Archive | November, 2014

Five Lessons on Learning

18 Nov

My daughters go to Sunset Sudbury School, a school that allows them to follow their own interests all day long. There is no teacher telling them what they must learn, nor is there anyone who assigns grades to their work or administers tests to measure their progress. When I first tell other parents about my daughters’ school, naturally, their first question is, “But how do they learn?” I used to launch into a description of organic learning and how reading and math are easily learned when a child is ready… blah, blah, blah. But the truth is my daughters are getting far more important lessons on learning that will carry them throughout the rest of their lives.

1.  Learning is something you actively seek, not something that happens to you.

When she was four years old, my oldest daughter told me that she wanted to learn to read. After trying to help her a few times, I realized that what she really wanted was for reading to magically happen to her. I resisted the temptation to help her after that and repeatedly told her that she would learn to read when she was ready and willing to do the work. A few months after her 7th birthday, she discovered phonics and began sounding out words and asking people to sit with her as she read out loud. She became a fluent reader in about nine months. For me, the important thing was that she completely drove the process; no one at school pushed her along nor gave her gold stars for her progress. As a result, my daughter knows that she has the power to learn anything she sets her mind to without waiting for someone else to show her the way.

2.  Learning is not separate from living.

My daughters will often play at school all day long and then come home and work on academics. It’s not uncommon for me to hear, “Mom, what’s six plus three?” from my five-year-old who is checking her work, or “Mom, how do you spell ‘restaurant’?” from my eight-year-old who is working on a new story. On their days off from school, activities like going to the beach or going to the planetarium have equal value for them. My daughters don’t label one activity as “fun” and the other as “learning,” and they never resist opportunities that might seem a little too much like traditional school. Most importantly, whatever they are doing, my daughters are always curious and always asking questions. For them, learning is an on-going, integral part of living.

3.  Play is serious work.

Don’t get me wrong. Playing is always fun for my daughters, but they also take it quite seriously. While rushing out one morning, my five-year-old yelled, “Mom, wait! I have to get some extra clothes!” She and her friends were working on a dance routine and they had all agreed on what to wear. Another time, I found my eight-year-old gathering materials for her next role-playing game, in which she and her friends might stay in character for days. My daughters and their schoolmates expect each other to be prepared for the next day’s play. Because their school doesn’t place more value on one activity over another, my daughters take their play quite seriously and work hard to make it meaningful as well as fun for all. The line between play and work doesn’t really exist for them.

4.  Whatever your age, you are as capable as anyone else.

Students are not segregated by age at their school. Instead, students naturally group themselves throughout the day according to their interests. For example, an 11-year-old might be playing cards with a 4-year-old, or a 7-year-old might be showing a 13-year-old a new video game. There are also jobs at school that students and staff must fill to ensure that the school runs smoothly. Any student can fill these positions, provided they do a good job, regardless of age. However, in School Meeting recently, we voted to restrict an important job (JC Clerk) to students age 8 and above. When my five-year-old first heard about the motion, she was quite upset. She enjoys being JC Clerk and is quite confident in her ability to do it well, so she came to School Meeting to lodge her complaint. The motion still passed, but School Meeting included a clause that allowed for younger students to be voted to the position on a case by case basis. My daughter truly believes that she is just as capable as any older student, albeit with a little less experience and a little less skill, and I love that their school reinforces that belief.

5.  Trust yourself and follow your own definition of success.

Because their school doesn’t assign grades and doesn’t group students by ability, my daughters don’t necessarily compare themselves with others and they don’t mentally create a pecking order among their peers. Instead, they see each individual, including themselves, as a bundle of talents and quirks. When a well-meaning adult recently praised my 8-year-old daughter on her reading skills, the adult asked if her little sister had started reading as well. My daughter replied, “No, but only because she’s not interested yet.” My daughter intuitively knows that she and her sister are each following their own path on their own schedule and that one person’s process is not necessarily better than another’s. Their school gives them both lots of room and encouragement to trust themselves and to constantly define what success means to them.

I feel so lucky that my daughters go to a school that provides them with these lessons every day. I love their attitude towards learning, their trust in themselves, and their respect for others. I know that all of this will serve them well in a fast-changing world that will require them to be creative, self-motivated, and on-going learners. And I trust that these lessons will help them find happy and fulfilled lives.