A Journey towards Trust


Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple – or more difficult. Difficult, because to trust children we must trust ourselves – and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.

~ John Holt   


This is the first in a series posts that I will be writing for our school blog and so I thought I would start with a concept that lies at the very heart of the school – trust.

“The overriding concept that imbues every aspect of the school.. is trust. To put it very simply, the school trusts, and asks parents to trust, that children are constantly working to understand the world they are in. We feel that a child’s world expands enormously from year to year and that, if allowed to do so, every child will explore the parts of their world that are important to them. We are also convinced that, when they internalise the fact that they are truly free, all human beings endeavour to function at their highest level.” (The Pursuit of Happiness by Daniel Greenberg, Mimsy Sadofsky & Jason Lempka, 2005).

In the context of our modern Western culture, trusting children, and I mean really trusting them, is a big step for most people and often involves a philosophical journey towards this position, through reading books, watching videos and having lots of conversations.

Trust is fundamental to the operation of the school. Essentially, the purpose of a Sudbury school is to create an environment where trust is possible, to create a trustful environment. So how does one create an environment where such radical trust is possible? The answer is unexpectedly simple – safety.

Safety is the necessary precondition for both trust and freedom. Children cannot attend a Sudbury school unless their parents believe it to be a safe environment and are ready to trust it. They must see the school, meet the staff and often spend months reading and processing the model before they are ready to deem it safe and worthy of their trust.

Safety is also a necessary precondition for freedom. No child, indeed anyone, can experience true freedom without first feeling safe. This is why the school’s judicial system (J.C) (the mechanisms of which I will write about in a future post) is so integral to the school. Students must feel confident that if they choose to voice their frustration that they will be heard, their voice will be given the respect it deserves and follow through will take place if necessary. Children won’t bother to buy into a judicial system that does not meet these criteria – anything else would simply be unfair and children can smell unfairness a mile away. All of the school rules are created in order to create a safe environment and the school’s judicial system applies these rules for one simple but important purpose – to maintain this safety.

Once you arrive at this position of trust and you trust that children are indeed innately capable of being autonomous, independent, constant learners than a number of consequences naturally follow:

–  Children now have the opportunity to learn to be responsible as you can only learn to be responsible when you are trusted with responsibility.

–  Adults’ behaviours start to change, as they begin to treat children as autonomous human beings and equal members of the community their expectations have become higher. Most children will rise to meet these expectations.

–  The school experience becomes truly student-centred. You have no need of a ‘core curriculum’ as you trust each child to figure out for themselves what they are interested in, week to week, day to day, even moment to moment. The core curriculum, if you can even call it that, turns into the natural flow of life itself. Most modern trends in education point towards more student-centered learning using more ‘self-directed learning’, ‘peer learning’ and ‘independent learning paths’, Sudbury simply takes this to its natural conclusion.

–  Children trust in their own learning process. Thus there is no need of teachers as each child is their own teacher deciding what they learn, how they learn, who they learn it from and how they evaluate their own learning.

– As children are trusted as the best evaluators of their own learning as each child is innately driven to be their optimal self, imposed formal exams or assessments become counterproductive. [Those who want to use formal assessments are of course free to do so].

–  Children learn about themselves and learn to trust themselves. They thus develop a sense of self, a sense of who they really are.

As you can see this is not your regular, watered down conditional trust, this is the real deal.

This raises the question ‘What kind of adults develop from children who have been trusted to determine the course of their own education?’ Luckily the first ever Sudbury school, Sudbury Valley School, opened its doors in July of 1968 and since then close to a thousand students have attended and two books and a few blog posts have been written on the subject.

As we prepare to open Wicklow Sudbury School in September, we look forward to creating an environment based on the principle of trust between all members of the school community.

by Aaron Keohane

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