How Do They Learn?

The Open School is a different kind of school.

While conventional schools were designed to serve an industrial-era economy, The Open School is designed to serve individual human children.

While conventional schools value obedience, conformity, and performance, we value independent thinking, relationships, and deep learning.

Our philosophy is based on how children really learn, grow, and thrive, according to modern science as well as our own experience.

Ready for something different?

Face painting

Learning Through Play

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But, for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” ~ Fred Rogers

In a recent clinical report, the nation’s leading pediatricians advised that doctors should recommend a dose of play to improve the mental and physical health of children. After decades of decreasing playtime for children, and the widespread disappearance of recess, we have reached the point of a health epidemic.

But play is not only necessary for children’s health, say pediatricians — it’s also a vital part of education:

“Collaboration, negotiation, conflict resolution, self-advocacy, decision-making, a sense of agency, creativity, leadership, and increased physical activity are just some of the skills and benefits children gain through play.”‍ ~ The American Academy of Pediatrics

Building a snowman

We often think of “play” as something silly and frivolous. But for children, play is just another word for practice. Just like lion cubs play at hunting by stalking leaves blowing in the wind, and young antelopes play at escaping by fleeing from one another in games of tag, human children use play 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, making up imaginary scenarios, building things together, and reaching compromises.

Video games are no exception. Children love to play video games because video games are simulations of the world, and they allow children to explore the world and learn about it without leaving their home or school.

Also, by playing video games, children are learning to use the most important tool of the 21st century — the computer. Read more about our views on video games.

Go to top  ▴

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.

According to Yuval Noah Harari, the New York Times bestselling author of Sapiens, the future of humanity will be even more volatile:

“We might invest a lot of effort teaching kids how to write in C++ or how to speak Chinese, only to discover that by 2050 AI can code software far better than humans, and a new Google Translate app enables you to conduct a conversation in almost flawless Mandarin, Cantonese or Hakka, even though you only know how to say “Ni hao”. So what should we be teaching? Many pedagogical experts argue that schools should switch to teaching “the four Cs” — critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.

More broadly, schools should downplay technical skills and emphasise general-purpose life skills. Most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, to learn new things and to preserve your mental balance in unfamiliar situations. In order to keep up with the world of 2050, you will need not merely to invent new ideas and products — you will above all need to reinvent yourself again and again.”

How can we make sure kids grow to have these “four Cs” — critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity?

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking means not just doing what you’re told, but making a judgment for yourself.

However, conventional school is all about doing what you’re told, unless you’re assigned a special “critical thinking” assignment — in which case, if you actually think critically and decide the assignment isn’t worth doing, you fail!

The Open School, on the other hand, is a democracy — decisions are made through debate and voting, which students can participate in. There is no “because I said so” here. Students are allowed to make their own judgments and vote accordingly.

Also, students don’t have to perform any work unless they think there is a good reason for doing so.


Communication and Collaboration

Communication and collaboration are hot traits in the eyes of modern employers. As a case in point, a recent survey of 260 companies ranks communication skills in the top three most-sought after qualities by job recruiters.

Students at The Open School are constantly working on their communication and collaboration skills. If you walk into our school at any time, you will see kids engaging in conversations, arguing about rules of games, negotiating, compromising, trading, and collaboratively building things such as forts, Legos, and Minecraft houses. Read more about how students learn to communicate and collaborate at The Open School.


Creativity is the simplest thing for children, because all children are born creative. As proof, consider this:

In 1968, NASA hired Dr. George Land and Beth Jarman to develop a test that could measure the creative potential of NASA’s scientists and engineers. They came up with a test for divergent thinking, which is the ability to look at a particular problem and propose multiple solutions. This test had no right answers, but required test-takers to come up with as many ideas as possible.

The test worked well for NASA’s purposes, but it left Land and Jarman with a bunch of new questions. They had spent a lot of time researching creativity in order to develop this test. They were now wondering — why are some people more creative than others? Where does creativity come from?

The researchers decided to give the same test to 1,600 children between the ages of 4 and 5. The results shocked them. A full 98 percent of those children fell into the genius category of imagination.

They then waited five years and gave the test again to those same children when they were ten years old. Now only 30 percent of them qualified as creative geniuses. By the time the kids were fifteen, the number had dropped to 12 percent.

Finally, Land and Jarman gave their test to 280,000 adults and found that a mere 2 percent of them qualify as creative geniuses. “What we have concluded,” wrote Land, “is that non-creative behavior is learned.”

All children are naturally creative. Our job is not to cultivate their creativity, but to refrain from crushing it.

At The Open School, we don’t tell kids that their interests aren’t worth pursuing. We don’t chastise them for coloring the grass blue. They are free to make up elaborate imaginary scenarios, invent their own games, and tinker with everything they see.

Education for the Future

Conventional schools are a product of the bygone 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  ▴

The Science of Learning

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.

Kids can learn important skills such as math, reading, writing, as well as more specialized skills, quickly when they are interested. It doesn’t take years and years, unless the brain is not ready.


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 experiences stress, it releases the hormone cortisol, which interferes with learning and memory. Respecting children protects the brain and creates the conditions for learning.

Children are always learning, every moment of the day, unless they are stressed, bored, or angry.

Go to top  ▴

Does it work? | Statistics

The Open School was modeled after Sudbury Valley School, which was founded in 1968 in Framingham, MA. For 50 years Sudbury Valley School has been churning out graduates who are intelligent, confident, self-motivated, skilled, articulate, and highly employable. Today there are around 70 schools around the world that follow the Sudbury model.

To discover whether Sudbury schools are successful, The Circle School, a Sudbury model school in Harrisburg, PA, conducted a study of its graduates in 2015. The study found that graduates of the Circle School attend college more often than the average American. They are also more likely to earn degrees, including bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. This is not because Circle School families are wealthier — they occupy the same range of socioeconomic brackets as their surrounding community.

After college, Circle School graduates go on to the full range of careers. They are more likely to go into science and technology than any other field. They are also more likely than the average American to be self-employed. 60 percent of them are traditionally employed, while only 2 percent are unemployed.

This kind of education is still unconventional, but it’s no longer an experiment. The experiment is over, and the results are in. The Sudbury model works.

Go to top  ▴

Further Reading (and Watching)




  • Free to Learn by Peter Gray. Psychologist and Self-Directed Education advocate Peter Gray synthesizes research on our hunter-gatherer ancestors, children’s play, and Sudbury Valley School to show that children are hard-wired to educate themselves through play and exploration, and that these instincts are still capable of successfully educating children in the 21st century.
  • Free At Last by Daniel Greenberg. A brief narrative snapshot of life at Sudbury Valley School, which is very similar to life at The Open School.
  • Free Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy. A practical guide to not being a helicopter parent, written with humor by “America’s Worst Mom” Lenore Skenazy.
  • The Self-Driven Child by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson. A conservative case for giving kids more control over their lives, supported by the latest brain science and the stories of dozens of real families.
  • How Children Fail and How Children Learn by John Holt. In the first book, teacher John Holt tells the story of how conventional teaching methods are consistently failing to reach his students. In the second book, he recounts dozens of tales of children he has observed successfully learning outside of school and without teachers.


Go to top  ▴