Is There Another Way?

We talk to many parents who want the benefits of a Sudbury education, but wonder if there are less extreme options. Can you “do Sudbury” at public school? Can they attend Tallgrass some of the time but supplement with at-home or online academics, to make sure the student gets “the basics”?

To us, the most important thing is listening to what your child really wants. And sometimes that’s hard, because it may not be what you want to hear.

I remember hearing a girl of 8 or 9 talk about her current school--the typical story of how bored she was, rules that didn’t make sense, and what she would really like to be learning instead.

“But you don’t hate it that much, do you?” her mom asked.

“Not THAT much,” the girl said.

It was painfully clear to me how much the mom needed to hear that her daughter didn’t hate school “that much,” and how much the daughter wanted to make her mom happy. Kids pick up quickly on cues that show them what you want them to think.

Some kids thrive in conventional schools--they like classroom learning, the curriculum lines up closely enough with their interests, and the social atmosphere is positive or at least not harmful for them. Public schools often have lots of resources, support for special needs, and have a diverse student body. But to get those benefits, kids have to sign up for the hidden curriculum of passivity, coercion, and boredom.

Some freedom is better than no freedom, so we support all options that give kids more control over their education. But there is a limit to how much good can be done by, say, allowing kids to choose the format in which they do their 8th grade report on the Civil War. The students are still forced to be in that particular class, with no choice on whether they would rather spend that time learning about the Incas, or playing the violin, or practicing how to talk to someone they’re attracted to.

At Tallgrass, we don’t think the benefits of mainstream schooling outweigh these costs. But if a traditional school seems like the best environment for your child overall, or other options just aren’t practical, you can try to offset some of the damage through support at home about what you think is important (critical thinking, creativity) and what isn’t (their scores on standardized tests, “busywork” homework).

Forcing some things but not others is, if anything, even more problematic. The true benefits of self-directed education come from the practice your child gets making their own decisions and learning from the results of those decisions. Saying “you can make a few decisions, but not the ones we think are important,” sends the wrong message. Saying “we trust you to be self-motivated in art, but not in math,” teaches kids that math is something that people have to be forced to do, making them value math less.

We know a Sudbury school isn’t practical for all families. They don’t exist in all communities, the commute may be too far, or you may not be able to convince a partner to go along with the idea.

So is there another way? Yes and no. We think the most important thing is giving your child choices. Depending on your family, those choices may include a neighborhood public school, a private school, homeschooling/unschooling, or a Sudbury school like Tallgrass.