Philosophy | The Open School


The philosophy of The Open School comes from a long tradition of democratic education, beginning with the Sudbury Valley School, which opened in 1968. The Sudbury Valley School has been running for more than 50 years, has graduated hundreds of students who have gone on to live successful, fulfilling lives, and has thoroughly proven that free, democratic, non-coercive education is a viable model in the 21st century. Currently there are roughly sixty schools around the world that follow the Sudbury Model of education.

Education for the 21st Century

Today, the world is changing more rapidly than at any point in history. When the next generation of children reaches adulthood, they will be living in a world that is very different than the one we live in, and there is no way we can predict what skills will be important. No longer are people expected to spend their entire lives in one career. To be successful, people must be flexible and creative. They must be able to learn new skills quickly at any time. Employers are searching for self-starters and independent, inspired workers. Jobs are disappearing, and the self-employed are thriving.

How can we prepare children for this brave new world? We should begin by observing children as they are naturally. We see that children are creative, inquisitive, and curious. They are flexible; their minds are plastic. They are able to acquire new skills and knowledge rapidly. They know what they want and can be extraordinarily inventive when trying to get what they want. Children are natural entrepreneurs.

So how can we prepare children for this brave new world? The answer is that we must help them stay exactly the way they are, to retain these essential qualities. We must not seek to change them. Our greatest responsibility as educators is to get out of the way and let children develop according to their natures.

Conventional schools seek to supress children’s natures. These schools are a product of the industrial era, when adulthood for most people meant a lifetime of rote work in a factory. To create effective workers, schools had to supress people’s individuality and force them into a mold. Workers had to be standardized so they could be interchanged like machine parts. They could not be permitted to question authority. Although many people today agree that the old assumptions are outdated, our schools have hardly changed at all in the last 100 years. We are trying to prepare children for a post-industrial world using an industrial education system.

We are now living in the twenty-first century, and we need a new paradigm of education. The Open School is that new paradigm.

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Free Play

All mammals engage in play. The evolutionary purpose of play is to allow children to practice the skills they will need in life. For humans, the most important and most difficult skill is getting along with other people. That is why children love to play together — talking, arguing over the rules of games, and reaching compromises. In free play, children spend a lot of time imaginatively role-playing. They take on the roles of the people in their world — moms and dads, doctors and patients, comrades in war. Through this process they practice scenarios and work out the consequences of their actions in fantasy.

Free Play

The business of getting along with others, communicating clearly, managing relationships, and dealing with emotions is a tremendously difficult task. Many adults struggle with these things, and they suffer for it. At best, children will spend their whole childhoods working to master these skills. At The Open School, we get out of the way and let them do their work.

Most schools now recognize the importance of children developing problem-solving skills, and so teachers invent problems for students and subtly guide them to the solutions. On the other hand, in free play, children tackle real, novel problems whose solutions aren’t yet known by anyone. This requires them to cultivate true judgment and independence. And they love it! They seek out new challenges every day without any direction or encouragement from adults.

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Screen Time

Students at The Open School are given unrestricted access to computers. We know that computers are a powerful way for children to gain access to information and to practice skills through games. We also know that computer skills will be essential for their adult lives.

Adults who did not grow up with computers can be astonished by how much children learn through computer play. They learn to read and write by searching on Google, or by chatting with each other in online games. They learn math by managing money in fictional economic systems in games. They learn problem-solving skills by solving puzzles in puzzle games and working out strategies in strategy games. They learn creativity by building worlds from scratch in Minecraft.

We find that computer use at The Open School is an inherently social activity. A pair of students will use Google to research a question that came up in their conversation. A large group of children will crowd around a computer to watch a YouTube video and discuss it. And kids almost always choose to play video games with their friends rather than alone.

Many people worry that excessive video gaming can have negative effects on kids, including addiction. They may also worry that violent video games will cause their kids to become aggressive. As much as these fears are played up by the media, they have both been debunked by scientific research. Dr. Peter Gray examines the evidence on video game addiction as well as the supposed link between video games and real violence.

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Unsupervised Time

At The Open School, students are not always supervised by adults. We have a large campus, and students are free to roam as they wish. We believe that children need time away from adult eyes and ears, to practice problem-solving and conflict resolution on their own. While away from adults, children can push on the boundaries of their comfort zones and develop independence and responsibility.

However, it is important to recognize that no student at school is ever truly unsupervised. Students at The Open School know that they have a responsibility to look after each other, and to hold each other accountable for their actions. If they ever feel unsure about safety, they have no hesitation about finding an adult.

We accept that the occasional bump or scrape is an essential part of growing up and learning to manage risk. Therefore we don’t prohibit slightly dangerous activities such as climbing trees and running outside barefoot. Nonetheless, the staff are very safety-conscious and will intervene in any truly dangerous situation.

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Frank, The Open School’s trusty green passenger van, is just as much a part of our campus as our building is. We spend a lot of time exploring Southern California. In the past year we’ve been camping at Joshua Tree National Park and Big Bear Lake; we’ve been snow tubing and rock climbing; we’ve seen art museums, beaches, and much, much more.

We believe that young people won’t be prepared for the real world if they’re raised apart from it. Children develop passions based on what they see. They become interested in adult professions when they see adults passionately engaged in those professions. And they develop a love for the earth by spending time with it.

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Learning + The Brain

The brain is plastic; it can learn anything at any time. Research has shown that there is no objective “right time” to learn anything. In their paper, What Does the Brain Have to Do With Learning?, Worden, Hinton, and Fischer found that “while there’s evidence for limited critical periods in brain development in limited domains (such as the strength of vision in the two eyes), no evidence supports a critical period for academic skills.” The brain rapidly absorbs information that it deems meaningful and useful. Anything else is ignored or quickly forgotten.

The neurotransmitter dopamine is released when the brain engages in something it enjoys. When children choose what to learn based on their brainʼs unique pleasure response, their brains become conditioned to find learning pleasurable. When the brain is experiencing emotional stress, it releases the hormone cortisol, which interferes with learning and memory. Respecting children protects the brain and creates the conditions for learning.

The brain is always learning, every moment of the day, unless the mind is stressed, bored, or angry. We believe that since life is meant to be enjoyed, so too is learning.

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The Open School is governed democratically by students and staff on a one-person-one-vote basis. Students have real power and responsibility to make their school whatever they want it to be. They quickly realize that no adult can come in and overpower them, and that listening and creative problem solving are of critical importance in this model.

Since students are in charge of making the rules, they quickly see the need for them. Here, rules are not meaningless dictates handed down from above. They are a way to live peaceably together, and are necessary for a healthy community.  Many adults fear that, given the freedom to rule themselves, kids would live in anarchy. But democratic schools like The Open School prove otherwise.

Young people who are granted this type of responsibility grow into independent thinkers. They question authority and do not accept arbitrary or meaningless rules. They know that they have a valued voice and that they are truly capable of changing their world.

Want to learn more? Read our frequently asked questions, or check out these external resources.

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