|Why Don't Students Like School?
|by Peter Gray, Ph.D.
"It was at home I learned the little I know. Schools always appeared to me like
a prison, and never could I make up my mind to stay there, not even for four hours a
day, when the sunshine was inviting, the sea smooth, and when it was joy to run
about the cliffs in the free air, or to paddle in the water." -
Someone recently referred me to a book they thought I'd like. It's a 2009 book,
aimed toward teachers of grades K through 12, titled Why Don't Students Like
School? It's by cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham, and has received rave
reviews by countless people involved in the school system. Google the title and author
and you'll find pages and pages of doting reviews and nobody pointing out that the
book totally and utterly fails to answer the question posed by its title.
Willingham's thesis is that students don't like school because their teachers don't
have a full understanding of certain cognitive principles and therefore don't teach as
well as they could. They don't present material in ways that appeal best to students'
minds. Presumably, if teachers followed Willingham's advice and used the latest
information cognitive science has to offer about how the mind works, students would
Talk about avoiding the elephant in the room!
Ask any schoolchild why they don't like school and they'll tell you. "School
is prison." They may not use those words, because they're too polite, or maybe
they've already been brainwashed to believe that school is for their own good and
therefore it can't be prison. But decipher their words and the translation generally
is, "School is prison."
Let me say that a few more times: School is prison. School is prison. School is
prison. School is prison. School is prison.
Willingham surely knows that school is prison. He can't help but know it; everyone
knows it. But here he writes a whole book entitled "Why Don't Students Like
School," and not once does he suggest that just possibly they don't like school
because they like freedom, and in school they are not free.
I shouldn't be too harsh on Willingham. He's not the only one avoiding this
particular elephant in the room. Everyone who has ever been to school knows that
school is prison, but almost nobody says it. It's not polite to say it. We all tiptoe
around this truth, that school is prison, because telling the truth makes us all seem
so mean. How could all these nice people be sending their children to prison for a
good share of the first 18 years of their lives? How could our democratic government,
which is founded on principles of freedom and self-determination, make laws requiring
children and adolescents to spend a good portion of their days in prison? It's
unthinkable, and so we try hard to avoid thinking it. Or, if we think it, we at least
don't say it. When we talk about what's wrong with schools we pretend not to see the
elephant, and we talk instead about some of the dander that's gathered around the
But I think it is time that we say it out loud. School is prison.
If you think school is not prison, please explain the difference.
The only difference I can think of is that to get into prison you have to commit a
crime, but they put you in school just because of your age. In other respects school
and prison are the same. In both places you are stripped of your freedom and dignity.
You are told exactly what you must do, and you are punished for failing to comply.
Actually, in school you must spend more time doing exactly what you are told to do
than is true in adult prisons, so in that sense school is worse than prison.
At some level of their consciousness, everyone who has ever been to school knows
that it is prison. How could they not know? But people rationalize it by saying (not
usually in these words) that children need this particular kind of prison and may even
like it if the prison is run well. If children don't like school, according to this
rationalization, it's not because school is prison, but is because the wardens are not
kind enough, or amusing enough, or smart enough to keep the children's minds occupied
But anyone who knows anything about children and who allows himself or herself to
think honestly should be able to see through this rationalization. Children, like all
human beings, crave freedom. They hate to have their freedom restricted. To a large
extent they use their freedom precisely to educate themselves. They are biologically
prepared to do that. Children explore and play, freely, in ways designed to learn
about the physical and social world in which they are developing. In school they are
told they must stop following their interests and, instead, do just what the teacher
is telling them they must do. That is why they don't like school.
As a society we could, perhaps, rationalize forcing children to go to school if we
could prove that they need this particular kind of prison in order to gain the skills
and knowledge necessary to become good citizens, to be happy in adulthood, and to get
good jobs. Many people, perhaps most people, think this has been proven, because the
educational establishment talks about it as if it has. But, in truth, it has not been
proven at all.
In fact, for decades, families who have chosen to "unschool" their
children have been proving the opposite. Children who are provided the tools for
learning, including access to a wide range of other people from whom to learn, learn
what they need to know - and much more - through their own self-directed play and
exploration. There is no evidence at all that children who are sent to prison come out
better than those who are provided the tools and allowed to use them freely. How,
then, can we continue to rationalize sending children to prison?
I think the educational establishment deliberately avoids looking honestly at the
experiences of unschoolers because they are afraid of what they will find. If school
as prison isn't necessary, then what becomes of this whole huge enterprise, which
employs so many and is so fully embedded in the culture?
Willingham's book is in a long tradition of attempts to bring the "latest
findings" of psychology to bear on issues of education. All of those efforts have
avoided the elephant and focused instead on trying to clean up the dander. But as long
as the elephant is there, the dander just keeps piling up.
Every new generation of parents, and every new batch of fresh and eager teachers,
hears or reads about some "new theory" or "new findings" from
psychology that, at long last, will make schools more fun and improve learning. But
none of it has worked. And none of it will until people face the truth: Children hate
school because in school they are not free. Joyful learning requires freedom.
Peter Gray, Ph.D., a research
professor of psychology at Boston College, is a specialist in developmental and evolutionary
psychology. He is the author of an introductory textbook, Psychology,
and Free to Learn, a book
about children's natural ways of educating themselves, and how adults can help (Basic Books,
2013). For more information and articles, visit his blog Freedom to Learn.
© Peter Gray, Reprinted with permission of the author.
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