Guest blogpost: Sudbury/democratic schools: Reach for learning freedom, by Ashley Wightman

At a time when most Canadians believe democracy is ineffective, that politics turn away more people than they attract, when we don’t even trust elected officials, are democratic schools still relevant?


It’s obvious by now that the current school system disappoints a lot of people. Democratic schools are a vital tool for social change, and can be a driving force for students of all ages to guide their learning. In contrast to a democratic country, schools represent all members equally because they don’t have elected officials or parties.

You are a parent. As such, you want the best education available for your child. I think we can all agree on that, but what form that education takes is another matter. Because Sudbury schools reject traditional ideas of education (such as curriculum, assessment, adult authority, etc.) it is understandably a difficult leap of faith for many families to make. But practice has proven that democracy in schools works; students and graduates fare the same or better than those in your average public school. They also have better personal responsibility, initiative, curiosity, communication, and graduation to post-secondary programs.

Ever since their modern inception in the 1960’s, democratic schools have been criticized because they depart so much from the traditional school system. It has been said that they support tyranny of the majority; they don’t represent the real world of adulthood; it’s anarchy; there is too much focus on self-interest; or that not enough crucial material will be learned. But the reality is that none of those is true.

How so, you ask?

1. Minorities are protected.
In a school, who are the minorities? All those quiet, awkward, “too smart”, “dumb”, different, perhaps learning disabled, unique students. The underdogs. The square pegs in a round hole. They stand in stark contrast to the socially-gifted, extroverted, high achievers we’ll call the majority. It’s admittedly slippery slope to label people, and there is much overlap between identities. But we all know whose voices are louder and clearer, regardless of academic achievement. In schools everywhere, this student majority implicitly “wins” because there isn’t a vote. When there IS a vote, everyone’s interests are represented equally, one for one. Bullying is rampant in public schools, but almost unheard of in democratic schools. In a country where minorities often do not vote and whose needs and interests go unrepresented, a school’s self-contained and small environment means everyone has a heard voice.

Sometimes minorities are ideas and concepts, not people. Dr. Peter Gray, developmental psychologist and author of Freedom to Learn, describes the case of a minority perspective in an American Sudbury school: “There was a new teenage student who was coming to school in a black leather jacket with a swastika on it. And so, because it was offensive, it led to a desire to make a rule in the school meeting saying that you could not display a swastika on your clothing in the school.” The proposed rule provoked a discussion over the limits of free speech that was, in Gray’s view, “worthy of the Supreme Court.”

2. Students are well-prepared for adult life.
This is a biggie. What is the point of education if not (ideally) for education itself, but ultimately to pave the way for a successful, happy, and purposeful adult life? Imbedded in the way democratic schools operate are the tools to problem solving, working with others of all ages, conflict resolution, life skills, and debate on complex issues, among others. Graduates tend to do quite well in post-secondary programs or careers, because they have become highly motivated and directive. Learning does not take place only within school walls, but is turned out towards the greater community. Students are active participants in their own life, their families and societies, and so when they “launch” in early adulthood they’re already very comfortable moving in that world.

3. Everything is under control.
…of the students and educators. People who are able to make their own rules (including, and sometimes especially, young people) will naturally discipline themselves and weed out any trouble. And they make a lot of rules. There is less need for asserting control when everyone is already at ease and receptive, like while playing. We all know play is crucial in the younger years and sets the foundation for complex learning. Some of the most amazing insights and understanding, even by adults, have come through play.

4. There is a lot of focus on self-interest.
Heavy focus on self-interest can be seen as either too indulgent or the only way to truly lead an education. I happen to side with the latter. While it’s essential to get the basics down, one-size-fits-all curriculum ultimately does not allow students to learn in the way they need. Once kids hit about age 5, their lifelong interests start to emerge and should be nurtured. This is exciting stuff, when future engineers start tinkering, future farmers start working magic in the dirt, and future teachers start guiding younger siblings. For youth, curiosity to learn things originates from their interests, needs, and experiences. Just like a newborn is kept at home for the first few days and months of his life, and then starts exploring the rest of the house and family, then ventures outside and finally into the big world in adulthood. This is done in a natural progression based on the abilities of the child. So like learning should be done, first with everything from one’s own concrete perspective and then branching out eventually to highly theoretical concepts. Increasing knowledge is guided and tempered by a lot of involvement of parents, adults besides teachers, and both younger and older peers.

5. They’ll learn all they need to.
This is a tricky one to consider. Do students in traditional schools learn all they need to? (Do adults?) In a supportive, varied, and open environment, not only do kids learn most of what they need to, but you can’t drag them from it! This is most obvious in the first few years of life – what baby has ever thought, “I’m going to skip walking”? What preschooler has said, “I won’t bother building things”? We learn every single day of our lives, from birth to death. Voluntary courses ensure that students who are interested have the necessary resources at hand.

Rather than having a cursory knowledge of STEM subjects like regular school often covers, I feel it’s much more important to discover yourself, to be self-motivated, to know how to seek out resources, and to have the tools in place for becoming successful and happy (however you define that for yourself). Take the scenario of a democratic school grad who wants to become a biomechanical engineer. She needs certain criteria to enroll in an undergrad university program; that’s just reality, regardless of education background. But since she is experienced at taking control of her life and learning, she will likely seek out and fulfill whatever that program requires. That may mean getting extra credit, having a job to pay tuition, or writing the whole application.

In any type of school (or homeschool for that matter), will there be gaps in knowledge? Of course. But gaps in knowledge of subject matter are much less important than gaps in knowledge of the self and of others. While we must learn our culture’s values and how to survive within it, culture and knowledge are constantly changing. What was true twenty years ago is no longer and what didn’t exist then does now, including many jobs.

So, should you enroll your child or teen in Reach Sudbury? That’s for you to decide together. But I’ll leave you with these words from Charlotte Mason, revolutionary British educator:

“Self-education is the only possible education; the rest is mere veneer laid on the surface of a child’s nature. The question is not, how much does the youth know when he has finished his education — but how much does he care? And about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? And, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?”

All the best!

——————————————————————————————————————–Ashley Wightman is an independent learning consultant and can advise you onhow to improve your child or teen’s school experience, and prepare for a career & post-secondary. She would love to hear from you at



Samara’s Democracy 360: Report Card Executive Summary. Accessed
National Institute for Play: The Science Overview. Accessed
Gray, P., Chanoff, D. (1986) Democratic Schooling: What Happens to Young People Who Have Charge of Their Education? American Journal of Education. 94-2, pp 182-213.
Findlay, Stephanie. Maclean’s. Bullying Victims are taking schools to court. Sept. 2011.
Vangelova, Luba. MindShift. How Students Lead the Learning Experience at Democratic Schools. Oct. 2014.
Brand, Russell. The Trews: Who Are Politicians Truly Representing? E160, Oct 2014.
Tossutti, L. Elections Canada. The Electoral Participation of Ethnocultural Communities. Working Paper Series on Electoral Participation and Outreach Practices. 2007.
Gray, Peter. Psychology Today, Freedom to Learn. Survey of Grown Unschoolers II: Going On to College. June 2014.
Chertoff, Emily. No Teachers, No Class, No Homework; Would You Send Your Kids Here? The Atlantic, Dec. 2012.
WikiBooks, Classroom Management and Discipline/Democratic Classrooms. Accessed



Announcing our next Information Night

JUNE 24 (WEDNESDAY), 7:00 – 8:30 PM
Meet Reach founders and families. Find out about Reach, or deepen your connection. We’ll supply fresh snacks and treats. All are welcome.
Featured Guest: Terry Watada will talk about his journey as a Sudbury parent, and be open to questions from participants.
765 Queen St. East (just east of Broadview)
Toronto, ON
M4M 1H3

Unstructured time and executive function

On June 14, 2011, we published a blogpost titled “The Marshmallow Test” in which we talked about executive function — that ability to control one’s thoughts, impulses and behaviour with the intent of achieving some specific goal.

In my work in the public schools, it appears that executive functioning is in short supply.  I constantly hear complaints about students who are finding it difficult to control their attention and behaviour, who are disorganized, who cannot keep track of themselves or their belongings, who do not monitor their behaviour and who have very little awareness of the effect they have on others.

I also hear from parents who have structured their children’s time so tightly that the kids are under constant stress of not meeting deadlines, their parents goals for them, or there own goals for themselves.  When I ask the kids what they want from life, they simply don’t know — other than to say less stress, and to be able to meet their parents’ expectations.

Here’s an article that examines some of these ideas more fully …


Thursday May 14th, 7:00 – 8:30 p.m.
Meet Reach founders and families. Find out about Reach, or deepen your connection. We’ll supply fresh snacks and treats. All are welcome.
Join us at Ralph Thornton Centre
765 Queen St. East (just east of Broadview)
Toronto, ON
M4M 1H3

On-line Meet-Up

STAY TUNED — We will be hosting an on-line discussion of Alternative Education, with Dr. Carlo Ricci, Professor of Education at Nipissing University moderating the discussion.
Dr Ricci is author of “The Willed Curriculum, Unschooling and Self-Direction: What do Love, Trust, Respect, Care, and Compassion have to do with Learning?” and moderates UnschoolingChannel on YouTube.
Date: April 16, 7-9 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time

RSVP if you would like to join.
Stay tuned for the link. We will send it on Wednesday, April 15th

Meetup to discuss alternatives

We’re still looking for members of “our tribe”!

If you’re looking to explore alternatives to the current school model, all are welcome to attend the Toronto Alternative Education Meetup on Tues. Feb. 17. More details here:

Toronto Alternative Education Meetup


NB: This is not an info session on Reach; it is a discussion of alternatives to the current model of schooling