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Is Real Educational Reform Possible? If So, How?

From the dawn of institutionalized schooling until now, there have always been reformers who want to modify the way schooling is done. For the most part, such reformers can be scaled along what might be called a liberal-conservative, or progressive-traditionalist, continuum. At one end are those who think that children learn best when they are happy, have choices, study material that is directly meaningful to them, and, in general, are permitted some control over what and how they learn. At the other end are those who think that children learn best when they are firmly directed and guided, by authoritative teachers who know better than children what to learn and how to learn it. Over time there has been regular back-and-forth movement of the educational pendulum along this continuum. But the pendulum never moves very far. Kindhearted progressives, viewed as softheaded by the traditionalists, push one way for a while, and that doesn't work very well. And then hard-nosed traditionalists, viewed as petrified fossils by the progressives, push the other way for a while, and that doesn't work very well either.

The pendulum never moves very far before it is pushed back in the other direction, because neither type of reform works. Progressive policies, inserted into a system in which children are still expected to learn a certain pre-specified set of skills and body of knowledge, don't work because children on their own are unlikely to choose to learn the specific curriculum that is expected of them. The no-nonsense policies of the traditionalists have the advantage of making it clear to children what they are expected to do and learn, but those policies don't work because they preclude creative thought and most strongly interfere with children's natural ways of learning. Children may learn the rote material needed to pass tests, but they don't remember it or use it in daily life because it has no meaning to them.

Such back-and-forth nudging of the pendulum is the stuff of continuous debate and of countless books written by professors of education. The people writing the books and doing the nudging call themselves reformers, but these slight pushes are not real reforms.

What do I mean by real educational reform?

Real educational reform, as I see it, requires a fundamental shift in our understanding of the educational process. It requires the kind of shift that I have been advocating in the whole series of essays that constitute my blog, "Freedom to Learn".

For starters, it requires that we abandon the idea that adults are in charge of children's learning. It requires, in other words, that we throw out the basic premise that underlies our system of schooling.

Essentially everyone involved in the educational enterprise - progressives as well as traditionalists - holds strongly to the premise that adults are in charge of children's learning. Progressive educators see teachers as clever manipulators of the child's environment, setting things up and subtly directing so that children will play the right games, explore the right questions in the right way, and learn the right answers, ultimately so they can pass the tests (see Rousseau's Errors). Traditionalists aim for a more direct route to imparting the right answers, without the games. Both sides believe that good learning is a function of good teaching; they just disagree on what constitutes good teaching. Both sides also believe that it is adults' responsibility to decide what children should learn and to test children, in one way or another, formally or informally, to be sure that they are learning the right things.

The idea that children are and should be responsible for their own learning is the thesis that runs through most of the previous essays of my blog. Children come into the world intensely motivated to learn about the physical, social, and cultural world around them; but they need freedom in order to pursue that motive. For their first four or five years of life we generally grant them that freedom. During those first few years, without any teaching, they learn a large portion of what any human being ever learns. They learn to crawl and then to walk. They learn their entire native language, from scratch. They learn the basic practical principles of physics. They learn psychology to such a degree that they become experts in how to please, annoy, manipulate, and charm the other people in their environment. They acquire a huge store of factual knowledge. They learn how to operate the gadgets that they are allowed to operate, even those that seem extraordinarily complex to us adults.

They do all this on their own initiative, with essentially no direction from adults. In fact adults can't stop children from learning all this, unless they shut them away in closets. It is not just a few special "geniuses" or uniquely self-motivated children who do this; all children do it, except a very few who have real brain damage.

But then, at school age, we do the equivalent of shutting children into closets. We force them into settings called "schools" where we deprive them of their natural ways of learning, so they can't learn much on their own, and there we give teachers the task of "teaching" them. So, of course, in those settings whatever the child manages to learn is very much affected by the teacher. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you force children into settings where they can't learn on their own, then learning is necessarily dependent on teaching.

Children learn wonderfully without anyone systematically or deliberately teaching them, but yet, we adults do have, or should have, the responsibility of providing the conditions that allow children to take charge of their own learning. Real educational reform, in my view, is reform that provides those conditions.

The most important condition is freedom. To learn on their own, children need unlimited time to play, explore, become bored, overcome boredom, discover their own interests, and pursue those interests. To learn what they need to know to become highly effective, productive, moral members of the larger society they also need a rich environment within which to play and explore. By a rich environment I mean an environment that brings them into meaningful contact with the valued tools, skills, ideas, ethical principles, mores, and meaningful debates of the larger culture. Such an environment is, among other things, an age-mixed environment, in which younger children learn new skills and ideas by observing and interacting naturally with older children and adults, and where older children learn to nurture and lead by interacting with younger ones.

In hunter-gatherer bands, all of this was provided naturally, with no particular effort, because children were automatically immersed in all of the activities of the band (see The Wisdom of Hunter-Gatherers). The Sudbury Valley School and other schools modeled after it have shown that it is possible, with some thought and effort, to provide all this for children in our culture - at far less expense and trouble than the current cost and trouble of public schools - with wonderful educational consequences (see Lessons from Sudbury Valley). Many unschooling families, likewise, have figured out ways to provide the sort of rich environment needed to allow their children to educate themselves marvelously.

Real reform is not possible from within the existing conventional school system.

My friend and colleague, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, uses the phrase "You can't get there from here "to refer to a basic principle of evolution that applies to cultural evolution as well as biological evolution. Organisms, whether they are biological organisms like dinosaurs or cultural organisms like our compulsory schooling system, are capable of gradual evolutionary change, but they are not infinitely capable of such change. Sometimes you just can't get there from here. The existing structure is built in such a way that it cannot be modified in ways necessary to produce a desirable, adaptive outcome. Dinosaurs reached a point where they couldn't change to meet the new conditions of life, so they died out, and their niches were replenished with new, highly adaptable little creatures called mammals. Our system of compulsory schooling - which arose originally for purposes of indoctrination and obedience training (see A Brief History of Education) - cannot be modified to serve effectively the function of real education.

There is no way that gradual change in our current schooling system can result in the kind of educational reform that I am calling real reform. The small steps in what would seem to be the right direction, urged on by the progressive educators, fail within this system. They fail because they don't work when taken one by one or just a little at a time. A little "freedom" in a system where success is measured by tests doesn't work, because free children don't choose to learn the test answers. "Play" in a setting where children are segregated by age and are constrained in what they can play at is not a particularly effective learning tool.

Moreover, like the dinosaur, the schooling system has by now grown so huge and cumbersome that it is refractory to forces for serious change. It is an enormous economic enterprise, employing many millions of people whose self-interest is to keep it going pretty much as it is. Since its customers are there by compulsion, not choice, it senses little need to change to please the customers. Instead, it operates for the self-interests of those who run it. And, because education has now been compulsory for several generations, nearly everyone has gone through the system and has difficulty imagining life without it. One thing that compulsory schooling teaches very well is the mistaken belief that we need compulsory schooling in order to learn.

For all these reasons and more, real reform within our existing school system is not possible. (For more on this, see Forces Against Fundamental Educational Change.)

Real reform will occur only when enough people walk away from the conventional school system.

Most people today are convinced that our current compulsory school system, or some version of it, is essential to education in our society. When they talk about reform, they talk about nudges, one way or the other, of the pendulum. But a growing minority think differently. These are the people who are walking away from the conventional schooling system because, like me, they see no hope for effective change within that system. Some of these people are choosing and even founding radically non-conventional schools, along the lines of Sudbury Valley. Others are choosing homeschooling or unschooling (essentially, homeschooling directed by the kids themselves), and many of these people are getting together to create rich learning environments for their children, such as Open Connections in Pennsylvania. These little schools and learning centers are, right now, like the little mouse-like mammals of the late Mesozoic era, scurrying about trying to avoid being stepped on and squashed by the dinosaurs. But the future, I think, is theirs.

Here is the scenario I envision for real educational reform in our society. The trend for people to walk away from the conventional schooling system will continue and will accelerate. It will accelerate because with each new person who leaves the conventional system, the less weird that choice will seem to everyone else. We are creatures of conformity, at least most of us are. Few of us dare to behave in ways that seem abnormal to others. But as more and more people walk away from the system, we will reach the point where everyone knows one or more families who have made that choice, where everyone can see that the choice led to happier children, with no loss at all in their chances for success in our society as they grow up. Gradually, people will change their attitude. "Hey, it's not necessary to do schooling as it is dictated by the conventional schooling system. You can play, explore, enjoy your childhood, and learn in the process."

People will begin to understand that they have a choice. Which will they choose - conventional schooling, where they must do as they are told, or freedom? What have people always chosen when they truly understand that they have a choice between freedom and dictatorship?

At some point in this process a tipping point will be reached. The number of people choosing freedom for their kids will be so great that there will no longer be enough public interest in the conventional schools to continue funding them. Instead, there will be a clamor to develop good safe parks, craft centers, well-equipped libraries, Sudbury-type schools where children can play and explore, and other excellent public learning centers - places that provide rich opportunities for learning without compulsion. These will cost far less than do our public schools. It is very expensive to keep children in schools by compulsion, for the same reason that it is very expensive to keep convicts in penitentiaries.

How long will it take for this to happen? I don't know, but I think we can hasten the pace by working politically to create more freedom of choice in education. In some states compulsory schooling and testing laws are such as to make it illegal to open a Sudbury school or do unschooling or many versions of homeschooling. Some people, with  means to hire lawyers, find ways to get around this; but it is difficult and many families find it impossible to do what they want to do. Let's work first and foremost for freedom of choice in education, and then, as my capitalist friends like to say, let's let the market decide. My money is on the mice.

Peter Gray, Ph.D., a research professor of psychology at Boston College, is a specialist in developmental and evolutionary psychology. He is the author of an introductory textbook, Psychology, and Free to Learn, a book about children's natural ways of educating themselves, and how adults can help (Basic Books, 2013). For more information and articles, visit his blog Freedom to Learn.

Published on August 19, 2011 by Peter Gray in Freedom to Learn.
© Peter Gray, Reprinted with permission of the author.