Freedom to Learn

The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

Children Educate Themselves I: Outline of Some of the Evidence

Children are designed by nature to educate themselves.

As adults we do have certain responsibilities toward our children and the world's children. It is our responsibility to create safe, health-promoting, respectful environments in which children can develop. It is our responsibility to be sure that children have proper foods, fresh air, non-toxic places to play, and lots of opportunities to interact freely with other people across the whole spectrum of ages. It is our responsibility to be models of human decency. But one thing we do not have to worry about is how to educate children.

We do not have to worry about curricula, lesson plans, motivating children to learn, testing them, and all the rest that comes under the rubric of pedagogy. Lets turn that energy, instead, toward creating decent environments in which children can play. Children's education is children's responsibility, not ours. Only they can do it. They are built to do it. Our task regarding education is just to stand back and let it happen. The more we try to control it, the more we interfere.

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When I say that education is children's responsibility and that they are by nature designed to assume that responsibility, I do not expect you to take that assertion on faith. We live in a world in which that assertion is not the self-evident truth that it once was. We live in a world in which almost all children and adolescents are sent to school, beginning at ever-younger ages and ending at ever-older ages, and in which "school" has a certain standard meaning. We measure education in terms of scores on tests and success in advancing through the school system from one level to the next. Naturally, then, we come almost automatically to think of education as something that is done at schools by specialists trained in the art and science of pedagogy, who know how to put children through the paces that will turn their raw potential into an educated product.

So, I take it as my task to present evidence to support my claim. The most direct lines of evidence come from settings where we can see children educating themselves without anything like what we think of as schooling. Here are three such settings, which I will elaborate on in the next three installments of this weekly blog.

1. A huge amount of children's education occurs before they start school. The most obvious evidence of children's capacity for self-education, available to any of us who opens our eyes, comes from watching kids in their first four or five years of life, before anyone tries in any systematic way to teach them anything. Think of all they learn in that period. They learn to walk, run, jump, climb. They learn about the physical properties of, and how to manipulate, all of the objects that are within their reach. They learn their native language, which is surely one of the most cognitively complex tasks that any human being ever masters. They learn the basic psychology of other people--how to please others, how to annoy them, how to get what they need or want from them. They learn all this not through lessons provided by anyone, but through their own free play, their insatiable curiosity, and their natural attentiveness to the behavior of other people. We can't stop them from learning all this and more unless we lock them up alone in closets.

2. Children in hunter-gatherer cultures become successful adults without anything like schooling. During most of human existence we lived in relatively small nomadic, foraging bands. Our basic human nature--including our playfulness, curiosity, and all of our other biological adaptations for learning--evolved in the context of that way of life. Some groups of hunter-gatherers managed to survive, with their cultures intact, into recent times. Anthropologist who have studied such groups--in Africa, Asia, New Zealand, South America, and elsewhere--have found a remarkable consistency across them in their attitudes toward children. In all of these cultures children and adolescents are permitted to play and follow their own interests, without adult interference, essentially from dawn to dusk every day. The belief of these people, borne out by millennia of experience, is that young people teach themselves through play and exploration and then, when ready to do so, begin naturally to put what they have learned to purposes that benefit the group as a whole. Through their own efforts hunter-gatherer children acquire the enormous sets of skills and knowledge they need to be successful adults in their culture.

3. Children at certain "non-school schools" in our culture become successful adults without anything like conventional schooling. I have for many years been an observer of children and adolescents at the Sudbury Valley School, in Framingham, Massachusetts. The school was founded forty years ago by people whose beliefs about education are remarkably similar to those of hunter-gatherers. The school is for young people aged four on through high school age, and it is nothing at all like a typical school. It is a democratic setting in which children truly have equal power to the adults and in which students learn entirely through their own self-directed activities. It is, essentially, a safe environment in which young people can play, explore, assume responsibility, and interact freely with others across the whole range of ages. There are no tests, no gold stars or other such rewards, no passing or failing, no required courses or coursework, no coercion or coaxing of children to learn, no expectations that the staff are responsible for children's learning. By now, many hundreds of young people have educated themselves in this environment. And, no, they don't become hunters and gatherers. They become artisans, artists, chefs, doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, musicians, scientists, social workers, and software designers. They can be found in the whole range of careers that we value in our culture.

In my next three weekly installments I will elaborate, one by one, on these three sources of evidence about young people's capacities for self-education. Now, please respond below with your own comments, arguments, and experiences. Your thoughts will help form my next installments and will contribute to the dialogue that we so much need if we are going to do anything to affect the way the world thinks about childhood and learning. If you think this dialogue is worthwhile, please email this installment to others and link to the blog from other relevant sites that you are involved with.

PS: Some of you have asked about the RSS feed for this blog. It is now working. Click on the icon under "Stay Updated" to the right of this column near the top.

Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, is author of the newly published book Free to Learn (Basic Books) and Psychology (a textbook now in its 6th edition).

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