Joy in the Pursuit of Proficiency

The following blog post was originally written by Russell Zuckerman, a parent of two students attending Arts & Ideas Sudbury School. It is re-printed with permission from Arts & Ideas Sudbury. I am reprinting it here because the educational assumptions of unschooling are the same as in a Sudbury school, and so are many of the outcomes of this special type of education.

Our family began our Sudbury education three years ago with no small amount of trepidation.  From what I understood at the time, Sudbury children did not concern themselves with learning, they simply followed their interests.  What I did not know then, but fully understand now, is that by “simply” following their interests, they unceasingly pursue proficiency.

Sudbury children are in an environment that permits them the space to pursue the natural developmental stages that are organic to their needs. Cognitive and physical development occur at a pace that is theirs alone. Emotional, cognitive, motor and social development are directed by their intelligence, their interests and their instincts.

Through Sudbury, my daughter Isobel has taught herself to read.  Her process went beyond learning “sight words,” she never received a teacher’s praise or external accolades; she was never graded or given a diagnostic to figure out the number of words per minute she was capable of.  There was no bell curve to tell her that she was mediocre, or behind, or ahead…she simply was.  She didn’t want to “learn” to read, she simply wanted TO read.  The incredible thing about Sudbury is that Isobel isn’t working to learn words for weekly spelling tests, so there is no drudgery in the process.  Through her own volition she has begun the process of self-mastery. Her proficiency is a product of her motivation and her desire.

At Arts and Ideas, son Jarrett, has learned to throw a football.  He is only six, but he goes out to the yard and, “plays with the big kids.”  He asked me recently to play catch with him.  Once we were outside he threw it over and over, conscientiously changing his footwork and his arm motion, explaining to me how to set up and execute a spiral.  Like all kids at Sudbury, he is free to play video games all day, but he doesn’t.  At the moment, his body and mind are craving the physical education that comes through the balance, hand-eye coordination and strength of playing catch and running around outside.  No one is telling him he needs to run a mile or take the president’s challenge; he is pursuing the physical proficiency that a young boy needs to grow up healthy.

As a parent, my hope is to raise courageous, conscientious citizens.  The fabric of a Sudbury school is knitted together through the democratic process.  Both my children, at 6 and 7 years old can understand, through their experiences, what legislative, judicial and executive processes look and feel like.  Because we are a military family, we move around every few years.  Being stationed near Washington DC has given us an opportunity to walk the Washington Mall, view the Smithsonian and see the White House.  My children can converse knowledgably about how our democracy functions by extrapolating their experiences of school meeting.  They understand civic responsibility and the importance of dialogue and compromise. Through judicial committee proceedings and school meetings my children have learned how to take responsibility for their actions, intelligently and peaceably challenge perceived wrongs against them, and courageously speak out for ideas they believe in.

Three years of Sudbury schools have shown me that the learning process is like a drip of water against a rock. At a glance, it appears fragile and delicate, but uninterrupted over time, it is an unstoppable force of nature.  The challenge of the Sudbury parent then, is to leave the water alone and allow nature to take its course.

The tough part of being a Sudbury parent is trusting that our children will pursue proficiency in reading, writing and arithmetic; or rather that we are preparing them to be successful in the uncertain world that we live in. I freely admit that until Isobel, now in her third year of Sudbury, began reading on her own, I had trouble truly believing in the process and “methodology” of Sudbury.  Through the time we have been a Sudbury family, I have come to understand that curriculum does not drive intelligence, rather it is the other way around, intelligence drives curriculum.  Like drops of water against the rock, children insistently pursue proficiency in all manner of disciplines. Sudbury schools, like Arts and Ideas, provide the space for that pursuit to occur. All a parent needs to do is let nature take its course.

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4 Comments on "Joy in the Pursuit of Proficiency"

  1. Teresa Wiedrick
    22/03/2013 at 9:41 am Permalink

    Didn’t know about the Sudbury approach. Sounds the same as child-led learning. I’ll have do more research. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Cassi
    22/03/2013 at 3:43 pm Permalink

    Yes, Sudbury has often been described as unschooling in community. The two things that set it apart are: 1) Kids are away from their parents and with their peer group for much longer, and 2) the kids are part of the running of the school using a democratic model. As far as educational philosophy, however, it is very much a learner-centered model.

  3. Terri Clark
    02/04/2013 at 7:44 pm Permalink

    We are a homeschooling family living nowhere near a Sudbury model school but I have been captivated by what I have read about them recently. I’d like to implement this philosophy in our homeschool and I feel like I’m striking out into uncharted territory! Thanks for your post.

  4. Cassi
    02/04/2013 at 11:14 pm Permalink

    It might feel uncharted for you, but many, many families have done it and are raising confident, independent, creative, and intelligent little people. I guarantee that there are people near you who are doing it now. You just have to put your hand up and say, “I’m here,” and they will find you. 🙂

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