An Unschooled Girl Who Knows Herself

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Ching, who is an eight year old girl, has been unschooling in Hong Kong since her early childhood. Instead of going to school, she follows her interests and learns from daily life. When she was six and a half, she found her passion in gymnastics. After practising on a regular basis for two years, Ching has mastered many gymnastics skills. Recently, she won three gold medals in individual events and was the All Round Champion in a gymnastics competition.

After the competition, Ching’s mom asked her, “Were you nervous? Were you scared?” Ching innocently replied, “No. Why would I?” Gymnastics is something that she is passionate about. She didn’t feel like she was competing, nor did she feel pressure to win.

When the competition was approaching, Ching didn’t do extra practice. Her mother reminded her a few times, “Don’t you need to practice more before the competition?” But on each occasion, Ching replied, “No, I don’t need to. I’m well prepared.” Mom decided to let her bear the consequence of not practicing, assuming Ching wouldn’t do so well without extra practicing. The competition took place in a gymnasium which was a totally new setting for Ching. Without testing the springboard and rehearsing, she got the highest marks in the Vault event.

Ching’s mom was absolutely amazed by the result! She wondered why her daughter could perform so well even without extra practice and rehearsing in the new setting. After thinking for a while, she said that Ching spent most of her time in playgrounds before the age of six, since she didn’t go to school. She simply played freely until she had had enough. Ching’s mother said the free play in the playgrounds might have helped her to build up her arm strength and her physical flexibility, which became an advantage in gymnastics.

Ching’s mom also recalled that when Ching was around 2 or 3 years old, there was a period of time when Ching was very focused on playing with some empty boxes. She could play with them for more than an hour every day. One time, her mother needed a box to carry an object, but she couldn’t find one in the right size. Ching then took a look at the object, and found an empty box with exactly the right size for her mom! At that moment, the mother was surprised that Ching has such a good spatial sense. She believes that this strong spatial sense also contributes to her daughter’s mastery of gymnastics.

Ching’s mother was asked many times, “What does your daughter learn if she doesn’t go to school?” When she tells people about the above examples, they often react like this, “Playing in the playgrounds is playing, not learning”, or “What good is it to have a strong spatial sense?” In fact, who can judge whether a child’s play will be useful or not in the future? Many of us grew up learning things that adults thought were useful. But we either didn’t learn them well, or we learned, but found out in the end that they were totally useless.

In fact, Ching’s mom has never intended to bring up Ching as a gymnastic athlete. She simply let her daughter follow her interests. When Ching engaged in those “useless” activities, her mother would not intervene. She simply trusted her daughter and supported her, even though she had no answer whether those activities were “useful” or not. After this incident, Ching’s mom realized that she has underestimated how well her daughter knows about herself, and how she should have trusted Ching about how much practice she needed.

Ching’s gymnastics coach stated that Ching mastered the skills better than those who started gymnastics two years earlier than her. As a result, Ching’s mom believes that a child’s ability has nothing to do with how young she starts learning. What is more important is to let the child follow her passion. Ching’s mom feels very grateful that her daughter knows herself so well, and she didn’t treat the tournament as an aggressive competition. Instead, she enjoyed the whole process and was very relaxed. Through gymnastics, Ching feels her inner strength, which is not determined by winning trophies. Her self-confidence comes from within which can’t be taken away by anyone.

P.S. Fake names are used in this story in order to protect the child’s privacy.

Why Sudbury Philosophy Fascinates Me: Trust

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(by Michell Huang)

A few months ago I went shopping with my 3-year-old son. In front of the shop door, there were six staircases, leading to the ground. While I was paying the bill, he ran toward the shop door. The staff, some customers and I were all worried that he was going to run away or fall down the stairs. But just before we could stop him, I saw him sitting down on the top of the stairs and he said, “Mommy, I wait for you here.” We were surprised and we all burst out laughing!

When my child was 2.7 years old, he naturally learned to use the potty. I heard that children need a transition period to totally quit the night nappy, so I tried to put on a nappy for him whenever he went to bed. But he refused and said to me firmly, “I don’t have pee. If I want to pee, I’ll wake up and use the potty.” At that time, I didn’t trust that he would be able to do that. I kept persuading him to wear a nappy, but I never succeeded. It turned out that he did wake up in the middle of the night to use the potty, once in a while. It has been almost a year now, and he only wet his bed two or three times. This is how he became dry at night.

What often happens, like in the situations above, is that I don’t trust my child due to my own fear or some deep-rooted negative beliefs. I didn’t trust that he was able to take safety into account, and I didn’t trust that he was able to use the potty in the middle of the night. But in fact, my child knows himself better than I expected. He always follows his inner voice that allows him to develop in a healthy way.

Fifteen years ago I learned about Sudbury Valley School. The founders of the school suggest that children are born curious and strive to become capable and effective adults. At Sudbury Valley School, students spend their days following their own interests rather than a fixed curriculum. When I first encountered this philosophy, I was absolutely amazed. But it wasn’t until I had my own child that I gained a deeper understanding of the Sudbury philosophy.

Parenting has brought me to reflect on some important topics, such as, what is human nature?

The Sudbury philosophy shows a deep trust toward human beings:

It trusts that humans are born curious and are equipped with an immense learning ability.

It trusts that humans are benevolent in nature.

It trusts that humans strive to become capable people, who function well within their communities.

It trusts that every one is a unique individual, who has her/her own life path.

Though children are not fully developed physically and cognitively, they are definitely much more aligned with their soul than are adults.

To me, it just doesn’t make sense that humans are bad in nature or they are born lazy and do not want to learn anything. If this were true, humans would have become extinct a long time ago. Any so-called negative traits must be acquired, just like the original state of a normal body is intact and workable, rather than bleeding from a wound. So from a medical perspective, the purpose to heal is to bring the body back to its original state. And from an educational perspective, the purpose of education is not to “do” anything to change children, but to recognize the good nature in children, and provide conditions under which they can develop naturally. What we need to do is to stay out of their way, in order not to kill their inborn good traits, and let them develop into unique individuals.

Now here’s the problem: let’s say we agree that we should trust children, but why is it so difficult to put it into practice?

It’s all about our fear.

In Sudbury Valley School, if the adults do not trust the students, they do not set a rule to limit them. They face their fear, reflect how they have projected the negative beliefs to the students, or they observe more closely the students’ behavior so as to understand them better, or they let the students express their views. They discuss the issues in the school meeting. They listen, understand each other, vote, and make decisions together. This process includes intense self-reflection and the breakdown of old belief systems.

In my view this explains why the number of Sudbury schools is increasing only slowly although Sudbury Valley School has been established for 46 years. We still can’t find such schools in many countries.

You just can’t learn how to treat children the way Sudbury people do, like learning times tables. It’s more about the inner work of a person. If you have not faced your fear, or have not gone through the challenges of tearing down some or all of your deep-rooted beliefs, or if you can’t see the world from a child’s angle, there is no way that you can put Sudbury ideas into practice. In Sudbury schools, there are no teaching methods for you to hold on to. You can’t control students by learning specific skills, nor can you find some model answers about child development to make you feel secure. The lives of Sudbury students are full of possibilities. This includes the possibility of living a life, in which they can be who they really are and which could be entirely different from their parents’ expectation. This is scary to the majority of people.

As a parent, I surely have my own fears and sometimes I’m just unable to trust my kid, nor life. Inspired by Sudbury philosophy, I learned to see the world from a child’s perspective, and face my fear and connect with my inner wisdom. I also learned to let go of my limiting beliefs and live out my life first, before I can trust my child to live out his. To me, the Sudbury philosophy is not merely about education. It is a life attitude. It is an approach that encourages human beings to live consciously, and to connect with their inner selves. It is always a choice whether we want to continue to live in the fear, or live out our lives freely.

One time, I wanted my child to do something the way I did it, so I said to him, “Look, this is how I do it”, hoping that he would copy me. However, he looked at me and said, “I’m different from you!” He was right and that reply served as an astonishing reminder to me that he is a unique individual and that I should trust him!

How Sudbury Valley School Stops Bullying in its Tracks

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Source: Data from Table 11.2 in Indicators of School Crime and Safety, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, 2009.

(by Hung Luu)

When I started reading the literature on Sudbury Valley School (“SVS”) I was amazed by many aspects of the school. What kind of school gives 4 year olds a vote in hiring and firing decisions, allows students to pursue their own interests, and does not have mandatory classes nor tests and grades? The more I read the more intrigued I became.

While bullying is prevalent in traditional schools (see chart at the top) it rarely happens at SVS. Why? Peter Gray, whose son has attended SVS for many years and is a staff member now, has studied the school extensively. In his book Free to Learn he provides several reasons:

“If one child appeared to be picking on another, older children would step in quickly and stop it… Moreover, the democratically created rules and judicial system prevent serious bullying. A student who feels harassed in any way can “bring up” the offender, to appear before the Judicial Committee, which comprises school members of all ages. Because students make the rules and have responsibility for enforcing them, they have far more respect for the rules than do students in a standard school.”

During my visit to SVS at the end of October last year I gained a deeper understanding on what Gray meant and why bullying is a not an issue there.

There is no hierarchy at SVS and each member of the community is respected as an equal. A 4 year old has the same rights as an experienced staff member. We are social beings and when we are treated with respect we are very likely to reciprocate and treat others in a respectful way. This becomes self-reinforcing and transforms the way students interact with each other and how students interact with staff members and vice versa.

When students are not artificially separated by age they tend to mix freely as people do in real life outside of traditional schools. When they don’t compete for grades and approval from teachers they co-operate and learn from each other. When students at SVS engage in sports they don’t try to win at all costs, but rather make sure that the process is fun for all involved parties and that no one gets hurt.

Of course, it doesn’t mean that SVS is completely free of teasing and bullying. Actually, there was one case of racial abuse during my visit. I didn’t see it myself, but I attended the Judicial Committee (“JC”) meeting, in which it was discussed. More importantly, I witnessed how SVS deals with bullying when it occurs.

Student A has a concession from the school to sell food and drinks at the main lounge during lunchtime. One day, Student B purchased something and paid in all change. After Student B had left, Student A said, “Why did B pay in all change. I’m so mad. What is she, Jewish?” Student C heard this comment and filed a written complaint, which was investigated in the JC the next day.

Student A concurred with Student’s C written testimonial and pleaded guilty. It seemed to me that it was an impulsive comment. Student A is gay and a staff member asked him how he would feel if someone else called him gay. He replied that he and his gay friends call each other gay all the time. The staff member reminded him that there is difference between gay friends calling each other gay and an outsider calling him gay. At that point he realised that he had made a mistake and had hurt Student B’s feelings. Therefore, he apologised.

The case was referred to the School Meeting to determine the sentence for the offence. A staff member suggested suspending Student A from school for 1 school day. He made it very clear that there is zero tolerance at SVS for this kind of behaviour. I was surprised that Student B, who was racially abused, tried to put in a good word for Student A. There were further discussions in favour of and against the 1 day suspension, e.g. protecting the culture of respect versus the fact that Student A had apologised and showed remorse. In the end, the meeting voted that Student A should be suspended from school the next day. Although Student A was disappointed with this he accepted the decision and didn’t seem to be angry.

I was very impressed with how the incident was resolved. In particular, three things were noteworthy in my view:

I wonder what would have happened at a traditional school.

「仔,我只要求你過到骨」(文: Michell)

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「我不要求他考一百分,但至少要「過到骨」吧…」(即過到關,如考試,升班)
這媽媽常常向我訴苦。我曾經是老師,她兒子唸幼稚園時在我的班裡,後來她兒子升上高年級,我們還常有聯絡,每次跟她見面,她都這樣訴說兒子怎樣連功課都不肯寫。

當時,除了同理她的困擾外,我不知道怎樣回應她。因為,當時我心裡有一部分,跟這媽媽的想法是一樣的。「至少要過到骨」這要求,多麼的不過份,多麼的體諒。

後來,我生了孩子。在親身照顧小孩的日子裡,我彷彿再經歷一次童年,代入了孩子的角色,從他的角度看這世界。然後我才深切的明白,很多在大人眼中理所當然、很容易的事,或很小的要求,對一個小孩來說,往往是很困難的。

有一次,在我代入了兒子的角色,終於理解他的感受後,我突然想起那個向我訴苦的媽媽。

對我們來說,「至少要及格」這個目標,好像很容易,但對那個小孩來說,每天在學校已經被要求乖乖在課室裡聽一些自己沒有興趣的東西,朝八晚四,若還要達到媽媽的要求,他必須費力壓抑玩樂的衝動,去控制自己的好奇心和幻想能力,不做白日夢,並努力漠視在探索有興趣的事時內心那種熱熾感覺。還要控制好自己失落的情緒,埋藏起那些明明有的憤怒和挫敗感,才能專注於學業,才能「過到骨」。
我又突然明白,為什麼當年我會認同那位媽媽對兒子的要求。

「過到骨」後的人生
因為,我就是費了二十多年的時間去「過骨」。幼稚園升小學,小學升中學,中五會考,中七高級文憑試,入大學,大學畢業。那些日子對我來說都是煎熬,但當時的我,每天都對自己說:「撐一下吧,至少要過到骨。」

「過到骨」讓我感到很安全, 讓我對父母有所交代,使我能融入朋輩圈子,得到些許讚美。我也彷彿符合了社會的期望,有一份穩定的工作能餬口,讓我看起來像個正常人。

然而,「過到骨」也使我畢業後,才發現自己失去了創造力和好奇心。我的自我價值,完全建基於外在的條件:學歷、薪水、公司的規模、老闆的認同、別人的稱讚… 我不知道自己的獨特性, 我對人生感到茫然。而最大的問題是,外在的認同使我待在comfort zone裡,麻木地日復日地過著,日子過得不算差,但說到活得有意義和活出自己的潛能,就相差太遠了。

小時候,我總隱隱覺得每個人來到這世上,都有一個使命。我天真地以為讀完了書,就會知道和履行自己的使命。畢業後才發現,我謹能確保自己不會餓死,卻連自己的興趣是什麼也不知道,也失去了對生命的熱情,更枉論使命!當再沒有關需要過的時候,我到底想過怎樣的生活?

如今,我看著年幼的兒子,他精力充沛,好奇,想像力豐富,有創意,每時每刻都在自然地學習,很清晰知道自己要什麼,很堅持,快樂且充滿生命力。對他來說,任何事都是有可能的。我真不希望這股生命力,將會在他「撐一下吧,撐一下就過到骨」 的過程裡慢慢消磨掉。

然後我在想,依循正規在學校制度裡「過骨」,真的是學習和謀生的唯一出路嗎?
回想起我成長的年代,跟現在這年代比較,不過是短短數十年間,整個世界的變化,卻是如此的劇烈。若說到近百年社會的轉變,更可說是天翻地覆。

二十一世紀的世界
在以前那資源貧乏,資訊落後的年代,學習知識的機會難能可貴。在那舊時代裡,人們所去追求的知識,都跟生存有直接關係。一個人掌握愈多知識和資訊,就愈能生存下來。舊時代教育的特色如:重視孩子的服從性;被重視的科目,必然是能直接提升生產力的;鼓勵孩子互相競爭等,都是工業時代的副產品。

到了現今世代,大部分地方物質過盛,資訊泛濫,知識唾手可得。當我們要學習知識或技能時,根本不怕找不到資源和途徑。網絡的盛行,容許那些能突顯創意和獨特性的人表現自己的才能,有些甚至一夜成名,或帶來收入。如今世界許多大機構,都強調他們需要的是有創造力的、主動的、獨特的、自信的、有解決問題能力的,而大學畢業和成績優異這些傳統標準,已再不能定一個人前途的生死。

我只是覺得,現代社會多元化,謀生的機會和可能性,都比舊時代多得很。我不禁在想:現在的教育模式,是否追趕得上社會如此劇烈的變遷?當我們要求孩子去拼命應付考試,要求他們在這過時的教育制度裡「過骨」時,令他們失去自信,失去創造力和對學習的熱誠時,我們到底是在幫助他們在這年代活得更好,還是我們還停留在舊時代的思考模式,令這一代的孩子愈來愈找不到自我價值?若教育的重點不再放在競爭、考試、和盲目灌輸知識,而是放在讓小孩探索自己的興趣,發現自己的強項和獨特之處,令他們更自知自信,這不是更符合二十一世紀社會的特性嗎?

我自己在那墨守成規的舊式教育制度裡成長,當看到孩子融入不了學校裡的制度,便會理所當然的批判那些孩子,而看不到制度本身的問題,或社會歪風等其他問題。一個人若要有能力把問題看得更深入,若要有一個更深更闊的角度,以找到更多和更有效的解決方法時,就必先能挑戰自己根深蒂固的觀念。

我只是一個師奶,同樣會關心子女的將來,我不知道教育制度怎樣才會變得更好,也不知道我個人的力量可以怎樣改變社會。我能做的,就只是反思自己所執著的信念,真的用心去發現孩子的獨特,支持他以他的步伐發展自己的才能。我想,唯有當我不再暗暗認同「至少要過到骨」是唯一帶來有意義和豐盛人生的路時,我的下一代才能活出其他可能性。

一次探訪自主學校的體驗 (文: Michell)

二十出頭,剛剛畢業不久,我的台灣籍老闆給我看了一本書,對我影響極大。 那是「瑟谷傳奇」,原著是Daniel Greenberg的 《Free At Last》  。

瑟谷學校(Sudbury Valley School)於1968年成立於美國麻省。那學校沒有課程,學生由四歲至十八歲,他們每天都在做自己喜歡的事。學校的校規,是由校內每一位師生投票訂出來的,四歲小孩的一票,跟老師那一票是同等的。那裡的學生,每天都自然地學習,到了畢業時,不但都清晰知道自己的人生方向,而且自信,學習意願強烈,有責任心,有謀生技能。

這種自主學校顛覆了傳統教育的模式。自主學校裡的故事,衝擊我去反思何謂教育。怎樣的教育才是對孩子好?我為了追尋答案,去了美國修讀幼兒教育及心理。課餘時,我就埋首研究自主學校,並實地探訪了一間以瑟谷模式運作的Albany Free School。

從經驗中學習

探訪當日,我印象最深刻的,是在學校裡的一條樓梯,看見兩個五歲小女孩攀上樓梯扶手,抱著扶手滑下。她們全神貫注,試驗高度和速度,掌握了滑下的技巧,每次滑下,眼神都流露著無限的喜悅。那是試驗的喜悅,和征服困難的喜悅。一位老師在旁說:「假如跌倒了,他們便明白這玩意有跌倒的可能,要選擇再滑,還是停止,都是由他們決定。只要自己承擔後果,就有自由去選擇。他們就是這樣學習的。」
是危險是頑皮?還是在探索世界,在創造,在掌握自己的能力?

主動學習的孩子

學校裡每一個人都沉醉在不同的活動中,玩滑板、做木工、看書、餵小雞、種花等等。我還看到兩個十幾歲的女孩,拿著一叠數學題,專心的做練習。另外一群學生正出發到有機農場當義工,大部分學生會在區內找自己有興趣的機構,要求當義工或學徒。

突然,聽到一陣陣的敲鐘聲。回頭一看,幾個五六歲的小孩一邊拿著故事書,一邊敲著鐘喊:「故事時間!故事時間!」那裡的故事時間,竟然是由學生敲鐘,主動要求老師講故事!他們聚精會神的聆聽、發問。沒有興趣聽故事的小孩,便到學校別處進行其他喜歡的活動。看著一張張好奇和投入的臉,我不知道他們一年內會學多少個單字,但我肯定他們長大後也必會很了解自己,並會主動學習。

一位在那學校實習的老師對我說,在自主學校生活,必然會經歷許多衝擊和反思。「在這裡當老師,如果你準備了一堂課,但沒有學生來參加時,你不能怪學生,你反而要對自己所產生的負面情緒而負責,處理好自己的不快。」他強調:「學生不必為了討好你或害怕你而去上課。」

批判思考
那天,我還遇到一個在那學校畢業的舊生,現在進了波士頓大學。他說自己跟一般中學畢業的學生最大的分別,就是自己有強烈的學習動機,非常主動和有創意。有一次,大學教授不斷說美國學生懶散沒紀律,必須學習日本學生的勤勞,放學後也要補習,週末也要上學。於是,他回去搜集了有關日本社會和教育的資料數據,向教授提出:「你知不知道日本學生的自殺率是全救最高?你有沒有想過日本社會問題與教育制度的關係?」結果,師生就這個議題作了深入的討論,大家對日本和美國的教育都加深了認識。這種批判思考模式,就是自主學校學生的特點。他們不會被動和盲目地接受所謂權威教導的東西,他們會獨立思考,主動搜集資料和尋求答案。

真正的自律
午飯時候,我跟校長Chris邊吃邊聊,因為談得太開心了,我們吃了好久都沒吃完,其他學生和老師開始收拾餐具和椅子了,我們還在慢慢吃。突然,一個約十歲的女孩走過來,嚴肅的對Chris說:「請你發誓你吃完後要自己收拾餐具和椅子! 」Chris馬上舉起三隻手指,裝出一副乖孩子模樣,並作狀發誓:「我發誓我吃完後要自己收拾餐具和椅子!」那女孩滿意的點點頭,微笑著離開。我在旁邊,邊大笑邊驚嘆學生的自律!

這是真正的自律。他們遵守規則因為那是他們討論和投票所得的結果。紀律可以源自恐懼、獎賞、情緒操控,或其他外物;真正的自律卻是心悅誠服,從心底明白行為的意義。

以前,我只能從書本上看到自主學校的故事,直至我置身其中,親眼看見學生如何生活後,那種震撼,是看文字時的一百倍。對我來說,瑟谷的理念,不再只是書裡的故事,也不只是一套教育理念。它是一種人生態度。

在那裡成長的小孩,對生命充滿熱誠。他們自知自律,忠於自己,勇於嘗試,對自己的行為負責。他們快樂,無懼。他們不容易氣餒,在困難之中,仍然大膽追尋他們的夢。

How Students at Sudbury Valley School Spend Their Days: Freedom, Flow and Happiness

(by Hung Luu)

In the last week of October I was fortunate to visit Sudbury Valley School (“SVS”) in Framingham, Massachusetts. The flight was 20 hours each way, the time difference with Hong Kong is 12 hours, and the jetlag was terrible. Having said that it was definitely worth the effort. Although I had read extensively about SVS previously and was already convinced about the Sudbury model, it was an eye-opening experience! I have written an article about the visit, which you can find here.

Observations from a Judicial Committee Meeting at Sudbury Valley School

This week I am visiting Sudbury Valley School (“SVS”) for a few days. On Tuesday, I had a chance to attend the Judicial Committee (“JC”) meeting, which takes place every school day at 11am. The JC consists of two students elected to be Judicial Clerks, one staff member and several other students, which have been assigned to JC duty. Below are some of my observations:

  • Students and staff members take the JC meeting seriously and it was conducted in a professional manner.
  • At the same time the mood of the meeting was relaxed.
  • Both parties the person that is accused of breaking a rule and the person that filed the complaint are allowed to tell their side of the story. E.g., in one case student A accused student B of being mean to her. Student A and student C were climbing a tree. The latter was stuck and she wanted to climb down the tree while student A was in her path. Student B who had observed the scene asked student A to climb down first to make some space. Student A claimed that student B did this in a mean way (“Get down!”) whereas student B maintained that she asked in a polite way (“Can you climb down please?”). Some members of the JC asked questions to clarify the situation, and in the end the JC voted that there was no substance to the complaint because student’s A comments were inconsistent.
  • Most of the other complaints dealt with littering and roughhousing and in each of these cases the sentence was a warning.
  • SVS operates an open campus for students aged 13 and over. Those students are supposed to sign out when they leave the campus. One student who broke this rule for the first time was sentenced to staying on campus for the next 3 school days (of course s/he is allowed to leave at the end of the school day). Another student who was a repeat offender was sentenced to staying on campus for the next 10 school days.
I came away with the impression that the JC is very effective at dealing with infractions at SVS and that it is one of the elements which contributes to maintaining a culture of respect among the members of the community. I think that the JC works so well because the students and staff members buy into the whole process due to its transparency and fairness and because everyone has an opportunity to be involved in making and amending school rules in the first place.

 

Initiative to Start a Sudbury School in Hong Kong

“It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom. Without this it goes to wrack and ruin without fail.”

Albert Einstein

We are a group of parents who are in the process of starting a Sudbury school in Hong Kong, which is modelled along the lines of Sudbury Valley School (“SVS”). Our goal is to create a community where children are respected as equals, where they are treated the way we expect to be treated ourselves and where they are free to pursue their own interests as long as they don’t interfere with the freedom of others to do the same. The experience at SVS has shown that children who are part of such a community will grow into independent, responsible citizens who are content, successful and passionate about life.