Freedom to Learn

The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

“Why Don’t Students Like School?” Well, Duhhhh…

Willingham's new book, "Why Don't Students Like School?, utterlly fails to answer the question posed by it's title.  Really, why don't students like school?  The answer is obvious: School is prison. Read More


To assume that all children dislike school is a generalized fallacy. Personally, I enjoyed school, mostly when I felt it was substantially challenging. I admit that I disliked it whilst it failed to challenge me; however, I found ways to amuse my curiosities by frequenting the libraries and such. Now, I'll proudly admit I was and am a nerd, so my experience may differ... I find that it is easy to lose interest in a subject, though, when it suddenly dawns on a student that a teacher lacks proper instruction, and it may require scant to surpass the professor's intelligence per the subject matter. Also, I never quite followed that "school is a prison", for I was there to soak up knowledge, the teacher was there to disseminate it, and obstacles to this process such as unruly imbeciles should rightly be subdued. To the insentient, yes, school was a prison because it did not permit them to be distractions to my education, school is a prison to the willfully dumb, school holds cell-block status to the unevolved, to the future burger-flippers, to the eventual gutter-dwellers and trailer trash, to the couch potato, channel surfer, aspartame-licking, high fructose-glazed consumers wallowing mindlessly in the pit of their own fetid stink, and in a way it's merely practice for their eventual later incarceration. Too little is done to propel the clever, the witted, the wise. Challenges need more prevalence in school, expect more from the children, and you'd be surprised to learn of how much some are truly capable. If the children want to declare that school is a prison, then free them of the burden of wisdom, free them of the burden of sentience, and permit the intelligent kids to flourish without the unruly distractions of the idiot subhuman wretches.

You are "free" from the

You are "free" from the burden of empathy and social skills. No need to explain why.



My experience in school stifled my desire to learn, my desire to discover, only recently have a rediscovered it and I'm 25 year old junior in college. I've had my personal challenges to overcome, just like everyone else. I fully agree that had I the freedom during my grade school years, as the kids at a democratic school have, that I would've been a well developed, well adjusted, ready for the "world at large" adult by the time I graduated. I'm passionate about education, in fact, I will get my PhD and then dedicate my career to the field of correct education and help implement it worldwide! The more I learn about the democratic "K-12" learning environment the more I support it. In other words, my view is biased.

My Reply:

Do all children dislike school? of course not and I don't think that is what Dr. Grey was trying to say.

What I'm saying is that children who enter the "Regular" school tract at an early age become "brainwashed" into liking school. Considering the capacities of a 4 year old, their options are bleak, unless their parents do something about it.

Liking our current school system as a student depends on so many different factors, but one of them is recognizing the system and then excelling at it, which is what you did. Its natural for us to want success and to be competitive, even healthy!

How can you not believe that school is a prison?

Did you have the right in school to pick your own challenges? NO
Could you leave class or school whenever you wanted? NO
Could you pick your own subjects to study? NO

"Unruly imbeciles?"

Yes, people who act above the established rules need to be reprimanded for the good of the whole. You said, "unruly imbeciles should rightly be subdued," but then say "Too little is done to propel the clever, the witted, the wise." Are we not all witty? Are we not all capable of learning, growing, and becoming contributing citizens of the world!! YES EVERYONE IS, it cannot be any other way, that is the rule (of course the exceptions are those with emotional, physical, and such limitations, some of which can and cannot be overcome)

"free them of the burden of sentience"

Are you serious....please say that your not.

Obviously your thoughts are elitist and I have a problem with that.

However, I do agree that more could be done to challenge those "witty" children in the established school system. But, that is why letting children learn what they want, when they want, and how they want is the best policy, with the smallest amount of structure possible. They will naturally want to excel.

True education is the result of personal effort, not homework assignments.

I quite understand your

I quite understand your argument about children learning the way they want to...however have you ever taught in a classroom?? Do you teach or interact with children at all? I am just wondering where you get such vigour behind these statements. There is always two sides to every coin, and it is most definitely and ideal which you are proposing, which is what is so wrong with the school systems that are put in place today. They are based on ideals without factoring in reality or logical thinking.
'True education is the result of personal effort'-very true. However, not many children are intrinsically motivated, nor do they get the proper support from outside the school (ie. family support) to feel the need to do so. And, what about the question that is so endlessly debated, 'what are the basic foundations of knowledge that people should know to have a full/successful life?' I'm afraid if you let kids learn how and when they wanted to, and what they want we would have an even more elitist society because those with the most access to the information, the most support and the the most success (positive feedback loops) would be enabled to succeed. Whereas kids with little to no support, who are not self motivated, who don't have access to materials, and who don't care to seek them out because its too hard or requires too much effort are ultimately put at a great disadvantage.
A lot of the time the 'prison like structure' of the school is for the benefit of the teachers who have 40+ kids in their classrooms they are responsible for teaching. (I don't know about you, but its almost near impossible for me ONE PERSON to give all the attention and personalized adjustments to each kids in a class with 30-40 kids that they need in order to 'learn how they need and want')
The true answer to the problem of the school system is not to 'let the kids do what they want' but rather to have enough funding and resources to give kids attention to get them the help that they need so they can have the time succeed and further their learning. If you've ever taught before, anything that a student starts to understand becomes interesting to them, but many of them cannot start understanding just on their own. If a teacher can help them just to start understanding, then the growth process becomes more intrinsic. Hence the problem of students not getting enough attention individually to start that process.
Teachers should not have to be importers of knowledge, or enforcers of it for that matter. Rather they should be enabled to facilitate and inspire students to seek their own knowledge- which would then allow for more freedom in learning. But it all starts with funding, and getting more teachers for smaller class sizes.

As for being forced to go to school until they are 18, there are kids who would KILL to be in school! Most often, and quite sadly the other alternative is that they work, or have to look after their family in some way. I've taught in some very poor socio-economic areas where kids in Gr. 6, (12 years old!!!) quit school because their parents need them to work. And as much as you think its enforced that they go to school, sadly most of the time its not. You take your higher education for granted, most of these kids in Gr. 6 I've taught cannot even read at a grade 3 reading level! Do you really think they will even get to that level if they weren't going to school? I had one kid in my class that didn't even know where he was sleeping half the time. School is where kids from any back ground any place can come and have an equal opportunity to learn.
Of course there are problems with the system, but that comes from the schools being formulated more on the ideals of capitalism and factories- turning out good citizens one at a time sort of deal. Being led by the bell and by rules. Being free from that doesn't come from a student directive, but from an enabling cooperative directive where students can have access to teachers time and to resources so they can be enabled and motivated to learn in the best way for them.

You sound like a very

You sound like a very controlling person who has had their feelings hurt, so it makes sense that you would like a rigid establishment with lots of rules to follow - like school - where someone in charge would control the people who hurt you. I don't think school was a good place for you.


Smarter students tend to dislike school the most powerfully, as it is stifling to them.

You were not among them. Even now, your linguistic reach exceeds your grasp, as your abuse of any number of words in your reply shows. You had knowledge there to soak up because you were not more than "bright"--and that is being charitable.

The author is overgeneralizing, but he is overgeneralizing the experiences of an intelligent person--experiences you would not understand.

You are no "nerd," though you would like to be one.


So you want to be the warden? Being well indoctinated/book smart is not to be mistaken for intelligence and wisdom. How many insults can you come up with for those who don't share the same academic interest as you? I bet you didn't have many friends a still don't. Your comment is rude and judgemental of all who did not or do not learn by your standards and also suggests that you would have done as well or even better educating yourself if you had access to the materials needed. It takes a more self motivated person to learn without wardens than one who has to be controled every step of the way. You obviously learned nothing about people skills,which is ironic because that is what society tries to relate to home schooled kids. I would be curious to know what you do for a living. You seem like a very ill adjusted miserable person. Are you trying to blame the other inmates for your lack of success? My daughter (who was home schooled) is a teacher and plans to home school her children. Not being in "prison" allowed her to excell and she started college at 14. You gave this article alot af validity with your comment. It seems prison left you in need of rehabilitation.

School is Prison

You need to re-read Crime and Punishment seriously missed the point of this article. That's too bad.

School is prison

I didn't like school and I didn't like the teachers who were always moody for a reason or another; however, I never considered school as a prison and I didn't have a great time there especially in elementary. When in high school, I didn't seem to understand what the teachers wanted from me. Math was a nightmare and so was chemistry. I have more a linguistic and artistic intelligence. Although I struggled to understand some mandatory subject, I never considered school as a prison. The result? My point? I became a teacher, not because I wanted to be a teacher, I actually wanted to be a flight attendant at that time (1985). I fell into the profession and I realized that it was what I wanted to be. It's a vocation not a job and I show it during my classes during which I never lecture. I made of this vocation a mission to change the way teachers are, BORING!!! We are made to go to school, but it doesn't mean that teachers can't make school more enjoyable. Teachers are boring, and I am a teacher and I enjoy being in class. I am never bored. If I am bored, then my kids will be bored. Boring subject? Nope, there are only boring teachers. All subject can be fun. It just take a lot of work in making them fun.

"We were MADE to go to

"We were MADE to go to school" ???? seriously? At what point does this make sense. Do I believe The 3 R's are important? ABSOLUTELY!!! But that doesn't mean that being in school full time, spending MOST of the time waiting for other kids until your turn, or sitting quietly (so as not to disturb all the other kids around you) doing a worksheet that every ____ grader in the state is doing because they are all the same age, is what we were MADE for.

There is absolutely NO proof that we were CREATED to sit in chairs and direct our attention to a single authority figure (at a time) in order to hear and hope to regurgitate what HE/SHE says is important to learn at the given age. We hope that students will drink in what is taught, but most do not. And the fact is that, AS WAS STATED IN THIS ARTICLE, we are actually STUNTING the growth and enjoyment of learning new things by removing any semblance of a child's drives and interest leading their learning.

In Defense of the Book

I think Peter Gray is right, that many students feel like school is prison. But I think he missed the entire point of Willingham's book, which is to answer the question "Why kids don't like school"--which he claims is left unanswered in this text. Actually, Willingham answers this question throughout his entire book, but perhaps it wasn't spelled out explicitly enough for Mr. Gray.

Students do feel like school is prison...but the real question you should be asking yourself is WHY students feel this way. Again, the answer was provided in every chapter: because the learning environment is inappropriate. Students aren't provided with appropriate challenges for their cognitive abilities, their learning isn't appropriately assessed, and the way material is presented is still mostly lecture-and-notes style.

Willingham uses his knowledge of how the mind works, how people learn to provide suggestions for educators to implement into their classrooms so learning becomes an enjoyable experience...and thus, Mr. Gray, resulting in school not feeling like a prison anymore.

Ignoring the elephant

Thanks for your defense of the book. I in fact agree with many of Willingham's ideas about how to present material in standard classrooms. I've published articles and given talks about very similar ideas, as applied to college teaching. However, the point of my essay here is that Willingham is wrong if he thinks that children hate school primarily because of the way teachers present material. They hate school primarily because they are not free in school. The lack of freedom also restricts their learning, no matter how good the teacher. That is the point of my whole series of essays. I invite you to look back at some of the earlier ones. I have grown tired of books by educators and cognitive scientists who believe that if only teachers would do this or that, then the problems of schools would be solved. The real problem is the forced nature of schooling. In a book entitled "Why students hate school," Willingham should at least have mentioned the possibility that they hate it because they love freedom, and in school they are not free. -Peter

Hacking at the Roots of the Problem


As an educational psychologist, early childhood teacher educator, and unschooling parent, I believe you're truly hacking at the roots of our problems. To not satisfy children's autonomy needs essentially ensures motivation, learning, emotional, and behavioral problems, but it's so awkward for people to question the compulsory nature of schooling. I put in my university syllabi that students are free to attend whenever they choose to and I encourage them to walk out if I am wasting their time. Oddly, they consider this truly remarkable, although they all switch channels when bored, stop reading books when they become uninteresting, etc. We have come to believe that education is something that others largely do to you, whch is a big part of the problem. Of course, we've had these unhealthy ideas for more than a century, so we've built up pretty strong rationalizations in their defense.

Most educational research is also deeply flawed for this reason--instead of asking what's the best way to learn to read given the goals we value most for children, it really asks, what's the best way to MAKE children learn to read, assuming children will be controlled in an authoritarian way and assuming teacher will decide what children will have to read, when they will read it, etc. In reality, learning to read is relatively easy for most children (and much less expensive, and no homework and no tears) if we immerse them in a literate culture and remove these controls. The coercion at the center of our schooling is at the root of many of our most intractable education problems.

Educational Research Deeply Flawed

Karl, thank you for these comments. I especially appreciate your second paragraph. I have had some lively discussions with researches studying reading. They argue, with evidence, that the "whole word" method is vastly inferior to the phonics-first method of teaching reading. I have no doubt that they are right, within the context of traditional schooling. But I have been interested in how children learn to read without schooling, and, you are right, they learn it very easily (at whatever age they become interested in it). And they learn it, right from the beginning, much as they learn oral language--as a mode of communication. -- If you know some independent work related to this, I would love to hear about it.

How to make kids want to read by themselves

There is a easy way to accomplish teaching reading,is a technique used by Jaques Fresco,basically he would read every night part of his son favorite book,then he would stop and say it was enough for the night,and, each day would read less , the kid wanted to hear more and got annoyed , so one day he said "well if you want to hear the rest , why not learn to read? you can read when you want and what you want,isnt it amazing?" some time after the kid tried learning for himself with the tools jaque gave and a little assistence,so in my opinion part of the solution is give kids motivation to learn for themselves for pratical things,wich they understand can enhance theyre couriosity and be a tool of independence.

Great answer

Wish you weren't anonymous, because that was a great answer.


School is prison when it is FORCED. That means that you don't have a doesn't matter whether or not you like it! Not all school is prison, because not all school is forced. Like college, or ballet classes. Even though homeschooling is popular and accepted now, a lot of people had to break the law before it was allowed, and parents had child protection and child welfare coming after them and pretty much scaring them and forcing them to send their kids to school. FYI.

Reply to Marik Bromine

Oh, I wholeheartedly disagree with you. Saying that all children dislike school is not an assumption, it is a fact, and a reality. In reality, I do not understand how you were raised to look at school so I cannot comment on how legitimate your claim is about "loving" school. Your whole respond shows your eagerness to elevate yourself, making yourself seem higher then other. Good attempt but no fly I'm afraid. Reality is simple. People do what they LIKE not what they are told to do, hence the prison argument. No one is born to be "stupid". Our evolutionary line has made our brain a one of a kind of compared to the the rest of the specie. Everyone is smart, in the subject that they are naturally in tuned to. Your attempt to say that some people are superior to other, flipper of burgers and etc is a result of "stupid" people is wrong. People flip burger for many different reasons. One reason is because their parent and society pressure them to do well in "school", or prison, and when they couldn't do well in the prison they are made believe that they are "stupid" and so they look down on themselves. In reality they could've been geniuses at whatever they were naturally made to be genius but it's tragic that they never found out because instead of allowing them to do well in what they are naturally meant they are told to do what they are not.

it depends

I hate school and am a very intelligent person but really it depends on the child many children need to cultivate and nurture there own ideas and learn in there own way but are told what ideas to have and what to do think and imagine instead of nurturing what is already there. But others like routine think inside the box do not mind being told what to do because they may not have the imagination to learn naturally and need someone to tell them how to learn Thomas Edison was a brilliant man but was at the bottom of the class for having his own ideas and seeking to help them develop but because of his prison fared quite badly in school and you are making vast generalizations many kids' minds cannot be squeezed into a cookie cutter they need to learn in their own way you obviously did not need all that but being condescending towards those who view school as a prison you your self sound like quite the incompetent one.

"To the insentient, yes,

"To the insentient, yes, school was a prison because it did not permit them to be distractions to my education, school is a prison to the willfully dumb, school holds cell-block status to the unevolved, to the future burger-flippers, to the eventual gutter-dwellers and trailer trash, to the couch potato, channel surfer, aspartame-licking, high fructose-glazed consumers wallowing mindlessly in the pit of their own fetid stink, and in a way it's merely practice for their eventual later incarceration."

I bet you think you're so smart; that you are not "one of them". But let's go with this assumption that people who did not enjoy school are barely human. Is it your right to force them into an institution they have no desire to associate with? I can't see the pragmatic argument for it either, after all, those "unruly idiots" were obstacles to your process of learning. It appears you would voluntarily attend regardless if you were threatened or not.

You're rationalizing the problem of school acting as a prison with "Well, those kids were insentient morons anyway". However, that is a hasty (and disgusting) generalization itself. Unless you are willing to claim everyone who did not enjoy school is automatically an idiot, that is.

I thought school was prison, too

This article reflected my feelings as a child, especially an older child, in school. I disliked school even though I did well in terms of grades. What I disliked wasn't learning, but being told what to do every day, all day long. I'm amazed at the commenter who thinks people who disliked school are "insentient." I guess that adds to her superiority complex ... great socialization she received there at school.

blog you may like

Hi Peter,

Here's a blog you may like:

Sadly, the author of this blog recently passed away. The Unschooling world has lost one of its great voices.


Thank you

Colleen, thank you. Very interesting blog. -Peter

Gray areas ;^)

Like Mark, I didn't personally experience school in such a negative way. I liked going to school. I especially liked learning math, which was not something anyone I knew did outside of school. I also liked being in an environment that was predictable. My parents were loving and alcoholic (still are) - there was the gift of lots of freedom at our house, along with the trauma of being screamed at sometimes for little or no reason. School was calm, and had its routines.

I objected to some of those routines. I stood up for the pledge, so I wouldn't be punished, but I thought about every word, and decided which parts I would choose not to recite. I got out whatever book we were currently working from, but I put another book inside, to read at my own pace. I was terribly embarrassed when I was called on while my mind was far away, but that didn't stop me. My addiction to reading got me through school still thinking. (I also recognize that I was damaged by school. I love to sing, but for years I thought I couldn't sing. I knew I sang badly when I was young, and music class didn't teach me to sing better, it just made me embarrassed. Math class probably functions that way for many kids.)

Like Mark I used to think, "Just give me harder classes, and get me away from bozos who don't want to learn." But as a teacher, I've seen that many of the students who act up in class are very smart, and do want to learn, but feel the same inner demand for freedom that made me read my own books. That particular strategy just doesn't work for them.

If school weren't required for every child, rigorous classes could kick out anyone not playing by the rules. (In karate class, for example, which most kids join freely, disrupters will be asked to leave.) But because school is a requirement for all children, that's not possible.

Peter, I love what you write, and I want to agree with all of it, but I think you're oversimplifying some parts of this. School is not the only thing wrong with our modern society, and we can't throw out schooling without changing other things first (or maybe at the same time). Parents living in difficult urban areas will tell you their kids are much better off in school than on the streets. Many people who come from low socio-economic situations will tell you that education is their hope for their children's escape. Many children, already damaged by coercive parenting and homes where thinking for yourself is considered dangerous, would use the freedom they crave in self-destructive ways.

I love math and I want to share that love. So I teach. Mainly I teach at college level, so the students are not coerced in the same ways you describe. But they feel coerced still, and bring much of their baggage from their K-12 years with them.

If you've read Deborah Meier's book, The Power of Their Ideas, I'd like to know what you think of it. She created a school in Harlem that was (and is) part of the public schools, but works in a way that is much more respectful of each child. But it's not at all like the Sudbury schools. When I heard her speak (years ago), she was quite clear that kids were not in charge. She compared her school to a family. I think there must be contradictions even at her school, but it at least addresses the issue of class. I'd love to read a conversation between the two of you.

[This comment is also posted on my blog, Math Mama Writes.]

A social obligation to help children educate themselves

Sue, thank you for this very thoughtful comment. I agree fully with your general point that for many students school provides opportunities that are otherwise lacking in their lives. We cannot rely on families alone. My overriding thesis is that children educate themselves, but they need social and physical resources to do so, and we have a social obligation to provide those resources. The resources I have in mind include opportunities to interact meaningfully with people of all ages, including adults, who are functioning well in the society and who can offer a variety of models of ways of living. I think we can provide all this in a manner that respects children's needs for freedom and dignity, and we can do it at a cost that is less than that of our prison-like schools. More on this in my next post. -Peter

question from previous post


It took me awhile to figure out how to contact you! I am not used to blogs. My daughter attends a Sudbury school and I frequently try to find information online when I feel I need support or more information, etc. There was a post I saw from a woman who grew up in Africa about people she saw who were had freedom while growing up but lacked skills such as the ability to plan long term or set goals for the future, etc. I never saw a reply to that. Could you comment on that? What gets me is that so many people in the third world are literally dying for an education. Like the girls that (Peter) Mortensen who wrote the book Three Cups of Tea (I think that's his name) , live in remote areas of Pakistan for whom he is nobly trying to and has built schools for. Some walk for miles, etc to get to schools that have the bare minimum. Meanwhile, my husband and I have comparatively vast resources and we send our daughter to a school where she can play (or not) all day-which is what she does at home. I know all the arguments for Sudbury and that play is a big factor in learning and obviously since we send her there, I think it is a wonderful environment in many ways. Still, I sometimes have doubts/worries about the future for her. And, while I can't control her destiny, I do feel I have some responsibility in the area of guidance and in determining which educational path to take. We don't just let them out the door as toddlers and hope they don't play in traffic or get snatched we still have an obligation to look out for them as they grow. My parents for instance, for some good reasons and some not, did not intervene in my education or question much about it and pretty much let me go to school or not-and to this day I wish they would have been MORE involved. So, I wonder about taking such a hands off approach sometimes. Any thoughts?

Deborah Meier

Deborah Meier is a big part of the problem. In spite of her personal erudition, innovation, experience and kindly pedagogy, she is utterly incapable of seeing the public education system for what it is: a shambles. Government schooling is necessarily that way by definition. No matter how you slice it, the unionism, bureaucratic fiat, compulsory attendance, taxation and centralization of power at the base of the system outweighs whatever consideration for "education" that might residually remain.
Meier, on the defensive, always resorts to a religious appeal to her god, Democracy, that simultaneously marks the end of argument for her. Granted, she is a staunch supporter of a localization of sorts...

Why people have difficulty answering "did/do you like school?"

First off, kudos to Peter for referencing what he called "the elephant in the room." For a clarity about exactly what is wrong with school, this particular essay gets my thumbs up for positive boldness.

On the question of why students don't always say that they don't like school . . . I don't think that it is politeness. I think that it is subtler than that. And it is related to why adults rarely claim that they didn't like school. Form my own experience, seeing and hearing how people talk about school and remember school:

The claim isn't made, because school is made to seem like a norm that "everyone must go through." Asking "do you like school?" is a question that sounds sort of like "do you enjoy washing dishes (or other pseudo voluntary task that nobody wants to do, but everyone does because they feel they should)?"

To both questions people rarely answer whether or not they actually *like* the task compared with how much they would have enjoyed other ways to spend their time. They answer, instead, the question "how much did/do you enjoy that task compared to the average person."

The result, is people are within one standard deviation of average in terms of how well they tolerate the task in question, they answer "it's OK" or "I'm fine with it" or even "I enjoy it."

But there is another way to ask the question which will be more helpful -- "would you enjoy it if we extended the school week to include Saturday?" or "would you enjoy it more if we cancelled Winter and Summer break?"

When you ask that question, the number of children who will honestly answer "yes" to their friends goes way way down. The exceptions being a very tiny minority whose homes are even worse than school (rare), or students who's personal initiative has been succesfuly squashed by the school, so that the only thing they have left to live for are gold stars and stroking by authority figures (also rare -- which is testimony to the human spirit).


Why People Don't Say They Didn't/Don't Like School

I think a large part of the answer to why they don't is simpler than that: Stockholm Syndrome

You say with utter conviction that

"anyone who knows anything about children and who allows himself or herself to think honestly should be able to see through this rationalization"

Well you are wrong.

I know about children. I have 2 children, I teach hundreds and have taught many thousands more. I have studied and continue to study my subject discipline and teaching and learning theory to better my practice. I teach other teachers. I have friends and colleagues with children.

I know that school, (though not perfect) for the vast majority of children is a positive experience.

My little girl can't wait to get back to school after the summer holiday. Many parents have related the same sense of excitement in their children, to me as a teacher and tutor.

Any comments?


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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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