The working paper that follows is outside the normal range of thinking about education. I believe it could be classified as ‘Thinking beyond the box’. I therefore ask you to set aside your preconceived convictions about what should be included in a child’s education. The net result of my 38 years of searching for alternatives to our present educational system has led me to write about a very important dimension of social skill development and its relevance to the further refinement of the intellect. I am firmly convinced that as the traditionalists turn up the pressure on student academic achievement, resulting in boxing students into a tighter and tighter configuration, the outcome will be a dramatic increase of student rebellion such as we have seen with the likes of Columbine.
As you read this paper you will find that I refer to three educational settings: traditional, multiage, and the Sudbury Valley School (SVS) model. A significant number of schools are beginning to explore the potentials that exist in multiage (MA) classrooms as contrasted with age-segregated classrooms. Some of the benefits of the MA classroom will become evident later in this paper. There are many more examples available online. Searching the Internet for ‘Multiage classrooms’ will bring forth a number of resources worth visiting*.
My fascination with the Sudbury Valley School is an extension of my interest in exploring the effect of giving students freedom in settings where they are expected to honor this trust through responsible behavior. This interest led me to accept an invitation to serve as a member of the Board of Trustees of Fairhaven School, formed on the Sudbury Valley model. The school opened the fall of ’99 with a full compliment of 35 students ranging in age from five to sixteen. The enrollment is now over 150 students. The school has recently doubled its original physical footprint. It is located between Annapolis, MD and Washington, D.C.
In my opinion, it is important for anyone looking at alternative forms of education to be aware of the full range of possibilities that exist for helping young children realize their fullest potentials. Although the Sudbury Valley model lies at a great pedagogical distance from traditional education, it appears to be serving the needs of a broad range of students.
In the multiage setting students begin to take on roles that are denied them in age-segregated classrooms. In a mature multiage setting, the year begins with students that are fully familiar with how their teacher manages her classroom. As a consequence, they become her helpers in introducing new students to classroom routines and procedures. Routines and procedures that normally take two months to learn are mastered quickly in this model where older students mentor new and younger students in this multi-age setting. A multiage classroom is often characterized as a rich, caring community of eager learners who have been given the luxury of time to self-initiate inquiries. The following description of a multiage classroom comes from the preface of a book titled Full Circle by Penelle Chase and Jane Doan.
Our multiage classroom is a rich environment. It is rich in activity. It is rich in sociability. It is rich in differences. The talk here is energetic. Ideas ripple through the room. Caring happens naturally. We believe that learning in a multiage setting is the happiest way to learn.
We are in our fifth year of co-teaching a multiage group of five-, six-, seven-, and eight-year-olds. Each June we regretfully bid farewell to only those children that “graduate” from our program to enter third grade. Thankfully, we are secure in the knowledge that two-thirds of our class will return as old friends in the fall. We know, too, that the multiage cycle will continue then as we welcome the new youngest members of the class. Our multiage program keeps going on its own. It is a happy way to teach (Chase & Doan, 1994, pp. ix-x).
At Sudbury Valley students are intently engaged in a broad variety of endeavors. Observers often find students focused on tasks that are meaningful and important. Many times older students are found with several younger ones gathered around listening to a story with the associated give and take of questions, answers, and discussion. One may gain an insight into the character of a Sudbury Model school from the following statement drawn from the school literature.
The Sudbury Valley School is a place where people decide for themselves how to spend their days. Here, students of all ages determine what they will do, as well as when, how, and where they will do it. This freedom is at the heart of the school; it belongs to the students as their right, not to be violated.
The fundamental premises of the school are simple: that all people are curious by nature; that the most efficient, long-lasting, and profound learning takes place when started and pursued by the learner; that all people are creative if they are allowed to develop their unique talents; that age-mixing among students promotes growth in all members of the group; and that freedom is essential to the development of personal responsibility.
In practice this means that students initiate all their own activities and create their own environments. The physical plant, the staff, and the equipment are there for the students to use as the need arises (Sudbury Valley School, 1998).
The Sudbury Valley model provides a setting in which students are independent, trusted, and treated as responsible people, and a community in which students are exposed to the complexities of life in the framework of a participatory democracy**.
In both the multiage and Sudbury settings a visitor is immediately impressed with the character of a community where the students have a great amount of freedom to interact socially and academically. In order for such a community to be successful, the students must learn to assume ultimate responsibility for their own behavior. In the true sense of the word, they become self-disciplined. This is the result of many years of exploring school life through self-initiation. Behavior control is acquired through the functioning of a student led judiciary system in the Sudbury model. A further discussion of becoming self-disciplined is covered in my paper From Discipline to Self-actualization.
Arguments in support of the thesis that expanding opportunities for social interaction enhances intelligence:
My first introduction to the proposition that social interaction may have an effect on intelligence came from Richard Leakey’s Origins Reconsidered: In Search of What Makes Us Human. In discussing the subject of intelligence, Leakey refers to a conversation he had with Nicholas Humphrey when he notes, “Like chess, a social interaction is typically a transaction between social partners…It asks for a level of intelligence that is unparalleled in any other sphere of living. There may be, of course, strong and weak players–yet, as master or novice, we, and most members of complex primate societies, have been in this game since we were babies…By now, the notion of social intelligence–or, rather, the acute intellectual demands of complex social life [emphasis added]—has become the leading paradigm among anthropologists” (Leakey, 1992, pp. 286-287). Leakey goes on:
Inevitably, inexorably, the Inner Eye, as Nicholas Humphrey calls this mental model, must also generate a sense of self, the phenomenon we know as consciousness: the Inner “I”. “In evolutionary terms it must have been a major breakthrough,” observes Nick. “Imagine the biological benefits to the first of our ancestors who developed the ability to make realistic guesses about the inner life of his rivals; to be able to picture what another was thinking about and planning to do next; to be able to read the minds of others by reading his own.”
If the mental model produced by the Inner Eye bestows an advantage on individuals in the complex of social interactions, the ultimate goal of which is reproductive success, then it will be favored by evolution. Once established, there is no going back, for individuals less well endowed would be at a disadvantage. Similarly, those with a slight edge would be further favored. “An evolutionary ratchet would be set up,” says Nick, “acting like a self-winding watch to increase the general intellectual standing of the species. In principle the process might be expected to continue until either the psychological mainspring is fully wound or intelligence itself becomes a burden.”
As humans, we experience the ultimate expression of this dimension of intelligence: the skills of foresight and manipulation, the facility of imagination, the sense of self. We also extend it to raw feelings, of course, to sympathy and empathy, to attribution and affect [emphasis mine]. This dimension of feeling is what makes consciousness so keenly subjective an experience. A real sense of grief can swell in the emotions of someone who hears of, for instance, a parent losing a child. Empathy with the emotions of others through the experience of one’s own emotions is very much part of human consciousness (Leakey, 1992, p. 297).
Here Humphrey clearly demonstrates the importance of social interaction to various levels of intelligence including such dimensions as sense of self, imagination, and the “advantages on individuals in the complex of social interaction.” Becoming conscious of the true value of compassion both from a personal and interpersonal point of view is a major contributing factor to one’s social skills.
In an earlier segment, Leakey writes about another interaction with Humphrey,
“Studies on hunter-gatherer societies show that the demands of their daily lives are not great. Hunting techniques do not greatly outstrip those of other social carnivores. And gathering strategies are of the same order as you might find in say, chimpanzees or baboons” (Leakey, 1992, p. 285).
Leakey later adds,
I acknowledged this and wondered what it was in evolutionary history that enables the human brain to create a Mozart symphony or Einstein’s theory of relativity. “The answer,” said Nick, “is social life. Primates live complex social lives. That’s what makes them–and makes us–so intelligent” (Leakey, 1992, p. 285).
With this we gain some insight to the idea that social interaction, hence social skills, are paramount to our growth and call for an expanded view of what constitutes a fully developed education schema. Traditional classrooms do not permit the interaction of complex social behavior. Instead, children in traditional settings are treated as learners who must be infused with more and more complex forms of information. One need only look at the “Standards” that have been created by each of the subject specialties to become aware of the vast amounts of factual knowledge that a student should have acquired by various stages of their progress throughout public school.
Although educational leaders have made casual reference to Nicholas Humphrey’s ideas, none have taken his position as a starting point to develop a school environment where social interaction might flourish. One exception to the importance of interpersonal skills can be found in Howard Gardner’s book Frames of Mind in his chapter titled “The Personal Intelligences.” Near the end of the chapter he makes reference to the inter/intra personal intelligences as being of a higher order than the more mundane intelligences:
Allusion to sense of self suggests a reason that researchers may have hesitated to construe the personal intelligences in cognitive form. A developed sense of self often appears as the highest achievement of human beings, a crowning capacity which supersedes and presides over other more mundane and partial forms of intelligence [Emphasis added]. It is also that capacity about which individuals have the strongest and most intimate views; thus it becomes a sensitive (as well as an elusive) target to examine. Difficulty of study and a high degree of personal involvement are not, of course, valid reasons to avert the scrutiny of scientific investigation (Gardner, 1983, pp. 242-3).
Gardner also makes reference to Humphrey with the following quote but does little to elaborate on its implications.
The British Psychologist N. K. Humphrey stresses the creative capacities involved in knowledge of the social world. In fact, he makes the bold claim that the chief creative use of human intellect lies not in the traditional areas of art and science but rather in holding society together. He points out that social primates are required to be calculating beings, to take into account the consequences of their own behavior, to calculate the likely behaviors of others, to calculate benefits and loses – all in a context where the relevant evidence is ephemeral, likely to change, even as a consequence of their own actions [emphasis added] Only an organism with highly developed cognitive skills can make do in such a context. The requisite abilities have been worked out over the millennia by human beings and passed on with great care and skill from the elder to the younger individuals… (Gardner, 1983, p. 257).
In William Doll’s book, A Post Modern Perspective on Curriculum, I found further support for the importance of social interaction as he reviewed the works of Bruner and others on the topic of social skills. The importance of well-developed communities of learning was stressed as an important co-component. In all of these multiage settings various forms of democracy evolve. One might say that the full dimension of our humanity cannot develop in an age-segregated classroom where the rule is competition. One could further hypothesize that the broader the age span, the greater the potential for fully developing our human interpersonal skills.
Recently, I have had the good fortune of locating Nicholas Humphrey whose writings have been referenced by many of the authors cited above. When I spoke with him in person, I asked the question that is the heart of my search: What is the relevance of social interaction to intellectual development? He returned with the rhetorical question: “Within one’s lifetime?” It became obvious that his focus has been that of an anthropologist looking at the development of the human brain over time. He then referred me to a paper he had written on consciousness.
In, “Uses of Consciousness” Humphrey provides a very clear idea of how our consciousness contributes to our ability to socially interact. Humphrey writes:
When the question is, what would a natural historian notice as being special about human life-style, I’d say the answer must be this: Human beings are extraordinary sociable creatures. The environment to which they are adapted is before all else the environment of the family, the working group, the clan. Human inter-personal relationships have a depth; a complexity and a biological importance that far exceed those of any other animal. Indeed, without the ability to understand, predict and manipulate the behavior of other members of his own species, a person could hardly survive from day to day.
Now, that being so, it means that every individual has to be, in effect, a “psychologist” just to stay alive [emphasis added], let alone to negotiate the maze of social interactions on which his success at mating and breeding will ultimately rest. Not a psychologist in the ordinary sense, but what I have called “natural psychologist”. Just as a blind bat develops quite naturally the ability to find its way around a cave, so every human being must develop a set of natural skills for penetrating the twilight world of inter-personal psychology [emphasis added] — the world of loves, hates, jealousies, a world where so little is revealed on the surface and so much has to be surmised (Humphrey, 1987, pp. 9-10).
If we follow this line of thinking, then children must have an opportunity for continuous, everyday interpersonal experiences in order to develop a keen, well-developed ‘inter-personal psychology’. As schools are structured today, very few of these skills–critical for survival in the real world–are allowed to develop. Because we limit the development of these “natural psychologist” skills in traditional schools, our graduates enter the job market handicapped to the point of being incapable of surviving on their own. In contrast, those students that have had an ability to develop their skills as a “natural psychologist” in multiage classrooms and in settings such as a Sudbury Valley School raise head and shoulders over their less socially skilled peers. Graduates of multiage classrooms have a good sense of self, know what they want out of life, and have the skills necessary to begin their quest.
An example of higher social intelligence is observed in the experience of one Sudbury Valley student who wished to gain acceptance to Wesleyan College in Middletown Connecticut. As a rule, Sudbury Valley students have no records to submit to a college admissions office, their only credentials are in the form of SAT scores. This particular student, recognizing how Wesleyan would receive her application asked for an appointment with the Dean of Admissions. The Dean’s secretary informed her that, without traditional records, including grade point averages and class standings, she had little chance of admission. The student persisted, calling frequently for an appointment. Finally the secretary relented and said the applicant could have fifteen minutes if she could be there at 9am the following day. She arrived for her appointment on time. An hour and a half later she and the Dean emerged from his office. The Dean said that she definitely would be admitted to the college and, in fact, she should be put on the list of early admissions. This applicant had thoroughly researched the resources of various colleges, knew that Wesleyan had to offer what she desired in a college, and was prepared to defend her selection to the Dean. The bottom line was that she had the social skills to confidently make her case. The Dean reportedly said that she was truly the type of student that Wesleyan College was seeking. When industry and local businesses condemn education for not properly educating our students, they fail to recognize the true source of the problem. Making reference to students academic inadequacies, they fail to recognize that so many students are lacking social confidences, self-reliance, thinking skills, and personal resourcefulness.
Another SV graduate, wanting to attend college courses that required a background in calculus, was reminded of his shortcoming by a parent. His response was, “Don’t worry Mom, I’ll get it”. What he meant was, he had the necessary skills to gain access to books and related materials needed to master the subject through his resourcefulness, a skill developed during his SV tenure. This, in fact, he did and proceeded to become a successful engineer.
The following documents further support the thesis that social skill development contributes to the intelligence of life-coping skills. These documents present student outcomes, or behaviors, which result from permitting extended social interaction among children as they undertake their learning in a multiage classroom. The first anecdotal report comes in the form of two e-mail letters from teachers of multiage K to 2 classes in Oregon. Their two letters follow:
E-mail from Ellen Lund:
I just returned from awarding scholarships at our local high school to two graduating students that had gone through our multiage program from their 1st year. One of the parents mentioned that the high school kids are advising their friends and neighbors to get over to our multiage school and get their kids signed up. That is because they see that the multiage graduates are more responsible, capable, compassionate, involved, and have higher self-esteem.
Who needs the research when the living testimonies are all around? This was one of the greatest and most precious moments in my career. What we are doing not only works, it lasts a lifetime! Lund, E. (personal communication, ca. 1998)
E-mail from Janet Banks:
I wanted to second everything that Ellen has said. The awards we presented last night were among many others in this high school awards ceremony. Students from our multiage program (now the Madrona School in Edmonds) were notable in number of awards and scholarships. Parents commented to me also, how happy they were that their children had the opportunity to attend out multiage school, as the characteristics Ellen mentioned have carried over throughout their middle school and high school years. Many of these students have been the leaders of the graduating class.
Students mentioned how much easier it was for them when they went to high school because of the friendships they had with students who were older, and how special it was to greet their younger friends when they joined them. Several of them said they’d never forgotten the warm, caring, positive atmosphere of our multiage classrooms, both from the teachers and other students. Friends of theirs, who were not in our program, commented that our students continually talk about their special grade school years.
These students are very self-confident, aware of their strengths, and have set great goals for their futures. I agree, this is what multiage is all about! The rewards for Students, parents, and teachers are real and wonderful.
Banks, J. (personal communication, ca. 1998)
Below is another e-mail from a teacher who, in response to a discussion about the influence of social interaction on intelligence, began to reflect on how the graduates of her program were being successful in the years after they had entered middle school.
You know Ray, I think you are onto something that I have been beginning to realize – that the climate established in a multiage group DOES in fact contribute to the cognitive development, regardless of how “good” the teacher is. For example, last month my daughter’s middle school sent home a newsletter. (This middle school takes the combined students from our elementary school and New Mines elementary school.) In the newsletter, they announced that 7, grade 7 & 8 students wrote the Canadian National Mathematics League Contest. FIVE of these students were former students of mine – including the first place student of each grade level! Now one could conjecture that I happen to have the most intellectually able children placed in my class – but you know that isn’t true, because our principal is very careful about fair distribution of children. Okay…. am I a superior math teacher? I think I do a good job, but so do many of my colleagues at my school. I am convinced that it has more to do with the three-year multiage climate of my class that gave them such a great start in school. The confidence and self-esteem they developed certainly impacted on their achievement. Leier, M.(personal communication, March 29, 1998).
A final document comes from the thesis paper of a student graduating from Sudbury Valley. This student left public school to spend her last two years in this very unusual school. She was close to dropping out of school, out of sorts with the world around her, and estranged from her parents. In the very short span of two years she turned her life around, became a loving, considerate human being, and reconnected with her parents. A portion of her thesis is here for you to read for yourself:
Before I came to SVS, I wouldn’t have been confident and stable enough to travel cross-country with Maggie on the adventure of a lifetime. If not for SVS, I’d never have sat in the Badlands under a vast black sky dotted with a billion bright stars. I’d never have found that learning is wonderful when no one’s forcing you to do it. I’d never have applied to colleges where my opinions count and learning is a choice and a right. I’d never have made friends that I’d live or die for.
SVS has given me so much but most importantly, SVS gave me back my parents. They had been desperate to help me, but for years I had pushed them away. After years of severe rebellion and silence, the lines of communication between us slowly reopened. I began to respect my parents because I realized that they respected me. They allowed me to join this community because they hoped it would make me happier. It did! And because I am happier, they’re happier and our words are no longer bitter. I’ve found a place for myself, an identity, so I don’t need to run from them anymore. How could I ever have been ignorant of the fact that my parents are amazing people? They are the most loving parents I could ever ask for and so accepting of me and my lifestyle. Anyone who’s been in my house knows that they are fun, charitable and wise, and that they love to sing! Thank you, SVS, for helping me to sing with them again. (Taft, 1998).
In all of the settings noted above the students were educated in various forms of multiage environments. Some were in settings where student ages spanned two years, while in one extreme case, the multiage setting ranged from five to eighteen years – the full spectrum of elementary and secondary education combined.
What is there about multiage education that brings about this profound difference in students? It is my thesis that as we open up the opportunity for social interaction, we enable students to exercise a variety of interpersonal skills that empowers them to become proficient as, “‘natural psychologists” who are, “able to take into account the consequences of their own behavior, calculate the likely behaviors of others, to calculate benefits and loses – all in a context where the relevant evidence is ephemeral, likely to change, even as a consequence of their own actions”(Humphrey, 1987). This paper presents many arguments from the perspective of recognized experts and calls for the establishment of school settings that foster long-term, free interactions between students and faculty, resulting in the honing of well-crafted social skills. Those students who are fortunate enough to move out into the world with this experience do so with a leg up over students graduating from traditional education settings.
Raymond H. Hartjen
(revised September 2014)
*E.g. http://www.theexpeditionschool.com/about-2/multiage-classrooms/ and http://www.multiage-education.com/
** 60 Minutes aired a segment on the SV school movement on April 29, 2001.
Chase, P. & Doan, J. (1994). Full Circle. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Sudbury Valley School (1998). Brochure. Framingham, MA.
Leakey, R. (1992). Origins Reconsidered. New York: Doubleday.
Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind. New York: Basic Books.
Doll, W. (1993). A Post Modern Perspective on Curriculum. New York: Teachers College Press.
Humphrey, N. (1987). The Uses of Consciousness. James Arthur Memorial Lecture. Archives of the American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY.
Taft, B. (1998). Presentation versions of theses of diploma candidates. The Sudbury Valley School Journal, 27(6), 31-32.