By Peter Gray @ School is a prison — and damaging our kids – Salon.com
I am generally fascinated by alternatives to traditional schooling, not the edreformy types that really aren’t alternative in their fundamental approach or concept, but genuine departures from what is the typical school norm for most children.
Although I am a teacher in a traditional high school, I have long believed that school, as an institution, does not necessarily serve every student well. One need only consider certain special needs students or those that would be much happier in a vocational setting to understand what I am suggesting.
Despite being a bit of marketing for his recent book, Gray presents a rather sweeping idea about the possibility that our cultural conception of what school is might be more of the actual problem. This opinion piece makes the book sound a bit like the classic “It’s the system that needs to change” line. Yet there is always value in interrogating our institutions and why things are the way that they are. Here Gray takes on the more compulsory aspect of schooling.
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.
The latter part of this quotation is proving to be more and more accurate. However, I would argue that there are a lot of educators that recognize this and are making efforts to reconcile these differences within the existing meta-structure of schooling.
Unfortunately, there are certain aspects of schooling that have nothing to do with learning, like having a safe place for children to be supervised while parents work. That is at least a part of why and how schooling has evolved, albeit not necessarily the most important.
Still, against a rising tide of standards, high-stakes testing, and market-based edreforms, there are teachers who are making brave attempts to empower students with self-driven learning experiences. Of course there are limitations within the existing context, which I suspect is precisely what Gray is attempting to emphasize. Yet, I question some of his conclusions.
He clearly advocates the learning environment fostered by Sudbury Valley School, in Framingham, MA. Living and working in the Boston metro area, i have had a couple of remote brushes with the school, enough to make me curious and want to learn more. Unlike my experience growing up in the Midwest, there are considerably more private schools of all kinds in New England. However, Sudbury Valley is clearly different in a number of ways. Gray heralds some of those differences.
I’m convinced that Sudbury Valley works so well as an educational setting because it provides the conditions that optimize children’s natural abilities to educate themselves. These conditions include a) unlimited opportunity to play and explore (which allows them to discover and pursue their interests); b) access to a variety of caring and knowledgeable adults who are helpers, not judges; c) free age mixing among children and adolescents (age-mixed play is far more conducive to learning than is play among those who are all at the same level); and d) direct participation in a stable, moral, democratic community in which they acquire a sense of responsibility for others, not just for themselves. Think about it: None of these conditions are present in standard schools.
This is where my questions begin about his conclusions, although perhaps it is simply the phrasing in this short piece. i think it is rather inaccurate to suggest that none of those conditions exist in standard schools. There are knowledgeable adults working in standard schools that function more as helpers than judges, although this very idea is definitely under threat with the rising assessment culture. There is also age mixing, to some degree, in certain contexts, particularly in elective arts classes that accommodate students from multiple grade levels in the same section. Granted this age mixing is limited but there are other smaller examples too.
I realize that part of hawking a book, as well as ideas that are calling for radical change need to employ strident, dramatic, even hyperbolic, phrasing. So, I can cut Gray some slack, also because he is somewhat effective in piquing my curiosity.