Book review: Free at Last

Title: Free at Last: The Sudbury Valley School
Author: Daniel Greenberg
Edition: Banyan Tree India, 2012

For some miraculous reason, an Indian-published edition in English is circulated online. I couldn’t wait for a book to come in the post — it wasn’t even in the Hong Kong Library system (what a pity!). Do not be fooled by the edition; this book was first published in 1987. This year, 2018, marks the school’s 50th anniversary!

Pages and pages of paper I flipped, within 12 hours on a usual day, I managed to finish it word-by-word.

This is by far my favourite book since 2015 — that was when I first read Maria Montessori’s works (The Absorbent Mind). These two impressive books take a contrasting approach to pedagogy. Montessori’s writings are full of passion, critique, biology and reasoning. Daniel Greenburg, on the other hand, tell an enchanting story of his 20 years at Sudbury Valley. The pedagogical approach is weaved into the cute, lively ‘students’ he portray. He describes the running of the school and its events, traces their developments, cyclical success and failure. Time is the best proof of any theory.

For example, on chapter 20, he recalls an episode with a six-year-old:

“Each time he threw, and each time he tried to catch, I ‘encouraged’ him: ‘Good job’; ‘Nice throw’; ‘Great try.’ Suddenly, he threw the ball at me angrily and shouted, ‘I don’t want to play with you any more. You’re lying. I threw terribly, it wasn’t at all good, and you’re a big faker.’

Of course he was right. And I was wrong.” (p.83)

Such story is a stronger argument than all the researches that tell parents and teachers to stop praising and rewarding because its manipulative nature kills intrinsic motivation.

This is what makes Free at Last such a pleasant read. The pedagogy is alive; learning is based on time, participants, the real and present world, cultural trends, talents and needs. It is enquiry-based learning, play-based learning, learning-by-doing, as well as a forest school.

But this school is not where children are set free to run wild. The institution is run on democratic responsibility. For instance, it’s the children’s responsibility to pursue their interests, then stick to the arrangements they have set up for classes (lectures), meetings and work. If they don’t stick, the ‘contract’ is annulled. The school’s judicial and budgeting systems are well designed and vital to smooth running, as well as staff whose manners are consistent, responsive, yet transparent when not sought for.

I love how the best of human nature is being glorified in this institution. Genuine interest leads to genuine learning, and the children compare their work against the toughest standards of the best; credible systems lead to optimal operations, and when they don’t they get worked upon.

I don’t wish to write notes about this book; reading it is an astounding experience. No facts or opinions to ‘hunt-and-gather’. If I am to summarise the plot, I shall say:

This is a personal account of an alternative school that opened in 1968, at Sudbury Valley in Massachusetts. Its graduates are strong-willed individuals who know indulgence and devotion to all that they are curious about. Rather than an academic curriculum, this school is run on systems, procedures and traditions, such as student-initiated classes, clubs/workshops, fundraising sales, and apprenticeships in the real world. Children 4-19yo are mixed together. Democratically enacted laws, budgeting processes, clerks, committees and corporations, and a judicial system to handle complaints allow for the school’s smooth running. Staff don’t teach or govern; they are resourceful individuals who await to be sought for. The school runs on very little money and refuses funding, counts heavily on responsibility and motivation, but cost per head is a fraction of the public school’s.

I have long believed that enquiry-based learning or on-demand learning is most suitable for the child above 6 years of age. I have been looking for likeminded families to share curiosity, questions and resources with. A part of me feels that Montessori lessons are fascinatingly designed; the other part of me feels bored — perhaps the latter is the child in me. I know children would rather play til hearts content and search their souls in deep. I know they have better missions in life than to follow a school routine each day. I just know it.

Maria Montessori is more of a naturalist than her successors. I am sure she will love the work these Sudbury children do.

– – –

“A friend once said, “I know the exact difference between you and progressive ‘free’ schools.”

“What is it?” I asked, skeptical that it could be said in a phrase.

“In your school, you’re supposed to do what you like; in the others, you’re supposed to like what you do.”

That said it pretty well.” (p.89)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s