School Isn’t For Learning

A few years ago, Peter Gray blogged some provocative claims:

Foragers don’t distinguish work from play:

Hunter-gatherers do not have a concept of toil. When they do have that concept, it derives apparently from their contact with outsiders. … Their own work is simply an extension of children’s play. Children play at hunting, gathering, hut construction, tool making, meal preparations, defense against predators, birthing, infant care, healing, negotiation, and so on and so on; and gradually, as their play become increasingly skilled, the activities become productive. … work is play for four main reasons: (1) It is varied and requires much skill and intelligence. (2) There is not too much of it. (3) It is done in a social context, with friends. And (4) (most significantly) it is, for any given person at any given time, optional. …

Hunter-gatherers’ work somewhere between 20 and 40 hours a week, on average, depending on just what you count as work. Moreover, they do not work according to the clock; they work when the time is ripe for the work to be done and when they feel like it. There is ample time in hunter-gatherers’ lives for leisure activities, including games of many sorts, playful religious ceremonies, making and playing musical instruments, singing, dancing, traveling to other bands to visit friends and relatives, gossiping, and just lying around and relaxing. (more)

Foragers kids learn without being taught:

Hunter-gatherers lived in small nomadic bands (of about 25 to 50 people per band), made decisions democratically, had ethical systems that centered on egalitarian values and sharing, and had rich cultural traditions that included music, art, games, dances, and time-honored stories. … [We] contacted a number of anthropologists who had lived among hunter-gatherers and asked them to respond to a written questionnaire about their observations of children’s lives. …

[Our] four conclusions: … 1. Hunter-gatherer children must learn an enormous amount to become successful adults. … 2. The children learn all this without being taught. … Occasionally an adult might offer a word of advice or demonstrate how to do something better, such as how to shape an arrowhead, but such help is given only when the child clearly desires it. Adults do not initiate, direct, or interfere with children’s activities. … 3. The children are afforded enormous amounts of time to play and explore. … “[Batek] children were free to play nearly all the time; no one expected children to do serious work until they were in their late teens.” … 4. Children observe adults’ activities and incorporate those activities into their play. … Nobody has to tell or encourage the children to do all this. They do it naturally because, like children everywhere, there is nothing that they desire more than to grow up and to be like the successful adults that they see around them. (more)

This “free school” approach works today:

In fifty years … people will wonder why the world took so long to come to grips with such a simple and self-evident idea as that upon which the Sudbury Valley School is founded: Children educate themselves; we don’t have to do it for them.

… [Sudbury] admits students without regard to any measures of academic performance, and it operates at a per pupil cost that is about half that of the surrounding public schools. The [40 year old] school currently has about 200 students and ten adult staff members. … In one-person-one-vote fashion, [all students and staff] meet once a week, create all of the school’s rules, … and hires and fires staff members. …

Students are free, all day, every day, to do what they wish at the school. … None of the school’s rules have to do with learning. The school gives no tests. It does not evaluate or grade students’ progress.[1] There is no curriculum and no attempt to motivate students to learn. … Several studies of graduates …. have shown that the school works well as an educational institution. Graduates … had no particular difficulties getting into colleges … or performing well there. … Former students … are almost unanimous in reporting that they are glad that they attended. …

[1] Students who wish to graduate with a high school diploma must prepare a written thesis defending the statement that they have prepared themselves for responsible adult life. That thesis is defended orally and evaluated by a panel of adults. (more)

Modern childhood and schools have other purposes:

With the rise of agriculture, and later of industry, children became forced laborers. Play and exploration were suppressed. Willfulness, which had been a virtue, became a vice that had to be beaten out of children. … Successful farming required long hours of relatively unskilled, repetitive labor, much of which could be done by children. With larger families, children had to work in the fields to help feed their younger siblings, or they had to work at home to help care for those siblings. …

Employers in industry saw schooling as a way to create better workers. To them, the most crucial lessons were punctuality, following directions, tolerance for long hours of tedious work, and a minimal ability to read and write. From their point of view (though they may not have put it this way), the duller the subjects taught in schools the better. (more)

Gray is mostly right: forager kids learn all they need when free to play all day, forager adults work all they need without toiling, and kids can learn modern skills this way today. But there is no net trend toward free schools, and I expect a wholesale move would be a disaster. Yes, it works for some students, including most who stay until they graduate at free schools, but parents of kids for whom it doesn’t work probably pull their kids out.  And free school graduates probably avoid the ugly jobs schools were designed to make kids accept.  School isn’t about learning “material,” school is about learning to accept workplace domination and ranking, and tolerating long hours of doing boring stuff exactly when and how you are told. Others seem to agree:

There used to be thousands of “free” schools back in the 1960s and 1970s, … The number has waned since, although … many of their ideas are used in public alternative schools and by some homeschooling families. … There are about 200 “democratic” schools around the world, including the Sudbury schools. … Many say the Sudbury model is not — and shouldn’t be — for everyone. “It’s a great model for some students — but I would say that for every kind of education.” (more)

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