often borrowed from the thoughts of unschoolers to help assure families that trusting their children’s drive is not only valid, but leads to the most effective learning. And that in turn reminds me that unschoolers and Sudbury families have this in common as well: many of our relatives, friends, and acquaintances think we’re crazy and/or putting our children at risk. So sharing our successes—concrete reminders, large and small, of how (and how well) freedom works—seems like one big favor we could do for each other.

Beyond their faith in young people’s nature and competence, what really makes Sudbury schools unique is that their structure is determined by the people directly involved. That is, everything from the rules to the budget to hiring is shaped by a democratic process in which a student’s vote is equal to that of any adult. This structure is flexible—within each Sudbury school, and among the various schools—and changes can be made at any time.

So how do Sudbury schools act like schools? Well, first of all, we do have these physical facilities where students gather on a daily basis. Attendance requirements are partly a legal matter, partly a means of ensuring continuity in the school community. Yet as I’ve suggested, there is significant flexibility here: at my school, for instance, students can arrive anywhere between 8 and 11am, and are required to stay only five hours (though our school is open nine hours, and many students stay past the minimum). With an Open Campus policy, most Sudbury students can come and go freely throughout the day, so long as they fulfill their commitments at school.

And these commitments are fairly modest. A Judicial Committee meets regularly to handle complaints about people’s behavior, and people are expected to serve turns on the committee and testify as needed. Also, Sudbury students are typically expected to do periodic cleaning chores. School governance is overseen by a weekly meeting that reviews the work of the Judicial Committee and considers proposals regarding rules and activities that could affect the normal flow of the day (e.g., field trips, parties, visitors). Then there are clerks and committees to whom much of the school’s business is delegated, along with certification (aimed at ensuring safe, responsible use of school equipment) and age-mixing (Sudbury schools are open to ages roughly corresponding to grades K-12).

In this environment, students not only learn to take responsibility for their own education: they also see what it takes to maintain an institution—though much of that organizational learning is optional. Students can attend School Meeting, serve on committees, and become clerks…or not. They’re expected to abide by the decisions of these bodies and officials, but their involvement is not required. Again, attendance, Judicial Committee, and chores are the only mandatory activities—and even here, students can work to change the relevant policies and requirements. Beyond these areas, students are free to do their own thing, so long as they respect everyone else’s right to do likewise.

In addition to all the freedom and flexibility, Sudbury schools also provide an ongoing, mixed-age community in which young people share responsibility for maintaining a culture of respect. Having such a space outside the family sphere gives our students the benefits of a diverse and vibrant “home away from home,” stretching them to try new things, new ways of thinking and being. In this dynamic, Sudbury students develop superlative interpersonal skills. There are constant opportunities to assess and regulate one’s behavior, and to work with people with whom one doesn’t already have a familial bond. Shy kids learn to speak up for themselves; overly assertive kids learn when and how to hold back. All eventually come into their own in the most thrilling ways imaginable.

Indeed, Sudbury schools foster a greater degree of autonomy and personal strength than I’ve seen anywhere else. These are indispensable qualities, since we all know that learning is not simply about pursuing our passions, but also figuring out how to realize those passions in contexts where people are not predisposed to assist us. Not all learning is sought: some is presented to us in the form of interruptions or obstacles—the people we don’t like or don’t get along with, but with whom we must co-exist; the hoops we must jump through to get what we want; things we’d rather put off indefinitely, but which must be done or learned before we can get where we’re going.

Bottom line, the Sudbury model is easily the most empowering form of education I’ve experienced in two decades as an educator: our students exhibit a maturity far beyond their years, while retaining the best child-like qualities. Articulate and self-possessed, they exemplify confidence and playfulness. Full of enthusiasm and free from fear, they are remarkably adept at knowing and becoming who they are, identifying and achieving their goals.

It is a good, good thing to celebrate the commonality and the diversity of our beliefs and practices. Unschoolers and Sudbury families alike face a status quo that seeks to invalidate us and make it unnecessarily difficult for us to follow our hearts. Getting to know each other’s approach better, sharing our ideas and success stories, and working to build acceptance for what we do can only help as we lay the groundwork for a future in which all children are truly free.


  1. Hi Idzie and Bruce,

    In my opinion, all children will not be truly free until attendance at schools - no matter how wonderful those schools are - is voluntary.

    1. The Three Rs: Rules, Respect, Responsibility
      Fairhaven School
      Why We Are Not a "School with No Rules"

      "…In most people's minds there are two general methods of raising kids — the authoritarian and the permissive. In one the adult makes all the rules and enforces them, in the other there are no rules, or the rules are always subject to negotiation and manipulation. One is firm and disciplined, the other is kind and warm. One breaks the will and invites rebellion, the other disregards accountability and invites self-indulgence.

      The power of the Sudbury model's democracy is that it provides an alternative to both approaches to being with children. Kids at Sudbury model schools are treated with respect and are not subject to arbitrary authority. On the other hand, they are fully accountable for their actions and experience real consequences if they violate the rules set by the community. Freedom of education is balanced very clearly against the expectation — the requirement — that everyone treat others with respect and carry out agreements responsibly…."

      "…So many of the "free schools" that started in the sixties and seventies were unwilling to establish clear lines of decision-making and rules of conduct. The belief that natural curiosity was the necessary force behind real learning was tied up with a rejection of "power trips" and any sort of formality. Many of these schools simply ended in chaos and bitterness, or simple entropy, because they were unable to allow for educational freedom and respect for the individual while preventing paralysis by indecision and a behavioral free-for-all on the other. Sudbury Valley's success and longevity was and is still unquestionably due to the fact that the school understands that freedom requires order and that respect necessitates due process under conditions of rigorous fairness (as well as caring and compassion)…."

      "…We learn about life by living it; We learn about respect by being respected; We learn about responsibility by being granted it, feeling its weight and carrying it to conclusion ourselves…."

    2. David Rovner on August 3, 2016 at 7:27 AM wrote,

      "OK, So You're Sort of Like..."

      After hearing a short explanation of our (Sudbury Valley) school's philosophy, many people understandably try to link it with something already familiar to them. The most frequently mentioned "so-you're-sort-of-likes" are listed below. We have tried to be fair, but clear, in distinguishing ourselves from other philosophies. However, all the subtleties of these educational models are not laid out and comparisons are not made from every angle. We hope that the explanations below serve to clarify what the Sudbury model is really about, and what it is not.

      [. . .]

      . . . HOMESCHOOLING? There is a particular philosophy of homeschooling, often referred to as "unschooling," which shares many similarities with the Sudbury model. John Holt was its best known proponent, and his writings have been invaluable to us in helping to explain just how learning can happen without teaching, and why on earth a child might choose to learn arithmetic or some other supposedly dreadful subject. Unschoolers believe, as we do, that children are born curious about the world and eager to succeed in life and that kids learn best through experience and experimentation rather than by being told how and what to think. In the words of John Holt: "Real learning is a process of discovery, and if we want it to happen, we must create the kinds of conditions in which discoveries are made. . . They include time, freedom, and a lack of pressure." But unschoolers, for the most part, see the family environment as the best place for children to grow, while the Sudbury model believes that, as the African proverb states, "It takes a village to raise a child." Children and parents have complex relationships and interdependencies which make it harder for children to discover true independence within the family. In the environment of a Sudbury school, children face direct personal responsibility for their actions, without the emotional baggage that family-based accountability can sometimes carry. In addition, children are more able to develop some important social skills in a democratic school -- the ability to tolerate diversity of opinion, to speak out against inappropriate behavior, and to develop and carry out group projects, for example. In most homeschooling families, the parent sees him or herself as ultimately responsible for the child's education, while at Sudbury schools, that responsibility rests squarely with the child.

      "OK, So You're Sort of Like..."
      Author: Romey Pitman
      Associated School: Fairhaven School

    3. RE: mandatory attendance: Although there is a minimum attendance requirement (usually something like 20-30 hours/week) at Sudbury schools, students are not forced to go there. Any kid who doesn't want to be there can choose to drop out and homeschool, or attend any other school. The attendance requirement is accepted by students who really want to be there as a precondition of joining the school community.

  2. While Sudbury schools are definitely better than public schools, they are still a school and unschooling isn't school. I think calling it an unschooling school is really misleading, IMO.

  3. @Wendy: I definitely agree. And that's been one of my biggest issues with the majority of free and democratic schools I've looked into. Regardless, I find freeschools fascinating, and think there's so much potential there! I also think it would be really nice if the unschooling and freeschooling community was more connected, since it seems to me we have way more in common than not.

    @Stephanie: Bruce chose the title, and while I agree that democratic schools are not unschooling (as Bruce recognizes in his article, I feel), I just see the title as drawing parallels between the two, and I don't really see a problem with that. *Shrugs*

  4. Regarding the title, I regret any potential for misunderstanding. "Unschooling schools" is a label that bloggers and media types occasionally apply to Sudbury schools, and hasn't, to my knowledge, been used by us to describe ourselves. I wish now that I'd made that clearer in my post.

    My intention here was simply to explore the common ground between our approaches without obscuring the differences. And so I liked the way the title sounded -- a little playful, yet hinting at significant philosophical overlap. I certainly didn't mean to suggest a closer similarity between unschooling and Sudbury than is warranted.

    As we work toward greater understanding, both within the alternative education spectrum and in the culture at large, dialogue such as this is an important step. So I really appreciate these comments and look forward to reading more!

  5. Idzie - I just discovered there is a Sudbury school 30 mins south of us. now that i've gone and become a working mom and eli is feeling isolated as a result i am trying to be creative in finding a way for him to attend while still living in this area so my daughter can finish her senior yr(of highschool) at the community college and, most importantly to me, be close to her friends and boyfriend.
    it's a tightrope to be sure and i may need to hold off a year on moving near the school yet the idea of putting eli in public school
    kinda sucks right now - but i'm super excited and hopeful within the next yr i can create an awesome new life for us all!
    thanks for this guest article :)

  6. Idzie,

    I like a lot what you write on this blog. And I like you as a person, sincerely. But I must admit I am disappointed by this post. I totally agree with Wendy Priestnitz. No matter what "kind" of school and a certain "level of freedom," it is not unschooling because children are not free to go.

    That said, I can understand your curiosity, the desire to know what is happening in some schools that seem to be less worse than others. But "less bad" does not mean "better", and for children required to be there this is not freedom. If there are more in common between unschooling and freeschooling, so we must be able to be honest.

    All the initiatives of free schools (even Summerhill, Neill had said it from the start) are created BY adults FOR adults, not to meet the needs of children. These are services for parents.
    Having dropped the homeschooling (social pressure, so) and really immersed into unschooling, my husband and I finally accepted our entire role of parents to protect our children, defend their rights, their freedom and support them in what they like, what they want to live as and when they want to live.

  7. Oops ! I forgot to sign ... and the comment window is managed very poorly on my laptop. For example, I have to click about 1cm below the tab "post comment" to access it, it's weird.

    Idzie, I also wanted to thank you for your generosity to keep on this blog where you write from your heart for more than three years. I know - because I live it too - it's very hard to be yourself in this kind of culture as ours and even more when there is little or no support around. The total lack of solidarity between people too often lead us to acquiesce to ideas that may be « interesting » but, when viewed with honesty, are actually a lure for the real respect of human rights and freedoms.


  8. Edith,

    I'm trying to understand your objections to free schools/Sudbury schools. I don't think I agree that the students are not free to go. The Sudbury school I volunteer at has a 4 day a week, 4 hour per day "attendance" requirement. That requirement can be changed and has been in the past, by the School Meeting, a group that consists of the students and the staff members (because of numbers, it is easy for the students to overrule the adult staff). At our school, the main reason for having any attendance requirement at all is to foster a sense of community.

    During the time a student is in "attendance," he or she can be anywhere in the building, doing anything he or she likes, or anywhere else in the world, as long as they let someone know they're leaving the school and are able to be back by whatever time they've agreed to meet their parents.

    To me this seems to provide a similar amount of freedom compared to being at home.

    Perhaps some parents do see the school as being a "service" for them--but the most common reason I've heard from students for coming here instead of being at home is that they wanted to meet more people or spend more time with other people.

    I think you're going too far when you say that a Sudbury school is a "lure" for the real respect of human rights and freedoms and that you're "disappointed" in the post. At least at the school I work with, there is a very sincere desire to have an atmosphere of freedom and mutual respect. I believe the school is primarily motivated by an expressed desire by the young people involved to belong to a larger community rather than than by an adult desire to have somewhere to "put" kids.

  9. @Deb: Oh, I'm sorry to hear you're in what sounds like a difficult situation! It's great that there's a Sudbury school not too far away from you! I'm wishing you the very best in finding something that works for you, Eli, and your daughter. ♥

    @Edith: I realize this might just be a language barrier thing, but I honestly felt your comment(s) have a slightly condescending tone to them. Your attitude that I'm just not really seeing the truth of the matter is disrespectful to me, since it places *your* opinion on the matter higher on the hierarchy of rightness than mine. Just because you think differently, doesn't mean my opinion/the way I'm seeing this is wrong or misguided.

    I know it wasn't your intention for your comment to come across that way, but that's really what it felt like to me.

    I get pretty frustrated with the idea that unschooling is the only right way, and no other learning philosophy or model should ever be championed besides unschooling. But while I do feel that unschooling is *best*, and hope to someday live in a world that makes children and teens a part of everyday life, without school, that day is far away, and the truth is that in the current society we live in, not every child/teen can be unschooled. Because of economic reasons, because their parents/caregivers are abusive or neglectful, or one of many, many other reasons. And I think it's really fricken' important for those children to have freedom, too, not just the ones who can unschool.

    So, I'm really interested in freedom-based education alternatives. I don't believe private schools are the answer, for sure, because right there you still have an automatic gap between those who can afford it and those who can't. But, democratic and freeschools are important models, I think, because they've been functioning for quite a while in a way that is way more respectful of children than regular schools, while doing that in a building, with a large group. So in looking to build models that are truly accessible to everyone, something I'm personally really interested in, I think it's important to draw from both unschooling and freeschooling/other group sized freedom-based education alternatives.

    I am happy to learn from and work with a variety of alternative education people (homeschoolers, freeschoolers), even if I don't entirely agree with everyone's philosophy when it comes to learning in freedom. If we're only ever willing to work with people who think exactly the same way we do, then we'll never be able to make any serious, positive change in the world.

  10. @Scarlett: Thank you very much for sharing your experiences with the Sudbury model!

  11. I'm with Edith. One of our daughters spent a term at Summerhill. I've discussed the Sudbury experience with a dad here in Washington state who sends his kids there.

    Compared to public school, there are similarities between "free school" and unschooling; but that's an awfully coarse look at things. At a more realistic and only slightly more granular level, the gap between unschooling and Summerhill/Sudbury is still an uncrossable chasm.

    Is "free school" useful for some folks? Sure. Public school is useful for some folks, too.

    Neither is unschooling. And they are more alike than free schooling and unschooling are alike, IMO.

  12. It’s really interesting to see objections that Sudbury schools aren’t free enough, since about 99.9% of our PR addresses the concern that we offer way too _much_ freedom!

    For me, perhaps the most fundamental issue is that of choice. I hope we can agree that all individual learners should be allowed to choose how they are educated, whether that takes the form of homeschooling, unschooling, Sudbury, Montessori, Waldorf, free, or public schools. In this context, having more options from which to choose—real, accessible options—seems a very good thing.

    Regarding accessibility, I want to respond to Idzie’s pointing out “an automatic gap between those who can afford [private schools] and those who can’t.” Sudbury schools are constantly striving to be as financially accessible as possible, to the point that many offer sizeable ability-based discounts and most significantly underpay their staff. It is relatively common for single parents to be able to afford enrolling children in a Sudbury school. Given our principles and a society in which government-run schools enjoy a tax-supported monopoly, balancing affordability and viability is simply a fact of life for us.

    As for attendance, it is true that Sudbury schools have found it conducive to a stable community to require a certain level of attendance (not to mention those pesky government laws, within which parameters we're able to set whatever policies we choose). Building an institutional culture of responsible freedom is tricky in a larger culture that doesn’t particularly value either responsibility or freedom. Yet as Scarlett pointed out, Sudbury “attendance” involves doing what one wants most of the time, including going off campus. It also extends to taking days off from school. As I mentioned in the Facebook thread for this post, my school’s personal day policy is flexible enough that only two or three times in fourteen years has anyone’s attendance been questioned at School Meeting.

    I understand the suspicion that schools at most offer the promise of false freedom. Yet simply because many schools spout idealistic rhetoric they don’t live up to, that doesn’t mean all schools are inherently incapable of manifesting ideals of freedom and empowerment. Given my fourteen years at Sudbury schools, it is difficult for me to imagine any institution, school or not, that allows more input into decision-making on the part of those affected by the decisions. Sudbury students enjoy uniquely extensive opportunities to practice the skills of democracy and institution-building, in addition to discovering and pursuing their dreams.

    At the same time, I believe we should avoid expending too much effort defending our respective turf, and instead remember our common philosophical basis in self-determination for all learners. Rather than trying to prove our approach is superior, we should put our energy into making better options more available and spreading the belief, in this fearful, conformist culture, that young people can and should be trusted.

  13. That was a great read.
    I was homeschooled for a few years before my parents decided that unschooling was the best for my siblings and I. At about 13, I started butting heads with my mom, and we looked for schools that shared a similar idea of how children learn, and the Sudbury model fit that bill.
    I attended for over 6 years before graduating in 2008.
    Attendance was never a hindrance to my freedom.

  14. Hi Idzie, hi Scarlett,
    I recognize that part of my comment was rather emotional and belongs to me (about my disappointment or what I thought you lived or thought); it was "my" feeling and I should not have it published. I apologize for this mistake; I am really sorry. If, sometimes, I use words that are not used in this sense by anglophones, please just tell me. I'm a life-learner. Now, I'll try to make a distinction between facts, testimony and opinions. Thank you for helping me see more clearly, it is very useful.

    In today's world we live in, I think every child deserves to have his needs respected, and freedom and rights protected. I personally believe that if we agree beforehand that « that day is far away », we do not work together to implement it « now », for every child. Every child has parents and every parent is responsible to respect him/her needs and protect his/her freedom and rights.

    I didn't say I have objections to Sudbury. I only find important to be clear about parents motivations. Free schools are not unschooling. In my opinion, attendance requirement is not freedom and freedom can not be measured in quantity. It is important to add that unschoolers do not only remain at home all time. Anyway, not our family.

    Freeschools are created by adults to accommodate parents who want their children allowed to keep a minimum of dignity and freedom when they are not with them to protect them; even tough I could understand their choice, this is not child freedom to me.

    That being said, I think it's important to differentiate children and young adult (and older teens). Older ones can make and assume their own choices to fill their need for social contact, even go to school (private, public, free...) or anywhere else.
    For a long time now, socialization is almost the only reason that most parents bring their children to school.
    Personaly, as long as my children (who are teens) are happy and free to go to any school or any other place they want, they (and so I) prefer keep on thinking that if everyone chose to be free, no one would have to attend any school to meet other people. And how cool could it be !

    I'm happy to read you and participate to this comments-discussion, Idzie. Solidarity, working "together" is a very important thing to me. Few people had the opportunity to see what really is "to live an unschooling life." Everyone may has not access to all information and / or do not take the time to deepen the topic - which is unconventional and wrongly described by the media - and therefore can not make a fully informed choice. I think it is therefore important to state the facts. IMO (thank you to Cap'n Franko for this new « word » in my English vocabulary! ;-)

    Thank you !


  15. I have a few comments. This is a great discussion.

    I have some experience with Sudbury schools, and I'd like to address the "free school" phrase. That is a term that's been in use since the 60's, and it means a number of things, some of which aren't applicable to Sudbury schools and are misleading at best. It's kind of a garbage term at this point - it's very squishy and open to interpretation.

    As for the idea that children who attend a Sudbury school aren't truly free due to the attendance requirements goes, I agree with Bruce when he says it's mostly a non-issue. Parents who really believe in letting their children choose need to pay attention to what their kids are saying when it comes to how they feel about going to a Sudbury school. In my experience, it's the kids themselves who are eager to attend every day. When my son was younger, he was practically panting at the front door for me to take him and it was hard to get him to leave. Now he's a late-sleeping teen so things have changed, but he still wants to go every day. It *is* his choice!

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  17. I attended a Sudbury school (Alpine Valley, in fact) for 11 years - from the time I was about 6 to the time I graduated.

    I have no personal experience with unschooling, so I can't speak to the similarities or lack thereof. That said, I can honestly attest to the fact that I cannot comprehend an environment I would prefer to have grown up in - at the time or in hindsight. I certainly never felt trapped or manipulated into being there; in fact, for a number of years I spent very little time physically at the school, as I was pursuing my passion for horsemanship through internships that I was given the freedom to pursue from the moment the idea occurred to me, at the age of 8. When I decided several years later that I didn't want to be a professional trainer after all, I was met with absolutely no resistance - only support for my decision to find another passion.

    What's more, as a committed introvert, I was given both the space to be alone when I needed to be (I had a glorious darkroom setup that was perfect for this) and a vibrant, exciting, and truly fun community to take part in when I was willing. Over time, I came to appreciate the potential for and importance of balancing interaction with others and time alone - a skill I value highly in my daily life.

    I got to experiment with leadership in groups of varying sizes, from small groups (such as the one relating to photography equipment), to being elected as clerk of the Judicial Committee, to being elected as chair of the School Meeting. Each position held real meaning for me, since the outcomes and processes were not in any way superficial.

    I could go on for hours (and probably have) about the wonders of my Sudbury childhood. I say all this not because I think it's necessarily superior to unschooling, but because the arguments I've seen for the superiority of unschooling over Sudbury have struck me as untrue based on my own experience.

    I've really enjoyed the dialog so far - thank you to the blog owner for making it possible!

  18. Thank you, Idzie, for sharing this guest post.

    As an educator and a parent of two teens, I've had 8 years of involvement in Sudbury schools and, sandwiched in the middle, 5 years of unschooling experience. I've also taught 7th & 8th grade, staffed at Sudbury schools, taught at the junior college level, done homeschool workshops, and started an unschooling group, so I've had quite the range of experiences!

    I know many families who have tried both Sudbury/free schools and unschooling, and it has been interesting to observe the similarities, differences and transitions over time.

    For me, the essential question is: how free and trusted is the child? How much do the parents/staff trust in the intrinsic ability of children to master their world? Because adults in both free schools and unschooling advocate for children to pursue their own agendas in an environment where they are trusted and their autonomy is supported, both approaches have a great deal of common ground. We can mutually support each other as we all swim against the tide of the controlling, factory approach to parenting and education so prevalent in our society.

    Regarding our differences, some here have made the point that children have more freedom in unschooling, but I would contend that while there are some aspects of unschooling that enable more of a sense of freedom or autonomy than Sudbury schools, there are also some aspects of Sudbury schools actually allow more of a sense of freedom than unschooling does.

    As I've watched children choose to transition from unschooling to Sudbury with the support of their parents, I've noticed that they often experience a greater sense of autonomy by being in the free school environment. This is because they have more control of their choices without having to worry what mom or dad thinks about it, or having to go through mom or dad to access resources. It's a more objective environment for them, where the feedback they get is independent of family relationships. Heck, they can vote out the adults if they want to. Can't exactly do that at home. They can organize soccer games or go for a walk with friends or join in a sewing class or vote to hire a Japanese teacher any time they want without having to negotiate with their parents. For them, this is a freeing experience. I'm not arguing that this is either good nor bad, or that there's something wrong with the family environment, just that it's a different dynamic for the kids when they are at the school, one that some of them find useful. Often the unschooling parents, who were happy in their unschooling situation before, decide that it is the right time to send their child to a Sudbury school because they want that child to experience the type of autonomy and social setting the school provides.

    I've seen some children opt to return to unschooling after trying Sudbury. Excepting financial reasons, their decision was because they wanted to spend their time pursuing interests that they could have more freedom to pursue by unschooling, due to the lack of attendance requirements. Again, I don't feel this is good or bad, but simply a choice that met their current needs at the time.

    Vive la difference! Each approach is a choice a family can make based on their individual situation and needs. What's important is that we all agree and can testify to the fact that trusting children and giving them a free environment is an healthy, natural, positive approach that works.

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  20. I just found your blog, was reading through all the posts, and was delighted to come across this one. We've been weighing our education options for our eldest who will be "school age" next year, and unschooling and sudbury have been at the top of our list. I lean towards unschooling and my husband leans towards Sudbury. Coincidentally the Sudbury school we're considering is Alpine Valley!

    I'm saddened to see the negative responses from some of the unschoolers here. I was compelled to respond because I feel there's a semantic misunderstanding at the heart of this debate. It seems like some are fighting so strongly against the idea of "school" that the very word becomes some marker of something that is necessarily harmful or otherwise bad. I don't disagree that many models of education that use term "school" can be harmful or at least not as helpful as unschooling has the potential to be, hence my interest in it. But some of you are condemning a model just because it uses the word 'school' while being ignorant about what the word actually means in this case.

    I have to say that after having thoroughly read up on both unschooling and Sudbury models, I really do believe that Sudbury is *very* like unschooling in a school, and by school I simply mean a building where people, in this case those under 19, congregate regularly for the purpose of learning. The fact that attendance is taken doesn't have to have much impact. Obviously if the child is feeling restricted by having to show up somewhere, they can leave and unschool instead! And the hours *are* pretty flexible.

    And if the concern is protecting the child's absolute freedom, I might actually have to put a check in the Sudbury column. I get the impression that the child's autonomy and self-direction is so protected in Sudbury that they might do a better job of actually giving that to my child than I will because I have the habits I grew up with and I may at times have to fight the urge to pressure my child into certain directions of learning. I already find myself constantly fighting the instinct to think my son "behind" because he hasn't been taught the stuff his friends who are in preschool have learned. Intellectually, I know he's not behind, but the programming is strong, so I believe my son may actually be more free and more himself in the sudbury school than with me!

    I also like the potential that Sudbury has to make the child feel empowered and effective as they have a very real voice in the rule-making and operations of the school. I still prefer the idea of unschooling, but I think Sudbury could be just as great.

    I agree with the original post that it's good to find the common ground here and there are potentially lots of mutual benefits to be had in a relationship between these two groups.

    I personally think it might be nice to have the option to move back and forth between the two options during my boys' "school" years, and I hope there aren't negative social repercussions for our family because we aren't 100% one way or the other.

  21. Lots of interesting posts! I found this site due to a fellow Sudbury parent's questions about unschooling vs. Sudbury. Our family began with Waldorf homeschooling which morphed into unschooling (for about 4 years?) which resulted in Sudbury (Fairhaven School, in MD), I feel, having feet in both unschooling and Sudbury camps, I can speak to the similarities and differences of both.
    I do share the experience of increased autonomy and confidence my children have acquired since coming to Fairhaven. Mommy wasn't there to "do it for them"--if they wanted it, they had to get it! Esp. for my younger daughter, for whom getting certified to use most equipment at school (you simply demonstrate you know how to use the equipment properly and voila, you're certified) was an obstacle. Some folks might say that was unfair to put her in a situation that would frustrate her but, she actually grew from that. I saw her confidence in herself increase after she cleared that hurdle. She wasn't whiny and needy anymore (of me, esp.). In fact, she's now a certifier of the art room and can help new kids, having been in their shoes. :)
    We enjoyed unschooling for quite a while and I will treasure those days. I still consider myself an unschooling mom in a way, as we still conduct our home life (hubby included :)) the same way, strewing neat things about, taking trips together, joining in each other's joy in our pursuits (birding for mom, photography for dad, riding for the girls, tv shows, books, etc). I think coming to Fairhaven has filled a need our particular family had--mom to have her time (some need more time than others!) and the kids to have a consistent community of folks who can freely pursue their interests and ideas. :)

    Mel, in MD

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  23. Hi,

    I know I am late to this article (and new to this blog, in general), but I just wanted to add my thoughts as well. I have both unschooled and Sudbury schooled for many years and I really don't see much difference at all. For me, the only difference (since I am not apart of an unschooling community) is that unschooling is something I do alone, Sudbury is something with other people. If I was a part of an unschooling community, I'd imagine there was no difference at all.

    I also found it funny that many people put Sudbury schools in the same category as "free schools" or Summerhill. While every Sudbury school is different (and some Sudbury schools even call themselves free schools), in my opinion the difference between free schools and Sudbury schools is much greater than the difference between Sudbury schools and unschooling. In fact, Sudbury schools pretty much look at free schools in a way many unschoolers seem look at Sudbury schools: well-intentioned, but not going far enough.

    There is an ongoing debate in the Sudbury community whether Sudbury schools are schools at all. The answer tends to be yes, but it's more of a PR stunt than anything. This culture says learning can only happen in a place called "school". Sudbury schools seek to subvert that by calling school a place where people are free to direct themselves completely. Unschooling subverts it by saying you don't need school at all. I think they are two great approaches, and both needed to look critically at coercive "education", but the difference is rhetorical, not ideological.

    Perhaps we could all remember that John Holt once said that he would have preferred "unschooling" to be simply called living. He would have emphasized living in freedom and that is exactly what happens in both of these domains.


  24. This entire discussion is very interesting to me because we recently became involved in the beginning planning stages of a Sudbury school hoping to open in our town. My always unschooled daughters (ages 11 and 9) were excited about the opportunity to go spend time with more people on a daily basis while still living and learning in the freedom to which they are accustomed. We've since realized how much of an ordeal it is to start a school and are working to build our community of unschoolers now rather than waiting for a Sudbury school to open, but we still think the Sudbury school is a good step in the right direction.

  25. YouMa, aka You
    Here's another aspect to add to this discussion .. I am a parent of 3 adult children, ages 35, 33 and 30, who are Shining Mountain Waldorf school graduates, Boulder, CO. My number one choice for their education was to move from southeast FL to Framingham, MA 26 years ago so they could acquire a Sudbury Valley school education. Due to several circumstances we did not do this, instead we moved to Boulder, CO in 1987 and enrolled them in the Waldorf school. They are fantastic adults, each pursuing a healthy life path. Yet, I NEVER could ignore the Sudbury model, EVER. Now I am interested in helping to co-found a Sudbury school here in Boulder, CO. Yes, a project that requires some real tenacity, good people with children of school age and a stick-to-ittiveness to see it through.

    We did unschool our oldest, a daughter, for what would be considered 2nd and 3rd grade, and that meant she and her two younger brothers played to their hearts' content, often with the children of two other very close families.

    Now with the new book Dr. Peter Gray wrote in 2013, "Free to Learn", this entire subject is totally upleveled a notch, supporting why trusting our children to gain exactly what they want/desire to be happy and well-functioning adults, and also why the age-mixing aspects of a Sudbury environment are so valuable, is imperative to our societies and the health of our children particularly.

    The idea of the parents not being a predominant presence in the lives of their school-age children as much as unschooled parents generally are on a day to day basis, and choosing to have their children attend a Sudbury school, is very positive. This can give the children such a broader range of adult interaction. I could go on and on but suffice it to say ... it is my passion to engage in conversation so far about Sudbury education being an option in EVERY community in our country, and even the world. Thanks to the co-founders of all Sudbury schools, to the staff at all of them, and to the parents who truly have trusted their children to flourish and thrive in such settings. :-)

    Peter Gray's book is an absolute inspiration indeed. Thanks to you, Peter Gray. The story of your son, concerning his journey regarding Europe, is superb, what an example of trust!

  26. I do believe kids must study at schools and have adequate buildings for studying, as it can help to concentrate on academic activity (like writing some research paper, essay). If student studies at home, he can easily resort to AussieEssayWriter or other reliable company and cheat educators, so it mean he gains no knowledge, practices no skills and just wastes time and money, of course. I don't mind unschooling and homeschooling, but just like standard American education it has a lot of defects. I believe schools and colleges need skilled professionals to make education process more effective and keep kids interested in gaining knowledge every day.

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  28. David Rovner on August 5, 2016 at 17:40 PM wrote,

    Freedom Nurtures Character, Culture, and Learning

    At a recent annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held in Boston, much was said about the evils of scientific illiteracy among the population at large. Many leaders stressed that universal scientific knowledge was crucial for wise public policy-making in democracy, as well as for continued American preeminence in science and technology.

    The blame for the dismal showing among American youth today was placed on our schools, at all levels. In this, most people can probably agree. The schools today are clearly doing a dismal job of educating children in most areas – character, social responsibility, and god citizenship, as well as reading, writing, history, and science. The more money we spend, the poorer the results seem to be. Smaller classes, newer facilities, more expensive equipment, and a veritable array of support personnel don't seem to help.

    But the solution offered by the speakers at the AAAS convention was just a repetition of the same old formulas that have failed so often in the past thirty years: more classes in science, more requirements, more trained instructors to add to the curriculum from first grade through college. What these leaders seem to forget is the root experience on which our country was based: America's origins stem from the belief that coercion is antithetical to personal growth. The remarkable way that our society has thrived proves that the greater the freedom enjoyed by individuals within a society, the greater the intellectual and moral advancement enjoyed by the society as a whole. America was based on this momentous principle, but our educational leaders seem as oblivious to this fact as any illiterate child is!

    The cure to the problem of scientific illiteracy is to remove once and for all the underlying disease: compulsion in the schools. Human nature in a free society recoils from every attempt to force it into a mold. The more requirements we pile onto children at school, the surer we are to drive them away from the material we are trying to force down their throats. The real answer is freedom in the schools – freedom for every child, whatever their age, to choose the activities to which their innate curiosity leads them! After all, the drive of infants to master the world around them is legendary. Our school must keep that drive alive by nurturing it on the freedom it needs to thrive.

    Fewer compulsory activities are needed, not more – in fact, preferably none at all. People who wonder whether any of this could possibly make sense should look at the experience of Sudbury Valley School ( See: ) in Framingham, founded in 1968 on these very principles. The results are altogether remarkable, as we would expect – no less remarkable than a similar attempt made on a national level by thirteen small, poor colonies two centuries ago!

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