Kids learn academic subjects without being taught

Do you think kids need classes and grades to learn things like reading, math, and other academic subjects? Think again. Sudbury-model schools like The Open School prove that the trappings of traditional schools, and the stress that comes along with them, aren’t really necessary.

The first thing I tell families when they are coming to visit our school is a warning that it might look like our kids do nothing but play. In fact, they are playing most of the time. When people see kids spending so much time in play, often their knee-jerk reaction is that the kids aren’t learning. And when they say “learning,” they mean “developing skills and knowledge in core academic subjects, especially math and reading.”

As a staff member, I assure parents that their kids are learning these basic skills while going about their play, but it’s not always measurable. However, this week I got to see several examples of how academic subjects are learned in a free-schooling environment.

It started Tuesday morning when I arrived at school and noticed a new sheet hanging on the bulletin board. “Sign up for Crystal’s Snack Shop, starting May 29,” it said. Underneath the title, several students and one staff member had written their names and circled the days of the week they would be available to work.

After asking around, I learned that Crystal was planning to open a snack bar, since the school-run snack bar had long ago been dissolved. Crystal planned to purchase items such as corn dogs, cup ‘o noodles, sodas, and chips, then sell them at school for a markup, hire her own employees who would be paid for their work, and then reinvest the profits to grow the snack bar.

The next day, Crystal made a menu and price list, and discussed with others where her seed money would come from. She placed a motion onto the School Meeting agenda to get official approval to open her shop at school and to keep the profits for herself and her employees.

Just in these two days, Crystal has demonstrated her spelling, reading and math abilities, and had to grapple with complex problem solving. She has even started to consider HR issues, such as how many hours her employees should work, and how much they should be paid.

At this school, kids learn academics through life, without the need for classes or grades. Click To Tweet

Also on Tuesday, Mariah was planning her upcoming field trip to the Discovery Cube. She had already written her proposal and had it approved by Budget Committee and School Meeting, and she’d created a signup sheet and set a date with the chaperone.

Now she needed to create the permission slip for students to take home. She logged onto the computer and filled in the names of the chaperone and location, the date, and other pertinent information. This project has improved her research skills, reading and writing, and math (working out the cost to the school and the distance we will travel to get there).

And then, in the afternoon, I witnessed something that really embodies what we do here. Four kids, aged 5-9, were playing Minecraft on the Xbox (something that makes a lot of parents wince — and if it makes you wince, consider reading about the benefits of video games). These four kids had decided to name some of their creepers (Bob and Zoe, if you must know), and give them houses.

They created a series of signs for the houses, most of which were quite long. For example, one student wanted to write, “Do not enter unless you are visiting Bob,” but was unsure of how to spell most of the words. The four kids discussed as a group and worked out the spellings for the words. Ultimately they were able to write a large number of signs with correct spelling without any input from adults.

Traditional school teachers are breaking their backs (and their students’ backs!) to get kids to learn basic things like reading, writing, and arithmetic. Students are over-stressed from the pressures of grades and testing, and even family time is being sacrificed at the altar of homework — all to accomplish something that is accomplished easily in a free environment with joy, peace, and togetherness.

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