Reading & Reacting: School is a prison — and damaging our kids

By Peter Gray @ School is a prison — and damaging our kids –

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.

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2 thoughts on “Reading & Reacting: School is a prison — and damaging our kids

  1. Peter Bergson

    Haas Learning’s response to Peter Gray’s piece is exemplary (and rare) in its moderate tone and rational responses to many of the major points made by Professor Gray. How refreshing! I hope to emulate his process in my response to his comments on the article. I shall also try to be uncharacteristically brief.

    1. Opening paragraph on Gray’s truly “alternative” perspective vs. the minor tweaks usually recommended by school reformers is right on. Gray goes to the very heart of what is wrong with the traditional form of schooling, which is the forced teach-em/test-em/get-em-out-the-door with or without a diploma process.

    2.Second paragraph, about the critical role that schools play with regard to child care, is also right on. I often ask people, “What do you think would happen if we discovered a way to accomplish all of the same levels of learning (or even better) through some revolutionary process which could be achieved in two days per week? Would we close schools the other three days and thereby reduce school taxes 60%? Hardly. As it is, parents in our local school district often call the superintendent and complain about snow days because now they have to pay for a sitter. I dare say, childcare is the #1 practical function of schools.

    3. Third paragraph: absolutely, yes, there are teachers who are genuinely helping to support self-directed learning. The classic examples, of course, get fired: James Herndon (“The Way It Spozed to Be”) and John Taylor Gatto (“Dumbing Us Down”, and the NYCity and State Teacher of the Year, for heaven’s sake!). Unfortunately (or not), many of the teachers who feel strongly about this–the cream of the crop–are now resigning in droves after beating their head against the system, against principals afraid of losing their jobs if test scores go down, etc. I’m sure Peter Gray would agree that there are exceptions to the rule; it is the rule that he is railing against, not these individuals.

    4. Paragraphs 3 & 4, with the intervening quotation from the article, are quite correct in saying that Dr. Gray has taken the position that “it is the system”, and that the system is, in fact, the result of (and, I daresay, the best method of perpetuating) our “cultural conception of what school is.” Going beyond that, I would say (and I think Dr. Gray would agree), schools have determined what our conception of what education is. This is Gray’s major point: that the school definition of education is wrong-headed, unnatural, not supported by either research as to how people learn best nor by our own experiences. Gatto has a conspiratorial explanation for how all of this happened: a way to train people to be willing to work in factories, with the losers on the line and the winners in management positions, all docile and all dependent upon the system.

    As for the fact that there are, indeed, people within the system who are critiquing it and constantly searching for ways to improve it–yes, this is true, and it has been so since compulsory schooling began. One could fill an entire library building with books that seek to improve the system from within, let alone those that seek to replace it. I daresay that this is one of the ways that the system is allowed to continue: to permit a measure of dissent, in order to appear self-correcting. But would Herndon, Herbert Kohl, John Goodlad, Paul Goodlad, John Holt, Nat Hentofff, and the hundreds and hundreds of others in the last 60 years alone see any progress whatsoever in the system as a whole? I hardly think so. In fact, ever since Clinton’s Goals 2000, followed by No Child Left Alive (sorry) and Race to Nowhere (sorrier still, as I had high hopes for Obama), the pace of decline has even increased.

    5. Final paragraphs: Mr. Haas again makes the point that there are (rare?) exceptions to the rules that Dr. Gray is challenging, and again, I’m sure Dr. Gray would agree with him of their existence and disagree with their overall effectiveness, except to the extent that they benefit the very few who experience them. We insisted that Toyota fix their accelerator problem even though the overwhelming majority of Toyota drivers never experienced it; why, when the percentage of “accidents” is so incredibly much higher in terms of how schools fail our children (see Kirsten Olsen’s brilliant “How Schools Wound” for details–and to see yourself!), why in the world don’t we acknowledge that we have a SYSTEM problem, despite the best efforts of thousands of well-intentioned people, that is severely damaging our youth and our society.

    Yes, it is unfortunate when an author seems to be “hawking” his book, as you suggest. If you can get over this hump and read the details of how this university researcher backs up his claims, I think you will understand his motivation for shouting “Fire” from the rooftops.

    1. Fred Haas - @akh003 Post author

      Mr. Bergson:

      Thank you so much for your excellent feedback on my response Professor Gray’s recent article. You were graciously thorough and wonderfully kind in your comments. More than anything, I really appreciate you taking the time to not only read but craft a response, as well.

      Gray’s article is obviously part marketing, but writing summary versions or in-depth portions are kind of how books are sold nowadays. Plus, an article like this is bound to simplify aspects of what is included in the longer work. Certainly, none of this stops me from being keenly interested in looking for his book. Your mention of the Kirsten Olsen book also makes my list now too.

      From your comments, I cautiously suspect you have either read it or have some kind of relationship with Professor Gray, perhaps both. Clearly, your educational work is a similar alternative, self-directed approach to traditional schooling that Gray is advocating. Open Connections looks fascinating, by the way. As I mentioned, despite being a teacher in a traditional high school, I am keenly interested in alternative methods, structures, and schools. I am also a parent of two children just beginning their education. So my interest doubles, as I try to remain aware of all the options that are available.

      Also, thanks for the wonderful list of references that you integrated into your response, some of which I am familiar and some of which are new to me. I look forward to investigating them further.

      Thanks again for your time and thoughts.



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