At the Sudbury School of Atlanta, we talk a lot about “trusting the process.” Give a child the freedom to learn and they will find their own best path to learning. That is a core belief at SSA, but as a parent this can be difficult. You may ask:
As a leadership education consultant, the focus of my work is always on the process of how teams accomplish goals and ways that teams can create a more effective process. I always tell clients that we must trust our process in order to trust our product.
However, when I work with “high achieving” teens at leadership programs, they are focused solely on the end product and they ignore the process. They always want to give me the “right answer.” They tell me what they think I want to hear rather than telling me what they think. The reason is that we have conditioned them with extrinsic motivations, i.e. carrots and sticks. In traditional schools, these take the form of grades, tests, candy rewards, sticker rewards, honor rolls, honors classes, AP classes, messages of “be the best in the class,” or “get good grades,” and then we assign even greater extrinsic motivations with honors in Latin like, Magna Cum Laude or Summa Cum Laude. The literal translations are unimportant because the meaning and the intent are the same. They are extrinsic motivators to get students to get more “right” answers. These are not motivators of learning, they are motivators of playing the game of memorizing answers and spitting them out of our short term memory until the reward has been won.
Is this hyper-competitive environment where students are trying to best each other with right answers for teacher appreciation the most effective path to life-long learning? Independent thinking? Good decision making? Definitely not, because the focus is on what you win and not what you learn and how you learn and why you learn and for whom you learn.
Independent thinking is not about selfish thinking. Good decision making is not about “playing the game.” Learning is not about memorizing. Being a life-long learner is not about pleasing someone else with right answers just so you get a reward.
Step outside a competitive reward-driven environment and you will find that when you learn something, you don’t do it to win or to beat someone else. You do it because you are curious and it is satisfying to your mind, body and soul. That is intrinsic motivation. That is the motivation and self-knowledge we cultivate at Sudbury. Having no tests, no grades and no rewards is intentional because we want students to learn for themselves and follow their own passions. We want students to engage in learning because it satisfies an inner desire rather than an outer reward.
At SSA, your student is thinking independently every day. We don’t tell them what to think or what to do to “learn more.” They are constructing meaning every minute of every day in creating, reading, writing, playing and interacting with others. We take our responsibility seriously not to interrupt or interfere with their learning process. We understand that the most “teachable moments” happen when a student makes a discovery themselves and creates new meaning for themselves. That is an incredibly powerful experience that can only happen when students are given the freedom to think and make choices without outside influence.
We also understand that the learning process has a “learning curve.” At SSA, students have the freedom to fail without judgment. Failures are a necessary part of the learning process and we support students regardless of their failure or success. Experiencing failures that come out of our own choices demonstrate to us the most effective way forward as a person. When a child falls off a bicycle, we don’t punish them for falling. We pick them up, give them words of encouragement and invite them to get back on the bicycle. It is only when we fall to one side or the other that we learn how to balance. SSA treats learning the same way. If a child makes mistakes, we give them words of encouragement and invite them to get back on whatever proverbial bicycle they have chosen to ride.
Learning how to learn is one of the most valuable skills a person can have throughout life. It is the challenging two-wheeled vehicle that carries us through life pursuits, careers, research, entrepreneurship, leadership, hobbies and personal fulfillment.
And much like balancing on a bicycle, we cannot give it to a child. They must discover it for themselves. We trust that if we give a child encouragement and continue to invite them back onto the bicycle that they will find success.
Herbert Simon, Nobel Laureate, professor at Carnegie Mellon and father of the field of Cognitive Science, said:
The freedom to “do and think” is the critical process a Sudbury environment provides and protects. Trust it. Encourage it. There is no more powerful path to learning.