It is a common belief in many societies that learning must be extrinsically motivated, that students must be made to “learn”. The use of rewards and punishment to shape student behavior dominates the approach to instruction in traditional schools. Grades, promotions, detentions, tests, and medications are a few of the methods used to ensure compliance. Students who perform well in traditional schools often don’t realize the downside of their structured education until they have successfully navigated it, graduated from it, and gone on to live their adult lives. Others never realize the legacy of traditional education in their lives and are left lacking confidence, self-direction, and the ability to move on after failure. Whether our students are in meetings or reading a book or playing soccer or debating a friend, they are always pursuing something they view as meaningful, relevant, and interesting. They are always learning.

This might work for children who are self-motivated, but what about my child who has to be pushed to do everything?

Some people feel that the solution to a lack of self-motivation is to impose rules and structure on the “unmotivated” child. In the experience of Mountain Laurel Sudbury and many other Sudbury schools, the exact opposite is usually the case. In most cases, an apparent lack of self-motivation is either a reaction against too much control and structure, or an indicator that the child is genuinely uninterested in whatever he or she is supposed to be working on. In an environment of greater freedom, such as at MLSS, these kids often have a “decompression period” of a few weeks or months, in which they appear to do “nothing”, reveling in the freedom of being able to do nothing. But almost without exception, kids soon become bored. Boredom leads to exploration, and soon the child is engaged in his or her environment, interacting with other students and staff, and rediscovering the ability to be excited, interested, passionate and motivated.

Is there a specific ``type`` of child that would benefit more from a Sudbury education than a traditional education?

Sudbury schools have welcomed every ‘type’ of child – from the highly academic student to the traditional school ‘drop-out’. Students who are best suited for Sudbury type schools include: bright, highly motivated kids who want to surge ahead and challenge themselves; kids with unique learning styles who want to move at their own pace; kids who are ‘different’ in some way and want an atmosphere of tolerance and friendliness; social kids who want to be part of a democratic community; little kids who are passionately engaged in exploring and creating; high-energy, restless kids who want to be active; frustrated kids who are sick of schooling; shy, sensitive kids who want to pursue their own interests; and self-directed kids who are ready for responsibility.

Won’t the children play all day if they don’t have to go to class?

In some cases, yes, and this is not viewed as a problem. Too often in the “adult” world, work is viewed as that which we don’t want to do, but have to, while play is that which we want to do, but don’t have time for. At MLSS, play is recognized not only as a valuable learning tool, but as an essential ingredient of a happy life, not only for young students, but for older ones and staff as well. As the line between work and play is blurred, students are able to graduate without the fear of (or resignation to) work or the guiltiness around play that is all too common in our society.

How will my child get into college with no grades, diploma, or transcripts?

When s/he decides s/he wants to go to college and chooses the college s/he wants, the experience of all Sudbury schools is that there will be no stopping him/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. Far from being disadvantaged, graduates of Sudbury schools stand out among the hundreds or thousands of other applications processed by a college or university. Typically, Sudbury graduates are well-spoken, articulate, creative, and motivated. These qualities allow them to represent themselves well in essays and interviews, and colleges know that unlike many other applicants, these graduates are applying because they want to. Sudbury graduates apply to college or university because they want to learn something, and they feel that the college of their choice is the best place to learn it. This gives them a leg up both as applicants and as students.

What does a typical day look like?

The short answer to this question is that there is no “typical day” at our school. Because there is no schedule of classes or activities, students are free to shape each day as they see fit. For some students, there may be certain activities that they do every day, perhaps even at the same time every day. Others may have favorite activities, but do not do them at a particular scheduled time. Still others may spend each day exploring new topics, until something grabs their attention and they decide to look into it more deeply.

How do you ensure that students leave well rounded? How do you make sure they learn everything they need to?

We don’t. Some of the most brilliant people in the fields of science, medicine, the arts and business are very focused on their field of specialty and don’t require in-depth knowledge in a wide variety of topics. Exploration of many different subjects is allowed in our school without the constraints of time. When a strong interest is discovered by a student, it may be pursued for a week, a month or all year long. Many students move from one interest to the next and over time return to the initial interest to deepen their knowledge. Our students learn how to concentrate intensely on whatever their passion is, and are given the freedom to pursue that passion for as long or as short a time as they want. Some students simply “play” all day. We recognize that through play, children are learning about their world and about how they will relate to their world as young people and as adults. We don’t believe that every student needs to be exposed to or taught the same things. Each student is an individual, and the school and staff don’t presume to know what or how it is best for students to learn.

How do students know their options?

It is a common concern that students will not be exposed to subjects or information that might be important or interesting to them. If students don’t know that a subject exists, how can they pursue it under their own direction? It is certainly true that students at MLSS are unlikely to be exposed to every topic that might conceivably interest them. However, since time, conversations, and materials are not constrained by a curriculum with predetermined subjects, students are actually more likely to be exposed to a broad range of information, and have more freedom to explore subjects that might not fall easily into the standard curriculum. And because students follow the path of their own interests, it is very probable that their explorations and natural curiosity will lead them to those subjects most likely to be of interest and use to them.

In today’s world, we are all constantly bombarded with possibilities of how we may use our time and things to learn about. Children live in this world as well, and have no trouble at all figuring out what they could choose to spend their time doing. The hard part is narrowing their choices down so that they can choose what they want to spend their time doing at any given time. All activities are accorded equal validity in the school community. As long as the activity does not infringe on the rights of others to pursue their own activities or break other school rules, it is allowed to happen for as long or as short a time as the student desires.

What resources are available to the students?

While the resources available on our physical campus are of course limited, students can theoretically have access to nearly any resource they desire. On campus, the school maintains its own library, and is located next door to the New Britain Public Library.  We also have a collection of games and arts & crafts materials. We have several computers, allowing access to the internet, which in this day and age is the single fastest way to find information on nearly any subject. Students are also encouraged to bring items and materials from home.

Students can also tap into resources outside the school when on-campus resources are insufficient. If a student wants to take a class that cannot be accommodated on campus they can work with staff (or on their own, if they choose) to obtain that resource, set up an off-campus class or internship, or bring a teacher to the school from the greater community.

Finally (but certainly not least importantly), the primary role of staff is as a resource to students. Staff are always available to answer questions, help students, teach (though rarely in a traditional looking way), or find answers or information.