A comparison of common educational philosophies

After hearing a short explanation of our school’s philosophy, you will probably want to link it with something already familiar to you. Below find a simplified table comparing the Sudbury philosophy to some of the most common alternatives. Also, to understand the differences in more depth, find additional text clarifying the more subtle details as well as comparisons with less standardized alternatives like e.g. homeschooling.

Type of School Traditional/Public Waldorf Montessori Sudbury
Government Principal/Teachers Principal/Teachers Principal/Teachers Students/Staff
Structure Authoritarian Authoritarian Authoritarian Democracy
Curriculum Mandated Mandated Quasi-Mandated Up to Students
Evaluation Grades/Tests Reports Critical Encouragement Self
Motivation Reward/
Submersion in the
Creative Arts
Given Tasks
Questions students answer
teachers’ questions
students answer
teachers’ questions
students choose
a question to answer
teachers answer
students’ questions
Age mixing No No Some Yes
Campus Closed Closed Closed Open

OK, So You’re Sort of Like a Waldorf School?

Like Waldorf schools, Sudbury schools care about the whole child. We are not only interested in academic success, but in the happiness and full human potential of each individual. Like Waldorf schools, we do not push children to read early. We both value play as crucial to the development of children’s mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual selves; play is regarded as the fundamental work of children. We both respect the intuitive wisdom of children, and take their world views and interests quite seriously.

The primary difference between our two models is that the Waldorf model, created by Rudolf Steiner, teaches to a particular path of intellectual and spiritual growth. Waldorf education has a curriculum and is founded in the idea of Anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner’s theory of human evolution and spirituality (Atlantic Monthly, 8/99). Through the curriculum, Waldorf educators endeavor to guide children, and society in general, in a particular direction.

The Sudbury approach promotes no particular path of intellectual or spiritual growth. Rather than present a formal curriculum, we respond to each student’s individual, self-determined needs. Sudbury schools seek to create an environment where children can recognize and pursue their own agenda. We trust children to make their own mistakes, work through their own problems, and come to their own solutions. The staff’s role is to help, when the student feels that it is needed, but without the approach that adults know best. The Sudbury model simply aims to give children access to the full complexity of life and to respect their curiosity, confidence, and competence to participate in, and perhaps to change society, according to their own interests, experience, knowledge and goals.

OK, So You’re Sort of Like a Montessori School?

There are some ways in which the Sudbury model is similar to the Montessori approach. Children in both settings are allowed freedom to make decisions about what interests them and to set their own pace. Both models also hold the basic assumption that children are naturally curious and don’t need to be forced to learn.

Montessori educators believe that all children learn according to universal patterns and sequences, and Montessori children choose between options presented by the teacher. Montessori teachers offer activities based on observed interests and needs using materials they deem developmentally appropriate for each age group.

The Sudbury-model puts the responsibility and authority for their education on the children themselves, rather than on teachers. Children self-select the age groups they’ll work with, often ranging outside of their age group with both older and younger children. Sudbury-model schools offer access to the full array of activities life presents and allow students to determine their own sequence of learning. This gives students the freedom to learn about what interests them at that moment and the staff the freedom to respond to individual needs. Interest is the only criterion for engaging in any activity, and satisfaction is the only evaluation of success.

OK, So You’re Sort of Like a Progressive School?

Sudbury schools believe, as progressive school reformers do, that traditional schooling is not working for all students. Both seek to reduce the stresses students experience when coerced into learning and evaluated by standardized testing.

Progressive public schools try to prevent unhappiness by attempting to make learning fun and getting children to learn without them noticing they are learning. Some progressive schools offer an array of courses but do not require attendance.

Both educational models recognize that children learn best when they are interested, whether or not the subject or activity at hand is part of a formal curriculum. Sudbury-model schools extend this idea and give students free choice of curriculum and activities, not just every semester or every week, but every hour of the school day.

Sudbury-model schools require attendance in school, but do not have standard offerings unless we are asked to by the student body. Classes and other forms of instruction and interaction are available to students on short notice, tailored to their individual needs. Learning something new can be hard work, and children are quite capable of hard work when they are working on something they want to do. When a student has a serious interest, there is no stopping her. Her internal motivation alone drives her, and she alone decides when she is done. Because learning is a process that continually permeates our lives, it is essential for children to learn skills that will help them schedule their own life, wrestle with their own questions, learn how to seek the answers, and how to master their own destiny.

OK, So You’re Sort of Like Home Schooling or Unschooling?

There is a particular philosophy of home schooling, often referred to as “Unschooling,” which shares many similarities with the Sudbury model. John Holt was its best known proponent, and his writings have been invaluable to us in helping to explain just how learning can happen without teaching, and why on earth a child might choose to learn arithmetic or some other supposedly dreadful subject.

Unschoolers believe, as we do, that children are born naturally curious about the world and eager to succeed in life. Unschoolers believe that kids learn best through experience and experimentation rather than by being told how and what to think.

In the words of John Holt, “Real learning is a process of discovery, and if we want it to happen, we must create the kinds of conditions in which discoveries are made . . . They include time, freedom, and a lack of pressure. “Many Unschoolers see the family environment as the best place for children to grow.

While the Sudbury model also recognizes the importance of the family, we also recognize the value of participating in a larger community.  In the environment of a Sudbury school, students are supported by and held accountable to the entire community. They develop important social skills, including the ability to:

  • Tolerate diversity of opinion
  • Negotiate
  • Interact confidently with their peers and with adults
  • Develop and carry out group projects.

In most home schooling families, the parent sees him or herself as ultimately responsible for the child’s education, while at Sudbury schools, that responsibility rests squarely with the child.

OK, So You’re Sort of Like Student Governments in Traditional Schools?

Students who have an interest in helping to make changes in their schools can participate in school government, both in traditional schools and at Big Rock Sudbury.

While student governments in traditional schools do consist of students who represent the larger student body, they are rarely able to make decisions that are not subject to overrule by a higher school authority.

Sudbury-model schools are participatory democracies in which every student and staff member has the option of a real vote in every decision made. Democratic self-governance helps foster community identity and a sense of individual empowerment. Staff members are involved as equals with students. Staff often argue their policy positions with gusto, but they have no special rights to determine rules or to overturn due process, and they are equally bound to the rules of the school.

As a free majority, students experience real control over their lives at school, and real consequences if they fail to meet the responsibilities such freedom requires of them. The many opportunities for students to actually make positive contributions to their schools is a hallmark of the Sudbury model. Sudbury schools seek to empower children not only through self-determination, but also by fostering an environment in which they may develop into confident, responsible citizens.

This article is based on Fairheaven Sudbury School research


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