How Are These Students Surviving Without A Curriculum?

Posted on October 29, 2013


I’ve recently been spending time at a democratic school in Concord, CA called Diablo Valley School (modeled after Sudbury Valley School outside of Boston). One of the key aspects of the school is that there is absolutely no curriculum.

The student body ranges in age from 4 all the way through high school graduation (18+) and there is never any curriculum at all. In fact even recommending a curriculum is discouraged. The students do what ever they want all day long.

We place a lot of value on curriculum in our society. There are endless debates over the Common Core, the importance of Algebra, college-readiness, etc. So I think it may be very valuable to pay attention to an environment that has no curriculum at all.

If curriculum is as important is we think it is, then how are these students surviving? How are they getting in to college? How are they getting jobs?

If you care about education and think that a specific curriculum is fundamental to the equation then you have to look at this and ask these questions.

I’ve only been in the environment for a few days, but I have not yet seen anything that suggests the lack of curriculum is hurting these students in any way. As of right now frankly it’s hard to ignore the possibility that they may be benefiting from the lack of curriculum.

So please help me out. If you read this and believe that curriculum matters then help me develop a hypothesis that I can test. There must be some sort of evidence that I can look for that will show that these students are less prepared than students who experience a traditional curriculum.

We don’t have to guess at this one. There is an active population of students (not just at democratic schools) that have not had a defined curriculum throughout their education. If curriculum is important at all then we should see some differences between these students and other students.

I have some hypotheses that I am curious about. Many students take the SAT scores and attend college, so I hope to figure out if they are doing any worse on the SATs on average or are not able to get in to the school of their choice. The sample size is relatively small, but if there is a significant difference created by the lack of a curriculum then I think you should see some difference even at a small sample size. I’m not looking for statistical significance, just evidence in one direction or another.

If anyone has any other hypotheses I’d love to hear them. I don’t think it’s valuable to become obsessed with an idea such as curriculum, which creates so many challenges, if we can’t make any predictions about how it will affect the students. If we can’t even bring ourselves to consider the possibility that curriculum may not matter than we are simply cutting ourselves off from a valuable exploration.

All I ask is that you not ignore this question and remain open to all possibilities. At least ask questions; look for some evidence. We can’t simply rest on assumptions that have not been proven out, especially for something as significant as curriculum, which shapes the educational environment for millions of students every day.