Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Freedom to Learn

Peter Gray has been writing a series of articles called Freedom to Learn, on the Psychology Today blog. He covers this topic from every conceivable angle - how we evolved to learn, our innate craving for freedom, the young child's rage to learn, the contradiction posed by a coercive 'learning' environment like school, ... In today's post, he repeatedly calls school prison.

At some level of their consciousness, everyone who has ever been to school knows that it is prison. How could they not know? But people rationalize it by saying (not usually in these words) that children need this particular kind of prison and may even like it if the prison is run well. If children don't like school, according to this rationalization, it's not because school is prison, but is because the wardens are not kind enough, or amusing enough, or smart enough to keep the children's minds occupied appropriately.

But anyone who knows anything about children and who allows himself or herself to think honestly should be able to see through this rationalization. Children, like all human beings, crave freedom. They hate to have their freedom restricted. To a large extent they use their freedom precisely to educate themselves. They are biologically prepared to do that. That's what many of my previous posts have been about (for an overview, see my July 16, 2008, post). Children explore and play, freely, in ways designed to learn about the physical and social world in which they are developing. In school they are told they must stop following their interests and, instead, do just what the teacher is telling them they must do. That is why they don't like school.

I agree with just about everything he writes. And yet ...

Here's my reply to his article:

Like Mark [who wrote the one reply before mine], I didn't personally experience school in such a negative way. I liked going to school. I especially liked learning math, which was not something anyone I knew did outside of school. I also liked being in an environment that was predictable. My parents were loving and alcoholic (still are) - there was the gift of lots of freedom at our house, along with the trauma of being screamed at sometimes for little or no reason. School was calm, and had its routines.

I objected to some of those routines. I stood up for the pledge, so I wouldn't be punished, but I thought about every word, and decided which parts I would choose not to recite. I got out whatever book we were currently working from, but I put another book inside, to read at my own pace. I was terribly embarrassed when I was called on while my mind was far away, but that didn't stop me. My addiction to reading got me through school still thinking. (I also recognize that I was damaged by school. I love to sing, but for years I thought I couldn't sing. I knew I sang badly when I was young, and music class didn't teach me to sing better, it just made me embarrassed. Math class probably functions that way for many kids.)

Like Mark I used to think, "Just give me harder classes, and get me away from bozos who don't want to learn." But as a teacher, I've seen that many of the students who act up in class are very smart, and do want to learn, but feel the same inner demand for freedom that made me read my own books. That particular strategy just doesn't work for them.

If school weren't required for every child, rigorous classes could kick out anyone not playing by the rules. (In karate class, for example, which most kids join freely, disrupters will be asked to leave.) But because school is a requirement for all children, that's not possible.

Peter, I love what you write, and I want to agree with all of it, but I think you're oversimplifying some parts of this. School is not the only thing wrong with our modern society, and we can't throw out schooling without changing other things first (or maybe at the same time). Parents living in difficult urban areas will tell you their kids are much better off in school than on the streets. Many people who come from low socio-economic situations will tell you that education is their hope for their children's escape. Many children, already damaged by coercive parenting and homes where thinking for yourself is considered dangerous, would use the freedom they crave in self-destructive ways.

I love math and I want to share that love. So I teach. Mainly I teach at college level, so the students are not coerced in the same ways you describe.* But they feel coerced still, and bring much of their baggage from their K-12 years with them.

If you've read Deborah Meier's book, The Power of Their Ideas, I'd like to know what you think of it. She created a school in Harlem that was (and is) part of the public schools, but works in a way that is much more respectful of each child. But it's not at all like the Sudbury schools. When I heard her speak (years ago), she was quite clear that kids were not in charge. She compared her school to a family. I think there must be contradictions even at her school, but it at least addresses the issue of class. I'd love to read a conversation between the two of you.

* The Kaplan's have performed some real magic. In their math circles, they've created a non-coercive environment where they get to work together with the children, doing some deep mathematics.


  1. Dear Math Mama,
    Thank you for this really thoughtful comment on my blog post. Would you be willing to post it also in the comments section of my blog? Your sentiment is something for which I have a lot of sympathy (believe it or not). I'd like others to see it and have a chance to respond, and I'd like to respond to it too in the context of others' thoughts.
    Best wishes, -- Peter Gray

  2. refreshing to see such frankness
    in such a mainstream source;
    thanks for finding this.

    here's a more-or-less-obligatory
    (to me) reference to j.t. gatto's
    underground history.

    none of this will ever effect *policy* of course...

  3. @Peter: I wrote this over at your blog, and then copied it here. (Hmm, I see it never posted. Strange. Copying back over there now...)

    @vlorbik: I'm still a dreamer. I'll hope it can affect policy somehow.

  4. Someone on another forum asked about one of my statements. (She didn't quote me fully though...) Here's my reply:

    >I just want to ask about your comment that some children would, "use the freedom they crave in self-destructive ways".

    You are right to question me on that, but I don't know if I can explain myself well. I think everyone craves freedom. But I also think our culture is messed up in many ways, and some kids who've already been damaged will lash out. I think the school functions as a backup family in a way, and offers many kids a haven.

    If we start with a family where both parents must work to make ends meet, and neither parent reads much (no habit of enjoying it, and little time), and the TV is on because it keeps the kids quieter so the parents can get a few things taken care of, and then we add that the kids are angry about something that is not quite right in their family, I can imagine parents who are good people, struggling, and kids whowon't have the resources for learning available in their families. Kids who are focused on a peer culture that's dominated by corporate ads and attempts to be different that just play into corporate hands. I see good people who need school, or something like it, to offer their kids a space where learning is what is supposed to come first. (I guess how we see this partly depends what we're more afraid of, the government or the corporations.)

    Sometimes adults make decisions for kids. Some people may be radical enough in their unschooling philosophy to be sure this isn't necessary. Now that I'm a parent, I'm not sure of anything. I sometimes forbid things (sugar, screen time, hitting) and sometimes require things (bedtime, tooth-brushing). I'm not sure I'm right, but I've done my best to only forbid and require when it seems necessary to me. If my son has to come to the store and the library with me, is that prison? I think it was useful for Peter to call school a prison, but not completely accurate. He got people thinking (although some just reacted), but we can go deeper if we recognize that schools are imperfect but sometimes helpful.

    I'm a single parent, working full-time. I do not homeschool. My son goes to a 'freeschool' (not Sudbury, since there isn't one close), where he is required to go to 1 1/2 hours of class in the 6-hour school day. The rest of the day, he chooses what to do. If he really doesn't like going to a class, I can say we are doing it at home (it would be true, we play with math and literacy all the time), and he can get out of it. (I helped write that policy.) I don't think that would be good for him, so I'm pressing for him to go to class, but we do have that out. This school isn't exactly what I would have created, but it's so great in so many ways. Here's my fantasy, my ideal school. (If the link doesn't come though, it's at I see I didn't mention whether kids are forced to go to any classes or not.

    If public schools were small enough, maybe they could be as flexible as my son's school. Read The Power of Their Ideas to get a sense of how schools could be really great.

    Thanks for pushing me to think this through further. :^)

  5. "We all tiptoe around this truth, that school is prison, because telling the truth makes us all seem so mean. How could all these nice people be sending their children to prison for a good share of the first 18 years of their lives?" - Children are coerced by their parents in so many situations that to single out this one institution (school) does not seem fair. I'd like to ask the broader question: "How could all these nice people be forcibly, without choice, sending their children to nannies/relatives/daycares, performing medical procedures on them, selecting food, clothing and media for them for the first 18 years of their lives?"

    That's because people aren't "nice" in this sense at all. The amount of coercions routinely going on around us is astonishing, if one cares to look. Schools are just industrial answers to this demand for systematic coercion (and yes, restriction of freedom) of kids. Schools are NOT mandatory in any state. The responsibility for any child ever being in a school is on guardians of kids who use coercion, including coercive institutions.

  6. Cogent analysis, Maria. Of course, many of the parents who coerce their kids because they see no other choice (sometimes that's me) will be confused. If I work full-time and have no extra money, how could I possibly do anything other than put my child in school?


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