Freedom to Learn

The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

Our Social Obligation: Educational Opportunity, not Coercion

How we could promote universal education without coercion

Children educate themselves. Children are biologically built for self-education. Their instincts to explore; to observe; to eavesdrop on the conversations of their elders; to ask countless questions; and to play with the artifacts, ideas, and skills of the culture all serve the purpose of education. Regular readers of this blog know that this has been my main thesis, from Post #1 on through this one, Post #38.

Schools, as we generally know them, interfere with children's abilities to educate themselves. When we confine children and adolescents to schools, where they are assigned to rooms by age and can't choose their associates, where they can't pursue their own interests but instead must conform to the dictates of the teacher and the time course of the bell, we interfere with their abilities to educate themselves. Children's natural means of education require freedom. Regular readers of this blog know that this is my secondary thesis.

In my last two posts I outlined a case against compulsory (forced) schooling. Now, in this post, I will say a bit about what students like about school, to the degree that they like it at all, and will sketch out my thoughts about how we, as a society, could satisfy their desires and provide them the opportunities to educate themselves well without coercion. I begin, however, with a digression.

A Digression: Some Sources for Readers Who Wish to Explore Further The Ideas That Children Educate Themselves and that Our Standard Schools Interfere

Over the course of the past three or four weeks, many new readers have tuned into this blog. The comments suggest that some of the new readers have gone back to read  earlier posts, to see how the arguments build, and some have not. For some readers, the ideas that children are biologically built to educate themselves and that our coercive educational practices interfere with self-education are relatively new, not something that they have thought or read much about before. For that reason, I offer this digression, suggesting some readings for those who wish to delve further into the thought and evidence behind these ideas.

The ideas that children educate themselves and that coercion interferes with self-education are by no means new. Anthropologists have found that hunter-gather adults, everywhere, understood those ideas well and therefore allowed children and adolescence unlimited free time to explore and play on their own (for documentation, see my article on play in hunter-gatherer cultures, in The American Journal of Play, 2009, pp 476-522). In modern times, ideas about self-education and the harmful effects of coercion have been discussed in depth by a number of people whose profound familiarity with the standard educational system led them to become severe critics of it. Here are three whose works have been especially influential:

John Holt was an elementary school teacher who, after nine or ten years of teaching, decided to make systematic observations of classrooms and children's behavior within them, in order to understand why so many fail to learn the subject matter. One of his chief conclusions was that our system of forced education and grading generates fear, and fear inhibits learning. Holt's most well known books are How Children Fail and How Children Learn. Later, Holt became a leader of the home education and unschooling movement and produced a newsletter entitled Growing Without Schooling. Holt died of cancer in 1985, at a time when he was still in his intellectual prime, but his work is carried on by Holt Associates Inc., led by Patrick Farenga.

John Gatto taught in public schools for nearly thirty years. For three years in a row he was named New York City Teacher of the Year, and in 1991 he was named New York State Teacher of the Year. In that same year, 1991, he quit teaching and stated (in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal) that his reason was that he no longer wished to "hurt kids to make a living." Gatto's experience teaching in some of New York's "worst schools" and "best schools" convinced him that schools serve primarily to dumb kids down. Gatto concluded that children and adolescents are far smarter, and learn much more, when they are engaged with the real world and real problems, or with adventures of their own choosing, than when they are in the artificial, forced environment of school. His books include Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling; A Different Kind of Teacher: Solving the Crisis of American Schooling; and Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher's Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling.

Daniel A. Greenberg began thinking seriously about the problems of education in America when he was a physics professor at Columbia University, in the early 1960s. Although he was a very popular teacher, he noticed that most students in his classes, and in other classes as well, were oriented toward getting the highest grades possible with the least effort possible, rather than toward really learning the subjects he was teaching. This led to a period of serious thought about the conditions in our schools that produce this attitude even in the brightest students. He resigned from his position at Columbia, moved to Massachusetts, and, in 1968--along with his wife Hanna and several other innovators--founded the Sudbury Valley School, a school designed for self-education. In this school, which I have described in a previous post, children and adolescents are free, all day, to associate with whom they please, to use their time as they please, and to use the school's resources as they please, as long as they don't break any of the schools rules, which students and staff create together democratically. Now, 41 years later, Sudbury Valley serves as a model for many other "Sudbury" schools throughout the world. For 41 years Greenberg has continued as a staff member at Sudbury Valley--elected each year to the staff through the one-person-one-vote procedure--and has authored many books and countless articles about the philosophy of the school and the experiences of students and former students. His books (in some cases co-authored with others) include: The Crisis in American Education, A New Look at Schools, and Turning Learning Rightside Up (on educational philosophy); Kingdom of Childhood and The Sudbury Valley School Experience (about life at Sudbury Valley); and Legacy of Trust and The Pursuit of Happiness (both based on systematic follow-up studies of former students of Sudbury Valley).

The perspectives and specific ideas of these three thinkers are in many ways quite different from one another, but there is a good deal of overlap. These are all people who stepped out of the box to observe schooling as it commonly exists in the United States and concluded that schools as we know them do not serve well the interests of children. Children need freedom in order to learn effectively and joyfully, and schools as we know them severely restrict freedom.

My own perspective--developed in the whole series of posts in this blog--does not match precisely that of any of the above three thinkers, but it too shares that area of overlap. I have come to my view partly from family experiences (such as watching my son and step-children grow up and observing their reactions to schooling); partly from my observations of college students in my 30 years of college teaching (which are similar to Greenberg's observations); partly from my observations of classrooms at a variety of public schools; partly from my analysis of the entire corpus of psychological literature on child development (as author of a general college textbook of psychology); partly from my formal (published) research and informal observations of learning at the Sudbury Valley School; and partly from my analysis of the anthropological literature on children's learning in other cultures, especially hunter-gatherer cultures.

If you are new to this blog and are interested in the kinds of observations and evidence that lead me to the conclusions I have been summarizing in the recent posts, I invite you to look back at the earlier posts. Especially relevant are the series entitled "Children Educate Themselves;" the series entitled "The Value of Play;" the series on the value of free age mixing; the October 1, 2008, post on the varieties of play and their relation to human educative needs; the Sept. 3, 2008, post on the natural environment for children's self-education; and the Jan. 28, 2009, post describing Mitra's research on minimally invasive education, in India. If you wish to delve further, my published research articles are readily available--including my original follow-up study (with David Chanoff) of the graduates of Sudbury Valley School (American Journal of Education, Vol. 94, p 182-213, 1986), my study (with Jay Feldman) of the role of free age mixing in children's and adolescents' learning (American Journal of Education, Vol. 110, pp. 108-145, 2004), and my previously cited review article on the roles of play in hunter-gatherer cultures.

What Students LIKE About School
The attitude of most students in our standard public and private schools toward their school is not entirely negative. I have not done a formal survey, but my informal observations suggest the following as some of the things that students often or sometimes say that they like about school:

Opportunity to make and meet friends. Over the past few decades, as adults have assumed greater control over children's lives (see July 29, 2009, post), it has become increasingly difficult for children to meet other children and make friends. School is one of the few places where many children congregate, and in free time--before school, at lunch, and during recess (in those schools were recess still exists), they have the opportunity to talk and play together. The assignments of children to classes and schools by age prevent them from making friends across a broad age range, but at least they can meet and befriend other children of their same age at school.

Opportunity to get away from parents. Some children--who have overbearing, or "helicopter," or (at the extreme) abusive parents--relish the opportunity to escape from their parents for the school day. Even children who have the most wonderful parents imaginable need time away from them, in order to learn how to get along without them and to solve problems on their own. [For more on this, see Hara Marano's book, A Nation of Wimps (2009), or her Psychology Today article (2004), also by that title.] In hunter-gatherer cultures, where children are free all day to do what they want, children beyond the age of four years old spend much if not most of their time with other children, out of sight of adults. This is how they learn independence and self-governance. Children in our schools do not have that kind of independence, because they are governed by teachers, but at least they are away from their parents and are learning to cope with a different set of conditions than those that their parents would provide.

Opportunity to escape from poverty or from other confining conditions. One commenter on my recent post noted, aptly, that for some children school is "an escape hatch." My local newspaper recently carried an article about a young girl in an impoverished area of Boston, whose father had abandoned her and whose mother had died of HIV, who had lost many of her young friends to murder or other causes associated with poverty, but who herself is "making it" through the school system. She is a star high school student, because of her own enormous initiative, and she is bound for college. Stories like this remind us that we need escape hatches for those born in poverty. We need escape hatches that work better than our current schools. Our schools notoriously fail to meet the needs of the majority who come from poverty. Only a few make it through the hatch; and home schooling is not an option for them.

Exposure to new ideas and new ways of thinking, and instruction in valued skills. Students commonly talk about being bored in school, or anxious about tests, or angry that they have to spend so much time on meaningless homework and have little time for the rest of life. But sometimes, on the positive side, they also talk about some idea that they heard about in school, which got them excited, or about their enjoyment of some new skill they acquired in school, or about the joy of reading a book that they learned about at school. Some teachers are much better than others at breaking through the tedium and the concern for grades and finding ways to excite students, and students treasure those teachers. Unfortunately, students almost never get to choose their teachers, so the opportunity for such enrichment is a matter of luck. And even with the best teachers, only a fraction of class time is experienced by most students as intellectually exciting, partly because of the demands on all teachers to cover the standard curriculum and give the standard tests. [John Gatto was, by all accounts, the most intellectually exciting teacher in the New York City school system, but even he concluded that he was doing more harm than good in school and that his time was better spent advocating for radical reform in education.]

How We Could, If We Wished, Provide Opportunities for All Children to Educate Themselves Well, Without Coercion

It is, I think, no surprise that the things that children like best about school are among the things that they most need in order to educate themselves well. Children crave learning, but they crave it on their terms. They learn well when they are in control, and, like you and I, they often become resentful when others try to control them. But in order for children to learn, we need to provide the opportunities. We need to provide those opportunities not just to wealthy and middle class families, but also to the poor.

Briefly, what I envision, in my dream for the future, is that instead of schools as we know them today we would have a system of community centers, open to everyone, where children--and adults too, if they wish--can come to play, explore, and learn. Where possible, there would be fields and woods where children can get away from adults and explore on their own. The tools of learning would be available, including computers. The town library would be part of each center. Local people, with various skills, would devote some time there offering classes to those who wish to take them--in music, art, athletics, math, foreign languages, cooking, business management, checkbook balancing, and anything else that people deem to be fun, interesting, or important. There would be no requirements, no grades, no ranking of people compared with other people. Local theater and music groups would put on productions at the center, and people of all ages could form new groups, of whatever sorts met their interests.

For a cost much less than that currently spent on our system of coercive education, we could develop beautiful centers, with exciting opportunities for self-education. Children would flock to such centers, because that is where their friends are and that is where there are so many exciting things to play with and explore. Within the center all that we most value in our culture would be represented, and children and adults too could sample as they please. The details of each center's construction and offerings would be determined locally and democratically, within each community. Purchases of equipment would be in response to demand, not the result of someone's a priori expectations. Staff would be hired for limited terms, through a democratic procedure, to assure a staff that serves the participants' needs. There would be no tenure.

With such centers, we could trust children's instincts for self-education to take control. They would learn what they need to know to do well as adults in our culture, and they would develop deep interests, which would lead to careers that would be play for them, not toil.

I have been brief here, in this final section, partly because my digression at the beginning has caused the post to grow longer than is recommended by the good people at Psychology Today. But for now, this hint may be enough. For now I'm glad just to get the idea out there, sketchy as it is, for you to play with, add to, or object to. Sometime down the road, after I've heard your thoughts and given the idea more thought myself, I'll discuss it in greater detail. I can think of many possible objections to this idea, but all of them that I can think of are problems that can be solved, not roadblocks. [Before ending, I should note that I owe this general idea primarily to my son, Scott Gray, who has given far more serious thought to it, to date, than I have. But I take responsibility for my specific interpretation of it, with which he might not agree.]
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See new book, Free to Learn

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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