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
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
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 Why Schools Are What They Are: Forces Against Fundamental 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
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.