STEMocratic Schools: Why Google Should Embrace the Sudbury Model

What do the best teams at the world’s biggest corporations have in common with democratic schools? Many people wonder what kind of future career path Sudbury students will be able to take. But in a world where creativity and critical thinking are too often buzz words with no substance, the Sudbury model can show how to cultivate these traits in a practical, replicable way. So read on to find out why our students will be able to innovate their way through any career they choose.

A 2013 study from Google found that the company’s most innovative and important ideas came less often from the teams characterised by technical excellence, and more from B teams who practiced equality, generosity, and curiosity towards each others’ ideas and above all emotional safety. These are the qualities most valued in Sudbury schools as well.

It’s becoming common knowledge that, with regard to creativity and skill level, Google and other multinationals are not happy with the skill level of today’s graduates. Governments depend on the tax revenue from the jobs these multinationals create, and as a result have made a big push towards STEM subjects in many countries.

But in 2013, Google themselves, after analysing all the data they had accumulated about hiring, firing and promotion since the company’s incorporation in 1998 have published powerful findings, which show that, of the top attributes that go into being a top employee at google, the least important was, in fact, STEM expertise.

The seven attributes that ranked above STEM expertise are all soft skills – being a good coach,; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others; having empathy and being supportive of one’s colleagues;being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

It’s worth a look at how those core skills are woven into the very fabric of Sudbury.

At Sudbury, everyone is a teacher and everyone is a student. We all coach each other. Everyday I see students helping and teaching each other – whether that’s with reading or writing, passing on the latest piano song doing the rounds, or simply sharing something they learned about the world recently. Beyond that, people are comfortable enough to always look for feedback on their songs, coding, story writing and more. While their peers are usually thoughtful and judicious in giving it.

It’s similar when it comes to ‘communication and listening’. The engine of the school is discourse. If you are a bad listener, that will quickly become apparent in the various meetings that take place to run the school and resolve conflict. If it does, you will be calmly coached by your peers to be more present and engage with others.

The time and space afforded to students to develop their interpersonal skills has, from what I have seen in my two years at the school, allowed them to forge deep relationships based on mutual respect and empathy. A student once told me they felt they had passed through the honeymoon period of not noticing their friends flaws. But they sagely acknowledged that genuine friendship comes not just from looking past those flaws, but gently and patiently helping your friends to grow beyond them.

In terms of problem solving, the students, through their various projects and the myriad proposals which have come before them at the school meetings, have had to approach problems from many different angles and have had the benefit, through listening to other school community members, of hearing a diverse set of perspectives on those problems.

One example being the recording booth the students made in our music room. They had to research how to make it. Then choose the best method for the budget they had. They went off to a local second hand store and from the hodge podge of materials they found there they made their own sound proof recording booth. I think that’s the kind of initiative Google and many others would agree is not quite as encouraged in traditional schools.

Finally, ‘making connections across complex ideas’. This one is a great attribute to highlight the kind of unstructured learning that happens in the school. Over time I have heard or participated in conversations about climate change, cultural appropriation, gender, homelessness, consent, representation, inequality and trans-humanism, to name a few. At any moment any of these kids can strike up conversation on one of those topics, and almost instantly find two or three enthusiastic participants in the debate. Of course, as young people, there are still many concepts they have not been exposed to, but when they are, they can often get to grips with them quickly and in a very natural and creative way.


What makes a team tick?


As part of their research, Google spent two years conducting more than 200 interviews with Google employees and looking at more than 250 attributes of 180+ active Google teams. Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, they found that “Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.”

Google learned that there are five key dynamics that set successful teams apart from other teams at Google. These dynamics can be applied beyond Google groups and would indicate success in any collaborative project in both work and school. So how does a democratic school develop these dynamics and lay the groundwork for a successful career?

  1. Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  2. Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
  3. Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
  4. Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  5. Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?


The study found that psychological safety was by far the most important ingredient for a successful work group and was the underpinning of the other four dynamics. Team members thrive when they can trust each other, and to build trust, team members must know how to listen to and empathise with each other. Psychological safety is among the most important aspects of Wicklow Sudbury School. Our community has a significant focus on creating a safe environment where students feel that they are supported and that they are allowed to experiment and explore their passions and ideas without fear of negative repercussions.

The values of our school community also encourage the development of the other four dynamics. Students’ work is meaningful to them because they choose the work themselves, and this is the reason the work matters to the students as well. When the students work in groups, they can rely on each other to do good work because they all want to be in the group and value the work they’re doing together.

Obviously not every student (or maybe any student) in Wicklow Sudbury wants to work for Google, and multinational corporations are far from the final arbiters of what we as a society should value. But this study matters because it shows that soft, abstract skills like empathy and creativity are just as important to success as hard skills.

Click here to read the study

By Khalil Moran and Rachel Kuhn