Freedom to Learn

The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

Education Revolution: Help Us Reach the Tipping Point

You can help build a directory of resources for self-directed learners.


The time for revolution is here.  It will be a peaceful one, conducted by people brave enough to walk away from our coercive schools, smart enough to resist the propaganda saying that such schooling is essential to success in our culture, and independent enough to thumb their noses at the education-industrial complex that pushes coercive schooling and makes it ever more burdensome.

Our schools fail because they are based on the false premise that education is something that is done to young people by professionals, not something that young people do for themselves. Over the past few decades, the education-industrial complex has attempted to remedy the obvious failures of coercive schooling by adding ever more coercion, to the point where many children are literally being driven crazy (for more on that, see here and here).  It is time to stop this madness.  It is time to stop accepting diagnoses of mental disorders for those of our children who can’t or won’t sit still through tedious, irrelevant, timewasting, anxiety-producing, depression-inducing assignments and tests. It is time to stop praising children who are willing to sit through all this, because all we foster with such praise is conformity, passivity, mindless obedience, and false pride for meaningless accomplishments.  It’s time to just say no.

More and more people are saying no.  More and more students, with their parents’ support, are walking away from coercive schools and choosing self-directed education at home and in the community, or at democratic schools where students are in charge of their own lives. The revolution has begun and is accelerating.  It will continue to accelerate, not by confronting the education-industrial complex and trying to change it, but by empowering people to walk away from it so it will become increasingly irrelevant.

Every year in recent times the percentage who opt out of coercive schools has increased.  At some point, before long, we will reach a tipping point.  We will reach the point at which everyone knows several families who have left coercive schooling and chosen a path of educational self-determination, so it will no longer seem like an odd thing to do.  When that happens, the floodgates will open.  Schools as we know them today will eventually empty out.  When people see that freedom works, that coercion isn’t necessary, most people choose freedom.  The families who opt for freedom will become a voting block that will stop approving funds for coercive schools and start diverting those funds toward public educational opportunities and resources--such as learning centers and democratic schools--that people can use or not use in their own chosen ways (more on this here).  All people, regardless of socioeconomic status, deserve the right to control their own education.  The right to self-determination in education should be one of our fundamental human, democratic rights, and it will be.

The Tipping Point Project

I am part of a group who are committed to doing what we can to hasten society’s movement toward the tipping point, so the education revolution will happen sooner rather than later.  We have been referring to our group informally as the Tipping Point Project.  Our primary means of facilitating social change is to help empower people to leave coercive schooling. There are many, many families who would gladly remove their children right now from coercive schools if they knew it was possible and that doing so would make everyone in the family happier and make their children’s futures brighter, not dimmer.

As part of our Project we are developing a website that we hope will become a central, easy-to-find, easy-to-use resource for families who are unhappy with coercive schooling and are looking for a way out.  Our focus is on promoting self-directed education.  Children come into the world beautifully designed, by natural selection, to educate themselves (for the whole story on this, see here), but they can’t do that when they are shut away in coercive schools, deprived of the freedom and opportunities they need to play, explore, pursue their own questions, find their passions, and develop true expertise in the pursuits that interest them.  The website will present the evidence that self-directed education works for young people of all ages, and it will provide a directory of resources to assist people who take that route.

How You Can Help

I will tell you more about the Tipping Point Project, and name some of the others who are most involved, in a future post, but right now my purpose is to recruit your help in gathering information for the website.  Specifically:

1. Tell us about any democratic schools that you know of, for our directory.

One section of the website will include a directory of democratic schools, organized by region.  Here is our working definition of a democratic school:

 “A DEMOCRATIC SCHOOL is a school where students are trusted to take responsibility for their own lives and learning and for the school community. At such a school students choose their own activities. They choose what, when, how, and with whom to learn. If courses are offered, students are always free to take them or not. The adult staff members at a democratic school are there to help, not direct.  The staff members teach, in the broad sense of the term, but so do students.  The staff members at a democratic school are usually not called “teachers,” because there is recognition that students commonly learn more from one another—as they play, explore, socialize, and work together in age-mixed groups—than they do from the adults. Democratic schools are administrated democratically, usually through a school meeting at which each student and staff member has one vote.  The school meeting typically legislates all rules of behavior at the school and works out procedures for enforcing the rules, often involving a jury whose members change regularly from week to week or month to month.  In short, a democratic school is a setting for self-directed education in which students have the advantage of an age-mixed community of friends and colleagues with whom and from whom to learn.”

We know that this is a narrower definition than some others use for democratic schools.  Our focus is on finding schools where students are truly in charge of their own learning and have a real voice in governing the school. If you are associated with such a school or know one well, please describe it briefly in the comments section to this blog post and provide a link to the school’s website.  If you know someone who is involved with such a school, please use the email function, below, to link them to this post so he or she can respond.  We want to include all the democratic schools that are out there. 

If you are not certain that your school fully meets our definition of democratic, but believe it comes close--for example, the students have control over their educational choices but responsibility for the management of day-to-day operations lies with an adult staff, not with the school community as a whole--describe it to us anyway, including the ways that it may not fully meet the criteria.  We realize there are degrees of democracy and that our cutoff point will be somewhat arbitrary.  But, for this list, we are not seeking Montessori schools, or Waldorf schools, or other schools in the progressive education tradition where there is some student choice but still a top-down curriculum and system of evaluation to accord with that curriculum.  Also, we are most interested in schools that accommodate students all the way through high school age, not just younger children.

2. Tell us about learning centers, family cooperatives, and other community resources designed to support self-directed learners.

In another section of the website we will have a directory of community resources that are designed to help support self-directed education. One category of such resources are often referred to as resource centers. These differ from schools in that they typically do not involve full-time attendance, nor do the students usually have equal participation in day-to-day operations. Resource centers are most often designed to help young people who are officially registered as “homeschoolers.”  Such centers provide opportunities for self-directed learners to get to know one another and learn from one another.  They may also provide tools and equipment for various sorts of activities, courses for those who choose them, and adult guidance or mentoring for those who seek it.

If you are involved with such a resource or know about one, please let us know about it.  Describe it briefly in the comments section to this blog post, and link to its website if there is one.

3. Share any insights you may have about what our website should include.

In your view, what is the most useful kind of information that we can provide, on our website, that will help empower people to take the leap from coercive to self-directed education?  If you have taken that leap, what helped you to take it?  We don’t want to miss anything, and we will be sure to take your thoughts on this into account.

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Finally, please post whatever information and thoughts you have in any of these three categories here, in the comments section to the blog, rather than send them to me by private email.  I automatically receive an email, anyway, every time a comment is posted, and I read all comments.  My colleagues in the Tipping Point Project will read them too.  And, by posting them here, you are sharing with all other readers, some of whom may expand on your posting.  By posting here you are also helping to create, right here, a resource that others may find valuable, even before the Tipping Point website goes up.

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[For the author’s recent book documenting the effectiveness of self-directed learning and the value of play, see Free to Learn.]

Note added Oct. 31, 2013

Much has happened since June 21, when this esay was posted.  Our website is up.  Please check it out at alternativestoschool.com.  It is and will remain a work in progress.  If you want to become involved, click on the "join the movement" tab on that page.  You can provide suggestions and feedback through that site (click on "about/contact") or by way of a comment on this blog post.

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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