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 nearly 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.
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 entrepreneurs 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 Although many people today agree that the old assumptions are outdated, our schools have hardly changed at all in the last 100 years.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.Go to top ▴
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.
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.Go to top ▴
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.
We find that computer use at The Open School is an inherently social activity. Students will crowd around a computer to watch a YouTube video, discussing it the whole time. Sometimes they play video games together; sometimes one person plays while others watch. Sometimes students read, watch, or play alone, and we trust that they are still deriving meaning or value from the activity.
Many people worry that excessive video gaming can have negative effects on kids, including addiction. At The Open School, we believe that excessive gaming is normally a symptom of some unmet need or other problem. You can read more about video game addiction in the article Video Game Addiction: Does It Occur? If So, Why? by Dr. Peter Gray. Or, read about a similar school’s take on video games in the article On Video Gaming from the Clearwater School.Go to top ▴
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.Go to top ▴
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.Go to top ▴
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.Go to top ▴
Justice at The Open School is handled by a committee called the Civics Board. As in a jury, all members of our community serve on the Civics Board on rotation. Anytime a conflict arises in the school community that cannot be resolved by the individuals involved, the conflict is brought to this committee. The Civics Board conducts investigations and votes on sentences, making sure that all individuals are heard and tried fairly.
We believe that effective justice is restorative, not punitive. This means that we seek to address the problems which led to conflict in the first place, by considering the needs of offenders as well as victims. We don’t consider rule-breakers to be bad or immoral; we consider them to be struggling. The mission of the Civics Board is to help people with their struggles in order to restore harmony to the community.
Conflict is an inescapable part of life, so an essential part of any education is learning how to independently resolve conflict. Through service to the Civics Board, students learn to exercise empathy and self-discipline in their personal approaches to problem solving.Go to top ▴