Self-Directed Education is profoundly social, embedded in relationships, interactions, and conversation. Where conventional education relies on hyper-stimulating competitive instincts and isolating individuals by branding collaboration as ‘cheating’, SDE relies on the human drive for connection and relationship. It is natural for younger humans to look up to and take inspiration from older ones, for older kids and adults to nurture and mentor younger ones, natural for those of us who have more skill in something to share with those of us who want to learn. We actually consolidate and integrate our own learning by passing it along.

Some parents worry that younger kids will be bullied or abused in an age-mixed space, not realising that the collaborative culture that emerges when artificial pressure is lifted, brings out the human best in us.

An added bonus of age-mixing is that it is harder to compare oneself to peers when peers range more widely in age. This makes it easier for kids to stay engaged with their own personal learning path without feeling labelled ‘behind’ or given a false sense of security by being ‘ahead’.

Age mixing is Sudbury Valley’s secret weapon. I never could make heads or tails of age segregation. People don’t live their lives in the real world separated by age, year by year. Kids don’t all have the same interests or abilities at a particular age.

Anyway, we soon found out how children mix when they are left to their own devices. They mix. Just like real people. The principle is always the same: if anyone wants to do something, they do it. Interest is what counts. If the activity is on an advanced level, skill counts. A lot of little kids are much more skillful than older ones at a lot of things.

When the skills and rate of learning aren’t all on the same level, that’s when the fun begins. The kids help each other. They have to, otherwise the group as a whole will fall behind. They want to, because they are not competing for grades or gold stars. They like to, because it’s terribly satisfying to help someone else and succeed at it. And it’s terribly pleasing to watch. Everywhere you turn at school, age mixing confronts you.

Daniel Greenberg