The Intangibles

(by Michell. Original post in Chinese: 無形的東西)

Not long after B came to Sudbury HK, he learned that he has the right to propose in the School Meeting. So he proposed to set up a swimming pool. We all know that B loves water. He can play with a puddle all day. We voted in the School Meeting and then got a donated inflatable pool. After we set up the pool, B was in there every day. He literally did not leave the pool until it was time to go home, two weeks in a row. I still remember how happy he was when he was in the pool playing with water.

When D first came to Sudbury HK, he felt perplexed. He did not know how to say ‘no’ when his friend ordered him to play in a specific way. One of our staff members said to him, “D, if you don’t feel like following others’ ideas, you don’t have to. You have the right to say ‘no’.” D responded with a surprise on his face, “Really?” The staff member reassured him, “In Sudbury, as long as you are not transgressing any rules or hurting others, you can do whatever you want.” After some time, we saw D happily expressing his own thoughts to his friends.

Here comes K. When K first came to Sudbury HK, he would show his anger by hitting others but when asked how his feelings were, he always said he didn’t feel anything. In daily conversation, we sometimes talk about how emotions are not bad and instead of judging them, we just need to find a safe way to release them and be responsible for our emotions.

Later on, when we were dealing with a hitting case in the Judicial Committee, K expressed, “I hit him because I was really angry.” This was the first time I heard him acknowledging his feelings. Then, one time, a group of kids were discussing different ways to release their anger. One boy said, “You know, scribbling on paper is just a stupid way. It doesn’t make me feel better at all. I think throwing stones is a better way.” I said, “Yes we all have different ways. It’s great that you keep doing whatever works for you.” K said, “I told you throwing stones works. I’ve tried that too.”

In Sudbury HK, everyone is doing what they choose to do. We treat each other with respect. Without any moral classes or counseling, we witnessed how these children mature emotionally. From being a stranger to one’s emotions, children learn to be aware of their different emotions, acknowledge and discover the variety of means to express them. They have come a long way.

People often wonder why the Sudbury approach is not growing as fast as other alternative schools. Like the stories of B, D, and K, for most kids who first came to Sudbury, their learning outcome is often not measurable, such as, playing to the heart’s content, listening to their own voice, being aware of their emotions, restoring their self-esteem, learning to get along with someone who has a total different personality, resolving conflicts by themselves, having a blast in the rain, etc. Such experiences are all intangible, which is hard to show off to relatives and friends, unlike a regular school transcript or a trophy.

Most of us grew up in the traditional school system. We are so used to relying on instant, external, and measurable results when evaluating the success of our children. While the majority of the society is defining success by the number of books kids have read, and the number of subjects and skills they have learned, can we still have trust and see the intangibles? Can we understand what it means to children to feel liberated in free play, to know who they are, and to feel they are in charge of their lives?

Children need time to discover their passion and develop into a professional skill. Very often when they first come to a Sudbury school, they won’t show much measurable progress by conventional academic standards. What children usually work on are the intangibles. To parents, the most difficult part of sending their kids to a Sudbury school is that the future and outcomes are always unknown. We just have to be patient and wait for our children to grow and glow.

There is a big misunderstanding that Sudbury education is against academic knowledge. We just believe that children don’t need to sacrifice their happy childhood in order to acquire academic knowledge and skills. We don’t need to pay the price of crushing those intangibles, which are the foundation for children to live out their true selves.