The Freedom Continuum



A graphic representation of the relationship of traditional, multiage, and Sudbury Valley education in terms of  personal freedom.

The key element to any significant educational reform movement will be measured in terms of the amount of freedom given to students.  Freedom to choose, freedom to self initiate, freedom to experience failure, freedom as the cornerstone of human dignity; these are the elements that define the foundation of a cutting edge school

I have been wrestling with the problem of how to graphically show the relationship between the multiple variables that distinguishes, Multiage classes and the Sudbury Valley (SV) model from traditional education. I have settled on a continuum depicting degrees of student freedom. Teacher controlled discipline of the traditional classroom is on the left, the fully self disciplined child in the SV model is at the right with the Multiage (MA) classroom is just to the left of center.

Nothing is absolute in life, although it may be depicted as such in a graphic. Although the traditional Classroom is seen as being a totally controlled environment dominated by a teacher who has become a specialist in the control of student's behavior, the more humanistically sensitive teacher recognizes the students need for some degree of freedom. Therefore, within bounds, some traditional teachers enable some student interaction through controlled cooperative leaning. Thus, on a continuum, traditional education is not represented as a point but as a horizontal bar depicting a range of controlling behavior.

At the other end of the continuum lies the model of a truly democratically run school - The Sudbury Valley School of Framingham Massachusetts. Here students are fully in charge of their individual education and social agenda. In the eyes of traditional educators these students are totally undisciplined, meaning in this sense, free to do as they please every minute of every day they are in school. In reality this is not true. Attending a school that is modeled on a true democracy, each student has a responsibility to himself and to the school community to behave and respect the environment and community at a level expected of adults in our society. In fact the standards of the school community exceeds that of the adult world. A review of the Book of Laws, which has evolved over the last thirty years, reveals very detailed standards of personal, social and environmental regulations. Pursuing this analysis further, a review of the proceedings of the student run Judicial Committee will demonstrate how rigid the standards are. As a consequence the SV model is also represented by a horizontal bar suggesting a range of student freedom. 

The last model to appear on the continuum is that of the Multiage classroom. This is a less clearly defined form of educational reform. It varies in three dimensions: 1. the range of grade levels will vary with the sophistication of the program from two to four years; 2. The degree of adherence to externally controlled curriculum will vary from unswerving curricular adherence to teacher and student initiated inquiry; 3. The amount of student freedom will vary in accordance with the level of teacher confidence with the model and the degree to which students accept various forms of personal responsibility.

The range of grades in any MA classroom is a function of teacher sophistication with the model, administrative convenience and parent satisfaction. At a minimum, two grade levels is considered the most realistic way for a teacher to begin the practice. From the perspective of individual student growth it has been found that three and even four grades is most desirable.

A graphic representation of the relationship of traditional, multiage, and Sudbury Valley education in terms of the interaction of personal freedom and curricular freedom.

The second dimension of variability in the MA classroom is the level of adherence to imposed curriculum standards. School districts with rigidly designed curricula demand not only adherence to these standards but also to the time of day the students are taught specific subjects and the duration of the students exposure to these subjects. As a consequence much of the advantage gained by a multiage integration of students is lost along with the attention to individual learning styles. At the other end of this sub-continuum are MA classes that proceed with vast amounts of curricula freedom. In these settings, broad guidelines allow teachers and students to set realistic goals that are geared to individual learning styles. This curricular freedom leaves room for students to initiate inquiries into domains of interest out of which will grow, with teacher guidance, learning experiences that tie directly to the students level of mastery in various subject areas.

The amount of freedom a student experiences in the MA classroom is a function of a number of variables which includes; the level of teacher sophistication with the model, the level of student understanding of the expectations of responsibility and self initiation required to function in such a classroom, and the level of support the administration gives to the model. The Lyman School in Middletown Connecticut is totally devoted to Muiltiage education. As a consequence the students function as fully responsible citizens and are given a great amount of freedom to move about as is required of their individual needs. 

A graphic representation of the relationship of traditional, multiage, and Sudbury Valley education in terms of the interaction of personal freedom,  with personal responsibility, self-initiation, self-discipline and self-image.

Now that I have defined the variables of the freedom continuum in terms of student freedom and curricular freedom, I would like to superimpose another continuum that represents four other variables. This time instead of their being spread along a two dimension continuum they are superimposed one adjacent to the other in a third dimension.. They represent the interaction of  personal freedom with; personal responsibility, self-initiation, self-discipline, and self-image. When these variables are combined with social IQ one might approach the components that constitute self-actualization.

This three dimensional continuum begins at the traditional end with a negative valence and a positive valence at the SV end. It may be an objective of the traditionalist to graduate students who have a good self image, are responsible for their behavior and self directed but without having an opportunity to practice these skills on a daily basis, because they live in a setting where the teacher makes all of the decisions, there is little likelihood that these skills will be realized even at the lowest level. As a consequence students in a traditional setting leave their twelve years of public school education with a deficit in these domains.

In contrast students in the Multiage classroom and at the Sudbury Valley schools have many opportunities every day to practice and refine these skills.

On the subject of self image I refer you to chapter one of Rollo May’s Book, Freedom and Destiny, where he reviews the importance of freedom in our lives and its relevance to human dignity. We as Americans have fought for freedom after suffering the indignity of British colonialism, we have shared the importance of freedom with people of color enabling them to gain dignity, we assist other societies to gain democracy and dignity and yet we condemn our children to twelve years of externally imposed discipline and wonder why they act so irresponsibly when they leave our public schools. In contrast look to the pages that follow where instances of a fully actualized student stand out from the crowd of uncontrolled youth that graduate from our public schools.

Raymond H. Hartjen, 43 Old Fireplace Road, East Hampton, NY 11937,

April, 2001



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