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Photo by Emmanuel Evzerihin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Psychological Ecology of Self-Directed Education
One important role of the group in SDE.

Faulty Assumptions

When I describe how Hudson Valley Sudbury School (HVSS) works, people sometimes ask if it plays out like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. They imagine a vicious world of savage children struggling for supremacy, gnawing on limbs, and skewering the fauna with sharpened sticks. They bring up anecdotes meant to illustrate that brutality inevitably reins under the conditions we maintain at our school; they’ll say something like, “in my high school, if the teacher ever stepped out of the classroom, even for a moment, a fight would break out.” I understand – I’ve even worked in a school where that was literally the case. And if not a fight, something transgressive would happen – some champion would emerge from the rows of desks to make some raucous gesture of contempt for authority, to the hoots and applause of classmates. And when we attempted to have unstructured time, like recess, there was almost always an actual fistfight. At that school, the adults micromanaged the students as much as possible. The more control a teacher was able to exert over students, the more highly that teacher was regarded; power, and the control it afforded, was the highest good. The most effective teachers were known for directing students with military precision, drilling them in posture and guidelines which sharply curtailed how they could move their bodies and where they could direct their gaze at any particular moment. In such an excruciating and oppressive environment, tense but utterly boring, people find ways to rebel – not because they can’t handle freedom, but because they are otherwise deprived of it, and they want it. Their “transgressions” are hardly evidence of immaturity; they are, rather, evidence of an unhealthy ecology of relationships. The boys in Lord of the Flies were cultivated within a culture of mistrust and assimilated into a brutal hierarchy at their mid-20th century English boarding school. Left to their own devices, they recreated the ecology of their native psychological habitat. Lord of the Flies is not a cautionary tale about freedom; it’s a cautionary tale about oppression.

The Psychological Ecology of Trust

In enrollment interviews at HVSS, parents often ask about safety, like, how can the young people here be safe if adults are not necessarily monitoring them? I love this question, because it invites me to explain the mechanism on which our school is built: trust. Everyone tends to understand the emphasis we place on autonomy, because the concept is so firmly rooted in the value-system of the western world. But the active effect of trust in Self-Directed Education (SDE) programs is more obscure. I like to point out the window at the little groups and singles, meandering about outdoors. I say, “they are actually safer because we are not supervising them.” They know they’re responsible for their own safety and behavior, so they take care of themselves, and each other. Sometimes overzealously: there was a time kids would come zooming in to grab a staff member or the nurse anytime someone stubbed their toe. They’ve relaxed, but they still comfort each other when they skin knees and walk each other to the nurse’s office or fetch her when necessary. And when someone is taking a risk which others judge a step too far – climbing up to the swaying top of a white pine, for example, you can be sure someone will be standing at the bottom of that tree, asking, “are you sure you’re safe up there?”

We all appreciate, so much, being trusted, and young people are no different. They know very well that they deserve to be trusted and are worthy of being trusted, so they’re delighted when it’s extended to them. They take it seriously, and comport themselves differently than when they are unsupervised and mistrusted. In other words, becoming ensconced in trusting relationships engenders trustworthy behavior, creating a psychological ecology in our community which would be unrecognizable to the boys from Lord of the Flies.

Expectations vs. Trust

Here’s something I can agree on with educators everywhere, including the most systematic micromanagers: expectations are powerful influencers of human behavior. Everyone within a community is intricately interconnected, and our attitudes towards each other inevitably have their effect. The more power an individual has, the more potent their expectations. This is fundamentally an ecological insight: it recognizes the extensive interdependence between people, and between organisms and their environment.

Expectations seek to actively control the behavior of others. Trust, on the other hand, is a kind of vote of confidence; it conveys a firm belief in the reliability, basic goodness, and ultimate success of the individual. Like expectations, trust harnesses the interconnectedness of the community, but in doing so it bolsters rather than infringes on autonomy.

As much as we focus on the individual in discussing our school, the group ecology plays the most important role in the experience of each student. The trust of the community (including parents) is an integral component of our program; it’s what we do with the facts of our interconnectedness and interdependence. We are not a loose federation of individuals which passively supports autonomy by neglect, ignoring our interdependence – we are a community which actively supports each other with trust and trustworthy behavior.

Self-Directed Education works because kids are capable, but also because trust is powerful. Our students know it is their prerogative to direct their own lives, and they know that their parents, and the staff of the school, trust them to do this. And this trust is abiding. It’s not a contract, to be withdrawn upon failure. We know that every student will make mistakes, just as we continue to make them. It’s an impressive message for our young people, and for each other as adults working in SDE spaces, and a serum of strength, affirmation, and encouragement for all of us as we navigate and master the challenges of being free together.