by Shawna Lee, co-founder, staff member, and parent

Reprinted from the November 2001 issue of “The School Bull,” the newsletter of The Clearwater School.

Last spring a reporter from KING 5 news came to The Clearwater School to film and interview members of the school. She began her student interviews with a very common, understandable question: What are you learning in school? It is a question that adults often ask children because most schools have classes in which subject matter is taught in discrete, measurable units. All of us who have been schooled in this way tend to define education as the process of acquiring knowledge that has been fragmented into bits with names like multiplication tables, spelling, grammar, state history, geography and so on. When asked what they are learning at school, most students can reply by naming one of these bits they focus on in their classes.

At Clearwater, the reporter’s question cannot be answered so simply. As with other Sudbury schools, learning is constant, organic and all encompassing. Learning is not something that happens only during school hours. It is, in fact, the accumulation and individual assimilation of many events, influences and personal choices.

If someone were to ask me right now what I learned today, I would think through my day and mention the following activities: I researched all of the options and costs for decommissioning an underground heating oil tank. I read a book about how genetic scientists use DNA in ancient bones to conclude that all Europeans are related to one of seven ancient women. I talked with a friend about her struggles as she starts a new business. From each of these activities I learned something. Some of the knowledge I gained is discrete and easily defined, some is more complex and interrelated, and some gives me information about my relationships and myself. There are many more things I’ve heard or read today that may become important—or not. These represent but a tiny portion of the experiences that accumulate over days, weeks, months and years into layers that form my unique body of knowledge, which are then filtered through my distinctive way of perceiving the world, my personality and interactions with individuals and the larger society.

When I ventured the opinion to my ten-year-old son that students at Clearwater would have difficulty answering the reporter’s question, he disagreed. He said, “I’m learning things all the time. A lot of stuff. I’m constantly learning about tons and tons of things.” He didn’t name specific subjects, but he was absolutely confident that he learns “lots of stuff” all the time.

At Clearwater, students assess their own learning all the time. They alone determine if they are satisfied with their progress and how to measure it. They proudly show someone their creations or talk about their accomplishments. They become frustrated, disappointed, more determined, or angry when they are not able to achieve what they’ve set out to do. They may seek help from another student or staff. They may stop and mull a problem around on their own for a while. They may find resources elsewhere to solve the problem, or they may choose to put the problem aside for a while or forever. The individual student decides how important it is to reach a particular goal and at what pace.

Learning the Basics

My son, who loved being read to from the time he was nearly two years old, declared for years that he didn’t want to learn to read. I’m not sure why he was so adamant, but he was. Somewhere around age eight he softened his declaration and said he might learn to read someday. By the time he was nine I began to see signs that he was working on learning to read. He began asking me to identify specific words more often, and when he played computer games he asked his dad or I how to spell words he needed rather than asking us to type them.

One night he pulled out Dr. Seuss’s The Foot Book and said he wanted to read it to us at bedtime. And he did! There were maybe two words he didn’t know. My husband and I were awed and elated. Ian had been working on learning to read in ways that were mostly invisible to us. At some point he had determined his skills were advanced enough to read an entire book. He hadn’t looked at that particular book in years, yet he knew it would be a good measure of his skills and he wanted to show us what he could do.

As the weeks and months went by he continued to work on reading and we continued to get occasional glimpses into his process. He pulled out another Dr. Seuss book with more complicated words and read it to us. At one point he told me he wanted to read to us Dr. Seuss’s Oh, The Thinks You Can Think, but not until he knew all of the words in it. He didn’t want to learn those words by working on reading that book. He wanted to use the book as an assessment tool, one that he had chosen.

During the months Ian began reading to us, he told people who asked that he didn’t know how to read yet. He didn’t say he was working on it either. In my opinion since he was reading things, he could read, but not by his assessment. Sure enough, the evening came when he wanted to read Oh, The Thinks You Can Think. He read it flawlessly. I think it was at that point that he considered himself a reader, and no longer needed to demonstrate his progress. He hasn’t read any books to us since, although he reads things he thinks would interest us. Of course, his ability to read has continued to expand exponentially. There are few words he can’t read anymore. Now his work has shifted to figuring out how to spell our often trying written language.

Learning the Essentials

At Clearwater learning occurs so organically and internally that someone watching from the outside may see little evidence of it. It is a wondrous thing to see a skill blaze forth from a student who so clearly lacked it earlier. For example, a boy who has been at Clearwater for five years spent a fair amount of time early on answering for his rule-breaking actions to the Judicial Committee (JC). It was an excruciating ordeal for him and in the beginning he could barely participate. It was also difficult for him to be a member of JC when it was his turn to serve. He tended to disrupt meetings or take sides without really listening to divergent perspectives. Imagine my amazement and delight one day last year when I shared JC duties with him. Not only was he able to competently facilitate the meeting, he heard everyone’s arguments with thoughtfulness and care. He proposed compassionate, effective remedies for complex situations. What a transformation. How could these skills—that any adult would envy—emerge seemingly overnight? In truth, his skills developed over time and resulted from lots of exposure to JC and his determination to master something that was so difficult for him. At eleven years old he is one of the most effective JC members at school.

Learning like Adults

Learning at Clearwater closely resembles the way adults learn. We adults learn things every day, yet this learning occurs fluidly, without premeditation. How often do we hear something on the radio, on television, while talking to a friend, or read something in a book or magazine and find we want to know more? We might search for more information on the Internet, look it up at a library or seek out someone who knows about the topic. We focus our attention on multiple sources that will add to our knowledge and ultimately satisfy our curiosity. We also continually come across information that disappears from our consciousness for lack of interest.

Children do the same thing when their time is not programmed by well-meaning adults who believe children must be exposed to a particular body of knowledge at a pre–determined schedule. Too many adults believe children will not learn the “basics” if not forced to. After all, we had to learn those “basics” and they were essential knowledge! Right? Here’s a test:

  • How much of the “basics” from your twelve years and untold hours of schooling do you remember?
  • Have you retained the information you “learned” in school about science, history, geography, social studies, English and mathematics?
  • Do you use any of this information regularly or even occasionally?

You may remember some, but I’ll wager that’s because you use that information in your daily life or because the subject has enduring interest – for you. When I look at the things that interest me now, some of them go back to my childhood and some of them emerged in my adulthood. But none of them were a result of any of my schooling. History enthralls me, but was irrelevant and dead in school. What piqued my interest were history shows on TV and trips to ghost towns with my family. School science classes were tedious and boring. But an early childhood fascination with bugs and tiny creatures has endured and informed my adult passion for knowledge about plants and animals, their interrelationships and the ecosystems in which they live. For twelve years school interrupted rather than supported what I really wanted to learn and do.


Clearwater offers our children an alternative. Students do not have to delay important learning in order to meet someone else’s goals. They get to make their own goals and think, learn and do what they want. They learn the “basics”” — those skills that really are essential for them to grow more and more competent. More importantly, their learning goes beyond the basics. By the time they become adults they have forged skills that are unique to them and exactly what they need to function at their highest potential. They know who they are and have the confidence to fulfill their goals and meet the challenges of life.