How Students at SVS Spend Their Days: Freedom, Flow and Happiness

Authors: Hung Luu


Many parents in Hong Kong (and in other places) want their children to study at and graduate from a prestigious university.

While for some this is just a pipedream others start serious preparations shortly after the offspring is born. The most common strategy among parents is backwards induction and the reasoning is something along the following lines: If I want my child to go to Harvard or Hong Kong University, then s/he needs to attend a prestigious secondary school with a good track record of sending students to those universities. If I want my child to attend a prestigious secondary school, then s/he needs to get into a prestigious primary school. If I want my child to get into a prestigious primary school, then s/he needs to attend the kindergarten associated with the primary school and/or be prepared to do well at the interview. Along the way s/he is supposed to maintain a high grade point average (ideally all A’s of course), do all the homework, learn how to play several instruments, and be involved in other extracurricular activities to make sure that s/he stands out among the crowd of applicants.

The reason those parents want to follow this specific path is because they believe that all the work and the stress and anxiety that goes along with it are worth the effort, that graduating from a prestigious university leads to a good job, success and happiness.

I want to examine and question this conventional wisdom.

In my view it is impossible to plan 20 years ahead. I might know what I want to do tomorrow, but I have no idea what I will do next year, let alone 20 years from now. Life is too complex, and one of the beautiful aspects of life is precisely its unpredictability. For a short period of time you might like being able to make other people do what you instruct them to do, to steer them into the exact direction you have in mind, and to have things go according to plan. But the way I see it life becomes rather dull and boring if everything follows a pre-determined sequence. People of all ages like to play because it is fun. Play is fun because the path and the outcome are unknown at the beginning. Play is exciting, there might be a surprise and all of us love being surprised.

The second point I want to make is based on observations and reports from friends and acquaintances. The typical day of many of the children who attend a local school looks like this: get up early in the morning, go to school where the teacher tells the child what to do for most of the time, return home, do homework, attend extra-curricular activities, have dinner, finish the remaining homework and go to bed. Rinse, wash, repeat. Many people would agree that this lifestyle does not constitute a happy existence, but rather a life mostly filled with boredom, pressure and anxiety.

I mentioned before that following this specific path is justified by the conventional wisdom that if you work hard as a student from kindergarten (it is common in Hong Kong for children to have interviews between the ages of 12 and 18 months), graduate from a good university and get a good job that you will be successful and then happy. In his book The Happiness Advantage Shawn Achor debunks this myth and makes a strong case that this view is backward:1

“The formula is broken because it is backward. More than a decade of groundbreaking research in the fields of positive psychology and neuroscience has proven in no uncertain terms that the relationship between success and happiness works the other way around. Thanks to this cutting-edge science, we now know that happiness is the precursor to success, not merely the result. And that happiness and optimism actually fuel performance and achievement.”

He heavily draws on material from a large meta-analysis2, which is a systematic method that takes data from independent studies and integrates them using statistical analysis, and other research including his own. The meta-analysis included over 200 studies on 275,000 people worldwide – almost every scientific happiness study available at the time.

The question of which way the causality works is addressed by conducting longitudinal studies. He provides examples from various studies:3

“One way psychologists attempt to answer the chicken or egg question is to follow people over long periods. One study, for example, measured the initial level of positive emotions in 272 employees, then followed their job performance over the next eighteen months.4 And they found that even after controlling for other factors, those who were happier at the beginning ended up receiving better evaluations and higher pay later on. Another study found that how happy individuals were as college freshman predicted how high their income was nineteen years later, regardless of their initial level of wealth.5

The traditional school system with its predominant focus on tests, grades, and homework is a recipe for making children miserable. This is already bad enough in itself, and as research in positive psychology suggests the consequence of being unhappy is that these children also tend to be less productive and successful.

Now contrast this to Sudbury Valley School (“SVS”), which was established by a group of parents in 1968 and has been in operation since then. It is a day school admitting students aged 4-19. The founders came up with a philosophy that is based on first principles, by examining what education is and how it best takes place.

At SVS students are respected and treated as equals. This has various implications on how the school is run, one of which is that there is no curriculum and no mandatory classes. As a consequence, there are no tests, grades and evaluations. It would be disrespectful to force someone else to study something that s/he is not interested in. Instead, students have the freedom to pursue their own interests as long as they don’t infringe on the rights of others to pursue their interests. They enjoy the freedom and are trusted to assume the responsibility (in my view freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin) for forging their own paths, for figuring out who they are, what they like and dislike and finding their passions. They can spend as much or as little time on activities of their own choosing. No one in the community tells them that academic pursuits are better than non-academic pursuits or vice versa.

All aspects of the internal running of the school are decided by the School Meeting, in which each student and staff member has one vote. Again, this is an outgrowth of students being respected as equals at SVS. The School Meeting discusses and votes on matters such as hiring and re-election of staff members, the level of tuition fees to be charged, and how to spend the income in a responsible manner to ensure a balanced budget. Each member of the community can also propose new rules or suggest amending/abolishing existing rules to the School Meeting as long as these rules don’t violate the individual rights of the students and staff members. When SVS opened in 1968 there were no rules, and all rules that have been made since are a result of discussions and votes in the School Meeting. The big advantage is that rules which have been made by the consent of those to whom they apply are much more likely to be followed.

The culture of respect, which permeates the school, is protected by the Judicial Committee (“JC”). The JC didn’t exist when SVS started out, and it was formed after long discussions in the School Meeting. 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. At the moment, the JC meeting takes place every school day at 11am, and it investigates written complaints about possible violations against school rules and makes sure that a due process is applied. As a result, students enjoy freedom, but they don’t have license to violate the individual rights of others and do whatever they want to do.

I visited SVS in the last week of October 2014 for a few days. During my visit I attended several meetings of the JC6 and one School Meeting. I also had a chance to talk to students and staff members, and to observe them closely.

The students go through the normal ups and downs of life, but for the most part they are happy. They are happy to go to SVS and enjoy spending their time at school. Why is that?Research on positive psychology provides a clue on one of the reasons. In one study7 a group of nursing home residents were given more freedom and responsibility over simple tasks in their daily lives, e.g. caring for plants. The researchers found that the group, which was provided with additional freedom and responsibility, “became more active and reported feeling happier than the comparison group of residents. Patients in the responsibility-induced group also showed a significant improvement in alertness and increased behavioral involvement in many different kinds of activities, including movie attendance, active socializing with staff and friends.” Last, but not least the rate of mortality in the experimental group dropped substantially! These results are nothing short of astonishing, considering that the additional freedom and responsibility the patients enjoyed seem very minor.

During my visit I could see that most of the students at SVS are in general a happy bunch due to, among other things, the freedom and responsibility that the community affords to them. The younger students, who have never attended a traditional school, settle in quickly and embrace the freedom to move around the campus unencumbered. In particular, there were three students (aged 4 to 6), which were almost inseparable. I observed them on numerous occasions, e.g. playing in the sandbox, playing on the swings, hanging out at Monkey Tree (it is one of the trees that the students like to climb) and eating lunch together. Most of the time they were engaged in pretend-play or busily chatting, and they clearly enjoyed each other’s company.

For students that transfer to SVS after having attended traditional schools for many years the transition is more difficult because these students are used to being told what to do. But they eventually realize that the freedom is real and that no agenda is being imposed on them. This can be quite challenging because they have to decide how to spend their time, whom to hang out with, and whether to choose one activity rather than another one. Some of the staff members who graduated from SVS last year (and who had been students at traditional schools previously) told me that it took them several months to adjust to the environment at SVS. One of them added “that it was difficult not to make friends at SVS.”

As there is no artificial segregation by grade, students of different ages mix, which contributes to a vibrant atmosphere at the school. The younger students tend to spend time together and the older students tend to hang out with each other, but I observed several instances of students playing together where the age range was wide and the age mixing real. E.g. there was a basketball match in which one staff member, several boys and girls participated. The game was played in the spirit of having fun and enjoying the game rather than of one team competing against the other and winning at all costs. On another day student A and staff member Z observed a group of people playing four-square. Staff member Z didn’t know the rules of the game, so student A explained them to her. While they were talking and watching student B approached Z and asked for help because student C seemed to be stuck climbing one of trees.

Students and staff members were predominantly engaged in play and conversation. They were playing in the sandbox, playing on the swings, playing basketball, playing four-square, riding bicycles, playing piano, playing guitar, playing drums, playing video games, playing Mafia (which is role-playing game), painting, drawing, doing pottery, reading books, baking cookies, etc.

The conversations were numerous and ranged from casual to serious. In particular, one staff member had a long chat with two teenagers that lasted around 90 minutes. The staff member told me later that the discussion involved very personal issues. Can you imagine a teacher at the traditional school spending 1.5 hours with pupils to discuss personal matters? They just wouldn’t have the time even if they were willing to do so. In addition, I attended a meeting of the music corporation, which is responsible for everything related to music at SVS, and which was in the process of planning and preparing for a show to be staged at the end of this year. What struck me was that a lot of the students participated in the discussion, how articulate they were, how well they could explain their point of view, how they listened to the speaker, how they waited for their turn, how they were willing to admit mistakes, and how they could improvise on the fly. I couldn’t remember anything coming remotely close to that type of discussion during my school days except for talks among my friends outside of school.

In my view most students and staff members frequently experienced flow, which is a concept that has been popularized by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Wikipedia defines “flow as a mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” I am sure that everyone has experienced flow and knows how it feels like to be completely absorbed in an activity where the boundaries of oneself and the activity are blurred, where one loses track of time and is surprised that hours have passed although it only felt like a few minutes. Books by Csíkszentmihályi suggest that enhancing the time spent in flow makes our lives more happy and successful.8

To recap, students at SVS enjoy the freedom to pursue their own interests. Research in positive psychology suggests that having this freedom increases their happiness and allows them to experience the state of flow more often, which also leads to increased positive emotions and happiness, which in turn facilitate better performance and success. SVS has conducted several studies on its graduates and found that they grow into effective adults who lead meaningful lives.9,10

I came away with the impression that the staff members and students at SVS have established a village like community where each member is respected as an equal, where their individual rights are protected, where people communicate well because they are at ease with each other, where everyone enjoys exploring life individually and collectively, and where learning is a part of this process.

I had read extensively about SVS previously, but seeing the school in real life was an eye-opening experience.

It works and I wish that my children could attend a school such as SVS!

Notes

  1. S. Achor, The Happiness Advantage (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2010), pp. 3-4.
  2. S. Lyubomirsky, L. King and E. Diener, “The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success?” Psychological Bulletin, 131, 2005, pp. 803-855.
  3. S. Achor, The Happiness Advantage (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2010), p. 42.
  4. B. Staw, R. Sutton and L. Pelled, “Employee positive emotion and favourable outcomes at the workplace,” Organization Science, 5, 1994, pp. 51-71.
  5. E. Diener, C. Nickerson, R.E. Lucas and E. Sandvik, “Dispositional affect and job outcomes,” Social Indicators Research, 2002, pp. 229-259.
  6. J. Rodin and J. Balfour, “Long-term effects of a control-relevant intervention with the institutionalized aged,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35(12), 1977, pp. 897-902
  7. Some observations on one of the JC meetings I attended can be found at https://sudburyhk.org/2014/10/29/observations-from-a-judicial-committee-meeting-at-sudbury-valley-school/
  8. M. Csíkszentmihályi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper and Row, 1990).
  9. D. Greenberg and M. Sadofsky, Legacy of Trust (Framingham: Sudbury Valley School Press, 1992).
  10. D. Greenberg, M. Sadofsky and J. Lempka, The Pursuit of Happiness (Framingham: Sudbury Valley School Press, 2005).

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