“Children are biologically predisposed to take charge of their own education.” So says psychologist Peter Gray in his recent new book, Free To Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.
Gray identifies evolutionary foundations of education and summarizes fascinating research. He raises pointed questions about how schools teach, and how we might better align schools with children’s instincts and tendencies. Free To Learn is an easy read in straightforward ideas and plain language. I recommend it to you.
From Free To Learn (and adapted from his earlier writings), here is Gray’s list of “Seven Sins of Forced Education.” The titles are Gray’s, but the rest is my paraphrased and abbreviated summary of his discussion.
Sin 2: Interference with the development of personal responsibility and self-direction. Confining children to adult-directed school not only deprives them of opportunities to become self-directed, but also establishes and reinforces the false belief that children are incompetent. Worse still, forced schooling promotes the breathtakingly false message that “If you do what you are told to do in school, everything will work out well for you.”
Sin 3: Undermining of intrinsic motivation to learn. Children are born burning to learn—veritable learning machines. Nature does not turn off children’s instincts and drives at age five or six, but forced schooling often does, turning learning into work and stripping it of its natural joy and satisfaction.
Sin 4: Judging students in ways that foster shame, hubris, cynicism, and cheating. Teachers rarely use physical punishment and open ridicule to motivate students today, instead relying on incessant testing, grading, and ranking. Feelings of shame and inferiority are associated with poor performance, and pride and superiority with better performance, but both arise from superficial values and senseless requirements. Some children take it tragically to heart, but the cynically savvy know it’s not real, and cheating is just part of the game.
Sin 5: Interference with the development of cooperation, and promotion of bullying. Forced competition, segregation of children by age, and lack of opportunities for free play work against development of cooperation, compassion, and nurturance at school. Practice of social navigation and its requirement of give-and-take negotiation is thwarted, and competitive cliques are promoted. For some children the result is brutal.
Sin 6: Inhibition of critical thinking. Despite educators’ lip service, most students learn to avoid thinking critically about schoolwork. To get a good grade, you figure out what the teacher wants you to say and then say it. “I don’t want to know why it works, I just want to know how to get the answer.” Tests and grades work against honest debate and critical thought.
Sin 7: Reduction in diversity of skills and knowledge. Forcing all children through the same standard curriculum—a tiny subset of important skills and knowledge—reduces their opportunities to follow other pathways. Given freedom, children develop passionate interests, work diligently to become experts, and then find ways to use their knowledge, skills, and passions to make a living and a life.
“Seven Sins” is bad news, but just one of ten rewarding chapters in Free To Learn. The good news is there, too: how schools can kick the bad habits, apply what we now know about human development, and free children to learn.