Is the American School System Damaging Our Kids?

Education has become an American institution—of the worst kind.

By Peter Gray from
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine January 2014

kids sitting by the lockersRichard Foulser/Trunk Archive
Parents send their children to school with the best of intentions, believing that formal education is what kids need to become productive, happy adults. Many parents do have qualms about how well schools are performing, but the conventional wisdom is that these issues can be resolved with more money, better teachers, more challenging curricula, or more rigorous tests. But what if the real problem is school itself?

The unfortunate fact is that one of our most cherished institutions is, by its very nature, failing our children and our society.

Children are required to be in school, where their freedom is greatly restricted, far more than most adults would tolerate in their workplaces. In recent decades, we’ve been compelling them to spend ever more time in this kind of setting, and there’s strong evidence that this is causing psychological damage to many of them. And as scientists have investigated how children naturally learn, they’ve realized that kids do so most deeply and fully, and with greatest enthusiasm, in conditions that are almost opposite to those of school.

Compulsory education has been a fixture of our culture now for several generations. President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are so enamored of it that they want even longer school days and years. Most people assume that the basic design of today’s schools emerged from scientific evidence about how children learn. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Schools as we know them today are a product of history, not of research. The blueprint for them was developed during the Protestant Reformation, when schools were created to teach children to read the Bible, to believe Scripture without questioning it, and to obey authority figures without questioning them.

When schools were taken over by the state, made compulsory, and directed toward secular ends, the basic structure and methods of teaching remained unchanged. Subsequent attempts at reform have failed because they haven’t altered the basic blueprint. The top-down, teach-and-test method, in which learning is motivated by a system of rewards and punishments rather than by curiosity or by any real desire to know, is well designed for indoctrination and obedience training but not much else. It’s no wonder that many of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs and innovators either left school early (like Thomas Edison) or said they hated school and learned despite it, not because of it (like Albert Einstein).

Most students—whether A students, C students, or failing ones—have lost their zest for learning by the time they’ve reached middle school or high school. In a telling research study, professors Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeremy Hunter fitted more than 800 sixth through 12th graders, from 33 different schools across the country, with special wristwatches that emitted a signal at random times of day. Each time they received a signal, the students filled out a questionnaire indicating where they were, what they were doing, and how happy or unhappy they felt at the moment. The lowest levels of happiness, by far, were reported when the children were in school, where they were often bored, anxious, or both. Other researchers have shown that, with each successive grade, students develop increasingly negative attitudes toward the subjects taught, especially math and science.

As a society, we tend to shrug off such findings. We’re not surprised that kids are unhappy in school. Some people even believe that the very unpleasantness of school is good for children, so they will learn to tolerate unpleasantness as preparation for real life. But there are plenty of opportunities to learn to tolerate unpleasantness without adding unpleasant schooling to the mix. Research has shown that people of all ages learn best when they are self-motivated, pursuing answers to questions that reflect their personal interests and achieving goals that they’ve set for themselves. Under such conditions, learning is usually joyful.

The evidence for all of this is obvious to anyone who’s watched a child grow from infancy to school age. Through their own efforts, children figure out how to walk, run, jump, and climb. They learn from scratch their native language, and with that, they learn to assert their will, argue, amuse, annoy, befriend, charm, and ask questions. Through questioning and exploring, they acquire an enormous amount of knowledge about the physical and social world around them, and in their play, they practice skills that promote their physical, intellectual, social, and emotional development. They do all of this before anyone, in any systematic way, tries to teach them anything.

This amazing drive and capacity to learn does not turn itself off when children reach five or six. But we turn it off with our coercive system of schooling. The biggest, most enduring lesson of our system is that learning is work, to be avoided when possible.

The focus of my own research—I’m a psychology professor at Boston College—has been on learning in children who are of “school age” but who aren’t sent to school, or not to school as conventionally understood. I’ve examined how children learn in cultures that don’t have schools, especially hunter-gatherer societies, the kind in which our species evolved. I’ve also studied learning in our culture by students who are trusted to take charge of their education. In these settings, children’s natural curiosity and zest for learning persist all the way through adolescence into adulthood.

Another researcher who has documented the power of self-directed learning is Sugata Mitra. He set up outdoor computers in very poor neighborhoods in India, where many children were illiterate and most did not go to school. Wherever he placed such a computer, dozens of kids would gather around and, with no help from adults, figure out how to use it. Those who could not read began to do so by interacting with the computer and with other children around it. The computers gave these young people access to the whole world’s knowledge—in one remote village, children who previously knew nothing about microorganisms learned about bacteria and viruses through their interactions with the computer and began to use this new knowledge appropriately in conversations.

Mitra’s experiments illustrate how three core aspects of human nature—curiosity, playfulness, and sociability—can combine beautifully to serve the purpose of education. Curiosity drew the kids to the computer and motivated them to explore it; playfulness motivated them to practice many computer skills; and sociability allowed each child’s learning to spread like wildfire to dozens of other children.

Next: What self-directed learning looks like »

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  • Your Comments

    • R Gilbert

      A little late to this fray, but here are my two cents:

      First, to quote Hillary Clinton, “It takes a village to
      raise a child.” Note that she did not say “It is the village’s job to raise
      your child” as so many modern parents have twisted her words into saying. (If
      you want to hate on Hillary, please don’t deny that the “village” could be just
      as easily interpreted as the World-Wide-Web, Sunday School, or Uncle Milt
      taking the kids for an airplane ride.) The village does not exist to do parents’
      jobs for them. It exists as a resource so that parents can do an even better
      job than they could had they only the average household teaching resources
      available to them. My wife, who does not have a teaching degree and no
      experience with math and English beyond high school, tutors children and
      college students in math and reading. Her biggest obstacle is parents who don’t
      parent but expect her to magically fix their kids’ learning problems.

      Second: in reference to the science involved in space travel
      and our current technological advancements, I would like to point out that
      ninety percent of the science behind the cell phone or computer on which you are
      viewing this was discovered before modern “science” began to revere evidence
      and statistical data with borderline religious fervor (the other ten percent
      was developed abroad). Since then we have seen study after study contradicting
      each other over every issue from dietary supplements to sub-atomic physics…but
      no real breakthroughs (of course, if anybody who reveres “Evidence” reads this,
      they will be challenged to heap their own flavor of agreeable statistics into a
      comment beneath this one). Still, with all those studies, what has changed? It’s
      like the joke I tell of Shroedinger’s wife (not his cat), who said “I have
      nothing to wear” and when he scientifically measured the contents of her
      closet, dismissed each blouse, gown, and skirt with reasons why it was not
      qualified as evidence (“can’t wear white after Labor Day,” for example).

    • Susan Raber

      Traditional schools could take a step in the right direction if they allowed children to progress at their own pace, instead of corralling them by chronological age. Making kids feel as if they are inferior because they aren’t moving along at the same developmental pace as other kids in their class who could be nearly a year older is obviously antithetical to everything we know about how kids learn and grow.

      I’m glad I have the freedom to educate my kids at home and let them move along at a pace that inspires and energizes them.

    • Elementary School Student

      I also think most students, especially in the United States, would not really discover such complex things on their own, but somehow it still makes sense. But I just don’t think that would really… yeah, you get the point.

    • Elementary School Student

      I happened to read this article today.
      I totally agree with this. Even though I love
      my school and it has a really great way of teaching and keeping kids safe, this
      article makes almost a complete amount of sense. I love my school as much
      (okay, maybe ALOMOST) as much as I love my home, but learning still has
      challenges, and most people in my class would probably agree that they are
      being pushed to hard to do work instead of out of their own curiosity.

      I was reading this excerpt for the first time, I found it hard to believe there
      are schools out there like Sudbury
      Valley. It sounded
      strange, not being taught like I am now. As boring as it can be sometimes, I
      think we need those times when we sit at our desks for hours at a time,
      listening to the teacher sort of drone on. Even so, we still listen because we
      know it will come up later, like in ugh, HOMEWORK.

      is not something I enjoy. If I wasn’t so “oh, school is too hard and so is
      our homework but if I don’t finish it I will get yelled at and have to mark the
      homework chart and be embarrassed and sad,” I would enjoy it if it was
      limited. But the one thing I can’t STAND is e-homework.

      I understand how tech is the new thing and all but in some cases, it is pure
      DUMBNESS. It’s bad enough that most schools have new ways to teach and are more
      focused on your work, but without the teacher who actually knows what to do and
      doing it for hours, as well as it is difficult and some students at my school
      don’t have available computers, it is really stressing and hard work.

      I still like my school as it is. I would just like it better if we all knew the
      best way to go through school, but this is not possible because people have
      decisions. And without decisions, I think our preferences, opinions and
      perspective wound not be as powered with no driven source.

      -Elementary School Student

    • William cooney

      It is essential for parents to create a healthy learning
      environment for their kids. it is imperative as it nourish urge of reading and
      learning in kids at early stage…i am a single parent having two kids. your article is very informative. my elder son has learn to read in early age n my younger daughter
      is in process. Homeschooling is important for enhancing positivity and
      creativity in kids. HOP is best program in this regard.

    • richard40

      I think these alternative schools work with some kids but not others. Some kids need structure, predictibility, and direction, while some need independence and autonomy. In the end private school vouchers may be best, and let the parents decide.

    • rose528

      if you research you will find that the nazi fascist party of NO(republicans) have been behind the reduction in the education of our children and if you research you will find a nazi fascist party of NO (republicans) governor in the states who continue to reduce the funds and education for our children

      • andycleary

        You didn’t really read the article, did you?

    • Okkenai

      We homeschool our children. We have the flexibility & freedom to learn when & where we like. Anyone taking the time to teach a child knows that spark of interest is key for them learning, otherwise it is a waste of everyone’s time. Homeschooling allows you to take advantage of that spark of interest & run with it. One of our children has an interest in mechanics & math, he takes apart toys & redesigns his own. He can calculate the price of sale items at the store & price of items w/tax, in his head – he’s 10. Another son writes & illustrates his own stories & makes his own board games. He’s read all the Harry Potter series & the Hobbit – he’s 8. Neither of these children would have had time to begin developing their natural interests if placed in public school. We have many friends w/children the same age in various schools, they are plagued with struggles in every subject, social issues that prohibit learning, school policies that they are unable to address, the list goes on and on. We are at a point where we have proof that the public education system has become a glorified daycare that passes the child onto the next grade without caring what or if they learn. As parents, we have to decide if a double income to have more material goods is worth our children’s chance at an education that will carry them into a successful future. In public school, education is too hit or miss for my liking, we’ve sacrificed many things to make homeschooling our children a priority. The bottom line for many folks is they just aren’t willing to trouble themselves to teach their own children, they’d much rather blame someone else for their children’s failures than do what they know in their own heart would be the right thing.

    • sukietawdry

      In these free-style schools where there’s an “unlimited opportunity to play and explore,” do the children teach themselves reading, writing and arithmetic much like those children in India?

      Don’t get me wrong, we need alternatives to the failure that is public education, but this seems just a little too transcendentalist to me and as you know, that educational approach failed in the long run. Further, childhood is not a democracy. There is behavior that not only should be discouraged, but actually punished when necessary. And other behavior that should be encouraged. Children need the freedom to be creative, but they are children, after all. They also need discipline and a guiding hand.

      • andycleary

        “There is behavior that not only should be discouraged, but actually punished when necessary.”

        Seriously, a little whipping now and then will leave some welts that will be good for everyone in the long run.

        “do the children teach themselves reading, writing and arithmetic”

        Not only that, but they learn that if they pull really hard on their shoes, they can actually start to lift themselves off the ground and fly!

        [Or maybe you should try understanding before forming an opinion. They don't *teach themselves*. They *direct* themselves. They are taught by learning materials like the internet and books, they ask questions of adults and older children, they learn science by doing experiments...]

        • LP

          Actually, math is a human invention and children will invent it. Reading on the other hand is like a language and must be learned from modeling. Writing is a hard one – most kid I know just teach themselves how to type – their writing is hardly legible.