Individualized Learning and Trusting Young People

At the Sudbury School of Atlanta, we regularly hear parents talk about “the factory model” of traditional K-12 education.  In a factory model, every student is fit into the same educational mold in an attempt to produce the same results for every child.  It is like growing a field of sunflowers.  Every flower is the same height, the same size, the same shape, the same color and judged by the strict sunflower standards.  But what is the cost of this educational conformity?

Individuality is lost.  So is independent thinking, communication skills and good decision making.    Controlling students and the environment becomes paramount because if we do not control every factor, then we might get students who think differently and act differently and they might be interested in things that aren’t being taught.  They might learn things and develop skills that are not measured by the standards.  So, the controls get tighter on students, teachers, performance, standardized tests and public funding because any deviation might result in a flower that looks different from the rest. 

At SSA, we prefer an educational environment that creates a field of wild flowers.  Every flower is a different size, a different shape, a different color, a different height and blooms at a different time.  Flowers don’t have to be taught to bloom.  Put them in a rich environment and they bloom by themselves, if…

If?

If what?

There is a critical component here of individualized education that polarizes people like oil and water.  It causes many people who fled the factory system to go running back.  It is also deeply embraced by many and strikes at the heart of these two different models of education.  That “if” is:

Trusting young people.  

If you believe that every young person is unique and has beliefs, values, thoughts and ideas that should be given a voice and developed, then you will trust young people and embrace individualized education.

If you believe that the beliefs, values, thoughts and ideas of young people have little value, then you will usher them into a system where the predominant message is “don’t talk” and “do what you are told.”  Young people are simply vessels to be filled up with “academic rigor” and they need to be controlled because we don’t want to let them think independent thoughts, communicate something outside the curriculum or practice making decisions because that would create wildflowers and not sunflowers.  Letting a child choose what they want to do and think is nothing more than glorified babysitting.  Why?  Because you don’t trust that they have beliefs, values, thoughts and ideas that have worth.  Education is all input and regurgitation of that input.  Save independent thinking for college.  Better yet, graduate school.

John Holt hit the nail on the head when he said:

“To trust children, we must first learn to trust ourselves… and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.”

Let’s look beyond school for a moment.  Imagine the same factory-style environment in the workplace where your boss does not trust you, empower you or give you a voice.  Your boss dictates every minute of every day for you, what you do, how you do it and if you did it exactly to the standard.  Then, if you do not comply, you are punished or given “quiet lunch” where you can’t talk to your co-workers or maybe you have to go to a remedial skills after-work program.  This is a micro-managing nightmare in a professional workforce situation.  Let’s set aside the life-and-death scenarios of military combat and brain surgery.  On the whole, dysfunctional and ineffective teams in the workforce come from management that is distrustful, controlling, hierarchical and tone-deaf to interpersonal and team dynamics.  In fact, a 2011 study on behalf of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools found that that top skills desired by employers across sectors are:

1.  Interpersonal skills
2.  Teamwork
3.  Problem solving
4.  Job-specific knowledge
5.  Written communication skills
6.  Work experience
7.  Technical ability
8.  Education
9.  Personal references
10.  Business savvy
11. Math capability

The top three skills sought by employers have nothing to do with “academics” and cannot be taught well in a traditional educational system because they require trusting young people.


Traditional notions of rigor, like education and math skills, are #8 and #11 – not even close to the top.  It is a false assumption by parents that “academic rigor” and “advanced math” lead to students becoming competitive in the workforce after they graduate.  Parents wrap themselves in the cozy blanket of “rigor” because the thing that produces the top skills employers want requires trust, which produces situations that are unpredictable, unfamiliar, and downright frightening for parents and teachers alike.  It forces you to see a young person as a fully capable human being with independent thoughts, independent values and beliefs that are not your own.

Trusting children not only means giving them a voice, it means giving up much of your power and authority as an “adult.”  It means giving up control to let their intellectual DNA determine what kind of wildflower they are to become.  It means giving them the same respect that others give you and letting them make choices even when you don’t agree with them or understand them.  It means letting your child pursue their own passions and define their own standards for success.

For many parents trying to make life decisions about their child, trust is REALLY scary.  There is a lot at stake as we try to give our child the best shot at a success, however we define that success.  So, many parents want to control rather than empower.  They want others to control their child when they are not present.  Hence, it is no mystery why our predominant educational model is based on control.

However, there are those like me and others who want their child to be an independent thinker, good communicator and good decision maker.  We respect and trust that young people can find their best path to learning if we simply give them the freedom.  Is there any more important message that we can give to a child than, “You are worthy?”  “You are trusted and respected.”  “What you say has meaning and value.”

Albert Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius.  But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it is stupid.”      

Any environment can teach math, but not every environment can teach self-worth.  Trusting and respecting young people speaks volumes to them that can never be communicated through textbooks and five-paragraph essays.  Trust is the fertile soil, warm sun and gentle rain that gives rise to the beautiful wildflowers that are our children.

-Dave Soleil