The Open School is a scaled-down version of American society. Within the bounds of the campus, students go where they please and can interact with anyone of any age. They can spend their time however they choose. They socialize, building relationships and resolving conflicts that arise naturally. They invent and play games. They work on projects that interest them. They spend real money on things they want to buy which others are selling. They start and run their own businesses.
Students must follow the laws written in the lawbook, which are designed to protect everyone’s rights. They can’t encroach upon others or their property. If they do, they are brought before a jury of peers which performs an investigation and, if necessary, assigns a sentence. Just like in American society.
Adults must follow all the same laws as kids. This means adults can’t encroach upon students — meaning an adult can’t force a student to listen to a lesson. Students have autonomy, which means their bodies belong to them. They are respected as full human beings and protected from overbearing (though well-meaning) authorities.Go to top ▴
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But, for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” ~ Fred Rogers
In a recent clinical report, the nation’s leading pediatricians advised that doctors should recommend a dose of play to improve the mental and physical health of children. After decades of decreasing playtime for children, and the widespread disappearance of recess, we have reached the point of a health epidemic.
But play is not only necessary for children’s health, say pediatricians — it’s also a vital part of education:
“Collaboration, negotiation, conflict resolution, self-advocacy, decision-making, a sense of agency, creativity, leadership, and increased physical activity are just some of the skills and benefits children gain through play.” ~ The American Academy of Pediatrics
We often think of “play” as something silly and frivolous. But for children, play is just another word for practice. Just like lion cubs play at hunting by stalking leaves blowing in the wind, and young antelopes play at escaping by fleeing from one another in games of tag, human children use play to practice the skills they will need in life.
For humans, the most important and most difficult skill is getting along with other people. That is why children love to play together — talking, arguing over the rules of games, making up imaginary scenarios, building things together, and reaching compromises.
Video games are no exception. Children love to play video games because video games are simulations of the world, and they allow children to explore the world and learn about it without leaving their home or school. Also, by playing video games, children are learning to use the most important tool of the 21st century — the computer. Read more about our views on video games.
You might think that children will never learn academic things like math and literacy through play. But they do! Children naturally want to master the world around them — and math, reading, and writing are everywhere. Math is in telling time, counting money, and measuring for recipes. Reading and writing are in restaurant menus, searching the web, and sharing secret letters with friends. Read more about how students learn academics at The Open School.Go to top ▴
Today, the world is changing more rapidly than at any point in history. When the next generation of children reaches adulthood, they will be living in a world that is very different than the one we live in, and there is no way we can predict what skills will be important. No longer are people expected to spend their entire lives in one career. To be successful, people must be flexible and creative. They must be able to learn new skills quickly at any time. Employers are searching for self-starters and independent, inspired workers.
According to Yuval Noah Harari, the New York Times bestselling author of Sapiens, the future of humanity will be even more volatile:
“We might invest a lot of effort teaching kids how to write in C++ or how to speak Chinese, only to discover that by 2050 AI can code software far better than humans, and a new Google Translate app enables you to conduct a conversation in almost flawless Mandarin, Cantonese or Hakka, even though you only know how to say “Ni hao”. So what should we be teaching? Many pedagogical experts argue that schools should switch to teaching “the four Cs” — critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.
More broadly, schools should downplay technical skills and emphasise general-purpose life skills. Most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, to learn new things and to preserve your mental balance in unfamiliar situations. In order to keep up with the world of 2050, you will need not merely to invent new ideas and products — you will above all need to reinvent yourself again and again.”
How can we make sure kids grow to have these “four Cs” — critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity?
Critical thinking means not just doing what you’re told, but making a judgment for yourself. However, traditional school is all about doing what you’re told, unless you’re assigned a special “critical thinking” assignment — in which case, if you actually think critically and decide the assignment isn’t worth doing, you fail!
The Open School, on the other hand, is a democracy — decisions are made through debate and voting, which students can participate in. There is no “because I said so” here. Students are allowed to make their own judgments and vote accordingly. Also, they don’t have to perform any work unless they think there is a good reason for doing so.
Communication and collaboration are hot traits in the eyes of modern job recruiters. As a case in point, in 2013, Google analyzed all the hiring, firing, and promotion data since its inception in 1998, and found that the seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach, being supportive of and empathetic toward one’s team members, communicating and listening well, having a clear vision and strategy, and empowering others. Technical ability came in last, as the eighth most important trait.
Students at The Open School are constantly working on their communication and collaboration skills. If you walk into our school at any time, you will see kids engaging in conversations, arguing about rules of games, negotiating, compromising, trading, and collaboratively building things such as forts, Legos, and Minecraft houses. Read more about how students learn to communicate and collaborate at The Open School.
Creativity is the simplest thing for children, because all children are born creative. As a proof of this, consider this story:
In 1968, NASA hired Dr. George Land and Beth Jarman to develop a test that could measure the creative potential of NASA’s scientists and engineers. They came up with a test for divergent thinking, which is the ability to look at a particular problem and propose multiple solutions. This test had no right answers, but required test-takers to come up with as many ideas as possible.
The test worked well for NASA’s purposes, but it left Land and Jarman with a bunch of new questions. They had spent a lot of time researching creativity in order to develop this test. They were now wondering — why are some people more creative than others? Where does creativity come from?
The researchers decided to give the same test to 1,600 children between the ages of 4 and 5. The results shocked them. A full 98 percent of those children fell into the genius category of imagination! They then waited five years and gave the test again to those same children when they were ten years old. Now only 30 percent of them qualified as creative geniuses. By the time the kids were fifteen, the number had dropped to 12 percent.
Finally, Land and Jarman gave their test to 280,000 adults and found that a mere 2 percent of them qualify as creative geniuses. “What we have concluded,” wrote Land, “is that non-creative behavior is learned.”
Traditional schools are a product of the bygone industrial era, when adulthood for most people meant a lifetime of rote work in a factory. To create effective workers, schools had to supress people’s individuality and force them into a mold. Workers had to be standardized so they could be interchanged like machine parts. They could not be permitted to question authority. Although many people today agree that the old assumptions are outdated, our schools have hardly changed at all in the last 100 years. We are trying to prepare children for a post-industrial world using an industrial education system.
We are now living in the twenty-first century, and we need a new paradigm of education. The Open School is that new paradigm.Go to top ▴
At The Open School, students are not always supervised by adults. We have a large campus, and students are free to roam as they wish. We believe that children need time away from adult eyes and ears, to practice problem-solving and conflict resolution on their own. While away from adults, children can push on the boundaries of their comfort zones and develop independence and responsibility.
However, it is important to recognize that no student at school is ever truly unsupervised. Students at The Open School know that they have a responsibility to look after each other, and to hold each other accountable for their actions. If they ever feel unsure about safety, they have no hesitation about finding an adult.
We accept that the occasional bump or scrape is an essential part of growing up and learning to manage risk. Therefore we don’t prohibit slightly dangerous activities such as climbing trees and running outside barefoot. Nonetheless, the staff are very safety-conscious and will intervene in any truly dangerous situation.Go to top ▴
The brain is plastic; it can learn anything at any time. Research has shown that there is no objective “right time” to learn anything. In their paper, What Does the Brain Have to Do With Learning?, Worden, Hinton, and Fischer found that “while there’s evidence for limited critical periods in brain development in limited domains (such as the strength of vision in the two eyes), no evidence supports a critical period for academic skills.”
The brain rapidly absorbs information that it deems meaningful and useful. Anything else is ignored or quickly forgotten. Kids can learn important skills such as math, reading, writing, as well as more specialized skills, quickly when they are interested. It doesn’t take years and years, unless the brain is not ready.
The neurotransmitter dopamine is released when the brain engages in something it enjoys. When children choose what to learn based on their brainʼs unique pleasure response, their brains become conditioned to find learning pleasurable. When the brain experiences stress, it releases the hormone cortisol, which interferes with learning and memory. Respecting children protects the brain and creates the conditions for learning.
Children are always learning, every moment of the day, unless they are stressed, bored, or angry.Go to top ▴
The Open School was modeled after Sudbury Valley School, which was founded in 1968 in Framingham, MA. For 50 years Sudbury Valley School has been churning out graduates who are intelligent, confident, self-motivated, skilled, articulate, and highly employable. Today there are around 70 schools around the world that follow the Sudbury model.
To discover whether Sudbury schools are successful, The Circle School, a Sudbury model school in Harrisburg, PA, conducted a study of its graduates in 2015. The study found that graduates of the Circle School attend college more often than the average American. They are also more likely to earn degrees, including bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. This is not because Circle School families are wealthier — they occupy the same range of socioeconomic brackets as their surrounding community.
After college, Circle School graduates go on to the full range of careers. They are more likely to go into science and technology than any other field. They are also more likely than the average American to be self-employed. 60 percent of them are traditionally employed, while only 2 percent are unemployed.
This kind of education is still unconventional, but it’s no longer an experiment. The experiment is over, and the results are in. The Sudbury model works.Go to top ▴