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Learning Requires Freedom

Introduction to a new blog about play, curiosity, and learning.

Everywhere we turn these days we find pundits and politicians arguing for more restrictive schooling. Of course, they don’t use the word “restrictive,” but that’s what it amounts to. They want more standardized tests, more homework, more supervision, longer school days, longer school years, more sanctions against children’s taking a day or two off for a family vacation. This is one realm in which politicians from both of the major parties, at every level of government, seem to agree. More schooling or more rigorous schooling is better than less schooling or less rigorous schooling.

“Schooling” and “education” (which in today’s usage is usually a synonym for “schooling”) are terms with halos around them. They are a priori good; by the logic we commonly hear, nothing counts as evidence against the value of more schooling. If children learn, we thank the schools. If children don’t seem to learn much, that means they need more schooling. If the economy isn’t doing well, it must be because we aren’t putting enough effort into schooling. If the economy is doing well, that confirms the value of schooling and suggests we could do even better with more of it. If knowledge is expanding at an ever-growing pace, then we must require students to study more subjects. If today’s world requires critical thinking, then we must add critical thinking to the long list of what we teach and test. If we believe that human beings have “multiple intelligences,” then we must enumerate them and teach to each of those intelligences in every person. If we value equality, then we must believe that everyone should study the same curriculum and take the same tests, so we can make them equal (forget the idea of our democracy's founders that people can be different yet equal in worth).

Whatever happened to the idea that children learn through their own free play and exploration? Every serious psychological theory of learning, from Piaget’s on, posits that learning is an active process controlled by the learner, motivated by curiosity. Educators everywhere give lip service to those theories, but then go ahead and create schools that prevent self-guided play and exploration. Every one of us knows, if we stop to think about it, that the most valuable lessons we have learned are not what we “learned in kindergarten,” nor what we learned in courses later on. They are, instead, the lessons that we learned when we allowed ourselves the luxury of following through on our own interests and our own drives to play, fully and deeply. Through those means, we acquired skills, values, ideas, and information that will stay with us for life, not just for the next test. And, perhaps most importantly, we discovered what we most enjoy, which is the first step in finding a satisfying career.

Every time we add another hour to the time that children must spend in school or at homework, and every time we coerce or coax them into yet another adult-directed extracurricular activity, we deprive them further of opportunities to play, explore, reflect, and experience the joys and frustrations of self-direction. With each new restriction, we drive a wedge further into the school system, pushing away more and more young people who cannot or will not accept such restrictions. Boys, in particular, are increasingly unwilling to accept the confinements of schooling, and boys are increasingly, in various ways, dropping out.

I have been teaching for a long time at a selective university. Students come to my classes with "A" averages in high school. But they don’t come knowing very much about the subjects they studied. They achieved high grades because they are bright and are motivated to get ahead through the standard procedures. They figured out what they needed to do to get high grades and then they did it. They figured how to do well on tests without learning much about the subject. They learned how to hold information, in the form that the teacher wanted, just long enough for the test.

I have no objection to students’ entering my classes not knowing much. Information is easy to find and easy to supply. If students discover that they need to know something as background to what I am saying or what they are reading, they can ask or look it up. I’m only sorry that they wasted so much time in school when they would have been better off playing and following through on their own interests. If they had done that, then those who decided to go to college and to take my course would have good reasons for doing so; and others would have good reasons for choosing other routes. Students who have explored and are pursuing their own interests in their college studies are rare and delightful; they don’t treat their first year there as 13th grade.

I also know teenagers who are presently in high school. Some are “good students” and some are not. What I have observed is that both groups are equally cynical about school. The “good students” may not quite recognize their cynicism or identify it as such, but it is clearly there. It manifests itself with every shortcut they take to a good grade. It manifests itself when, in asking for help, they say, “But I don’t really need to understand it; all I need is the right answer.”

We could make life better for children and improve learning, at much less expense than our current schools cost, if we developed environments in which children can play safely, interact freely with a wide range of others, and pursue their own interests. I know that because I have seen it; and I will tell you about some of those observations in future installments.

I have begun this new blog, Freedom to Learn, because I am seriously concerned about the state of education and the declining opportunities of children to play and explore. I am a professor of evolutionary and developmental psychology. My special interest is children’s and adults’ natural ways of learning. In this first installment, I have set out an opinion. In future installments, I intend to support that opinion with essays dealing with questions such as the following:

  • Why are human beings the most playful of all animals?
  • What does it mean to say that the playful mind is a mind poised for learning?
  • Is play the opposite of work? (In what sense is it, and in what sense isn’t it?)
  • What is the evolutionary purpose of curiosity?
  • What happens to curiosity as children grow older?
  • What do children and adolescents mean when they say, “I’m bored”?
  • What is the value of free age mixing in children’s learning?
  • Do children “need structure?" (Of course, they do, but what kind of structure?)
  • In what conditions will young people naturally educate themselves, without coercion or coaxing?
  • What should it mean to say that someone is “well educated?"
  • What is the proper role of adults in the education of children?
  • What are the risks inherent in trying to protect children from risks?
  • Why do we feel so much need to control children’s learning?
  • Why do schools operate the way they do? (The answer lies in history.)
  • Why do liberalizing reforms in education usually fail?
  • What kind of discipline is needed for work and careers, and how is such discipline acquired?
  • What is the meaning of freedom, and why do we seek it?

Keep tuned, and join the discussion. I’ll post every Wednesday, and I’ll take your questions, comments, and arguments into account. I hope to convince you that what I’m talking about is not pie-in-the-sky idealism. We’ll talk about real people, real schools, and findings from systematic empirical research.

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