Archive for Learning

Repost: Stop Trying to Make Everything Educational

We don’t often repost from external blogs, but this recent entry from Happiness is Here is exceptionally straightforward and insightful. An Australian homeschooler, Sara’s post speaks directly to what we at Alpine Valley School believe about natural learning environments. Many thanks to Sara for allowing us to share the following excerpt. Everywhere I look there’s themed … Continue reading Repost: Stop Trying to Make Everything Educational

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Over Exposure

It’s one of the most frequent of frequently asked questions: I lost track long ago of how many times we’ve fielded concerns about exposure over the years.

In general, there are two different types of exposure, positive and negative. Many people ask how kids can learn all that they need, or even discover what they like, unless adults carefully manage the process. Others are concerned that kids will be exposed to the wrong things unless adults are sheltering them from what they’re not ready for.

What geniuses we must be to know for any given child, at any given moment, what things must be brought to their attention and which must be kept from them! The truth is, at Alpine Valley School exposure naturally helps young people practice exactly the skills needed for successful lives in the larger world.

When it comes to “positive” exposure—introducing children to subjects they need and might enjoy—the intensely rich randomness of Sudbury schools is not to be underestimated. Conventional schools group students by age and walk them through the same limited set of subjects at the same plodding pace. In that setting, students are shown not how to confront life, but only allowed to encounter what the experts deem appropriate.

In contrast, Sudbury students are free to experience life in all its messiness. Indeed, given access to technology and a full spectrum of ages, personalities, and interests, the sky’s the limit for what Sudbury students can encounter. Yet while the range of subjects is virtually limitless, time is obviously finite, and so one of the most critical lessons our students learn is how to sift through a flood of information, think critically, and decide what’s accurate and useful.

So the good news is, AVS students will in fact encounter a much broader range of things on their own in this vibrant school community than they would if adults imposed on them their own ideas of what’s important.

And yes, this can include things some would say they should not be exposed to. Whether the objectionable material is scary, “mature,” or violent, many people believe it’s essential to pick some age and categorically prevent access to everyone below that cutoff. However, this doesn’t merely protect kids from accidental exposure: they’re denied the choice and practice of deciding for themselves what they’re ready for, what they can handle, and what to do when they don’t want something in their environment.

In day-to-day Sudbury life these questions receive all the nuance and thoughtfulness they deserve. What sorts of language and media are permitted, in what parts of the campus and at what times of day, frequently become the subject of conversation and debate—even judicial complaints. Sudbury students and staff learn to be sensitive not only to the ages of the people around them, but also their varying standards of what’s acceptable. As communities, we decide how to handle unintended and unwanted exposure, as well as how to balance an individual’s right to choose his or her activities with everyone’s responsibility for the general welfare of the school.

As with so much of the Sudbury model, the issue of exposure comes down to basic principles of trust and responsibility, a vision of how best to support young people in growing to effective adulthood. We believe young people deserve to learn for themselves how to find what they need, how to sift through information, and how to prioritize their time in trusting, supportive communities. This way, they learn what they’re good at and enjoy, what they want to get better at, and what they don’t want to be exposed to (and how to deal with that).

Not only do young people deserve these opportunities, this is how they learn best. Here, the question of what to expose them to and what to protect them from is not taken out of students’ hands, but rather becomes part of the process by which they develop their amazing potential.

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Over Exposure

It’s one of the most frequent of frequently asked questions: I lost track long ago of how many times we’ve fielded concerns about exposure over the years.

In general, there are two different types of exposure, positive and negative. Many people ask how kids can learn all that they need, or even discover what they like, unless adults carefully manage the process. Others are concerned that kids will be exposed to the wrong things unless adults are sheltering them from what they’re not ready for.

What geniuses we must be to know for any given child, at any given moment, what things must be brought to their attention and which must be kept from them! The truth is, at Alpine Valley School exposure naturally helps young people practice exactly the skills needed for successful lives in the larger world.

When it comes to “positive” exposure—introducing children to subjects they need and might enjoy—the intensely rich randomness of Sudbury schools is not to be underestimated. Conventional schools group students by age and walk them through the same limited set of subjects at the same plodding pace. In that setting, students are shown not how to confront life, but only allowed to encounter what the experts deem appropriate.

In contrast, Sudbury students are free to experience life in all its messiness. Indeed, given access to technology and a full spectrum of ages, personalities, and interests, the sky’s the limit for what Sudbury students can encounter. Yet while the range of subjects is virtually limitless, time is obviously finite, and so one of the most critical lessons our students learn is how to sift through a flood of information, think critically, and decide what’s accurate and useful.

So the good news is, AVS students will in fact encounter a much broader range of things on their own in this vibrant school community than they would if adults imposed on them their own ideas of what’s important.

And yes, this can include things some would say they should not be exposed to. Whether the objectionable material is scary, “mature,” or violent, many people believe it’s essential to pick some age and categorically prevent access to everyone below that cutoff. However, this doesn’t merely protect kids from accidental exposure: they’re denied the choice and practice of deciding for themselves what they’re ready for, what they can handle, and what to do when they don’t want something in their environment.

In day-to-day Sudbury life these questions receive all the nuance and thoughtfulness they deserve. What sorts of language and media are permitted, in what parts of the campus and at what times of day, frequently become the subject of conversation and debate—even judicial complaints. Sudbury students and staff learn to be sensitive not only to the ages of the people around them, but also their varying standards of what’s acceptable. As communities, we decide how to handle unintended and unwanted exposure, as well as how to balance an individual’s right to choose his or her activities with everyone’s responsibility for the general welfare of the school.

As with so much of the Sudbury model, the issue of exposure comes down to basic principles of trust and responsibility, a vision of how best to support young people in growing to effective adulthood. We believe young people deserve to learn for themselves how to find what they need, how to sift through information, and how to prioritize their time in trusting, supportive communities. This way, they learn what they’re good at and enjoy, what they want to get better at, and what they don’t want to be exposed to (and how to deal with that).

Not only do young people deserve these opportunities, this is how they learn best. Here, the question of what to expose them to and what to protect them from is not taken out of students’ hands, but rather becomes part of the process by which they develop their amazing potential.

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Give Me Liberty

Twenty-one years ago, I went to the Colorado Libertarian convention to promote the then-nascent Alpine Valley School. Libertarians, I figured, would greatly appreciate the freedom of our school, and so I proudly displayed my cleverly titled flier, Democracy in Your Bones. Of the 50 fliers I made, however, exactly none was taken. Eventually, I began to understand why.

Democracy is confused with various things—freedom, cooperation, collaboration, influence, sunshine, and all things good. This happens, I think, when people feeling disenfranchised by our representational republic seek more influence over it. If they really knew what democracy was, they might stop focusing on democracy and start focusing on freedom instead. Democracy in and of itself is neither pro- or anti-freedom. (Consider Kim Jong Un’s Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, for example.)

While freedom is the right of the individual to live unfettered by arbitrary authority, democracy simply means that power rests with the governed—and without checks and balances, this is an invitation to the tyranny of the majority. Consider the definition of democracy as two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner. Early in our country’s history, many opposed the new constitution because there were no specific limits on governmental power: this is the context for the opening words of the First Amendment, that “Congress shall make no law.” The Bill of Rights is not an explicit listing of rights so much as an explicit limitation on the power of the majority.

At our school the smallest minority is one, and proposed School Meeting laws are debated with this in mind. We strive to restrict the arbitrary authority of School Meeting and school officials by circumscribing their powers. The students and staff, the daily residents of the school, are the sovereign power: they must balance the general welfare of the school against the personal freedom so central to its existence. For us, democratic processes are a means to an end—the end of self-governance.

One of our sister schools (The Circle School in Harrisburg, PA) describes succinctly the role of self-governance in an educational context (notice that nowhere in this eloquent statement does the word democracy appear):

The daily school program is self-governing, with authority and responsibility shared among the governed, students and staff alike.

  • Voice. All members of the daily school program—students and staff—enjoy equal rights of voice and vote in matters of governance and the common good.
  • Rule of law. All members of the daily school program are subject to the authority of school government according to duly adopted laws that are publicly disclosed in writing.
  • Responsibility. All members of the daily school program share responsibility for the common welfare.
  • Protection: All members of the daily school program enjoy equal protection and due process under school law.

In schools like ours, democracy is simply the principle that sovereignty over a day-to-day society rests with those who participate on a day-to-day basis. And this philosophical principle has crucial, practical implications. If our children are to develop into self-directed, responsible adults—if they are to realize their innate, unique potential—what they need isn’t so much democracy as freedom.

Democracy-is-two-wolves-and-a-sheep-voting-on-whats-for-dinner

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Why Video Games Are So Important

When I was a student at Alpine Valley School (over a decade ago!) a number of my friends were gamers. They would gather around an Xbox or Playstation and do battle for hours and hours. This is one of the great benefits of enrolling at Alpine Valley School: students have the freedom to pursue those activities that they value and enjoy. However, in those days, I did not find the same thrill in liberating alien compounds as my friends did. I’d sit with them for a little while and attempt to get the hang of it, but would inevitably tire of running my character off a cliff or crashing my race car and head off to do something I found enjoyable.

Now that I’m a staff member and a soon-to-be mom, I have been contemplating video gaming from a different perspective. They may not be my cup of tea, but is there inherent value in spending so much time in front of a screen, whether you’re solving puzzles or assembling a fantasy football team? Do video games actually do anything, or are they just an entertaining waste of time?

To answer my question, I turned to gaming expert and entrepreneur Jane McGonigal and her book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better And How They Can Change The World. While I cracked the cover of this book a skeptic, I must say that by the end, it won me over. Not only does McGonigal make compelling points about the future of gaming as a source of social interaction, emotional activation, and positivity: she also points out how the current gaming culture provides all those benefits (and more) to gamers.

It turns out that games do provide a valuable service to each and every player, even ones who kind of suck at it (like me). They provide a quick and easy way to light up the pleasure centers in our brain, activating the positive chemical mixtures typically produced only when we do something really outstanding. Amazingly, whether you climb a mountain or bowl a perfect 300 on Wii Bowling, your brain reacts the same. The thrill of completing a challenge or, better yet, helping your friend achieve a goal boosts your mental state whether or not the whole activity took place in a virtual world. In summary? Games make us happy.

Not only that, but they also act as a conduit for our human instinct to play. As with all forms of play, video games are initiated by the players and have a set of rules that everyone agrees on. Whether solitary or collaborative, gaming involves the mind in an active way.

There isn’t enough room here to go into all the benefits of play and the huge difference it makes to both children and adults (check out Peter Gray’s amazing blog if you want to learn more about this subject), but suffice it to say that play is just about the most important thing we can do to enrich our minds, engage one another socially, and cultivate joy and meaning in our lives. No other activity provides so much bang for the buck.

What I’ve recently come to understand is that so-called “productive” or “educational” activities such as looking at flash cards or reading textbooks are actually less effective than video games at teaching people the skills they need to learn. And while not everyone may want to sit down and play a few hours of Halo every weekend, nearly everyone’s lives are enriched by the benefits of even just a few minutes of playing a game. So, to answer my earlier question- yes, video games provide enormous value, both to the players who are getting the mental and emotional payoff and to the larger community. Games can actually teach us how to be more productive, satisfied, and connected, none of which I would have expected before reading Reality is Broken.

I have since downloaded several games on my iPad, including Candy Crush, Piano Tiles, and others recommended by Alpine Valley School students. Even though I’ve only been playing for a few weeks, I already feel the benefits of gaming just a few minutes per day. I find that I have greater focus for tasks throughout the day, better hand-eye coordination, and, best of all, I feel like I am part of a community – both online and at school. And even though I will probably never come close to the high score set by any of the students, I can always ask for their help if I get stuck and, hopefully, gain even more knowledge in the process.

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One Strategy for Working with Sadness

by Shawna Lee, Clearwater staff member To be human is to experience a range of complex and powerful emotions. For many of us, becoming aware of and taking responsibility for those emotions is a formidable and lifelong challenge. Children, too, experience complex and sometimes overwhelming emotions. I am often dismayed by the ways adult culture can trivialize, minimize or try to talk children

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Not As Different As I Thought (Part I)

by Susan Milton, Clearwater parent One day a couple of years ago, I was at a playground chatting about schools with another mom while our kids played. After hearing a bit about The Clearwater School, where my kids go, and The Bryn Mawr School for Girls, where I went as a child, she said, "Oh, so you wanted your kids to have the kind of school that you had". I started to say, "oh, no, no,...",

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Learning not to bust

By Bryan A game that's been making the rounds at school for the past week is Chinese Poker. I play a lot of card games with students at school, but I came to this one a little bit late. Gregory was the first student to teach me. Each player is dealt thirteen cards, all face-up (five cards to start with, then eight more one at a time) with which to make three poker hands (two of five cards

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