|Is Real Educational Reform Possible? If
|by Peter Gray
From the dawn of institutionalized schooling until now, there have always been
reformers who want to modify the way schooling is done. For the most part, such
reformers can be scaled along what might be called a liberal-conservative, or
progressive-traditionalist, continuum. At one end are those who think that children
learn best when they are happy, have choices, study material that is directly
meaningful to them, and, in general, are permitted some control over what and how they
learn. At the other end are those who think that children learn best when they are
firmly directed and guided, by authoritative teachers who know better than children
what to learn and how to learn it. Over time there has been regular back-and-forth
movement of the educational pendulum along this continuum. But the pendulum never
moves very far. Kindhearted progressives, viewed as softheaded by the traditionalists,
push one way for a while, and that doesn't work very well. And then hard-nosed
traditionalists, viewed as petrified fossils by the progressives, push the other way
for a while, and that doesn't work very well either.
|The pendulum never moves very far before it is pushed back in the other
direction, because neither type of reform works. Progressive policies, inserted into a
system in which children are still expected to learn a certain pre-specified set of
skills and body of knowledge, don't work because children on their own are unlikely to
choose to learn the specific curriculum that is expected of them. The no-nonsense
policies of the traditionalists have the advantage of making it clear to children what
they are expected to do and learn, but those policies don't work because they preclude
creative thought and most strongly interfere with children's natural ways of learning.
Children may learn the rote material needed to pass tests, but they don't remember it
or use it in daily life because it has no meaning to them.
Such back-and-forth nudging of the pendulum is the stuff of continuous debate and
of countless books written by professors of education. The people writing the books
and doing the nudging call themselves reformers, but these slight pushes are not real
What do I mean by real educational reform?
Real educational reform, as I see it, requires a fundamental shift in our
understanding of the educational process. It requires the kind of shift that I have
been advocating in the whole series of essays that constitute my blog, "Freedom
For starters, it requires that we abandon the idea that adults are in charge of
children's learning. It requires, in other words, that we throw out the basic premise
that underlies our system of schooling.
Essentially everyone involved in the educational enterprise - progressives as well
as traditionalists - holds strongly to the premise that adults are in charge of
children's learning. Progressive educators see teachers as clever manipulators of the
child's environment, setting things up and subtly directing so that children will play
the right games, explore the right questions in the right way, and learn the right
answers, ultimately so they can pass the tests (see Rousseau's Errors). Traditionalists aim for a more direct route to
imparting the right answers, without the games. Both sides believe that good learning
is a function of good teaching; they just disagree on what constitutes good teaching.
Both sides also believe that it is adults' responsibility to decide what children
should learn and to test children, in one way or another, formally or informally, to
be sure that they are learning the right things.
||The idea that children are and should be responsible for their own
learning is the thesis that runs through most of the previous essays of my blog.
Children come into the world intensely motivated to learn about the physical, social,
and cultural world around them; but they need freedom in order to pursue that motive.
For their first four or five years of life we generally grant them that freedom.
During those first few years, without any teaching, they learn a large portion of what
any human being ever learns. They learn to crawl and then to walk. They learn their
entire native language, from scratch. They learn the basic practical principles of
physics. They learn psychology to such a degree that they become experts in how to
please, annoy, manipulate, and charm the other people in their environment. They
acquire a huge store of factual knowledge. They learn how to operate the gadgets that
they are allowed to operate, even those that seem extraordinarily complex to us
They do all this on their own initiative, with essentially no direction from
adults. In fact adults can't stop children from learning all this, unless they shut
them away in closets. It is not just a few special "geniuses" or uniquely
self-motivated children who do this; all children do it, except a very few who have
real brain damage.
But then, at school age, we do the equivalent of shutting children into closets. We
force them into settings called "schools" where we deprive them of their
natural ways of learning, so they can't learn much on their own, and there we give
teachers the task of "teaching" them. So, of course, in those settings
whatever the child manages to learn is very much affected by the teacher. It's a
self-fulfilling prophecy. If you force children into settings where they can't learn
on their own, then learning is necessarily dependent on teaching.
Children learn wonderfully without anyone systematically or deliberately teaching
them, but yet, we adults do have, or should have, the responsibility of providing the
conditions that allow children to take charge of their own learning. Real educational
reform, in my view, is reform that provides those conditions.
The most important condition is freedom. To learn on their own, children need
unlimited time to play, explore, become bored, overcome boredom, discover their own
interests, and pursue those interests. To learn what they need to know to become
highly effective, productive, moral members of the larger society they also need a
rich environment within which to play and explore. By a rich environment I mean an
environment that brings them into meaningful contact with the valued tools, skills,
ideas, ethical principles, mores, and meaningful debates of the larger culture. Such
an environment is, among other things, an age-mixed environment, in which younger
children learn new skills and ideas by observing and interacting naturally with older
children and adults, and where older children learn to nurture and lead by interacting
with younger ones.
In hunter-gatherer bands, all of this was provided naturally, with no particular
effort, because children were automatically immersed in all of the activities of the
band (see The Wisdom of Hunter-Gatherers). The Sudbury Valley School and
other schools modeled after it have shown that it is possible, with some thought and
effort, to provide all this for children in our culture - at far less expense and
trouble than the current cost and trouble of public schools - with wonderful
educational consequences (see Lessons from Sudbury Valley). Many unschooling families, likewise,
have figured out ways to provide the sort of rich environment needed to allow their
children to educate themselves marvelously.
Real reform is not possible from within the existing conventional school system.
|My friend and colleague, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson,
uses the phrase "You can't get there from here "to refer to a basic
principle of evolution that applies to cultural evolution as well as biological
evolution. Organisms, whether they are biological organisms like dinosaurs or cultural
organisms like our compulsory schooling system, are capable of gradual evolutionary
change, but they are not infinitely capable of such change. Sometimes you just can't
get there from here. The existing structure is built in such a way that it cannot be
modified in ways necessary to produce a desirable, adaptive outcome. Dinosaurs reached
a point where they couldn't change to meet the new conditions of life, so they died
out, and their niches were replenished with new, highly adaptable little creatures
called mammals. Our system of compulsory schooling - which arose originally for
purposes of indoctrination and obedience training (see A Brief History of Education) - cannot be modified to serve
effectively the function of real education.
There is no way that gradual change in our current schooling system can result in
the kind of educational reform that I am calling real reform. The small steps in what
would seem to be the right direction, urged on by the progressive educators, fail
within this system. They fail because they don't work when taken one by one or just a
little at a time. A little "freedom" in a system where success is measured
by tests doesn't work, because free children don't choose to learn the test answers.
"Play" in a setting where children are segregated by age and are constrained
in what they can play at is not a particularly effective learning tool.
||Moreover, like the dinosaur, the schooling system has by now grown so
huge and cumbersome that it is refractory to forces for serious change. It is an
enormous economic enterprise, employing many millions of people whose self-interest is
to keep it going pretty much as it is. Since its customers are there by compulsion,
not choice, it senses little need to change to please the customers. Instead, it
operates for the self-interests of those who run it. And, because education has now
been compulsory for several generations, nearly everyone has gone through the system
and has difficulty imagining life without it. One thing that compulsory schooling
teaches very well is the mistaken belief that we need compulsory schooling in order to
For all these reasons and more, real reform within our existing school system is
not possible. (For more on this, see Why Schools Are What They Are: Forces Against Fundamental Change.)
Real reform will occur only when enough people walk away from the conventional
Most people today are convinced that our current compulsory school system, or some
version of it, is essential to education in our society. When they talk about reform,
they talk about nudges, one way or the other, of the pendulum. But a growing minority
think differently. These are the people who are walking away from the conventional
schooling system because, like me, they see no hope for effective change within that
system. Some of these people are choosing and even founding radically non-conventional
schools, along the lines of Sudbury Valley. Others are choosing homeschooling or
unschooling (essentially, homeschooling directed by the kids themselves), and many of
these people are getting together to create rich learning environments for their
children, such as Open Connections in Pennsylvania. These little schools and learning
centers are, right now, like the little mouse-like mammals of the late Mesozoic era,
scurrying about trying to avoid being stepped on and squashed by the dinosaurs. But
the future, I think, is theirs.
|Here is the scenario I envision for real educational reform in our
society. The trend for people to walk away from the conventional schooling system will
continue and will accelerate. It will accelerate because with each new person who
leaves the conventional system, the less weird that choice will seem to everyone else.
We are creatures of conformity, at least most of us are. Few of us dare to behave in
ways that seem abnormal to others. But as more and more people walk away from the
system, we will reach the point where everyone knows one or more families who have
made that choice, where everyone can see that the choice led to happier children, with
no loss at all in their chances for success in our society as they grow up. Gradually,
people will change their attitude. "Hey, it's not necessary to do schooling as it
is dictated by the conventional schooling system. You can play, explore, enjoy your
childhood, and learn in the process."
People will begin to understand that they have a choice. Which will they choose -
conventional schooling, where they must do as they are told, or freedom? What have
people always chosen when they truly understand that they have a choice between
freedom and dictatorship?
At some point in this process a tipping point will be reached. The number of people
choosing freedom for their kids will be so great that there will no longer be enough
public interest in the conventional schools to continue funding them. Instead, there
will be a clamor to develop good safe parks, craft centers, well-equipped libraries,
Sudbury-type schools where children can play and explore, and other excellent public
learning centers - places that provide rich opportunities for learning without
compulsion. These will cost far less than do our public schools. It is very expensive
to keep children in schools by compulsion, for the same reason that it is very
expensive to keep convicts in penitentiaries.
How long will it take for this to happen? I don't know, but I think we can hasten
the pace by working politically to create more freedom of choice in education. In some
states compulsory schooling and testing laws are such as to make it illegal to open a
Sudbury school or do unschooling or many versions of homeschooling. Some people,
with means to hire lawyers, find ways to get around this; but it is difficult
and many families find it impossible to do what they want to do. Let's work first and
foremost for freedom of choice in education, and then, as my capitalist friends like
to say, let's let the market decide. My money is on the mice.
comments and questions here
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.
Published on August 19, 2011 by Peter Gray in Freedom to Learn.
© Peter Gray, Reprinted with permission of the author.
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