Often we are asked to explain or describe the philosophy of the Sudbury democratic model and how it works in practice. The idea of democratic education is still unfamiliar to many people compared to other models such as Reggio Emilia approach, Steiner philosophy, Montessori Method, or Homeschooling. While the Sudbury model has much in common with all of these educational or learning models, it also has some very important differences which distinguish it from each of them. Here we try to explain some of the similarities and some of these distinctions.
Daniel Greenberg, the founder of the original Sudbury School, tells us that “the 2 things that distinguish a Sudbury model school are that everyone – adults and children – is treated equally and that there is no authority other than that granted by the consent of the governed.”
The other aspects which distinguish Sudbury from other models are:
- No set or pre-defined curriculum. There is no pre-conceived plan of what students should or should not learn. Students decide what they wish to learn and how they wish to approach it.
- Free mixing of ages. Students are not separated by age range or developmental level. They are allowed to mix freely with all age groups, and to learn from each other through work, play and conversation.
- Democratic governance. The school is run by staff and students together in a democratic fashion. The school meeting makes all decisions affecting the day to day running of the school, including decisions about staffing and the making of school laws.
- Discipline and rules. There are school procedures for dealing with law and rule breaking. The hearing, trial and decisions on consequences are all decided by the Judicial Committee, which is a composed of staff and students. Discipline is NOT meted out by a separate or higher authority.
Reggio Emilia Approach
The Reggio Emilia approach is also student-centered and to some extent uses self-directed learning. It endeavors to teach children different ways of thinking, negotiating, and expressing themselves using the “100 languages”, including drawing, sculpture, dramatic play etc. There is also emphasis on relationships and community. One teacher follows a class of children for a 3 year period, developing an ongoing relationship, allowing greater scope for catering to the interests of each child. While there are many shared principles; such as respect, responsibility, community, exploration and discovery; the Reggio Emilia approach sets out specific methods of learning acquisition. Children have some control over the direction of their learning, and are encouraged to express themselves in different ways; however they are not completely in control of it. The Sudbury model trusts children to create their own curriculum and to direct their own learning. The role of school staff is to actively support the students in these choices.
Sudbury and Steiner models are both concerned with whole child learning and development. The physical, emotional and mental well-being of the child is valued as well as acquisition of academic and technical skills. In addition, both Sudbury and Steiner philosophies place great emphasis on the value of play and the importance of freedom to play. However there is a well defined curriculum which students are encouraged to follow and a specific spiritual philosophy. The Sudbury model, in contrast to this, does not enforce a curriculum and does not encourage any particular spiritual philosophy. Students are encouraged to consider issues for themselves within the context of the community and the wider world, and to reach conclusions based on everyone’s input.
Maria Montessori’s method is very child-centered. Compared to other traditional schools, children have much freedom about what they learn and how much time they spend on a particular activity. However, there is a specific curriculum for each age group and a pre-defined order in which activities must be completed. The child may choose from a range of options but is not free to choose outside of the parameters of the suggested learning activities or sequence. In addition, rules and discipline are managed by adults and there is limited mixing of ages. In the Sudbury model there is no pre-planned sequence or preferred learning programme for any age range. The right of the individual student to decide what and how to learn according to his or her own interests is what matters.
Children have been educated at home in their family and community groups since the beginning of time. Nowadays the term is used to describe educating a child in the home rather than in a school institution. There are many methods used by homeschoolers, ranging from quite formal and academic, through project-based and child-led, to completely free and unstructured learning. At the free end of this spectrum is what is referred to as “unschooling”. One of its strongest proponents was John Holt, who wrote extensively on the subject of how children learn. He believed that children are naturally curious and do not need to be forced into learning; and that when provided with freedom, a stimulating environment and a variety of resources, children will learn naturally. This concept is shared by the Sudbury model. In fact, the unschooling philosophy has much in common with the Sudbury model in terms of children directing their own learning, respect for individual choice, time, freedom and lack of pressure. However, while unschoolers learn within the family environment and within society at large the Sudbury model provides a larger community of people of all ages with whom the child interacts daily. In addition, the conflicts and negotiations that are part of daily life can be confronted more independently and objectively, without the emotional complications that family relationships can sometimes involve. There will also be more diversity of opinion within a larger community than in a family group so the opportunity to tolerate different opinions, to negotiate, and to stand up for others is greater. In the Sudbury school each person is responsible for his or her own actions, and can be held accountable.
 Daniel Greenberg, A Place to Grow. Sudbury Valley School Press, 2016