Mitra vs. Sudbury Valley

Posted on October 22, 2013


I’ve spent the last few months studying the educational philosophy of Sudbury Valley School (a democratic school). The primary component of democratic schools is that every students and staff member gets one vote as they debate the day-to-day operations, budget,  rules and discipline, and even hiring and firing of staff members. Students are allowed complete freedom to spend their time as they desire as long as they don’t violate rules that have been approved by majority vote.

I really appreciate the emphasis on trusting and respecting students in these environments. I’ve seen a great deal of anecdotal evidence that has me convinced that people learn much more effectively when they’ve chosen to learn, rather than being forced to learn (maybe this is an incredibly obvious statement, but based on our education system it does not seem to be). Personally I hope my children will be able to attend a democratic school (especially if it were a public school).

Given this I was really excited to see the new cover story of Wired Magazine: How a Radical New Teaching Method Could Unleash a Generation of Geniuses.

One of the highlighted quotes gets right to the heart of the story:

The bottom line is, if you’re not the one who’s controlling your learning, you’re not going to learn as well.

You should read the article. It’s a great story of a classroom in Matamoros, Mexico that essentially became a democratic classroom based off of the ideas of Dr. Sugata Mitra who is working to create schools where students learn what they want, encouraged on by retired British teachers over Skype.

As much as I appreciate Dr. Mitra’s work and enjoyed reading about the class in Mexico, I can’t help but compare the description of Mitra’s schools to Sudbury Valley School. Here are some of the differences between Dr. Mitra’s schools and Sudbury Valley School:

  • Mitra’s schools are primarily made of glass so outside people can look in.
    • This is an interesting idea. At first I thought, “how would you like to work in a fishbowl environment”? But the fact is many people do work in these types of environments (open office, coffee house, news organizations with big windows letting people look in), so maybe it’s not so bad. Still it feels a bit off to me. At the very least the idea that kids are going to be satisfied spending all their time in one room with a few computers for years and years sounds completely unrealistic.
    • Sudbury Valley School has a sprawling outdoors campus with a single building that the students have complete access to. They tried providing visitors the ability to come and check it out, but found that very few visitors could understand what was going on, creating more problems than solutions. Now they require that you read quite a bit about the school before you visit.
  • Mitra’s schools use retired British teachers over Skype to encourage/help the students with their learning.
    • It’s impossible to ignore the imperialistic aspects of this. Why isn’t he using in-person retired Indian teachers to teach Indian students?
    • The Skype aspect seems a bit like technology for technology’s sake, but the fact that you can turn it off/on and that it allows you to ask for help when you want to, could be a benefit. In-person adults tend to want to step in to situations and help even when their help is not needed and it would be better if the student figured it out on their own.
    • Still having interesting and thoughtful adults around is an enormously valuable experience for students. Students learn a great deal through modeling and you can’t model adults if there aren’t any around. Seeing adults take responsibility for their actions, be helpful to others, be interested in learning, communicate and argue with each other effectively, etc. are all extremely valuable to a child’s development.
    • The goal shouldn’t be to remove adults from the equation, but to have adults in the environment that treat the students with respect and trust them enough to let them make their own decisions. I think children want to have adults around as long as they can interact with those adults without being patronized. I think children appreciate learning from the experiences of adults as long as adults don’t make those anecdotal experiences sound like fact that shouldn’t be questioned.
    • Maybe Dr. Mitra would love to have in-person teachers but can’t scale his model without the help of Skype. Maybe he doesn’t trust adults to act appropriately under his model. I don’t know why he chose to use Skype, but I think it’s a mistake. Although it may be more scalable and easier to control, I think you’re just missing out on too much by not providing children with a diversity of adults to learn from and model.
  • Mitra’s model seems to have teachers asking questions that students try to solve.
    • It’s not entirely clear if Dr. Mitra has changed his thinking on this as he talks about students being able to turn off the teachers on Skype when ever they want. If students can “turn off” the teachers then the old descriptions of an essentially teacher-run classroom would be moot.
    • At Sudbury Valley School staff members specifically avoid explicitly recommending material for students to learn. This is based primarily in the desire to avoid highlighting some learning as more important than other learning and potentially confusing the priorities of the students.

I’m curious to see how Mitra’s schools evolve. They’re grounded in the observation that students can be trusted to learn and develop in to mature, competent adults without being micro-managed along the way, and I deeply appreciate that. We need to explore a lot of different executions of these ideas, not just so we can find the best ones, but so that a larger portion of the population will become comfortable with these ideas.

Various incarnations of these ideas have been around for over 100 years (the article even points out that they date back as far as Socrates or beyond). In our education system, though, we place very little trust in students and provide them with very little autonomy, and I think our children are worse off because of this. Each new incarnation of these ideas has the potential to push mainstream thinking closer to idea that students deserve greater autonomy and trust and will thrive under such conditions. For this I appreciate Mitra’s work and will be paying close attention to how it plays out.