I never liked school right from grade 1 through to grade 12. I don’t think I was unique, but I think my dislike of school was of greater magnitude than most students. So after I graduated from high school, I declared to my mother, “I’ll never go to school again.” Dead-end, unfulfilling work post-school led me to violate my declaration with the approval of my parents. University was a different world. There were few overbearing professors harping at me to attend classes and do my homework. Much of my study was self-directed, and my learning and grades were more-or-less up to me.
Psychology professor Peter Gray, who writes a radical blog on learning, has pondered what it is about schooling that turns off learners. In his book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life (Basic Books, 2013) Gray identifies what turns off the natural curiosity of so many children.
Gray points to the “anti-play attitude” and an excessive emphasis on testing and grading, which he argues is antithetical to learning, something known by many people who read the literature on pedagogy.
Gray goes back to hunter-gatherer societies and notes the freedom children had to play, explore, and learn – a learning that was not negligible. Schools, Gray tells us, are prisons, where children are forced into age groupings, deprived of freedoms and choice in play and study.
Hunter-gatherer societies, on the other hand, valued autonomy, sharing, and equality – values that are antithetical to the capitalist system. The hunter-gatherer societies embraced anarchistic ideals, so the notion of a preeminent leader, as is the situation in the teacher-student classroom dynamic, was absent.
Play in hunter-gatherer societies helped children learn the central values of the society. Gray contends that hunter-gatherer ways of learning would be equally successful in present day society. This could be achieved by moving away from the top-down system of learning and allow for freedom to play and learn.
At least one such form of schooling already exists. Gray introduces the Sudbury Valley schools. It sounds like a school that Henry David Thoreau would have lauded, as would most anarchists.
Free to Learn describes the power of play and its role in stimulating curiosity. However, it is not just learning that is favored. Bigger spin-offs of learning through play include reduced stress, ADHD becoming relatively a non-issue, bullying being a non-issue, and happier children.
Gray notes that graduates of the Sudbury schools go on to lead successful lives; they become doctors, engineers, open businesses, and are very skilled in social settings.
Anyone who cares about learning should read Free to Learn. Gray’s book is a compelling and easy read; if everyone would read it with an open mind, a wholesale revolution in education (right through to university) would be the inevitable outcome.