Book Review & More: “Free To Learn” by Peter Gray [Utah Political Summary]

For the vast majority of the first 60 years of their lives, nearly every person in the United States is intimately involved in our country’s public education system. You enter when you’re 5 years old (or sooner, in some places) and leave when your 18. If you become a teacher or administrator, you re-enter a scant 4 years later to remain for, potentially, the next 40 years. If you do not become a teacher or administrator, you likely reengage after a 5-15 year hiatus, when your children enter the system and then remain directly involved for at least the next 20 years. Given the ubiquity of exposure to, and involvement in, public education, it’s no wonder it’s a nearly $1 trillion industry (second only to healthcare) and is supported by a vast tax and bonding system.

And yet, despite the massive annual investment of human and economic capital, there are few people involved in public education who don’t consider themselves to be reformers of one stripe or another. The universality of the “reformer” self-designation is a tacit acknowledgment of the glaring failures of the system to which we are so committed.

Fixing Education.

Everyone wants to “fix” education, and reforms are being proposed — at the state and federal level — constantly. Utah is no exception. As of today, there are 53 active  bills categorized under “Education” before the state legislature for the 2014 general legislative session.  There are an additional 44 open bill files yet to be officially presented.  But reform efforts center around the same-old same-old:   teacher salaries, smaller class sizes, year round schooling, all-day kindergarten, infrastructure and technology improvement, new standards, and vouchers/private/charter schools, with the occasional constitutional protest over the involvement of the federal government in education sprinkled in for flavor.

We’ve been talking around these reforms for the last 50 years, and, if anything, the education system — to the extent it can be assessed by objective indicators — has consistently worsened over that time (with some individual exceptions, of course).  But, despite the results, we persist because we are committed to the idea of a free, good education for all children — and especially our own.

I’m as flummoxed by the whole thing as everyone else, especially as I’m not one that spends his days studying the latest educational techniques or technologies or reviewing the latest research on classroom and student psychology.

But I recently read a book about education that captured my attention like no other book I’ve read for a long time, and suggested to me that there may be a glaring oversight from policymakers and educational advocates, that while not a silver bullet (despite being raised on old Lone Ranger Saturday night radio rebroadcasts, I don’t really believe in silver bullets) could nonetheless be a major component to any solution.

Free to Lean: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.

The book is titled Free to Learn, written by Peter Gray, a Psychology Professor at Boston University and blogger about educational freedom for Psychology Today, and it’s focused on unlocking the potential of children through play and self-directed learning.

Gray begins with a longing retrospective about the good old days, in which children were given freedom to roam, learn, and play:

We were so independent, we were given so much freedom.  But now it’s impossible to imagine giving that to a child today.  It’s one of the great losses as a society.  It’s not just a great loss, it’s a tragic and cruel loss.  Children are designed, by nature, to play and explore on their own, independently of adults.  They need freedom in order to develop; without it they suffer.  The drive to play is a basic, biological drive.  Lack of free play may not kill the physical body, as would lack of food, air, or water, but it kills the spirit and stunts mental growth.

We are pushing the limits of children’s adaptability.  We have pushed children into an abnormal environment, where they are expected to spend ever greater portions of their day under adult direction, sitting at desks, listening to and reading about things that don’t interest them, and answering questions that are not their own and are not, to them, real questions.  We leave them ever less time and freedom to play, explore, and pursue their own interests.

To Gray, what is actually happening in America’s public schools (and, to a greater or lesser extent, the public schools of every other nation) is antithetical to the process of education we should actually be promoting.

He starts with the premise that the entire purpose of education is to prepare a child to live and function within his or her culture, to prepare children to exercise their God-given freedom in a manner consistent with the rights of others and to participate in the governance of a functioning society.  Full stop.  No benchmarks or minimum standards.  No need for assessing a child or a teacher based on whether a naturally-inclined musician can calculate the hypotenuse of a triangle or a naturally-inclined scientist can name the capitols of all 50 states.

Gray believes that children, like adults, learn best through doing.  And how, primarily, do children “do”?  By playing:

Play is a concept that fills our minds with contradictions when we try to think deeply about it.  Play is serious, yet not serious; trivial yet profound; imaginative and spontaneous, yet bound by rules and anchored in the real world.  It is childish, yet underlies many of the greatest accomplishment of adults.  From an evolutionary perspective, play is nature’s way of ensuring that children and other young mammals will learn what they must to survive and do well.  From another perspective, play is God’s gift that makes life on earth worthwhile.

Children, Gray observes, enter the world with a burning desire to learn, a desire that never goes away, but tends to be suppressed in many students in the compulsory educational environment:

Children come into the world burning to learn.  They are naturally curious, naturally playful, and they explore and play in ways that teach them about the social and physical world to which they must adapt.  They are little learning machines.  Within their first four years or so they learn, without any instruction, unfathomable amounts of skills and information.  They learn to walk, run, jump, and climb.  They learn to understand and speak the language of the culture into which they are both, and with that they learn to assert their will, argue, amuse, annoy, befriend and asks questions.  They acquire an incredible amount of knowledge about the world around them.  All this is driven by their inborn instincts and drives.  Nature does not turn off this enormous desire and capacity to learn when children turn five or six.  We turn it off with our system of education and schooling.  The biggest, most enduring lesson of school is that learning is work, to be avoided when possible, not joyful play as children would otherwise believe.

Gray goes on to identify Seven Sins of Public Education, which, he is quick to acknowledge, are not new insights or the fault of teachers (who are more aware of the problems than most):

  1. Denial of liberty without just cause and due process: “We incarcerate children because of their age.  This is the most blatant of the sins of forced education, and it provides the foundation for the others.”
  2. Interference with the development of personal responsibility and self-direction:  “Today the typical twelve-year-old in a middle-class suburb is not trusted to babysit or even walk home from school unaccompanied by an adult.  . . . By confining children to school and other adult-directed school-like settings, and by filing their time with forced busywork, which serves no productive purpose, we deprive them of the time and opportunities they need to practice self-direction and responsibility.  And so, children themselves, as well as their parents and teachers, come to think that children are incompetent.”
  3. Undermining of intrinsic motivation to learn (turning learning into work):  “When students are evaluated for their learning and are compared with other students, as they constantly are in school, learning becomes not only work, but a source of anxiety. . . . A fundamental psychological principle is that anxiety inhibits learning.  Learning occurs best in a playful state of mind, and anxiety inhibits playfulness.”
  4. Judging students in ways that foster sham, hubris, cynicism, and cheating: “One of the tragedies of our system of schooling is that it teaches students that life is a series of hoops that one must gets through, by one means or another, and that success lies in others’ judgments, rather than in real self-satisfying accomplishments.  Many people manage to get off that track, or partly off it, once they leave school and begin to experience more freedom.  But too many others never get off it; they are perpetually like students, constantly more interested in impressing others than in real achievement.  These are the ones who continue to  cheat — in science, business, law, politics, or whatever career they pursue.  For them, the habit of cheating that was cultivated in school remains for a lifetime.”
  5. Interference with the development of cooperation and promotion of bullying:  “Bullying occurs in all institutions where people who have no political power and are ruled in top-down fashion are required by law or economic necessity to remain in that setting.  It occurs regularly, for example, in adult as well as in juvenile prisons. . . . Should we be surprised to discover that some of our schoolchildren respond to forced confinement and dictatorial governance in the same manner as adult prisoners or Chinese peasants?  By segregating children by age, by caging them in so they can’t avoid those who harass them, by indoctrinating them in a setting where competition and winning — being better than others — are the highest values, and by denying them any meaningful voice in school governance, we establish the breeding grounds for bullying.”
  6. Inhibition of critical thinking: “Presumably one of the gray general goals of education is the cultivation of critical thinking.  But despite all the lip service that educators devote to it, most students learn to avoid thinking critically about their schoolwork.”
  7. Reduction in diversity of skills and knowledge:  “In the real world, outside of school, diversity in personality as well as in knowledge is valued. Part of the task of growing up is to find niches that best fit one’s personality.  In the modern school classroom, however, there is only one nice, and those whose personalities don’t fit are seen as failures, or as suffering from a ‘mental disorder.” . . . The great majority of such diagnoses are initiated by complaints from schoolteachers.  Think of it!  Twelve percent of boys — one out of every eight — have been labeled as mentally disordered because of inability or unwillingness to attend for long periods to schoolwork that they find boring.  That by itself is a sin.”

Gray’s interest in play and self-directed education resulted from his own experience with his oldest son, who by age 9, had rebelled so against the public education system, that he told his parents and school administrators to “Go to Hell!” during the latest in a series of educational interventions.  That outburst prompted Gray to look for alternatives to conventional public education, and his search led him to the Sudbury School, an experience in self-directed educational learning.

Free to Learn discusses the Sudbury philosophy in depth and tracks (anecdotally) the experiences of a number of its graduates.  I’ll leave the details of method to the book itself, but, suffice it to say, that at Sudbury there is no curriculum beyond what the child wants to learn.  Children are provided with resources, and instruction to the extent they desire it.  They are free to go off campus for learning opportunities in an unrestricted manner after age 13, and in a restricted manner (i.e., accompanied by another student) after age 8.  There is no testing.  There are no standards for admission.  There is no segregation of students based on age.  The philosophy is that, as a necessary byproduct of pursuing their own interests, children will learn — and anxiously learn — the necessary prerequisites.  The educator’s job is simply to facilitate and not to judge.  It’s a fascinating institution.  And for those who have further interest, there is a Sudbury model school located in Utah (one of only about 20 nationwide):  Sego Lily School in Murray.

Gray concludes his book on an optimistic note, convinced that, eventually, self-directed learning will be a significant, if not the primary, philosophy governing our public education system.  To get to that point, he encourages breaking out of the overprotective parenting mode that has become generally accepted in society:

If we value freedom and personal responsibility, we must respect our children’s rights to chart their own lives. Our ambitions cannot be theirs, and vice versa. The self-charting begins in infancy. To learn responsibility children must learn how to make their own decisions in the course of each hour, day, and year, and they can learn that only by practicing it. All loving, caring parents care about their children’s futures, so it can be hard not to try to control them. But the attempt at control defeats its goals. When we try to determine our children’s destinies, we prevent them from taking ownership of their own lives. When we try to pilot our children through the daily and weekly mazes of life, we prevent them from practicing their own piloting and learning from their own mistakes. When we offer our children advice they didn’t ask for and don’t need, we reduce the chance that they will ask us for advice when they do want and need it.

. . .

History tells us that when people see freedom as a viable option, they choose it. When adults see that coercive schooling isn’t necessary for success in the culture, they will find it hard not to choose freedom for their kids, and the kids themselves will demand it. Children will no longer buy the argument that schooling is bad-tasting medicine that must be endured because it is good for them. As more people leave the coercive school system, a significant bloc of voters will begin to demand that some of the public education money that’s been freed up be used to help support kids’ self-directed learning, to provide educational opportunities rather than coercion. Think of what could be done with even a fraction of the roughly $600 billion of taxpayer money that is current spent on coercive K-12 schools every year in the United States!

Gray is not a cautious reformer; he doesn’t want a return to the good old days of 1950.  Instead, he sees a future where significant portion of the nearly $1 trillion (his figure was $600 billion) of the investment in public education is channeled toward community centers created as environments for children’s self-directed learning, funded with resources for exploration, offering instruction when demanded, with  rules enacted and enforced democratically by a local board including students and adults of all ages — and such centers essentially replace public schools.

Some Thoughts.

I think there is much to recommend in Gray’s suggestions.  I’ll admit that I got quite excited while reading the book, and my excitement for his ideas hasn’t diminished.

That said, I’m not confident that his ideas can be implemented on a nationwide, systematic basis.  Indeed, that seems almost antithetical to the nature of what he is proposing.  Furthermore, there are children who do quite well in the public school system, or for whom it seems well-suited (like myself).  And our schools, even with their failings, generally do a good job of instructing those who are interested to learn, and exposing children to ideas that may interest them.  Not every child struggles there.  It’s likely Gray overattributes — both as to the negative effects of public schooling and to the positive effects of play; often, when you pick up a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail . . . .

But I think Gray deserves to be taken seriously, and think his ideas deserve experimentation and real consideration.  A private, Sudbury school-type model, absent school vouchers, will likely price most people out of the market.  But there’s really no reason that self-directed learning needs to happen inside a school environment.  And Senator Aaron Osmond is running a bill this session, SB39 that would make self-directed learning a viable option for homeschool parents, by eliminating curriculum requirements for homeschooling.  I hope it gets some consideration, because frankly, the people who will take advantage of this are not going to be deadbeat moms and dads, but parents genuinely invested in the learning of their children.

I’m anxious to see where it goes.  And I’ve love your thoughts on Free to Learn, the Sudbury Model, or education in general.

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