What is a democratic school?
Think of a democratic school as a self-governing society comprised of youth and adults. Similar to America, only scaled down. Staff and students govern the school community together. Every member of the community participates in certain civic duties, such as serving on the “ticket tribunal” (think jury duty), Judicial Committee, complying and voting in school rules and safety procedures, and completing daily chores.
In our school, democracy is both a matter of principle and a source of endless learning opportunities. It is a center piece to our community. Democratic values are integral to the foundation of the school and naturally promote deep understanding of justice, rule of law, mutual respect, trust, responsibility, and self-determination within a society.
With each staff member and students possessing equal voting rights, we are given meaningful opportunities to shape the school through the democratic process.
At WyldFlower we:
- nurture equal opportunity for everyone and total freedom of expression within the rules of the school
- offer voluntary courses, challenges, and hand-on project based learning
- use a formal conflict-resolution system with due process and rule of law (realized as the school Judicial Committee, which is made up of a rotating panel of students and staff members)
- allow for age-mixed learning opportunities (the most powerful kind of learning)
- do not subject students to evaluations or standardized tests
Have a look at our page How We Learn page for more information.
What do students do all day?
As one component of our curriculum, WyldFlower Learning Community uses an open ended project based learning approach that gives students challenges and opportunities to create amazing and relevant work. Math, reading, writing, science, engineering and the social sciences are all explored through this mode of learning. We also trust and value the children’s innate drive to learn about the culture and environment around them. To take advantage of the human minds natural ability to learn, we carve out good amounts of self-directed learning time in which students are free to pursue their interests. Much of this time is spent outdoors. Nature tackles many of the issues ailing children today; childhood obesity, mental health, and overall well-being. Outside spaces create novel opportunities for science, history, math and writing. Being out in Sheridan County’s beautiful outdoors also instills a sense connection and appreciation for our fragile and unique ecosystem.
Depending on the student, activities may vary greatly. Open discussion, sports, reading, gaming, building, and dancing are some common activities that many students at self-directed schools pursue. Sometimes students even assign staff members to teach specific lessons or courses.
With intention, our school is more of a community than an institution. When asked what people do in the Sheridan community each day, there are numerous answers all driven by the individuals own volition. Because of the extensive literature in child development, we know that by creating a safe and positive environment, we can trust children to determine what is best for their own education.
IF STUDENTS HAVE SO MUCH SELF-DIRECTED TIME, HOW DOES A STUDENT LEARN THE BASICS?
If the information is basic, they will interact with it naturally. When information is required for someone to learn or achieve something, a self-motivated person will accomplish it regardless of age.
Students encounter a broad range of subjects, including much that is part of a traditional curriculum and much that is not. Because students spend the bulk of their day selecting their activities based on interest, learning is generally deeper, more satisfying, and more enduring. Since we learn best and quickest when we are doing things we have chosen. Self-motivation outperforms coercion in its power to educate and ignite a learners joy of life. Forced ‘learning’ and a one-size-fits-all curriculum has been discredited by science, research, and experience.
As adults, if we want to get into working, train for a new job opportunity, or pick up a new hobby, we can accomplish this in a relatively short amount of time. In fact, economists suggest this is one of the most important skills needed in the new automated 21st economy we find ourselves transforming into.
For children, their extremely plastic mind makes this process even easier. For instance, how many times have you heard a parent amazed at the rate their child has learned how to use their tech devices with no formal teaching of any kind. Or how good they are at mimicking our behaviors and using our vocabulary (they can barely say) in the right context.
If a child seriously wants to learn a game, cook a meal, repair a bicycle, program a computer, or even go fishing, they’ll have to read to learn about the process (even in video format), they must use math to work out measurements, and participate with others in groups to learn and teach the process. Yes, it may be unpredictable to when they might master such skills, but with space, time, and adults not needing to fulfill the urge to force and control the process, deep learning sticks with an attitude of confidence, joy and discovery (as opposed to avoidance, burnout and drudgery).
It’s this kind of intrinsic motivation to accomplish and master something that is natural in humans, abundant in children, and requires a supportive environment that an authoritative model of education doesn’t provide.
Economists tell us that the jobs our school aged children will be occupying don’t exist yet and will likely be created by the students themselves. Instead of an environment that sacrifices self-discovery for the perfection of 20th century skills, we want to meet the needs of a changing world. At WyldFlower we give students a head start in this process by modeling 21st century thinking, allowing them to discover who they are and by asking them, “What type of meaningful life do you want to lead, what achievements do you want to achieve, and what creations do you want to create?” We then offer the time, space and support to watch the magic happen.
Sudbury Schools have been in existence since the 1960’s. These schools radically take the self-driven approach seriously. Not one student is forced to learn reading, writing, or math yet formal studies show that every graduate of the Sudbury Model knows how to effectively read by graduation. Sudbury students enter science, math and engineering fields at higher rates than tradition graduates. Sudbury graduates are more successful in college as well. These are just a few findings that tells us that the traditional way of looking at schooling is due to change.
What about college?
After looking at many other schools similar to WyldFlower, the answer is a sure YES! If they decide they want to go, they certainly can! 91% of Circle School’s long term students and 84% of their 4 year students attend. Compare this to 60% among their same aged peers in the U.S.. Circle School graduates tend to adapt to college more easily than peers from standard or traditional private settings.
The following excerpt is from “Jersey Sudbury School”. After looking at multiple alternative schools’ answers, we felt the following piece does a good job of explaining the process.
‘When he or she decides to go to college and chooses the college he or she wants, the experience of all existing Sudbury schools is that there will be no stopping him or her. Read the story in Free at Last of the Sudbury Valley School student who decided she wanted to go to Wesleyan University after the application deadline had closed, and how she accomplished it. Like her, most Sudbury graduates get into their first choice of college because of who they are, not what a transcript says. And today, most colleges, including Harvard University, have a specific Admissions Officer assigned to interview students who were home schooled or who attended free, democratic schools. College admissions are looking for people with achievements and passion, not just a resume template. Sudbury students, by virtue of having more free time and being unimpeded by traditional academics, have a clear advantage here.
Harvard Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons points out:
“We are always very interested in evidence of unusual achievements, academic or extracurricular. If you’re a great poet, we’d love to have you send your poetry along. You could send your short stories or mathematical solutions or computer programs or your life sciences research. Whatever it is you have done, we want to get that information to make the best possible case for your admission.”
He goes on to explain:
“With 35,000 people applying, you can see that standardized test scores are relatively unimportant in the end, because most of the people who apply have strong scores and grades and are fully qualified to be here. So the real question is to try to get beyond the test scores and grades. Examples of applicants’ accomplishments in math or music, to name just a couple of areas, help us do that. The people who have the energy, the drive, and commitment to do something unusual in math, music, athletics, theater, or any activity have transferable sets of skills. It’s human potential that now happens to be directed, say, at women’s rugby, but could also be directed at any other kind of activity during college and later.”
Columbia University and Princeton University, among others, address admission for students of non-traditional education on their websites. Click here to read an academic study of Sudbury alumni and here to read a testimonial from a co-founder of Sudbury Valley School. Studies show about 40% of Sudbury graduates go on to become entrepreneurs! ‘
What happens when graduates enter the workplace?
Students are immersed in real life practices every day at WyldFlower. There are always multiple layers of authority at play. We each have a blend of individual responsibilities, collaboration, and formal authority at various points in our day. Students daily work within the formal structures of school government, judicial system, corporations, committees, certifications, fort occupancy codes, and many other rules. Our students are developing healthy relationships with authority and structure, knowing when to question and challenge, how and when not to, and how to engage with it. Graduates from similar schools show successful transition from school to college to employment and life with less turmoil and greater fluidity.
Don’t the children play all day if they don’t have to go to class?
The current schooling system has given us the idea that play is not as valuable as teacher directed instruction for a child’s growth and development. This couldn’t be more incorrect and this misconception is harmful to child development.
For physical development, mental health and optimal learning , children need to move. Play almost always includes moving and challenging the body. A mastery of skills within one’s own passions is discovered through play. Play also brings a focus and intensity that are precursors to being in a state of flow as an adult. By practicing the act of losing yourself within the process of creating something, this most efficient way of producing becomes familiar and second nature.
Furthermore, creativity is cultivated through play. Professionals play with ideas; managers play with new processes; scientists play with hypotheses and experiments; inventors play with new toys, vehicles, products; marketing professionals play with new slogans; and pioneers in all fields play with finding new ways.
Often hidden from our adult world, children learn various things from each other through play. If you take time to sit back and listen to a group of any age, the multiple ways in which learning is happening becomes relevant. Here is a list of things South Jersey Sudbury School students do throughout play.
“They learn that there is more than one way to do something; they discuss politics from their family’s perspective and hear how other families think; they dream about the future and share their dreams; they take charge one day and follow the next; they are honest with each other about their feelings; they examine the workings of machines; they hear about a friend witnessing her baby sister being born; they hatch a plan to protect their inventions; they help younger children with a project; they find a way no matter how long it takes… the list and the learning is endless.
Children also learn about society through their interaction with others in play. They learn the importance of rules and boundaries, the importance of working it out, the value of all members of the group. They develop skills in leadership, initiative, cooperation, responsibility, collaboration, fair play, compassion and justice.”
More important than the positive learning outcomes of play, play is the mode through which cultivation of overall wellbeing occurs. Play is therapeutic, grounding, and supports social, mental, and physical health. Healthy happy people want to engage in life and want to learn and apply themselves. If you look carefully enough at children playing, this is self-evident. WyldFlower wants to apply this fact to every child’s day to day experience. To make a real impact on the mental health needs of society and our community, play is a real antidote we all need to take seriously.
What are the rules in this school?
Rules are legislated through a weekly School Meeting. School Meeting involves all interested parties in the school. Proposals for new laws and amendments to old are offered up to the vote. Individuals who take part in creating the rules in which they will be governed, are much more likely to cooperate and follow the rules. This is also a huge opportunity for children at WyldFlower Learning Community to have a relevant learning experience in regards to civics, our U.S. government system, and getting involved to make a positive community impact. Deep critical thinking, problem solving, social emotional development, leadership, executive function, and compassion are developed in this activity.
But what if my child isn’t self-motivated?
Going back to the Gardener and Carpenter metaphor, plants and flowers only need us to make sure they are getting the nutrients they need and the environment in which they can take hold and flourish on their own. Children are designed to take in and master certain skills to succeed in their environment. The thing that erodes motivation, and whose impact can be seen in time, is by the repeated use of external motivators. Most educators give stickers, threaten with punishments, create behavioral charts and so on. All of these undermine people’s own initiative to learn, develop character, and grow.
It has been documented by alternative schools that when they receive a student from a tradition school, there is a time period in which children, especially older children, must regain that innate drive to learn about their world and their culture. It seems that the day to day mode of following constant orders (even for getting a drink or using the restroom) in combination with the constant external rewards/punishments, conditions an individual to be submissive and checked out. As the psychologist Peter Gray points out, if you watch a infant or toddler, you can’t help but notice they are driven to figure everything out (hence the child locks and ‘baby proofing’ the house). They learn to walk on their own, their vocabulary rapidly increases, and the amount of questions they ask can be pain staking. Gray points out that for some reason, at around age 5, we feel they are unable to continue this learning and put them in a rigid and adult structured system (which squelches curiosity and exploration).
The less a child has been shaped by a coercive environment, the more they will strive to master skills and knowledge on their own volition. For those who are not used to being in control of their day and learning, boredom (with the absence of coercion or entertainment) becomes the gateway towards self-reflection, followed by self-motivation.
For parents who hold the belief that their child isn’t self-motivated, we challenge you to reflect on your own childhood. Not one of us, with the right support, wasn’t excited about being alive, engaging with the world, and being competent at contributing to it. This, in itself, drives a person forward.
Do you have teachers?
At WyldFlower Learning Community, everyone has an opportunity to play the role of a teacher. Research shows that children learn much more from each other than they do from adults. Adults at WyldFlower, also known as staff members, do have opportunities to lead in activities and are experts in certain domains, but do not entirely control the school environment and work hard not to interrupt the natural motion of the learning community. The students play an integral role in running the school, creating the rules, and deciding what will be on item for learning that day. Our staff members all have professional experience in education and love spending time with children. But first we listen, learn from the students, and imbed ourselves when the moment is right. Staff members must pass criminal background checks and be Child-CPR and First-Aid certified for WyldFLower Learning Community.
HOW DOES WYLDFLOWER HANDLE DISCIPLINE?
This is where we take advantage of the connection between learning and one’s environment. By allowing students to play a part in creating and amending rules they become necessary for the success of the school. This feeling of importance and relevance to the environment creates buy-in and a sense of real pride in the school. A restorative approach to discipline, and a judicial body that decides on the consequences in appropriate cases, gives students direct experience of what justice is. We’ve set up an environment where students are living democracy. This is a powerful advantage for the WyldFlower Community.
Our school code prioritizes:
Student safety is more important than anything.
2) Respect for Individual Rights
Our school models respect for oneself and one’s peers. Personal boundaries and property rights are strictly enforced.
3) Learning & Exploration
Open ended play introduces and reinforces life lessons. Challenges and project-based learning allows for guided learning. Staff members are available as resources to all students.