Playing to Learn

Haim Watzman

Peter Gray came to my youngest daughter’s school last night to talk about why I should just relax and let my daughter play her way through her adolescence.

About fifteen months ago, Misgav, now 15, asked to transfer to the Sudbury School in Jerusalem. The school, located a short walk from our home, operates on the model of the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts. That means, in short, that the kids run the school. There are no course requirements, the kids only study if and what they want to. Staff exists to facilitate what the kids want, not determine what they should learn. Play is considered no less, perhaps more valuable, than formal classes. The school enrolls children from the ages of 4 through 18 and any activity or lesson is likely to include children of a wide variety of ages.

Gray became acquainted with Sudbury when, more than 30 years ago, he decided to send his son Scott there. Scott is now a staff member at the original Sudbury school and also spoke to us last night. A psychologist at Boston College, Peter conducted research about the school and became one of its major advocates, as can be seen on his blog.

Misgav, who just did not fit into regular school frameworks, is flourishing at her new school. Ilana and I are pleased to see how she is developing responsibility and interests of her own, rather than ones imposed on her from outside. But it does take a lot of patience on our part. It’s not easy to get used to the fact that Misgav is not studying normal high school subjects in the formal way that her parents and siblings studied them in other schools.

I am, however, skeptical of Gray’s claim—seconded by the school staff here in Jerusalem and in other like schools—that this type of school is the best kind of school for all children. I have three other children and I have seen two of them respond well to the frameworks imposed by traditional schools and to the academic expectations that these schools have made of them. True, they’ve also struggled with and rebelled against these requirements at times, and have suffered under a lot of incompetent teachers. But the specific problems of the Israeli school system does not mean that traditional education as a concept is wrong.

Fortunately, one of South Jerusalem’s great amenities is its diversity—among them, its diversity of schools. Each of our children has attended a different one—indeed, each one seems to have needed something different from a school. And each is succeeding his her or his own way. The right way for Misgav to learn is to play her way through high school—and we’re delighted that there’s a place close by where she can do that.

6 thoughts on “Playing to Learn”

  1. Haim, considering you and Ilana are the parents, I think your kids would do fine just about anywhere.

    School, up until the high school level, are greatly over-rated. What comes from the home is far and away the greatest factor in the success of children as human beings.

    My youngest is just now finishing college. She survived a grade school where her Spanish teacher was the head of the district Spanish department and they didn’t speak Spanish in class! They watched Spanish movies with English subtitles. My daughter survived to become a Spanish major.

    The most important thing, I say now as a veteran, is that parents have a choice, as you do, of where to send their kids to school and that they not be forced to support a public school system regardless of that decision.

  2. My mother is a teacher, and she would agree with you. Different children learn best, she would say, in different ways. Some children actually thrive (if this were not true, we would not have straight A students after all) in the discipline-oriented ‘Prussian’ public schools of the United States, despite the overall sad state of the American education system. Many suffer through it and learn nothing. Other students thrive in the completely self-motivated setting of schools like Sudbury. Yet many would frivolously waste their school years.

    The great drawback to most public education systems is the lack of understanding that children are individuals and require individual educational approaches and attention. A ‘system’ is devised (whether you call it an ‘open school’ or ‘No Child Left Behind’) and it is assumed to work equally well for all children and no attention is paid to the problem again until twenty years down the road when someone notices the education crisis hasn’t changed much.

    John Dewey pointed out most of the problems with the American school system in the Progressive Era, and yet his educational theories (which were based around the idea that an educational system is the problem and not the solution) have simply been translated into one system after another with no change.

    However, while I agree with the broad principle of school choice, I disagree with Clif about public school. The world needs public school, most children will always attend public school for a variety of reasons, and we cannot simply champion ‘school choice’ and sacrifice public education to the private sector.

    Nations need a competitive public school system in which parents choose the school their child attends based their child’s needs, and schools are geared toward educating children rather than warehousing them and teaching systemized curriculae.

  3. School choice has a downside, too. It’s great for the kids of parents with the education and time to examine and judge different options, and with either the money to pay the extra tab that special schools often require, or the awareness needed to choose education as a priority over other pressing needs. The problem–and we see this in Jerusalem–is that the regular neighborhood public schools end up being the schools of the children of the uneducated and underprivileged, thus reproducing in the next generation this generation’s social stratification. I haven’t figured out a good solution to this dilemma, and neither have Jerusalem’s educational policy makers.

  4. The problem of alternative schools becoming schools for the privileged could be solved if more were recognized within the system. Some of Israel’s Democratic schools are “Recognized and Unofficial (mukar lo rishmi)” and get funding, greatly reducing the amount parents must pay. Some are “Recognized and Official ” (mukar verishmi), meaning they they must have a core curriculum and Ministry-authorized teachers. However, they do not coerce the students into studying all that is offered.

    Other schools, such as the Waldorf schools, do not seek recognition of the system at all – but they remain expensive.

    The problem is that although we know, and become more and more aware all the time, that people, including children, are diverse individuals, we still have the ingrained belief that there must be a kind of school (like a kind of workplace/diet/religious stream/political belief/government/lifestyle, etc. etc.) that “works for everyone”. Whatever doesn’t is obviously flawed.

    If we ever learn to put this mentality aside, we will evolve and progress on all fronts.

  5. Can’t believe I didn’t catch wind of this post before – thanks, David! Great to see other people mention my school. 🙂
    As far as I can tell, Sudbury schools don’t claim that all other forms of schooling don’t work. Their claim is rather that their approach to learning applies to all human beings (and does not create a class of failures like schools of the Prussian tradition tends to do).
    Clearly, some students handle traditional schooling just fine. My sister was, in her time in Tali Bayit Vagan, a shining example of this – she had a lot of friends, she did well in classes, the teachers loved her, and she was altogether content with being there. When we started Sudbury Jerusalem, me and my mother were certain it would be great for me and my brother, but thought my sister would be fine whether she transferred to us or not. However, she decided at the last moment to “just try it out” and loved the school immediately. Sure, she participated in classes far more than me or our brother (neither of us was really into classes) but she was also one of the most active participants in the school’s democracy for her entire time there, starting with her election as the school’s first Chairperson (she was 12). To date, she holds the school record for longest period of service as Chair.
    The point is, as I hope this anecdotal example helps to see, that the fact a person can manage and even noticeably flourish and succeed in the traditional school system should by no means be taken as an indication that that system is best for them. It just means they are a person who manages well with that system. They may very likely manage that well or better in a Sudbury school. As I have noted on my blog (see here: ) the only group of students that is remarkably likely not to cope in a Sudbury school is those who have spent 5-6 years in a traditional school and have to relearn childish motivation and curiosity (and unlearn jaded angst). The reverse does not apply – students who leave Sudbury schools after a few years usually do fine, if not great, in conventional schools.
    It would seem to me that at least one defining difference between Sudbury and traditional schools is that Sudbury schooling’s noncoercive approach doesn’t tend to “ruin” some students like the traditional system does. But of course, your mileage may vary. 🙂

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