David Rovner (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Wed, 21 Mar 2001 13:50:27 +0200
"THE ART OF DOING NOTHING", by Hanna Greenberg
The Sudbury Valley School Experience, p. 62
Sudbury Valley School http://www.sudval.org
The Art of Doing Nothing Hanna Greenberg
"Where do you work?"
"At Sudbury Valley School."
"What do you do?"
Doing nothing at Sudbury Valley requires a great deal of energy and discipline, and
many years of experience. I get better at it every year, and it amuses me to see how I
and others struggle with the inner conflict that arises in us inevitably. The conflict is
between wanting to do things for people, to impart your knowledge and to pass on
your hard earned wisdom, and the realization that the children have to do their
learning under their own steam and at their own pace. Their use of us is dictated by
their wishes, not ours. We have to be there when asked, not when we decide we
Teaching, inspiring, and giving advice are all natural activities that adults of all cultures
and places seem to engage in around children. Without these activities, each
generation would have to invent everything anew, from the wheel to the ten
commandments, metal working to farming. Man passes knowledge to the young from
generation to generation, at home, in the community, at the workplace and
supposedly at school. Unfortunately, the more today's schools endeavor to give
individual students guidance, the more they harm the children. This statement
requires explanation, since it seems to contradict what I have just said, namely, that
adults always help children learn how to enter the world and become useful in it. What
I have learned, very slowly and painfully over the years, is that children make vital
decisions for themselves in ways that no adults could have anticipated or even
Consider the simple fact that at SVS, many students have decided to tackle algebra
not because they need to know it, or even find it interesting, but because it is hard for
them, it's boring, and they are bad at it. They need to overcome their fear, their feeling
of inadequacy, their lack of discipline. Time and again, students who have made this
decision achieve their stated goal and take a huge step in building their egos, their
confidence, and their character. So why does this not happen when all children are
required or encouraged to take algebra in high school? The answer is simple. To
overcome a psychological hurdle one has to be ready to make a personal
commitment. Such a state of mind is reached only after intense contemplation and
self analysis, and cannot be prescribed by others, nor can it be created for a group. In
every case it is an individual struggle, and when it succeeds it is an individual triumph.
Teachers can only help when asked, and their contribution to the process is slight
compared to the work that the student does.
The case of algebra is easy to grasp but not quite as revealing as two examples that
came to light at recent thesis defenses. One person to whom I have been very close,
and whom I could easily have deluded myself into thinking that I had "guided" truly
shocked me when, contrary to my "wisdom," she found it more useful to use her time
at school to concentrate on socializing and organizing dances than to hone the writing
skills that she would need for her chosen career as a journalist. It would not have
occurred to any of the adults involved with this particular student's education to
advise or suggest the course of action that she wisely charted for herself, guided only
by inner knowledge and instinct. She had problems which first she realized and then
she proceeded to solve in creative and personal ways. By dealing with people directly
rather than observing them from the sidelines, she learned more about them and
consequently achieved greater depth and insights, which in turn led to improved
writing. Would writing exercises in English class have achieved that better for her? I
Or what about the person who loved to read, and lost that love after a while at SVS?
For a long time she felt that she had lost her ambition, her intellect, and her love of
learning because all she did was play outdoors. After many years she realized that
she had buried herself in books as an escape from facing the outside world. Only after
she was able to overcome her social problems, and only after she learned to enjoy
the outdoors and physical activities, did she return to her beloved books. Now they are
not an escape, but a window to knowledge and new experience. Would I or any other
teacher have known how to guide her as wisely as she had guided herself? I don't
As I was writing this another example from many years ago came to mind. It
illustrates how the usual sort of positive encouragement and enrichment can be
counterproductive and highly limiting. The student in question was obviously
intelligent, diligent and studious. Early on, any test would have shown he had a
marked talent in mathematics. What he actually did for most of his ten years at SVS
was play sports, read literature, and later in his teens, play classical music on the
piano. He studied algebra mostly on his own but seemed to have devoted only a little
of his time to mathematics. Now, at the age of twenty-four, he is a graduate student
in abstract mathematics and doing extremely well at one of the finest universities. I
shudder to think what would have happened to him had we "helped" him during his
years here to accumulate more knowledge of math, at the expense of the activities he
chose to prefer. Would he have had the inner strength, as a little boy, to withstand our
praise and flattery and stick to his guns and read books, fool around with sports, and
play music? Or would he have opted for being an "excellent student" in math and
science and grown up with his quest for knowledge in other fields unfulfilled? Or would
he have tried to do it all? And at what cost?
As a counterpoint to the previous example I would like to cite another case which
illustrates yet another aspect of our approach. A few years ago a teenage girl who had
been a student at SVS since she was five told me quite angrily that she had wasted
two years and learned nothing. I did not agree with her assessment of herself, but I did
not feel like arguing with her, so I just said, "If you learned how bad it is to waste time,
why then you could not have learned a better lesson so early in life, a lesson that will
be of value for the rest of your days." That reply calmed her, and I believe it is a good
illustration of the value of allowing young people to make mistakes and learn from
them, rather than directing their lives in an effort to avoid mistakes.
Why not let each person make their own decisions about their use of their own time?
This would increase the likelihood of people growing up fulfilling their own unique
educational needs without being confused by us adults who could never know enough
or be wise enough to advise them properly.
So I am teaching myself to do nothing, and the more I am able to do it, the better is
my work. Please don't draw the conclusion that the staff is superfluous. You might
say to yourself that the children almost run the school themselves, so why have so
many staff, just to sit around and do nothing. The truth is that the school and the
students need us. We are there to watch and nurture the school as an institution and
the students as individuals.
The process of self direction, or blazing your own way, indeed of living your life rather
than passing your time, is natural but not self evident to children growing up in our
civilization. To reach that state of mind they need an environment that is like a family,
on a larger scale than the nuclear family, but nonetheless supportive and safe. The
staff, by being attentive and caring and at the same time not directive and coercive,
gives the children the courage and the impetus to listen to their own inner selves.
They know that we are competent as any adult to guide them, but our refusal to do so
is a pedagogical tool actively used to teach them to listen only to themselves and not
to others who, at best, know only half the facts about them.
Our abstaining from telling students what to do is not perceived by them as a lack of
something, an emptiness. Rather it is the impetus for them to forge their own way not
under our guidance but under our caring and supportive concern. For it takes work
and courage to do what they do for and by themselves. It cannot be done in a vacuum
of isolation, but thrives in a vital and complex community which the staff stabilizes
---------- Original Message ----------
>From: Robert Swanson <email@example.com>
>Date: Wed, 21 Mar 2001 01:46:41 -0800
>Subject: [heartlight] Oh, what to do today?
>Is the school too small? As a kid I remember creating a world in a cardboard
>box. A limited environment simply poses a revised set of possibilities. And
>being creative will create further possibilities. When I was in charge of
>children's activities, respect and creativity worked far better than
>What to do in school today...
>* Describe autonomy to the students and ask for their comments.
>* Tell students the adults would rather see students with more influence.
>Ask that they organize their influence. Say you'd prefer it is fair.
>* Adults do their homework discovering honesty, awareness and responsibility
>so that when they come to school adult interaction can be an example. Watch
>to see if adults treat students the same as adults behave with adults (and
>vice versa - do you treat adults the same as students?).
>* Exemplify excited brainstorming. Do this with other adults and see what
>topics catch the student's interests. Watch how students brainstorm with
>* Locate difference of opinions among adults so when at school these topics
>can be brought up for the purpose of exemplifying conflict resolution. Take
>a class in Nonviolent Communication so to do this better. Do a class at the
>* Video adults being role models. Play these videos and allow comment on
>what aspects are appreciated. Ask the kids if they would be willing to video
>themselves mimicking the adults. Then they could comment on the mimicked
>behaviors with thumbs up or down. Then students might video other students
>* Practice eye contact and with a smile from a joy at heart, and nothing
>done, said, or expected. Note the results. Then try eye contact and speaking
>honestly from feelings in-the-moment. Note results.
>* Start some sort of challenge game among the adults as to who can be
>unabashedly, sincerely, unassumingly present with the children without
>coercive inclinations. Ask the students to vote.
>* Put posters on the walls. One is an ideas poster. Others are
>organizational posters that are potential means to the ideas. Complete this
>theme with visual art -- cut pictures from magazines to represent completion
>of the ideas. Let your dreams fly. If students get involved the adults may
>then express any sincere interest and ask to be involved. Ask the student
>what to do.
>* Adults graph the changes in themselves for doing the above activities.
>This graph is done as preparation for an impromptu speach expressing
>self-appreciation relative to the school activities. Any students who want
>to speak may also do so. Take notes.
>* Every wednesday is change of culture day. The adults show up somehow
>looking or acting different. Likely the students will decide what next
>wednesday will be like. Help them by presenting people, films and stories of
>other cultures, ones the students have agreed to consider.
>* Friday is food day. The adults serve a formal meal to the students. Each
>dish comes with a description of its origin and nutrition. Do all this with
>formality and class. Ask students what are their preferences for next time
>but show your integrity that you are unwilling to forfeit quality of
>nutrition. Students who think the cooking and serving is fun are invited to
>join in or even take over.
>* Create a challenge game that includes three categories of right living
>(e.g., play, health, joy) where adults test their personal abilities.
>Students follow if they wish. Students modify the game to make it their own.
>* Ask a counselor to evaluate staff in the presence of students. Do a few
>counseling sessions. Allow students to first observe for maybe twenty
>minutes, and then join in, counseling or counseled. The counselor then asks
>the students if the adult was being aware, honest and responsible.
>* Modify board games to be composed of the values stated in CWG. Play these
>at sleepovers. As an agreement, after the board game, the adults have to do
>what the kids want to do, even if it is "negative". At another time be
>honest how you actually felt doing the kid activities. At the next sleepover
>be honest of feelings in real time as kid activities are followed. Let the
>kids design the next sleepover.
>I have been hoping SVS will prove me wrong on this, but I see staff enjoying
>the large space available at that school because they don't feel the
>pressure of becoming adaquate role models. The students are left to be their
>own models from whatever repertoire they may have, given that they do not
>cross the system set up by adults. Yes, the adults have to provide a base
>operation, but then maybe the students need further help that this base may
>expand. Little school or big school, I believe the adults have a continuing
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This archive was generated by hypermail 2.0b3 on Thu Mar 29 2001 - 11:17:09 EST