Freeing children from "imprisonment schooling" -- A new book by Peter Gray

When I wrote my book Made by Hand, I interviewed Peter Gray about the way kids learn. He's a research professor in the Department of Psychology at Boston College, and I found his ideas on unstructured self-teaching fascinating and I quoted him at length in my book. Dr. Gray now has a book out called, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. If you are a parent of school ago children, I highly recommend it.

After the jump, an excerpt from Free to Learn.

Our children spend their days being passively instructed, and made to sit still and take tests -- often against their will. We call this imprisonment schooling, yet wonder why kids become bored and misbehave. Even outside of school children today seldom play and explore without adult supervision, and are afforded few opportunities to control their own lives. The result: anxious, unfocused children who see schooling—and life—as a series of hoops to struggle through.

In Free to Learn, developmental psychologist Peter Gray argues that our children, if free to pursue their own interests through play, will not only learn all they need to know, but will do so with energy and passion. Children come into this world burning to learn, equipped with the curiosity, playfulness, and sociability to direct their own education. Yet we have squelched such instincts in a school model originally developed to indoctrinate, not to promote intellectual growth.

Excerpt from Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, by Peter Gray


The words hit me hard. I had on occasion been damned to hell before, but never so seriously. A colleague, frustrated by my thickheaded lack of agreement with an obvious truth, or a friend, responding to some idiotic thing I had said. But in those cases "go to hell" was just a way to break the tension, to end an argument that was going nowhere. This time it was serious. This time I felt, maybe, I really would go to hell. Not the afterlife hell of fire and brimstone, which I don't believe in, but the hell that can accompany life in this world when you are burned by the knowledge that you have failed someone you love, who needs you, who depends on you.

The words were spoken by my nine-year-old son, Scott, in the principal's office of the public elementary school. They were addressed not only to me but to all seven of us big, smart adults who were lined up against him -- the principal, Scott's two classroom teachers, the school's guidance counselor, a child psychologist who worked for the school system, his mother (my late wife), and me. We were there to present a united front, to tell Scott in no uncertain terms that he must attend school and must do there whatever he was told by his teachers to do. We each sternly said our piece, and then Scott, looking squarely at us all, said the words that stopped me in my tracks.

I immediately began to cry. I knew at that instant that I had to be on Scott's side, not against him. I looked through my tears to my wife and saw that she, too, was crying, and through her tears I could see that she was thinking and feeling exactly as I was. We both knew then that we had to do what Scott had long wanted us to do -- remove him not just from that school but from anything that was anything like that school. To him, school was prison, and he had done nothing to deserve imprisonment.

That meeting in the principal's office was the culmination of years of meetings and conferences at the school, at which my wife and I would hear the latest accounts of our son's misbehavior. His misbehavior was particularly disturbing to the school personnel because it was not the usual kind of naughtiness that teachers have come to expect from exuberant boys confined against their will. It was more like planned rebellion. He would systematically and deliberately behave in ways contrary to the teachers' directions. When the teacher instructed students to solve arithmetic problems in a particular way, he would invent a different way to solve them. When it came time to learn about punctuation and capital letters, he would write like the poet e.e. cummings, putting capitals and punctuation wherever he wanted to or not using them at all. When an assignment seemed pointless to him, he would say so and refuse to do it. Sometimes -- and this had become increasingly frequent -- he would, without permission, leave the classroom and, if not forcibly restrained, walk home.

We eventually found a school for Scott that worked. A school as unlike "school" as you can imagine. A little later I will tell you about it and the worldwide educational movement it has inspired. But this book is not primarily about a particular school. It is about the human nature of education.

Children come into the world burning to learn and genetically programmed with extraordinary capacities for learning. They are little learning machines. Within their first four years or so they absorb an unfathomable amount of information and skills without any instruction. They learn to walk, run, jump, and climb. They learn to understand and speak the language of the culture into which they are born, and with that they learn to assert their will, argue, amuse, annoy, befriend, and ask questions. They acquire an incredible amount of knowledge about the physical and social world around them. All of this is driven by their inborn instincts and drives, their innate playfulness and curiosity. Nature does not turn off this enormous desire and capacity to learn when children turn five or six. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling. The biggest, most enduring lesson of school is that learning is work, to be avoided when possible.

My son's words in the principal's office changed the direction of my professional life as well as my personal life. I am, and was then, a professor of biopsychology, a researcher interested in the biological foundations of mammalian drives and emotions. I had been studying the roles of certain hormones in modulating fear in rats and mice, and I had recently begun looking into the brain mechanisms of maternal behavior in rats. That day in the principal's office triggered a series of events that gradually changed the focus of my research. I began to study education from a biological perspective. At first my study was motivated primarily by concern for my son. I wanted to make sure we weren't making a mistake by allowing him to follow his own educational path rather than a path dictated by professionals. But gradually, as I became convinced that Scott's self-directed education was going beautifully, my interest turned to children in general and to the human biological underpinnings of education.

What is it about our species that makes us the cultural animal? In other words, what aspects of human nature cause each new generation of human beings, everywhere, to acquire and build upon the skills, knowledge, beliefs, theories, and values of the previous generation? This question led me to examine education in settings outside of the standard school system, for example, at the remarkable non-school my son was attending. Later I looked into the growing, worldwide "unschooling" movement to understand how the children in those families become educated. I read the anthropological literature and surveyed anthropologists to learn everything I could about children's lives and learning in hunter-gatherer cultures -- the kinds of cultures that characterized our species for 99 percent of our evolutionary history. I reviewed the entire body of psychological and anthropological research on children's play, and my students and I conducted new research aimed at understanding how children learn through play.

Such work led me to understand how children's strong drives to play and explore serve the function of education, not only in hunter gatherer cultures but in our culture as well. It led to new insights concerning the environmental conditions that optimize children's abilities to educate themselves through their own playful means. It led me to see how, if we had the will, we could free children from coercive schooling and provide learning centers that would maximize their ability to educate themselves without depriving them of the rightful joys of childhood.

This book is about all of that.

Excerpted with permission from Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life by Peter Gray. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright (c) 2013.


  1. I haven’t (yet) read the book, but after reading the excerpt, I would urge everyone to remember that kids are different!  What might be terrible “imprisonment schooling” for one kid might be just perfect for others.  No single system is going to work for everyone.

    1. As children are individuals it would not seem unreasonable to assume that they each respond better to a more or less structured environment. Then the adults come along and simplify things in order to try and prove or disprove a theory. Childtren will find a way to learn despite the best efforts of adults. Children who are given too much freedom by adults will also create their own structures if they find these helpful for learning. These are not the difficult children so do not appear in the statistics or feature heavily in academic studies.

      Also. We are not hunter gatherers. WTF.

  2. I really enjoyed Last Child In The Woods a few years ago and can’t wait to read this. I’m reserving judgment about the “school as unlike “school” as you can imagine” until I read about it, but to second Rodney’s caution, sometimes the traditional system of sitting at a desk and doing some rote memorization does actually work. I don’t believe the solution to American’s educational problems necessarily has to be a radically different structure or even curriculum. I think the key is good teachers. Being in the demographic, I run across a lot of parents who are trying get their kids into alternative schools instead of the local public school and I feel like they are only doing it because of the exclusivity. It’s not entirely clear to me that they actually know the different programming will result in their kid being any smarter. I think they do it because it’s the shiny thing to do. 

    1. I had good teachers, for the most part. The problem was the administration.

      When your teacher wants to make an exception on your behalf because they think it is the better choice for you personally, but they don’t have the authority to make that choice, there’s nothing they can do. They’re just as much at the whims of the administration as the students are.

      1. And good administrators are hamstrung when it comes to dealing with bad teachers. As long as the teacher doesn’t violate school policy, the administrator can’t do much.

          1. As the husband of a principal, I would be interested in knowing why what my wife experiences every day “isn’t true at all.”

          2.  Depending on the state, your wife has many options. She can do evaluations and mark them as unsatisfactory, if indeed they are. In Ny, 2 years unsatisfactory rating in a row, and the teacher is gone.

            In CA she can issue a 90 day notice, once unsatisfactory evaluation has been written, and the teacher is gone.

            If the teacher is so bad they can be removed from the classroom without being fired.

            Don’t tell me how hamstrung principals are.

            Oh, and good luck replacing that fired teacher, cuz nobody wants to work that hard for that little in such a hostile environment.

    2. Yeah I agree. Our oldest has just started school, and after looking at the options in our area we’ve sent him to the local public school. This was in spite of a lot of our peers dismissing it out of hand. We went there, talked to the principal (who seemed really switched on), had a look around and thought it was clearly the best organised, best resourced and most progressive option in the area.

      Our son responds very well to structured environments, and I think he will do well in the traditional system. It certainly seems to be going well so far. We’ll see how the other two go, but while I don’t think they need structure as much as my son, I don’t think they will be averse to it either.

    3. You are absolutely right that, for many kids, the traditional method works best.  I think the problem is that most of the kids for whom that method is the opposite of what they need have no way of breaking free from it.

      The traditional method should be completely available to any kids who need it, but until a variety of methods are available to all the kids, until educators and politicians stop pretending that every single 8-year-old needs to be reading and doing math at a particular level, then for many, if not most kids, school will forever be a prison.

      1.  I doubt the “traditional” method in it’s most common form works best, because that’s not the point. It’s supposed to work “acceptably” for the most students. I DO think there are many students who thrive under a more structured approach to learning, but even for them I doubt the “traditional” approach is truly the best, though it may be the best most people can afford…

  3. We recently took our 12 year old out of school for similar reasons. After months of research and years of fighting over grades we decided that homeschooling would be the best option. After about a month, I am quite pleased with the change in his behavior. 
    He is still distractable, and some days will take him hours to do 10 minutes worth of work, but without a strict timetable this is easily accommodated for. It also means that when he is doing something he loves, he will work on it as long as he wants without having to pack up for his next class. His behavior both in “school” and out is dramatically improved and he has made leaps and bounds in his social skills which I generally attribute to not being around peer pressure to act a certain way.
    I don’t think there is one right answer overall, I did well in public schools and looking back wouldn’t have liked being homeschooled, I do think it is the right answer for how my son learns though. Every child is different.

  4. I remember my imprisonment, not all that long ago.

    I remember learning to keep my head down, learning how to fast-talk my way out of problems that arose from not fitting expectations, learning how to carry out the letter of the laws if not the spirit, often because there was no spirit.

    I remember being sent to the main office for politely correcting a teacher’s simple linguistic error, even raising my hand to be called on. I remember going to the office via the door with a camera only watching the outside, not the inside, and once through, ducking into the restroom for five or ten minutes, then walking back to class and taking my seat without a word.

    I remember the middle-aged, balded chemistry teacher, who drank heavily. I remember him going red with anger at one of the other students forgetting their homework for the umpteenth time. I remember him slamming his heavy teacher’s textbook on the front desk, I remember him ranting, spitting with rage, informing the boy that he was a worthless excuse of a human being with no work ethic and no sense of shame, and I remember him trailing off shouting about his failed career with the weather service before sending the boy to the principal, sending an innocent bystander as well for good measure.

    I remember the teachers who actually gave a damn. I remember the geometry teacher who gave me extra credit to learn the quadratic equation set to classic opera pieces and sing it aloud for the class. I remember the calculus teacher who had a penchant for puns and witty banter between herself and her students. I remember the piano teacher who went out of his way to write sheet music on request so the kids could learn to play their favorite songs from video games and films, and who, with a knowing nod, would let me leave class to go help other teachers or students with projects or personal crises.

    I remember the algebra teacher opening his door in the middle of a lecture to investigate threatening voices, picking me out of a violent throng, and pulling me into the safety of his class. He knew me from the previous year, knew exactly what had happened, knew exactly which students had been just about to beat me. He sat me down, continued his lecture, and at the end of class sat next to me and we talked.

    I remember his pained expression, the mingled fury, frustration, and sad resigned disappointment. He could have called the administration, but he didn’t. He knew nothing would have been solved that way, knew that my tormentors wouldn’t give a damn if they were pointed out and punished, knew that they had no fear of suspensions because it just meant they could stay home and screw around, knew that punishing them necessarily meant punishing me, because I “had been involved in a fight” and there was zero tolerance, even if you were a pacifist as I was and am, even if you did everything in your power to flee, even if once caught you simply sat there and took it. He brought me a cup of cocoa from the teacher’s lounge. He wrote me a note which explained that he had “borrowed” me to help him with some miscellaneous task, so that I could account for the classes I missed without being punished. And he told me a very rude joke to make me laugh before sending me to my final class of the day.

    I remember being suspended for holding hands with a girl who was close to me, and who still is. I remember skipping class and talking a friend out of suicidal thoughts in the dark and empty auditorium, prefering to suffer detention than leave them to their misery. I remember being written up for taking meandering paths across campus to avoid the gaze of the security cameras, and being detained for three hours while the dean tried and failed to find some rule I was breaking by doing so in order to punish me. I remember her hard stare, sizing me up, her unpleasant implications and concealed taunts, trying to get me to say or do something that would count as an infraction.

    I remember biking two miles every morning at 4:42 AM to reach my bus stop. I remember mornings where I would later learn that the bus had shown up half an hour early. I remember other mornings where the bus never showed up at all. I remember the crowded seats, the noise, the kicking and shoving, the spitballs and hurled rocks. I remember uneasy sleep and dozing against the window on the long ride to school. I remember arriving at the school and being made to sit on the unmoving bus for a further twenty minutes every morning, because we weren’t allowed off without a staff or faculty member supervising, but they never showed up on campus until then.

    I remember being treated like a criminal at worst, and an annoyance at best. I remember having no rights to speak of. I remember the cruelty, the stupidity, the hypocrisy, and the irresponsibility. I remember the emotional distance and the personal isolation. I remember being miserable, depressed, and hopeless. I remember finding small joys and triumphs in quietly breaking the rules and defying the system without rocking the boat. I remember congratulating myself for these little deviancies, because no one ever congratulated me for anything else, and because it helped keep me sane to think that I could have some small measure of control over my situation, however trifling.

    1. Yet still they witter sweet nothings like

      You are absolutely right that, for many kids, the traditional method works best.

      I would be fucking amazed if there ever lived a single kid for whom the traditional method actually. works. best.

      I suppose those who were easily broken early didn’t find it too bad on the whole, and nostalgia finishes the whitewashing.

      But not us. We remember. And our blood boils for those who suffer still.

      1. You really shouldn’t belittle the opinions of those who don’t believe what you believe, who didn’t experience what you experienced. A different opinion is a chance for you to learn something. Don’t scorn it. You don’t have to agree. But treating it with scorn is hiding your mind from the world.

        School didn’t work for me. I was a kid with undiagnosed ADD and an IQ of 140+. I thought I was nuts. My teachers thought I was lazy. A few thought I was cheating when I would score A’s on their tests after doing no homework. Another few were clever enough to squeeze a bit of effort out of a child who had given up on himself. Was this a failure of the system? Perhaps. But it is also unrealistic to expect an underfunded system filled with overworked people to fulfill the needs of every child. I was extremely bitter about education. But the knowledge I did gain (and I gained a lot despite my best efforts to shrug it off) was precisely because it was forced onto me. Left to my own devices, my wandering mind would have flitted from one flower to another.

        I eventually became a teacher, with the idea that I would change things. I left teaching five years later. Not because the system was flawed (though it is in many ways), but because I was flawed. I had a lot to offer the children. We read together and wrote books. I taught them chess. And we talked about the wonders of the universe. I’m sure I inspired them in many ways. But I didn’t have the organizational skills necessary to really track and analyze the educational needs of each child. I was doing them as much of a disservice as the system had done me. I was treating them as little versions of myself. I saw so many teachers working hard to differentiate their curricula to meet the needs of individual students. I wasn’t doing that. I failed, and I couldn’t do that to the kids. Plus, the pay really sucked and I was tired of living with my parents.

        My daughter has a wonderful mind. She needs the structure of school for the same reason that I did, and she thrives with it. But her education doesn’t end with school. My wife and I continue it at home. School gives her a chance to bring the mad monkey that is her brain under a little control when she needs to. Then I give that mad monkey time to play and explore. It is important for her to learn how to work when she needs to accomplish something. The world isn’t going to care that she needs to play. I care. My wife cares. And we make sure she does. But as parents, we also make sure she learns to control her desires, and objectively view her own needs and the needs of others.

        Anyway, I think I get where you are coming from, and I’m sorry your experience was so negative. But negative experiences are an opportunity to learn if you allow it. Growth can only be stifled if you give up on yourself. Children need strong parents to support them. That’s the key, in my opinion.

        1. But it is also unrealistic to expect an underfunded system filled with overworked people to fulfill the needs of every child.

          I merely posit that it’s unrealistic to expect such a system to meet the needs of any child.

          See my reply to aikimoe below.

      2. Well, I guess you really ought to be fucking amazed because it is an objective fact that some (though not all or even most) kids learn best with the traditional method.  And I say that as an ex-teacher who thinks no kid should be forced to learn in any style he or she doesn’t want.

        The whole point of alternative education approaches is that different kids learn in different ways.  I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the majority of kids learned best outside the arbitrary and bureaucratic requirements of the predominant paradigm.  But we shouldn’t ignore the needs of the kids who really respond well to that kind of structure.

        1. Oh, so every other conceivable possibility has been explored, that’s good to know. Because we see so much of that great work, R&D on developing human potential outside the purview of DARPA.

          Excuse me if my bitterness shows when I see such unimaginative endorsement of the status quo.

          What you said is akin to a Christian asserting that some interpretation or other of the Bible can actually hold water. Okay, I’ll grant it’s possible, but then again the chances are too infinitesimal to take at all seriously…

          But maybe we’re talking at cross-purposes? Let’s see… if by ‘traditional method’ you mean compulsory attendance at an institution where the folks we entrust our future to are paid like menial labourers and have to divide their attention amongst 20-30 kids at a time, and any kid who demands more than their allocated 1/25th of a shit is deemed a problem, then yes, your opinion has earned my scorn.

          If you consider the possible ROI in education, a general lack of imagination would appear to me to be the fundamental crime at the heart of this travesty. Too many people consider far too much of the reality they know as inevitable and immutable.

          1. By “traditional method,” I mean a teacher-led curriculum specifically designed to advance large numbers of kids at the same rate to the same goal.  As I said, I don’t think this method works for most kids, but there are some kids who love it and thrive in it.  That’s just a fact.  That you and I don’t care for that method is irrelevant to the fact that some kids do and do well with it.  They deserve as much as any kid to learn in the way that pleases them most.

            I do not believe in compulsory attendance.  I also don’t believe that teachers are or ever should be “folks we entrust our future to.”  I think teachers work best as facilitators and counselors for learning the things kids want to learn. I think that many teachers are underpaid and many are overpaid. I worked alongside both kinds for several years, though I’m unaware of any who are “paid like menial laborers.”

          2. Leaving the rest aside, you’re maintaining that ‘a teacher-led curriculum specifically designed to advance large numbers of kids at the same rate to the same goal’ is the best system for some kids.

            Oh wait, no you’re not, now you’re merely stating some kids love it and thrive in it.

            My assertion that such a system is inherently incapable of being optimal for anyone stands unmodified.

          3. My assertion that such a system is inherently incapable of being optimal for anyone stands unmodified.

            I’m not surprised, but I disagree. My position is that the method of learning that a child most enjoys is most likely the best method for that child.

            Your assertion requires that you, somehow, have come to know what every single child on the planet desires in their learning experience.

            I, alas, am not privy to such a superior understanding of the unknowable, and so I’ll defer to your power to read the minds of millions of children you’ve never met.

          4. My assertion only requires an understanding of the astronomical odds against fortuitously hitting on the perfect system this early in our collective development, with only a cursory attempt at refinement, in much the same way that any one religion’s claim to supreme truth invites derision.

            And it’s kinda funny how much that ‘perfect’ system resembles the inhuman wage slave factories it’s so obviously descended from.

            As long as there are significantly more than something like five students to every teacher (who incidentally should enjoy a status more on par with doctors), you can’t tell me this ‘perfect’ system is anything more than a glorified childminding service.

            I seem to recall a figure like $7 made for every $1 spent on education… well, at what point do diminishing returns kick in? Has anybody bothered to establish that? And why aren’t we pouring every available cent into such a great investment?

            I suspect education isn’t the real point of the exercise.

            Furthermore, if you consider some of the glowing testimony you’ve doubtless seen to the impact a single good teacher can make on a student’s life, perhaps you might not be so quick to minimise their potential role.

          5. There is no such thing as a perfect system.  There are only the different ways that kids like to learn.  Some kids love to learn in large groups.  Those kids learn a lot in those large groups, because they’re enjoying themselves.

            Kids will learn when they get to choose the way they learn.  And different kids will choose different methods.  It’s as simple as that.

            I didn’t minimize the value of a good teacher.  I’ve known too many amazing teachers and I’ve been lucky enough to work with some, too.  And none of them would think that their students’ futures were “entrusted to them.”  And none of them would be “entrusting their kids’ futures” to the teachers they sent them to.

            That doesn’t mean a teacher can’t have a life-long effect. It just means kids need to learn that their lives are in their own hands and that teachers are their to help them in any way they can.

  5. Discussions of education reform, unschooling, open schools and the like fill me with a mixture of deep frustration and sadness.

    Sadness that I didn’t have a chance to participate in something like that.

    Frustration, because I think it would be incredibly difficult to implement such a solution on any level beyond elite, expensive un-schools that highly motivated parents send their kids too. These institutions would work well because these same kids  are likely to have grown up in a learning-friendly, book-rich household.

    Implementing un-schooling and the like nation-wide would, I suspect, first require closing the income gap and an increased respect for literacy, science, and freedom of thought.

    1. Making un-schooling available, making any alternative to the rigid, ineffective, disrespectful methods used and endorsed by most leading politicians and education pundits only requires political will.

      There are too many people who have devoted their lives to meaningless “standards” and other mythical concepts in education.  Only when we can insist, demand that our local schools implement new, experimental, and individualized programs, while ignoring anything politicians say on the subject, will anything happen.

      It would actually cost a lot less than we’re currently spending, and there are too many people who think we’re not spending enough.

  6. The problem is, this assumes the purpose of schools is for children to learn. Only a fool would believe that. The purpose of school is to break childrens’ spirits, getting them to accept institutionalized authority and rigid time schedules, and to make them as docile and obedient as possible, preparing them for their lives as cubile serfs or stock clerks (factory jobs having since been outsourced). It is also to sort the most malleable, conformist and opportunistic from the herd so that they can be groomed for future leadership roles. Learning is just a side effect – and not a very good one at that. If learning were the true purpose, you would not have to force children to do it on penalty of law for eight hours a day. Nowadays, most schools today are just temporary holding pens for the unemployable prisoners of tomorrow.

    As George Carlin memorably put it, they want people who are just smart enough to do their jobs but not smart enough to question why they are doing them. Viewed from that vantage point, the current schooling system is an unqualified success. So tell me, why should anything change?

    1. It’s a neat trick, innit…

      Make reality so fucking incredibly heinous, and bam! There’s your plausible deniability.

    2. Actually, the “modern” public school system was championed by industrialists, like the then-Nazi Henry Ford.

      It was specifically and explicitly designed to “acclimate” more immigrant Americans to work on old-style factory assembly lines.  Hence, the bells, rigid time schedules, “assembly line learning,” etc.

      Factories have largely moved on from the Henry Ford days (team approaches, etc.) but schools (largely) have not.

      Further, a common aphorism in architecture schools is, “You design a school exactly like you’d design a prison.”  I spent years listening to promos on NPR for a local design firm, which bragged about how it had  designed this public school and that public school — and the state’s new maximum security prison.  

      Lastly, as an unschooling parent, I used to be regularly asked about my family’s homeschooling, by various education experts, with great excitement at the university where I worked.  As one would often say, “Well, the one thing we know about education is that everything we know about education… doesn’t work.”  So they loved to ask if we did this or that; I’d explain it was basically a Montessori approach, and our house was as much a library/museum/computer lab as it was anything else.  They loved it, and the questions continued over months/years.

      Until one day, the head of the state’s teacher union was there in the same meeting.  

      She listens politely as the questions and praise continue, blablabla, getting more red in the face, until finally she announces, “Well, homeschooling is well and good, but I don’t think that we should forget the one thing that public schools can provide that no one else can.

      “Free day care.”
      That was the end of the questions, at least in her company.  I am pleased to find that my kids are now at the tops of their programs in college.

  7. You want boredom? Try starting out every school day with a school-wide meeting in which all students and teachers sit still in one large room for ten minutes (twenty minutes if you’re in grades 9-12) while not speaking, writing or texting, and in fact doing absolutely nothing at all except perhaps idly staring out the window, contemplating your existence, and trying not to move or cough or otherwise draw unnecessary attention to yourself. Many thousands of students in Quaker schools have done it for hundreds of years without complaining because it was simply what was expected of them.

  8. I remember school being boring and confining, especially for kids like myself who weren’t ‘average’.

    I have a hard time blaming teachers and/or administrators, not least because my parents were both teachers and my father was an administrator for many years.  They brought passion and commitment to their jobs, but also struggled with paperthin budgets, endless re-structuring of the curricula (not always bad, but always after an election), absurdly large class sizes with kids who needed specific support but had no funding to get it.

    By the end of their careers they were exhausted, tapped out.  My mother had heart problems, my father was spiritually at his lowest point. 

    On the other hand, I didn’t fit into the school system at all.  The curriculum is aimed at the middle chunk of the bell curve.  Kids with challenges fall behind, get labelled and fall through the cracks.  “Over-intelligent’ kids get bored, act out, get labelled and fall through the cracks. 

    I got a lot of grief from an English teacher because I finished reading the entire year’s worth of stories and books by November and was reading novels in class.  He had me disciplined for not reading the specific three pages that were assigned on a particular day.  In Grade 10 I researched the exact minimum average I would need to get into college, then did exactly the right amount of work to get that grade on graduation (I thought I was so smart).  I ended up seeing the entire exercise as hoop-jumping training, and I still do.

    On the gripping hand, my 8 year old did terribly last year with a loose, open minded teacher who let the kids go at their own pace.  This year he is really excelling with an enthusiastic and excellent but very strict teacher who has clear expectations – something I always rebelled against. 

    Every kid is different.  My older son does well in a structured environment with clear expectations.  I suspect my younger son would do very well with a self-directed learning program, but we can’t home school him because that means someone at home and we need to work in order to home-feed him.

  9. I’ve always admired (well, for the last 10 years) the alternative Swedish approach to education, eg:

    I’ve read other articles about how they mix the ages up, older kids mentor younger etc.  Swedish people usually seem balanced, smart, self-reliant and capable.

    I’ve got two kids in school now; they’re at an outstanding primary that subscribes to the mores of unstructured education, and they’re batting well above my averages for their ages.  I was fortunate enough to cruise elementary school with high grades – assisted no doubt by my vivid imagination and experimentation gifted to me by my artistic and creative mother.

    My big beef horsemeat is that so many of my compatriots were so bright and quick, yet during high school they switched off and learned … nothing.  Great school, but utterly failed them, and did so quite happily.

    My behaviour wasn’t perfect, mostly down to family ructions, but I was again lucky enough to fall in with the right crowd of teachers, who assisted flexibly whenever they could.

    But the system is full of vicissitudes, and come the grand discussions over university applications etc, the dark-cloaked, concealed and shadowy background characters played havoc with my intentions, taking their revenge.  They’d never enjoyed that someone like me could function so well in their system – I really didn’t fit the mold.

    So it’s vital that the education network not only educate, but prepare and act as a springboard into the next phase of life, by supporting and helping people understand what might make them happy.

  10. mark, i would love to hear what you think about this a little more. in your book you kind of lead me to believe that the math tutoring you did with your daughter failed against the metric of her test score, however, was a big win regarding your relationship…

  11.  I see in this and the earlier post on design-your-own high school, nothing is said about which kids do better where.
    My wife teaches in a small, private, inner-city school. New teachers come in full of these hot new methods, and fail dramatically. They either wash out or learn that the theories are largely wrong–actually just limited to small populations, really.
    Most of the educational theories are tested either in Psyc101 students required to participate in research studies for class points, rats, or lab schools. The lab schools are largely (not entirely) comprised of professor’s kids who are extremely bright and have incredibly rich and supportive surroundings. These kids do very well in unstructured settings, since they already have a wealth of metaknowledge and haven’t learned that “school ain’t fun”.
    When generalized to kids who enter kindergarten not knowing that grass is green and the sky is blue (real examples from my days as a school psychologist), who have no real support at home; these methods fail dismally. My wife tried to teach middle-school math to kids who don’t know their math facts. Enter new principle who did the unpopular, traditional approach of raising standards and requiring work and participation. Five years later, 8th graders are doing algebra and gaining acceptance (with full scholarships) to top private high schools. Most learn to do their 10 min of homework in 10 min instead of 6 hours and spend the rest playing.
    Now, it’s way more easy and fun to learn to read at your parent’s knee as they read copiously to you; to learn math facts in silly games with Mom and Dad (we replaced the color cards for Candyland with addition/subtraction cards in 1st grade–WAY more fun for all). But barring, that; it’s boring drill in school.
    We taught our child tons at home, but also taught her how to learn and do well in public school. This is possible and essential for kids bright, average and slow.
    And another thing . . .this post is already way too long, no one’s going to want to read it.    :-) 

    1. I read it and found it informative!

      You’re absolutely right that these methods can’t work for certain kinds of kids from certain backgrounds.

      I think the value they bring comes from addressing the fact that most kids get some support from home and that there lots and lots of kids for whom programs like the Independence Project would make school a more positive experience.  

      And let’s remember that there are millions of kids who absolutely hate going to school, and it’s not because they simply haven’t learned to enjoy it yet.  It’s precisely because of the experiences like the ones described by Eldritch above.  There are even lots of kids who do well in school, but who hate the experience.

      (As far as “doing well in public school,” what is the metric for that?  Test scores?  Happiness?  “Success” after school?  These are huge and largely subjective topics in and of themselves.)

      I think that if a kid says, “I hate school and I hate what they make me do and I don’t want to do well there,” the problem isn’t with the kid.  The problem is that we, as adults and educators, haven’t examined our own expectations for these individuals and to what degree they have a role in how and what they choose to learn.

  12. When I went to school, I was eleven. I had been in a mix of homeschooling, and schooling in Greek, a language I didn’t understand, up until that point. This was more “childcare” than schooling, in that the teacher would ignore me, and I, him.

    When I entered school at eleven, I was either top of the class, or at least in the top ten percent, at english, math, woodwork, the sciences, geography, and most other topics, than those who had been doing those. I was good at those sports which were non-competitive and non-team-based (swimming). My first day in french class, a subject I had never studied, the teacher was giving a test. I got full marks, because, at eleven, the schools are just starting to teach those terms that are considered general knowledge to those of us who live in the real world: “Bonjour, je m’appelle Marie” etc.

    In most of these topics, I feel I have advanced only a little, since then.

    There were topics I was not as good at, because they *do* require concerted training. Music. Team sports. Social skills. These are the things that schools are good for, if the child has the desire to learn them.

  13. Very interesting article, excerpt, and comments. 

    I will integrate it into my theories of education. 

    If anyone is interested, I started a company that uses live action role playing (larp) for learning. We are just starting, but looking to roll out a few of our games (curriculum) via Kicktarter in a few months. 

    Seekers Unlimited:

  14. I would be curious to know to what extent this book winds up in the same ballpark as the Montessori approach.  Anyone know?  (N.B. I’ll confess that I consider Montessori to be a hero.)

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