I spend the day today at Diablo Valley School, a Sudbury Valley School in Concord, CA.
I’ve read a great deal about the Sudbury Valley School model over the last few months, but nothing compares to seeing it up close and personal.
A number of things jumped out at me:
- It’s a challenging environment to observe. You’re a stranger and people are going to treat you that way. A number of students introduced themselves to me, asking me questions, showing off their work, offering to teach me about Minecraft, etc. So it wasn’t completely awkward, but as with any time you enter a new environment where everyone else knows each other, it’s difficult to interact right away as people feel you out and you feel them out.
- Students were playing a lot of video games. This must be a significant issue for anyone looking at this environment for the first time and it’s one of the first things people think about when I introduce them to the idea of students doing what they want all day long. But you can’t spend time with these kids as they play their games and not be impressed with the amount of learning that is taking place. Its not algebra, but it is strategic, complex thinking. Minecraft, which is probably the most popular game, is very educational. Students were engineering complex systems very quickly and skillfully (I was completely lost). One student (maybe 10 or 12 years old) was designing houses in the game in the hopes of creating a YouTube video channel demonstrating home designs and building techniques. I’m sorry, but you can’t disregard video games as an educational tool. If you want further proof of this fact, look at what Google is doing, trying to reach the next quantum physicists through Minecraft.
- The Judicial Committee needs to be implemented in every school in the world tomorrow. It is a very high quality and scalable means of dealing with discipline. I watched student after student come in to the room, provide an honest account of what they thought happened in a given disciplinary situation (or admit that they may not be remembering correctly), admit guilt honestly and without any significant stress and take their punishment gracefully. I’m sure it’s not like this 100% of the time, but even if it’s only half as smooth of an operation most of the time it’s still very impressive. Adults had almost no role in the whole production and the students that ran the committee were extremely thoughtful and empathetic as they dealt with each case. Great stuff.
- Age almost didn’t matter amongst these students. Students certainly spent more time with other children who were closer to them in age, but teenagers were interacting with six year-olds in a friendly and respectful way, legitimately enjoying each other’s presence. I quickly lost track of age all-together. I knew some students were older and some younger, but it was almost never a factor.
I’m curious to see how my thoughts evolve once I’ve spent more time there. After spending a day there, though, it was clear to me that this was a very healthy environment and I think it would be an even better environment if there were more students. It’s too bad that so many people think this environment is ridiculous.