|Why Don't Students Like School?
|by Peter Gray, Ph.D.
"It was at home I learned the little I know. Schools always appeared to me like a prison, and never
could I make up my mind to stay there, not even for four hours a day, when the sunshine was inviting, the
sea smooth, and when it was joy to run about the cliffs in the free air, or to paddle in the water."
- Claude Monet
Someone recently referred me to a book they thought I'd like. It's a 2009 book, aimed toward teachers of
grades K through 12, titled Why Don't Students Like School? It's by cognitive scientist Daniel T.
Willingham, and has received rave reviews by countless people involved in the school system. Google the title
and author and you'll find pages and pages of doting reviews and nobody pointing out that the book totally and
utterly fails to answer the question posed by its title.
Willingham's thesis is that students don't like school because their teachers don't have a full
understanding of certain cognitive principles and therefore don't teach as well as they could. They don't
present material in ways that appeal best to students' minds. Presumably, if teachers followed Willingham's
advice and used the latest information cognitive science has to offer about how the mind works, students would
Talk about avoiding the elephant in the room!
Ask any schoolchild why they don't like school and they'll tell you. "School is prison." They may
not use those words, because they're too polite, or maybe they've already been brainwashed to believe that
school is for their own good and therefore it can't be prison. But decipher their words and the translation
generally is, "School is prison."
Let me say that a few more times: School is prison. School is prison. School is prison. School is prison.
School is prison.
Willingham surely knows that school is prison. He can't help but know it; everyone knows it. But here he
writes a whole book entitled "Why Don't Students Like School," and not once does he suggest that
just possibly they don't like school because they like freedom, and in school they are not free.
I shouldn't be too harsh on Willingham. He's not the only one avoiding this particular elephant in the
room. Everyone who has ever been to school knows that school is prison, but almost nobody says it. It's not
polite to say it. 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? How could our democratic government, which is founded on principles of freedom
and self-determination, make laws requiring children and adolescents to spend a good portion of their days in
prison? It's unthinkable, and so we try hard to avoid thinking it. Or, if we think it, we at least don't say
it. When we talk about what's wrong with schools we pretend not to see the elephant, and we talk instead about
some of the dander that's gathered around the elephant's periphery.
But I think it is time that we say it out loud. School is prison.
If you think school is not prison, please explain the difference.
The only difference I can think of is that to get into prison you have to commit a crime, but they put you
in school just because of your age. In other respects school and prison are the same. In both places you are
stripped of your freedom and dignity. You are told exactly what you must do, and you are punished for failing
to comply. Actually, in school you must spend more time doing exactly what you are told to do than is true in
adult prisons, so in that sense school is worse than 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. 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
As a society we could, perhaps, rationalize forcing children to go to school if we could prove that they
need this particular kind of prison in order to gain the skills and knowledge necessary to become good
citizens, to be happy in adulthood, and to get good jobs. Many people, perhaps most people, think this has
been proven, because the educational establishment talks about it as if it has. But, in truth, it has not been
proven at all.
In fact, for decades, families who have chosen to "unschool" their children have been proving the
opposite. Children who are provided the tools for learning, including access to a wide range of other people
from whom to learn, learn what they need to know - and much more - through their own self-directed play and
exploration. There is no evidence at all that children who are sent to prison come out better than those who
are provided the tools and allowed to use them freely. How, then, can we continue to rationalize sending
children to prison?
I think the educational establishment deliberately avoids looking honestly at the experiences of
unschoolers because they are afraid of what they will find. If school as prison isn't necessary, then what
becomes of this whole huge enterprise, which employs so many and is so fully embedded in the culture?
Willingham's book is in a long tradition of attempts to bring the "latest findings" of psychology
to bear on issues of education. All of those efforts have avoided the elephant and focused instead on trying
to clean up the dander. But as long as the elephant is there, the dander just keeps piling up.
Every new generation of parents, and every new batch of fresh and eager teachers, hears or reads about some
"new theory" or "new findings" from psychology that, at long last, will make schools more
fun and improve learning. But none of it has worked. And none of it will until people face the truth: Children
hate school because in school they are not free. Joyful learning requires freedom.
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.
© Peter Gray, Reprinted with permission of the author.
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