On a family vacation a few weeks ago, my older nephew's unhappiness with school was a major topic of conversation. His fifth grade teacher, it turns out, required all of the kids in class to read assigned books at the same rate—sprinting ahead was strictly forbidden. For a kid who just tested at the reading level of a high school senior, this was a pointlessly morale-killing rule that contributed to a very smart boy's growing discontent with school. Sixth grade is now underway, and so are parental negotiations for a more flexible approach toward education, or else a healthier venue, including home. It's with this experience in mind that I read research psychologist Peter Gray's all too accurate piece in Salon comparing modern schools to prisons—horrible, curiosity-crushing institutions that teach all the wrong lessons. His points are excellent in themselves, and provide a major insight into why the school choice debate is often so off-base.
Gray, a professor at Boston College, writes:
School is a place where children are compelled to be, and where their freedom is greatly restricted — far more restricted than most adults would tolerate in their workplaces. In recent decades, we have been compelling our children to spend ever more time in this kind of setting, and there is strong evidence (summarized in my recent book) that this is causing serious psychological damage to many of them. Moreover, the more scientists have learned about how children naturally learn, the more we have come to realize that children learn most deeply and fully, and with greatest enthusiasm, in conditions that are almost opposite to those of school.
Gray traces the history of modern schooling to "the Protestant Reformation, when schools were created to teach children to read the Bible, to believe scripture without questioning it, and to obey authority figures without questioning them." Former New York State teacher of the year John Taylor Gatto has also traced the history of schools as we know them, and blames the rigid, hierachical shape of traditional schools on Prussian models adopted by American progressives to shape immigrants into good, obedient worker bees. The two explanation are far from contradictory, and it's easy to see the resulting model, with set periods, age-separated classes and teaching to the lowest-common denominator as an exercise in control that is very much not designed to let individuals excel.
As Gray writes, "It’s no wonder that many of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs and innovators either left school early (like Thomas Edison), or said they hated school and learned despite it, not because of it (like Albert Einstein)."
Gray delves into alternative models of education common in cultures that have not adopted the rigid school structure as we know it. He also talks about encouraging experiments, including an interesting project in India.
Another researcher who has documented the power of self-directed learning is Sugata Mitra. He set up outdoor computers in very poor neighborhoods in India, where most children did not go to school and many were illiterate. Wherever he placed such a computer, dozens of children would gather around and, with no help from adults, figure out how to use it. Those who could not read began to do so through interacting with the computer and with other children around it. The computers gave the children access to the whole world’s knowledge — in one remote village, children who previously knew nothing about microorganisms learned about bacteria and viruses through their interactions with the computer and began to use this new knowledge appropriately in conversations.
Fortunately, we live in an era when the old, rigid school design is being challenged by alternatives. Homeschooling is booming (about four percent of kids nationally, and growing). So are charter schools, some (though not all) of which use different models of education, including increased flexibility and self-direction. Private school have long experimented with different approaches. Virtual schooling, public or private, can be used as a substitute for traditional a school or as part of an education experience pieced together from components that work for a given child.
To his credit, Gray doesn't suggest any one model as the "right" alternative to what most schools do now. Some kids—my other nephew, for example—seem to do well in some version of the structured environments of default-style schooling, others do well with self-directed programs, and some children need something else entirely. My son is thriving in a charter that gives a lot of individual attention and also encourages kids to explore their interests and push their limits. "Of course, not everyone is going to learn the same things, in the same way, or at the same time," he writes. "But that’s a good thing. Our society thrives on diversity. Our culture needs people with many different kinds of skills, interests and personalities."
Diversity has always been at the root of the movement for school choice—not a battle for resources as so many educrats and school union officials would have it. No matter what money you pour into a traditional school model, it's still a model that doesn't work for a huge number of children. Kids need to learn in the way that works for them. And parents need an opportunity to experiment, pick, choose and find what the right way is for their kids.