Free-Range Education

Why do we still learn like this?

Lost in the endless debate about education is an unavoidable reality: Kids kind of hate school.

And for good reason. From age 5, kids are forced to sit down, shut up, and follow orders for the next 13 years. At the end of the day, they are judged and compared with each other based on their levels of compliance and rote memory.

By high school, students are either bored out of their minds, rebellious, or stressed out. Responding in kind to the pressures and requirements of school.

Not all students are totally miserable. They may love their friends and teachers, and even a few of their subjects. But coercion gets old fast. Most kids can’t wait for the end of the school day. Most kids live for recess or lunch, or summer break. Or graduation day, freedom at last.

Another unavoidable reality: Teachers kind of hate school, too.

Teachers are frazzled and frustrated. Overworked, underpaid, disrespected. Some take out their frustration on powerless kids. Others give up.

Not all teachers are miserable all the time. They may love their students, watching them learn new stuff. They may love their course material, or their colleagues. But most teachers resent the taxing of their personal time, the misbehavior or apathy of certain students, the outside efforts to influence what they do in the classroom, the existence of standardized testing.

Everyone seems to acknowledge that education is so important. Crucial. Yet everyone secretly knows that teachers are glorified baby-sitters, and the kids who do well in school are the ones who best play the game. Everyone knows you forget most of what you learn in school. Everyone knows that at least a majority of important life skills are learned outside the classroom walls.

So goes the “un-schooling” movement, which has captured my attention lately.

I’ve had this growing feeling that something is fundamentally wrong with the way we operate schools, so I tried to find a book on the history of education. Most of the books I found started with the assumption that public education, the standard quo, is the end-all, be-all. To make school better we need more money into more of the same. There are lots of versions of: History of the Ways Idiots Tried to Screw Up Public Education. And a few versions of: History of the Heroic Efforts to Improve Public Education.

One book challenged the core assumption. Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for LifeIn the book, developmental psychologist Peter Gray asks the original question: Why do we force kids to sit in rooms, packaged by age, shuffle them through pre-planned lessons, and then measure individuals against each other?

Gray looks at primitive societies to theorize about our evolved learning methods. In primitive societies, kids just play all the time. But their play imitates the adult behavior they see around them. In the process of growing up, without any formal lessons, children learn complicated sets of survival skills and cultural behaviors.

Play and fun. Our hardwired learning functions, which happen to be precisely what is stifled in school, so our kids can get to “work” at learning. Not only is play stifled in school, but “work” is brought home, killing even more opportunities for play and fun.

One example. In play, kids in primitive societies interact in all different age groups. The older kids nurture and protect younger kids and model behavior incrementally closer to adult behavior. In today’s structured learning environments, students interact in strict peer-groups, leaving them unprotected from bullies, unable to mimic more mature behavior, not required to nurture or protect younger kids.

The types of skills we need in modern society are drastically different from a hunter-gatherer society, but our hardwired learning functions are the same. Unfortunately, today’s coercive and highly controlled environments deprive kids of nature’s programmed curriculum of exploring curiosities.

The Sudbury Valley School is an example of the un-schooled philosophy taken seriously. They have no classes, no grades, no curriculum, no nothing. They have a bunch of resources like computers, books, fields, playgrounds, etc. And they let the kids roam, with adults present if they wish to interact or ask for any guidance with anything. But they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do. It’s truly free-range. Everything is self-directed by the students. If the students want a diploma, they arrange a thesis project with one of the staff members at the school. All decisions made by the school, even the hiring and firing of “teachers,” are done through a vote in which the students participate.

Apparently, the graduates of this school have done well in society, are currently studying in normal universities, doing perfectly well as professionals in all kinds of fields. Yes, even as doctors and lawyers.

Most educators and parents couldn’t tolerate this level of “un-control.” But it’s worth taking some time to reflect on that gut-reaction. Why do we feel the need to dictate our kids’ lives so completely? Are we worried they won’t learn how to do long division or format a five paragraph essay? That they won’t learn the capitals of all 50 states? That the entire school would sit around playing video games all day?

Why don’t we trust kids with the responsibility of freedom when, in other cultures and at different historical time periods, kids have shown the ability to embrace freedom and thrive?

Kids today are controlled more than ever before. They are also suffering from anxiety and depression, more than ever before. Our future world is more unpredictable than ever before. Maybe it’s time to let go a bit.

Personally, I hesitate to fully embrace this movement. It seems too radical. Too extreme on the opposite end. I like the idea of empowering students with more freedom, choice in their learning, and responsibility. But I still cling to the belief that kids today need more directed mentorship.

Either way, kudos for innovation. This is a genuine reform movement for a system in desperate need of change. The un-schooling folks are onto something better than the public-education stalwarts, who want to pour cash into a busted vehicle.


If you are interested in Gray’s take on the history of education, read a short blog post here: A Brief History of Education.


Author: Billy

High school teacher and blogger.

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