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 »
In our culture today, there are many routes through which children can apply their natural drives and instincts to learn everything they need to know for a successful adulthood. More than two million children in the United States now base their education at home and in the larger community rather than at school, and an ever-increasing proportion of their families have scrapped set curricular approaches in favor of self-directed learning. These parents do not give lessons or tests, but they do provide a home environment that facilitates learning, and they help connect their kids to community activities from which they learn. Some of these families began this approach long ago and have adult sons and daughters who are now thriving.
My colleague Gina Riley and I recently surveyed 232 such families. According to these families’ reports, the main benefits of this approach lie in the children’s continued curiosity, creativity, and passion for learning, and in the freedom and harmony the entire family experiences when relieved of the pressures and schedules of school and the burden of manipulating kids into doing homework that doesn’t interest them. As one parent put it, “As an educator, I see that my daughter has amazing critical thinking skills that many of my adult college students lack … My daughter lives and learns in the real world and loves it. What more could I ask for?” But not every family has the ability, means, or desire to facilitate their children’s self-directed education at home. For many, a better option is a so-called democratic school, where kids have charge of their education in a setting that optimizes their opportunities and where there are many peers with whom to socialize and learn. (Such schools should not be confused with Montessori schools or other types of “progressive” schools that permit more play and offer more choices than standard schools but nevertheless maintain a top-down, teacher-to-student system of authority and a relatively uniform curriculum that all students are expected to follow.)
Over many years, I’ve observed learning at one such place, the Sudbury Valley School, in Framingham, Massachusetts. The students, who range in age from four to about 18, are free all day to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t break any of the school rules. These regulations, which have been created democratically by the children and staff together, have nothing to do with learning; they have to do with keeping peace and order. The school currently has about 150 students and ten staff members, and it operates on a per-child budget that is less than half that of the surrounding public schools. It accepts essentially all the students who apply and whose parents agree to enroll them.
Today there are about two dozen schools in the United States that are explicitly modeled after Sudbury Valley, and still others that have most of its basic characteristics. Compared with other private institutions, these schools charge low tuitions, and some have sliding tuition scales. Students come from a wide variety of backgrounds.
To people who haven’t witnessed it firsthand, it’s hard to imagine how such a school could work. Yet Sudbury Valley has been in existence for 45 years and has hundreds of graduates who are thriving in the real world.
Many years ago, my colleague David Chanoff and I conducted a follow-up study of Sudbury Valley graduates. We found that those who had pursued higher education (about 75 percent) reported no particular difficulty getting into the schools of their choice and doing well there once admitted. Some, including a few who had never previously taken a formal course, had gone on successfully to highly prestigious colleges and universities. As a group, regardless of whether or not they had pursued higher education, they were remarkably successful in finding employment. They had gone into a broad range of occupations, including business, arts, science, medicine, other service professions, and skilled trades. Most said that a major benefit of their Sudbury Valley education was that they had acquired a sense of personal responsibility and capacity for self-control that served them well in all aspects of their lives. Many also commented on the importance of the democratic values that they had acquired at the school. More recently, two larger studies of graduates have produced similar results.
Students in this setting learn to read, calculate, and use computers in the same playful ways that kids in hunter-gatherer cultures learn to hunt and gather. They also develop more specialized interests and passions, which can lead directly or indirectly to careers. For example, a highly successful machinist and inventor spent his childhood playfully building things and taking things apart to see how they worked. Another graduate, who became a professor of mathematics, had played intensively and creatively with math. And yet another, a high-fashion patternmaker, had played at making doll clothes and then clothes for herself and friends.
I’m convinced that Sudbury Valley works well because it provides the conditions that optimize children’s natural abilities to educate themselves. These include a) unlimited opportunity to play and explore, allowing them to discover and pursue their interests; b) access to caring and knowledgeable adults who are helpers, not judges; c) liberal age mixing among children and adolescents (age-mixed play is far more conducive to learning than is play among those who are all at the same level); and d) direct participation in a stable, moral, democratic community in which they acquire a sense of responsibility for others, not just for themselves. None of these conditions are present in standard schools.
I don’t mean to paint self-directed education as a panacea. Life is not always smooth, no matter what the conditions. But research in these settings—both mine and others’—has convinced me that the natural drives and abilities of young people to learn are fully sufficient to motivate their entire education. We don’t have to force them to learn; all we need to do is provide them with the freedom and opportunities to do so.
Of course, not everyone will learn the same things, in the same way, or at the same time. That’s good. Our society thrives on diversity. We need people with different skills, interests, and personalities. Most of all, we need people who pursue life with passion and who take responsibility for themselves throughout life.
This article covers research and ideas that are developed more fully in the author’s book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life (Basic Books, 2013).