A recent conversation regarding the motivation of students between staff of several Sudbury schools got me thinking about what I see at our school. It’s pretty clear that all of our students are motivated to pursue their interests, and that’s exactly what we want for them — that is why we choose this school. When we send our children to school, we want it to prepare them for the challenges they will face as adults. It’s clear that resilience, adaptability, and confidence are some of the tools that will serve them best in adulthood and these tools are gained through experience, through facing challenges throughout childhood– sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. It could be argued that conventional schools offer challenges and obstacles on a daily basis, but the key difference is that when children follow their own interests and self-imposed challenges (not those dictated by outside influences), they will drive harder at those pursuits. So when they accomplish a goal or, by contrast, realize that a goal they’ve set for themselves isn’t what they really want, they’re gaining the most important knowledge of all: knowledge of themselves. This inevitably leads to becoming individuals who understand how to handle the highs and lows we face in everyday life as adults– how to tackle some problems and avoid others.
A friend asked me how kids who went to the Philly Free School would deal with situations after they “go out into the world,” such as the lack of freedom in college classes or in typical work environments compared to the extensive freedom they experienced at the Free School. To me the answer is simple: they’ll be better prepared because they’ve been forced to overcome obstacles their entire lives. No teacher or guidance counselor is telling them “what they have to do,” so when they face those situations later in life where they do have less freedom, they’ll still be motivated to work through the difficulties. This is because they will be there for their own reasons and therefore striving towards goals that they want.
Likewise it’s important to recognize that our kids are never going to know a world without Facebook, Twitter, or Skype where they can connect with anyone in the world in the blink of an eye. So the specific skill sets they need to achieve their goals may be quite different from what we needed, and they will understand how to navigate their world better than we ever will. Hence, we don’t intervene and we let our children be themselves.
What are some of the specific interests I see kids pursuing with fervor? Computer games, ping-pong, cooking, art, music, cleaning and film-making are all interests about which I can share specific examples.
Computer games are probably the least surprising of the interests in which students are motivated to engage. I can’t think of a single student who hasn’t been transfixed by (and motivated to succeed in) a computer game. Singing karaoke or watching videos on-line are other activities I’ve seen the computers used for as well. As an adult who did grow up with video games, but not 24-7 access to a computer, I’ve still personally had my own misgivings about how much time is spent in front of a computer by the majority of today’s youth. However, it isn’t my right to say how much time any individual should spend in front of a computer and it’s this overriding philosophy that makes our school a place of true freedom. As a side note, I’ve read plenty of opinions that tout the benefits of computer games.
Ping pong isn’t near as popular as the computers; in fact there is only one student who has a hunger to play everyday and play often. This student’s development in ping-pong has been one of the most salient examples of the power of intrinsic motivation. His main competitors are three staff members who’ve all played ping-pong at varying frequencies their whole lives. When he started he didn’t stand a chance. Now he is much better than me and regularly splits matches with the other two. He clearly wanted to get better and he worked at it, and although ping-pong specifically may not serve him as more than a hobby for his adult life, the experience of drastic improvement through hard work is the lesson that will serve him greatly as an adult and give him confidence to overcome other obstacles as he grows.
I’m going to group art, film, and music together because they are all creative endeavors. The art room is always one of the two busiest rooms at the school. From the youngest to the early teens, there are regularly several kids painting or drawing or making Lego structures. Peek your head in and the wall and “work-in-progress” table are filled with the art work of the students. I’ve also witnessed some of the older students who are interested in film-making shooting complicated action sequences using a laptop webcam set on a rolling cart. This acts as an extremely versatile dolly and they’ve gotten some great shots (as a one time aspiring film-maker, I love this ingenuity).Finally, music is a budding passion as well and since I haven’t been witness to much, I should just direct you to this web page where you can hear some of the songs made at the Philly Free School.
The school’s first cooking corp project brought some of the biggest surprises for me. Specifically, the first two students to sign-up are kids I’ve never seen do much else than play computer games. What was more surprising was their engagement in the process. All three of the kids (ages 11, 8, 6) involved wanted to do each step themselves, so we had to rotate the turns and it was great to see the level of excitement they all shared. It would seem natural to think that the main source of motivation was getting to taste the end product and maybe it was, but they clearly had a blast performing all the steps and doing it themselves.
The last example of motivated kids I’d like to mention is the “Clean Up Crew.” It is a group of girls, aged 4-10, who, a few times a week, spend significant time genuinely cleaning some ignored spaces in the building. They like to sing and chant while they work and one report from another staff member confirmed that some of these girls were diligently cleaning for close to two hours… on their own accord. I haven’t gotten to see this in action myself but I’ve seen a clear difference in the areas they’ve been cleaning.
As for the staff’s motivation, we are committed to supporting an environment that allows our children to be driven by motivation that is intrinsic: guided from within themselves. Children are clearly capable of much more than society in general gives them credit for and I’m proud to be involved in a school that, without exception, gives people of all ages the respect they deserve and the freedom to find their own path.
Philly Free School