By Peter Gray
August 26, 2013
Longer school years aren't the answer. The problem is school itself. Compulsory teach-and-test simply doesn't work.
Parents send their children to school with the best of intentions, believing that’s what they need to become productive and happy adults. Many 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 and/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.
School is a place where children are compelled to be, and where their freedom is greatly restricted — far more restricted than most adults would tolerate in their workplaces. In recent decades, we have been compelling our children to spend ever more time in this kind of setting, and there is strong evidence (summarized in my recent book) that this is causing serious psychological damage to many of them.
Moreover, the more scientists have learned about how children naturally learn, the more we have come to realize that children learn most deeply and fully, and with greatest enthusiasm, in conditions that are almost opposite to those of school.
Compulsory schooling has been a fixture of our culture now for several generations. It’s hard today for most people to even imagine how children would learn what they must for success in our culture without it. President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are so enamored with schooling that they want even longer school days and school years.
Most people assume that the basic design of schools, as we know them today, emerged from scientific evidence about how children learn best. But, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Schools as we know them today are a product of history, not of research into how children learn. The blueprint still used for today’s schools 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. The early founders of schools were quite clear about this in their writings.
The idea that schools might be places for nurturing critical thought, creativity, self-initiative or ability to learn on one’s own — the kinds of skills most needed for success in today’s economy — was the furthest thing from their minds. To them, willfulness was sinfulness, to be drilled or beaten out of children, not encouraged.
When schools were taken over by the state and made compulsory, and directed toward secular ends, the basic structure and methods of schooling remained unchanged. Subsequent attempts at reform have failed because, though they have tinkered some with the structure, 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, felt 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).
It’s no wonder that, today, even the “best students” (maybe especially them) often report that they are “burned out” by the schooling process. One recent top graduate, explaining to a newspaper reporter why he was postponing college, put it this way: “I was consumed with doing well and didn’t sleep a lot the last two years. I would have five or six hours of homework each night. The last thing I wanted was more school.”
Most students — whether A students, C students, or failing ones — have lost their zest for learning by the time they reach middle school or high school. In a recent research study, Mihaly Czikszentmihaly and Jeremy Hunter fitted more than 800 sixth- through 12th-graders, from 33 different schools across the country, with special wristwatches that provided a signal at random times of day. Whenever the signal appeared, they were to fill out a questionnaire indicating where they were, what they were doing, and how happy or unhappy they were at the moment.
The lowest levels of happiness, by far, occurred when they were in school, and the highest levels occurred when they were out of school playing or talking with friends. In school, 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 learning is unpleasant. We think of it as bad-tasting medicine, tough to swallow but good for children in the long run. Some people even think that the very unpleasantness of school is good for children, so they will learn to tolerate unpleasantness, because life after school is unpleasant. Perhaps this sad view of life derives from schooling.
Of course, life has its ups and downs, in adulthood and in childhood. 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 questions that are their own real questions, and goals that are their own real-life goals. In such conditions, learning is usually joyful.
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I have spent much of my research career studying how children learn. Children come into the world beautifully designed to direct their own education. They are endowed by nature with powerful educative instincts, including curiosity, playfulness, sociability, attentiveness to the activities around them, desire to grow up and desire to do what older children and adults can do.
The evidence for all this as it applies to little children lies before the eyes of anyone who has watched a child grow from birth up to school age. Through their own efforts, children learn 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 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 turn 5 or 6. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling. The biggest, most enduring lesson of our system of schooling is that learning is work, to be avoided when possible.
The focus of my own research 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 cultures, the kinds of cultures in which our species evolved.
I’ve also studied learning in our culture by children who are trusted to take charge of their own education and are provided with the opportunity and means to educate themselves. In these settings, children’s natural curiosity and zest for learning persist all the way through childhood and adolescence, and 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 most children did not go to school and many were illiterate. Wherever he placed such a computer, dozens of children would gather around and, with no help from adults, figure out how to use it. Those who could not read began to do so through interacting with the computer and with other children around it.
The computers gave the children 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 children 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.