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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Who Needs School?

By Brooks Elms

The founders of The Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts, in the late 1960s asked the question: "Who needs school?" Their answer is that school prepares children to become productive members of society-essentially, to be good citizens. Then they asked, "How do we meet that objective? If we could re-start from scratch, or adapt from any known model, what are the social mechanisms we'd choose to best serve the children in meeting this goal?" Those founders quickly threw out the commonly accepted adult-centered approach, and instead moved forward with a democratically run mini-community where the kids follow their passions all day, and collaborate in the creation of rules to protect the individual's pursuit of happiness.

The result, after the first 40 years, is much like they envisioned. Because students create their own unique curriculum, and rules to protect individual liberty, the students tend to be more responsible as adult citizens. They've felt and wielded power at a very young age (even 4 year olds vote to hire or fire a teacher) so they've got palpable experience with the good and bad consequences of large stakes community decision-making. Plus, they also do learn the basic reading, writing and math skills that are so strongly stressed in traditional school, although at Sudbury Valley, they're learned organically, as tools to further their knowledge in their passion projects.

For the children in the industrialized nations growing up in the Information Age, this child-centered model fits perfectly. It's like the world-wide-web personified. The Industrial Era Factory Style learning approach, still deeply entrenched in the mainstream as we begin the 21st century, served its purpose well-enough for decades when the bulk of students we're headed to factories for life. But it's a new world. Even back in the 60's Bob Dylan observed with biting sarcasm that "After twenty years of schoolin' they put you on the day shift." The system needed change back then, and now with the Sudbury model's proven effectiveness after four decades, the change is picking up its pace.

The Sudbury Valley Model has been featured on CBS's "60 minutes," and on the front cover of "Psychology Today." Representatives from hundreds of like-minded alternative schools flock to education conferences every year. There have been several documentaries about the model, and I, myself wrote and directed a fiction film inspired by the model entitled "Schooled."

I believe the reason for the surge in popularity has to do with the reality that we now live in an economy devoid of job security. People have to prove the value of their services over and over for their rest of their lives. And without passion driving that life-long re-invention process, how successful can new adults be when faced with harrowing market conditions and brutal competitors? Just as adults create their own lives within the laws of the land, so do the students in this model, making them far more prepared for productive Information Age citizenship. Another way to look at it is to see that there are many different ways kids learn, so the different schools that exist today-including home schooling-cater to these different ways of learning. These different ways of learning lead to a more "trade-orientated," or "customer service orientated" mindset. How do I serve the customer (and my community) as efficiently as possible? Passion facilitates this.

While the common fear about this education model is that kids will grow up lazy, in actuality, it's the opposite. Driven by desire, these new adults have spent their whole childhood very aware of balancing personal ambition with community accountability standards. They work because they want to. When they fall short of goals, they use their well-honed innovation skills to come up with new solutions. They don't rely on imposed structure to guide them. They don't waste time rebelling against "The Man." They simply create their own structure and solve problems, no matter how the marketplace shifts and re-shifts, because that's what they've always done.

This Information Age education is particularly valuable in a place like the movie business. Nobody needs a degree for anything in Hollywood. The question is: Can you do the job? People get known for their work (and lack of work) and their reputation fuels the next step of their career. While other industries are less extreme than Hollywood's hyper-volatility -- they're not that different. These days, every market hums with volatility and so it's vital that our schools meet these new needs of our future generations.

(c) 2008, Brooks Elms All rights reserved. Reprint rights granted so long as article and by-line are published intact and with all links made live. (

About Author:

Brooks Elms fiercely writes, directs and produces films, winning awards and thrilling audiences around the globe for the last 20 years. His latest film, "Schooled" is like "Kid Nation" meets "Dead Poets Society" and it fundamentally changes the way people think about education:

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