Friday, March 20, 2009

Do we still need teachers?

I recently read Turning Learning Right Side Up by Russell Ackoff and Daniel Greenberg and was inspired to consider sending my students to Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, MA. Sudbury Valley is an alternative school (K-12) where students create their own learning and are guided by their own curiosity and interests to pursue knowledge without being "forced" to do so by adults. There are no grades, no classes, and no homework.

In the book Greenberg and Ackoff state that "Schools are upside down: Students should be teaching and faculty learning." (p. 4) "The objective of education is learning, not teaching." (p. 5) "... the most important thing for students to learn is how to learn and to be motivated to do so throughout their lives" (p. 46)

My children, ages 4 (pre-K) and 6 (1st grade), attend our local public school. While I feel that their teachers are committed and passionate educators, I have also seen the affect of our national obsession with testing push out all subjects but reading and math. My son, who is fascinated with science and animals, is begging for more science experiments. I want my children to be encouraged to pursue their passions, to follow their questions and to play. With this in mind, my family and I went out to the Sudbury Valley School for an interview.

As we walked around Sudbury Valley we saw children of all ages engaged in a variety of activites. Two seven year old girls had been playing in a room all day with all kinds of toys, teenagers were playing magic cards and were on computers, some were playing volley ball outside, others were hanging out and talking, and one boy sat at a piano composing music. I was struck by the absence of adults.

I understand that the premise behind this school is that children don't need adults to tell them what to learn, that they discover answers by themselves. But what I learned about myself is that I want my children to have a teacher. I believe in the power of teachers to guide and inspire students' learning. Maybe I am stuck in an old way of thinking, but for now, I am not ready to give that up.

Perhaps it is the teacher in me, having been an educator for the last 16 years, that still believes in teachers. Maybe I just want to save my own dying breed, but I do think there is value in what I do. I feel we teachers have something to contribute, even in a changing learning landscape. Yes, we need to focus more on creativity and innovation and less on rote memorization, but teachers still play an important role in that process. Obviously, I am a bit biased.

What do you think?


Grammatically Delicious Designs said...

Students can 'guide' their learning in a classroom that has a teacher. As the adult in the room, I know what standards need to be covered in order to give the students the background they need to be productive adults in the future. BUT, I am not driven by a textbook. I often let my students drive the activities and authentic assessments to demonstrate knowledge. I school without teachers is difficult with most teens. Many would be on the computer surfing or playing sports all day. I am there to 'guide' learning. They are there to tell me what activities will make learning my curriculum valuable to them as learners.

Bill Genereux said...

The school you described sounds both wonderful and chaotic. Somewhere, can't we have a happy medium between rigid curriculums and total anarchy?

My kid likes science too, and we do it at home since there's precious little time for it at school. She has even started a blog Science Girl Em to help sustain her interest.

Yes, there will always be a place for teachers. The question is what will they look like in the future?

Anonymous said...

I think I prefer at least a little guidance for those children. Otherwise, they could be learning volleyball and that is all. There has to be some adult influence to help them learn the things they need to succeed.

msstewart said...

It would be interesting to see long-term info on how students going to these kinds of schools do once they leave them. While it's possible to find a career/vocation as an adult about which you are truly passionate, it can be difficult. Even those in vocations about which they feel passionate (I am grateful to count myself among them), still have to have the discipline to deal with those things we find unpleasant, challenging, or just painfully boring. That kind of reasoning should not be an excuse for uninspired/dull/outdated teaching, but it might be an argument contra the idea that students should only pursue those things about which they are passionate. Adults can make calculated decisions about pursuing enjoyment/passion and the opportunity costs of such pursuit, but children/young teens do not have that same ability.

Aaron B. said...

I believe there is real value in teachers, and grades and the pressure that accompanies them.
First, it gives you a way of measuring yourself against others. And though many might say, "Why that's degrading." The hard reality is trying to measure up in life. Whether it be against co-workers for a raise, against yourself, or even proving your worth to your parents.
Secondly, the good teachers never teach to tests. Anyone, can be drilled to rote learning. Hell they sent monkeys into space before humans because they can be trained. But good teachers inspire. They are the ones who will see your sons desire for more science and give him more experiments.
Finally it's curriculum that holds many of us thinking in traditional ways. Freedom to explore is good.
A school where I was not pushed to excel, a school where I would have been allowed to just play volleyball, or surf the net I would have learned nothing despite the "free" environment.
So yes, teachers are important. Teacher provide the motivation, and guidance. It's a new world yes, but learning has been the same since Socrates. The teacher asks questions and guide students to answers. They may not always be the same answer, but teachers ought to be open to that too.

JudiElise said...

And, while we're at it, kids need a curriculum, too.

How would I have known that I was very good at math (all the way to calculus) without a curriculum? I sure wouldn't have picked up that book on my own. In fact, certain skills built on previously learned and mastered skills.

We definitely need to inject some life, technology and freedom into our school system, but one with no teachers, no pattern or plan of learning does the same thing that rigid, stodgy traditional schools do; they neglect to meet the needs of every child.

A middle ground is all I think parents are asking for. I know I am.

CHRISK said...

What inspired me to learn were the teachers whose passion was so evident it excited the curiosity in me. I was literally stunned by the power of literature while reading The Grapes of Wrath with Mr. Kamar in 9th grade. In third grade, a young nun at the parochial school I attended showed us how to make host from scratch (yes, this is a bit strange, but it was a powerful learning moment). While it sparked my interest in cooking more than it did the symbolism of Catholicism, it was still an important moment where a teacher inspired me. I'm pretty sure this was not a learning moment I would have ever had if left alone to find inspiration.

Angela said...

I believe in the old adage, "sometimes you don't know what you don't know." Even as adults, I think we seek out teachers and mentors who will help us as we strive to learn new things. I agree--I want my own kids to have teachers. I just long for them to have teachers who are more reflective and intentional about how they position themselves within the larger learning framework, I guess.

Dawn Ferreyra said...

I work in the public school, but I homeschool my son. I would love to find a place where he is energized, engaged and learning, but that is so difficult! We need teachers who love what they do, understand and incorporate best practices. Teachers can be powerful guides in the educational process.

Thomas Sheppard said...

I share your frustration. As a teacher in a k-12, public education system I sometimes get fed-up with policies and changes aimed at organizational change that does not directly improve learning in the classroom. Too many restrictions, overload curriculum, lack of resources, and overloaded work conditions are some of the issues. It seems like we teachers are dealing with more and more administrative issues that take us away from the real reason for our jobs which is teaching.

Mark R. said...

Also being a teacher, I feel it is important to keep the teacher in control. I think it is great if you can let the children feel like they are making the decisions, but in reality, we, the teachers, are steering them in the proper direction.
I understand your frustration with the lack of "hands on" learning. I teach high school Industrial Arts and engineering. All of my classes are hands on/project oriented. Most students love coming to my class but there are still a few who will choose to just sit there and do absolutely nothing.

David Truss said...

Hi Liz,
I totally agree with you! Kids 'need' adults (parents & teachers/mentors) to help lead, guide & inspire them to learn, and to point them at things they don't know that they don't know (as Angela suggested above).
The biggest challenge that I think a kid faces in the current system isn't the system itself but people within the system... Teachers that only teach to the test... have cookie-cutter assignments... try to stick wonderful, imaginative square-peg-kids into their round-hole-way-of-doing-things.
There is enough flexibility, and often enough resources to create great projects that inspire students to soar... All we need now are educators that want to learn and are willing to share their learning with their students. Don't get me wrong, I think there are tons of great educators out there... In fact you probably rank as one if you are a reader of this blog but just one stuck/close-minded teacher is too much when you are a kid in that class.
My point is that, yes, kids need teachers, but to be specific, they need GOOD teachers.

Roger Lemelin said...

Nothing is as exciting as feeling the crackle of potential flow through my grade three group. As I listen their motivation and allow it to shape our activities, I find myself creating all sorts of integrated learning activities that I would never have conceived of otherwise. My lunch hours are regularly spent learning or organizing the technologies we will use in upcoming projects. I am a teacher - and I wear that title comfortably and confidently. But times are changing and teaching must too.

Adrienne said...

Liz, I was really looking forward to reading about your impressions after your visit. I've been following Sudbury model schools on the blog for a while now. There are some aspects that I am very attracted to, but others that I'm not. There have been long-term studies done on students who are schooled this way (or un-schooled, depending on your perspective), and they are mostly positive. But like you, I worry about lack of exposure and equity. Thanks for posting your candid thoughts; they are a valuable resource to someone curious like I am! I'd love to chat with you more about this, perhaps at a later date.

Roger Lemelin said...

Rosponded to a similar discussion on @nlearning:

This is such welcomed discussion! In Ontario, Canada, where I teach, there is very little, if any discussion of the tone or climate teachers create in their classes. In the past 5 years, tremendous time and resources have been concentrated on literacy development - balanced reading - and other prescribed methods. Perhaps effective in the areas targeted areas, I would argue that consideration of student - and teacher- MOTIVATION is sadly, sadly lacking and rarely mentioned other than to offer awards. In fact there is somewhat of a paradox in the fact that initiatives that are celebrated by our school community, administrators and our school board are often perfect examples of what happens when consuming prescribed methods are put aside for an array of exceptionally deviant undertakings.

Both reassured and inspired by the definition of 9 Essential Elements for Meaningful Engaged Learning, I would argue that educators should lead by example, inspire with their passion and awaken spirits with genuine whole-hearted curiosity. Entertain, no.

Lofty, perhaps, but I teach grade 3. While it offers nothing spectacular in content - especially after a few years - our time together is enlivened with an appreciation for their development as young people, the relationships we develop and sometimes struggle with throughout the year, group work and the professional attitude it requires to do it well and above all the circumvention of conventions that divorce us from genuine and whole-hearted experiences. When we consistently wake looking forward to our day and leave with a tired and satisfied smile, we`re doing OK.

I am not their friend, their parent or their clown. I am a teacher who continues to explore, learn and laugh. If teaching didn't afford these essentials, I`d sooner ... whatever.

David said...

""Where do you work?"

"At Sudbury Valley School."

What do you do?"


Doing nothing at Sudbury Valley requires a great deal of energy and discipline, and many years of experience. I get better at it every year, and it amuses me to see how I and others struggle with the inner conflict that arises in us inevitably. The conflict is between wanting to do things for people, to impart your knowledge and to pass on your hard earned wisdom, and the realization that the children have to do their learning under their own steam and at their own pace. Their use of us is dictated by their wishes, not ours. We have to be there when asked, not when we decide we should be......."

I Invite you to read, "The Art of Doing Nothing," by Hannah Greenberg.

David said...

"Martin Roberts, a colleague on EUDEC Council (, brought up an argument yesterday that you often get when talking about Sudbury schools. “Why not offer classes? Some children need structure.” (These are not exactly his words, but this is the argument in a more general sense.) I replied to Martin directly, but because of how common this line of reasoning is, I would like to discuss it more extensively. In this series of posts (originally a single post that got out of hand) I will explore this issue from a few angles and hopefully provide you with something interesting to read, if nothing more..."

I also invite you to read, Kids don’t “need structure,” part 1,, and, Kids don’t “need structure”, part 2,

Liz B Davis said...

Thanks so much for your comments. My family met with Hannah Greenberg when we went to visit and interview at Sudbury Valley. She is an amazing person and she clearly runs an extraordinary school.

I don't disagree with her words. You'll note in my post I said:

"But what I learned about myself is that I want my children to have a teacher. I believe in the power of teachers to guide and inspire students' learning. Maybe I am stuck in an old way of thinking, but for now, I am not ready to give that up."

I do agree that this is really more about me not being able to let go, than about whether or not my children would thrive in a place like Sudbury Valley.

Something I didn't write about in my post, we live about 45 minutes from the school and the commute just wasn't going to be feasable. I think if it were more logistically reasonable, we would have really considered sending our kids there.

I appreciate you taking the time to comment here and I will definitely check out your posts. What is your connection to Sudbury Valley schooling?

David said...

Hi Liz,
I really think it's a pity it isn't going to be feasible for you to send your kids to Sudbury Valley school. We can endure a lot in our lives, but why not grant our children a childhood of freedom, respect, and trust.

"...former students at Sudbury Valley enjoy, at the very least, the full range of life choices available to every other group of young people going out into the world.

And they enjoy a childhood of freedom, respect, and trust."

[excerpt/conclusion of, Legacy of Trust - Life after the Sudbury Valley School Experience -]

....and, talking about "The Power of Educational Technology" in the 21st century, I want to draw your attention to "TECHNOS Interview with Daniel Greenberg" (, and to Daniel Greenberg’s essay, “The Trojan Horse of Education” (

"Educational technologists and teachers are calling for integrating technology into the curriculum, but without a curriculum, there can be no integration, per se.

Exactly. In the traditional public school classroom, the content is controlled, and use of the Internet for research is limited. But you know what’s happening? Kids are finding out about the potential for discovery online from other sources; many of them have computers at home, for instance, or their friends have them. Eventually, students will reject the controlled content and say, “The heck with these assignments—they’re trivial. I’m going to use the computer the way I want to.” I call it the Trojan Horse of Education.

Can you elaborate on that idea?

Technology will eventually destroy the way schools are run now. I think this is going to happen, and it won’t take long, either. Educators are still spending way too much time trying to control what kids learn, bending the content to their own purposes, hoping beyond hope to change—by using technology—but not change too much. They don’t really want the kids to take responsibility for their own learning and to find out all the information that’s out there and come to their own conclusions, do they? So, I see technology as a Trojan Horse: It looks like a wonderful thing, but they are going to regret introducing it into the schools because it simply can’t be controlled.

Sounds like a great topic for a TECHNOS essay!"

Liz, I also appreciate you taking the time to answer to my comments here. As you see, I'am enchanted by this marvelous school.

Anonymous said...

For the few children who are energized by following their own genius and have strong self-discipline, free schools such as Sudbury can work wonders. However, most children are not self-motivated to learn much of anything on their own, especially something difficult and worthwhile in the long term. A tiny few children do have the discipline and internal drive to learn on thier own. But for most others, parents must do the hard part and enforce them to be disciplined and put them on the path to life-long learning. That's the parents' responsibility and no utopian theories can theorize that away. Goofing off doesn't teach you much except how to get out of real work.

We've been homeschooling with a bunch of un-schoolers and believe me, they are dumber than a box of rocks and have the discipline you'd expect from children never forced to stick to a daily and long-term schedule. If you want to raise ignorant barbarians, un-schooling or free-schooling is the funnest way to do it. I was originally enamored of the free-school method. I know better now.