If you set out to create an educational system with the goal of preventing people from acquiring the skills and knowledge needed to thrive in today’s world, you would create the modern schooling system.
Before they start school, children learn at a pace that is simply mind-blowing. They come into the world burning to learn and genetically programmed with capacities that make them the ultimate learning machines.
Just think of some of the skills and information a kid absorbs in their first few years of life: how to walk, run, jump, and climb. They become fluent in one, and sometimes multiple languages. They wield those language skills to assert their will, to argue, to ask questions, to make others laugh, to make friends, and to make sense of their social and physical environments.
And they do all this without a curriculum, without tests or grades, without semesters and periods, or any of the structure of school.
In fact, when we introduce that structure, children’s learning dramatically slows down. We turn off their desire to learn and their capacity to absorb what they learn.
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, Dr. Peter Gray tells the story of how his own child’s struggles with school provoked a shift away from neuroendocrinology, developmental psychology, and anthropology to now primarily focusing on children’s natural ways of learning and the life-long value of play. It began with a father wanting the best for his son, and eventually culminated with a book about the human nature of education.
I’ve summarized the book Free To Learn below because I want the information it contains to spread far and wide. These findings are critically important to everything from education, to parenting, to personal development, and far beyond.
I’ll focus on what I think are the most important, unusual, and powerful points from Gray’s message. Assume everything below is directly taken or paraphrased from the book, although I’ve tried to explain it in my own words. Any mistakes or misinterpretations are mine.
The Educative Instinct
Children are biologically predisposed to educate themselves. If you’ve ever seen a child left alone with an iPhone, you’ve seen how the core aspects of our human nature beautifully combine to drive self-education.
Just as we come wired with instinctive drives to eat and drink what we need to survive, we also come wired with instinctive drives to learn what we need to survive. These human educative drives—what a child uses to pick up an iPhone for the first time and quickly become fluent in its use —are curiosity, playfulness, and sociability.Curiosity drives the child to the apparatus. They want to know what it is, how it works, and what they might be able to do with it.
Playfulness drives the child to probe the apparatus. They hold it in front of their eyes, pass it from hand to hand, turn it over, rub it, shake it, squeeze it, drop it, pick it up, throw it, go get it. They are running little experiments, testing the apparatus’ properties and capabilities.
Sociability drives the child to seek out people to tell them all about this fascinating apparatus and how it works.
This playful exploration is punctuated by moments of surprise, focused concentration, joy, and even frustration. But it is not long before the child, without any instruction from adults, is clicking, swiping, navigating, downloading, playing Angry Birds, and watching Blippi.
They try to discover what the apparatus is, how it works, and what they can do with it.
Curiosity: The Drive to Explore and Understand
All species are wired, to varying degrees, to explore, to probe their environment, and to figure out what they need for survival. Driven by this curiosity instinct, animals acquire information about their surroundings, food sources, predators, escape routes, hiding spots, and safe places to sleep.
Most research on the human curiosity instinct has been conducted with children. In hundreds of studies, children have been found to gaze far longer at novel scenes than at familiar scenes. They look much longer at events that seem to defy the laws of physics than at those that abide by them. They lose interest in a toy as soon as there is nothing new to learn from it.
To try to understand the world around them, children are pulled like a magnet towards anything that runs counter to expectation. They are relentlessly curious about anything new they encounter in their environment.
Playfulness: The Drive to Practice and Create
The playfulness drive is perfectly complementary to the curiosity drive. After the curiosity drive leads the child to pick up the iPhone, the playfulness drive kicks in.
If the curiosity drive is what pulls us towards novel things, the playfulness drive is what pushes us to get more familiar with those things. Without curiosity, we wouldn’t seek out anything new. Without playfulness, we wouldn’t become adept at anything.
In a classic series of research studies, a team of developmental psychologists looked at the transition from curiosity and exploration to play and practice. The shift from exploration to play, they found, is one from a focused, serious facial expression to a more relaxed, smiling one. There’s also a shift in heart rhythm—from slow and steady during an exploratory state of intense concentration to variable during a playful and relaxed state.
From a biological and evolutionary perspective, play is nature’s way of ensuring children acquire the skills necessary for survival.
With this understanding of play’s biological purposes, we can make sense of the patterns of play across species. For instance, it explains why:
- Young animals play more than older animals. Younger animals play more because they have more to learn.
- Mammals play more than other classes of animals. Insects, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes come into the world with more or less fixed instincts. Because they don’t need to learn much to survive, they don’play much, if at all. Mammals, on the other hand, have more flexible instincts and to be effective, those instincts must be refined and shaped through play.
In other words, animals who don’t have much to learn are the least playful. Those whose surviving and thriving depends less on rigid instincts and more on learning are the most playful. (Interestingly, you can reliably predict what an animal will play at by knowing what skills it must develop to survive and reproduce.)
Sociability: The Drive to Share Information and Ideas
We are an intensely social species by nature.
Education, by Dr. Gray’s definition, is cultural transmission. It’s how each new generation of human beings, in any social group, acquires and builds upon the skills, knowledge, lore, and values of previous generations.
If there is no sociability, there is no education. If you eliminate sociability, you eliminate two of the most important forms of learning:
- Observation. In The Anthropology of Learning in Childhood by anthropologist David Lancy, who has studied learning in many societies throughout the world, asserts that “The single most important form of learning is observation.” In just about every society, children first learn about culturally relevant activities and skills by watching and mimicing their elders.
- Age mixing. Teaching and learning are bidirectional activities: the “teacher” and “learner” learn from each other. By interacting with younger children, older ones learn skills, acquire knowledge, and gain experience they otherwise wouldn’t. They gain a deeper understanding of concepts by teaching them to younger ones, which forces them to think about what they do or do not know.
We live in a social world. We cannot survive, and we certainly cannot thrive, without learning to cooperate with others.
The Sins Of Our Schooling System
Modern schools seem almost perfectly designed to turn off the instincts and drives that make children such natural learners. Our system of schooling is not made to encourage curiosity , playfulness, or sociability. It teaches, encourages, and rewards the opposite.
Schools kill the curiosity drive
The biggest most enduring lesson of school is that learning is work. The implicit and sometimes explicit message of our schooling system is, “Do what you are told.”
School is not a setting for exploration and discovery, but for indoctrination.
Through the forced nature of school, students learn to jump through hoops and check off boxes. Worst of all, they learn to silence their innate curiosity.
Schools kill the playfulness drive
In school, children are…
- Confined to a largely unchanging environment.
- Not free to pursue their own interests in self-directed ways.
- Continuously evaluated, and the concern for evaluation and pleasing the teacher overrides the desire to explore and practice, to discover and fail.
- Shown one and only one way to solve a problem and are led to believe that other ways are incorrect.
All of which is to say: playfulness is thwarted in school.
Dr. Gray cites the research of the developmental psychologist Susan Engel and her colleagues. In a study of kindergarten and fifth-grade classrooms in the United States, the researchers repeatedly observed that when children asked questions, they asked about rules and requirements – such as how much time they had to finish a task – not about the subject itself. Questions about the subject were asked almost entirely by teachers, and the students’ task was to guess at the answers the teachers were looking for. And when students did seem to show a spark of interest, the teacher often cut the interest off, so as not to fall behind on the assignment.
Who doesn’t have their own story of playing with something in the back of class before the teacher said, “Put that away and finish your work”?
And that is essentially what school is all about: the suppression of curiosity and playfulness so students can do what they’re told when they’re told to do it.
Schools kill the sociability drive
When students are evaluated for their learning and are compared with other students, as they constantly are in school, they learn to look out just for themselves and to do better than others.
You have the drive to share information and ideas? Don’t bring it into school. In school, sharing information and ideas is known as “cheating.” Besides, helping other students learn risks raising the grading curve and lowering the helper’s position on it.
School, in other words, teaches selfishness, not sociability.
Dr. Gray’s prediction is that within fifty years, today’s approach to schooling will be seen as a barbaric relic of the past. How did they land on a school system that runs counter to nearly every aspect of human nature?
In fifty years, Dr. Gray argues convincingly that schools all across the world will be modeled after a place called Sudbury Valley.
The Sudbury Valley Model of Education
Sudbury Valley is a private day school founded by Daniel Greenberg located in a semi-rural part of Massachusetts.
In the early to mid-1960s, Greenberg was a young professor at Columbia University. A rising star popular among students, Greenberg became disenchanted by his students’ motivations to get the highest grades they could while learning the least possible amount of the subject matter.
Unlike most educators, Greenberg saw this not as a problem with the students, but rather a problem with the educational system. Why, he wondered, couldn’t there be an educational system that helps students develop passionate interests and then pursue those interests?
So Greenberg resigned from his professorship and moved to the wilderness in the Sudbury River region of eastern Massachusetts to ponder and write about the nature of education. In his book The Crisis in American Education, he argued, “The educational system in our country today is the most un-American institution we have in our midst.” In a democracy, Greenberg asserts, a school should be a setting for exploration and discovery, not indoctrination.
So in 1968, Greenberg founded such a school: the Sudbury Valley School. For its first four decades in operation, Sudbury Valley was the best-kept secret in education. But the secret is getting out and today roughly three dozen schools throughout the world are modeled explicitly after Sudbury Valley.
The basic premise of the school’s educational philosophy is that each person is responsible for his or her own education. It follows that adults do not control children’s education; children educate themselves. The school establishes no curriculum, gives no tests, and does not rank or in other ways evaluate students.
- The school is a democratic community. The primary administrative body is the School Meeting, which includes all students and staff members and operates on a one-person-one-vote basis, regardless of the person’s age.
- The students are free. Students are free all day to move about the school buildings and ten-acre campus as they please and to associate with whom they please.
- The students are not assigned to grades or groups. There are no “first graders,” “middle schoolers,” or “high school students.” Equipment and staff expertise are available, but students are always free to use or not use those resources as they choose. Classes in specific subjects are offered when students request them, but no one is required or particularly encouraged to join a class and many students never join one.
- The school has a non-evaluation policy. Students who desire a diploma from the school must prepare and defend a thesis explaining why they are ready to graduate and how they have prepared themselves for responsible adult life outside of the school.
Dr. Gray’s interest in the school began after his son rebelled against traditional schooling. He sent him to Sudbury Valley, and his son immediately took to this radically different approach to education. Still, Dr. Gray was concerned. By attending such a school, might his son be narrowing his future options? Would he be able to go to college? Might certain potential career paths be cut off?
As a scientist and conscientious parent, he decided to conduct a systematic survey of the school’s graduates. The results of the study, which were published in the American Journal of Education, were as follows:
- Graduates who had pursued higher education (about 75 percent of the total) reported no particular difficulty getting into the schools of their choice or doing well there once admitted. (Some, including a few who had never previously taken a formal course, had gone on to highly prestigious colleges and universities and performed well.)
- Regardless of whether they had pursued higher education, the graduates were remarkably successful in finding employment that interested them and earned them a living in a wide range of occupations, including business, arts, science, medicine, other service professions, and skilled trades.
- None of the graduates complained about difficulty adjusting to the formal structure of college or employment.
- 82 percent of respondents said that their attendance at Sudbury Valley had benefited them for their further education and careers.
Dr. Gray distilled the benefits to Sudbury Valley graduates into four categories:
- Being responsible and self-directed.
- Having high motivation for further learning.
- Having acquired useful skills and knowledge.
- Lacking fear of authority figures.
And perhaps the most telling finding was that not a single one of the graduates said that their life would be better if they had attended a traditional school rather than Sudbury Valley.
The Best Quotes From Free To Learn
Dr. Peter Gray uses many terms in ways or with a specificity we typically don’t. Borrowing from his definitions, I will briefly summarize those terms key to understanding and appreciating the argument packaged in Free to Learn.
Education. Education is cultural transmission. It is the set of processes by which each new generation of human beings, in any social group, acquires and builds upon the skills, knowledge, lore, and values—that is, the culture—of previous generations.
Play. Play is a confluence of several characteristics. Dr. Gray boils it down to following five: (1) play is self-chosen and self-directed; (2) play is activity in which means are more valued than ends; (3) play has structure or rules that are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players; (4) play is imaginative, nonliteral, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life; and (5) play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.
Free play. Play in which the players themselves decide what and how to play and are free to modify the goals and rules as they go along. Pickup baseball is free play; a Little League game is not. Free play is how children learn to structure their own behavior.
Unschooling. Most simply, unschooling is not schooling. Unschooling parents do not send their children to school, and at home they do not do the kinds of things that are done at school. They do not establish a curriculum, do not require particular assignments for the purpose of education, and do not test their children to measure progress. Instead, they allow their kids freedom to pursue their own interests and to learn, in their own ways, what they need to know to follow those interests.
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