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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  • A dude

    I suspect that these forager societies did not use the concept of money much. And did not have feudal aristocracies (Money is basically a claim on someone else’s labor, a form of slavery, serves the same objective.)

    So the question is why did humans start to stratify into hierarchical layers? I suppose because specialization makes for more productive (if less happy) workers. Is this a passing period in human history and the does the future belong to free agent foragers of knowledge and ideas? Nothing seems to be pointing that way so far.

    • James

      Neither the buyer nor the seller has to agree to a sale with money, while slavery is unilaterally voluntary. Money is a claim on someone else’s labor only to the extent that other people agree to have their labor claimed for your money. I don’t see much similarity, except that both benefit at least one person in the relationship.

      • DB

        Money is really a representative of the labor of the possessor, since labor must create goods or services that can be traded for money. What money does better than barter is to create a medium that is almost universally excepted for all goods and services. That way you can trade the product of your labor for the product of anothers labor that you want without having to acquire another good that they want if they do not want what you already have in excess.

    • Buck Farmer

      Farming (1) is labor-intensive, (2) requires long-term planning, and (3) can only happen during a narrow time-frame each year.

      Harvest is a great example. The entire community had to be mobilized for what was essentially a week or two of intense back-breaking labor to get the harvest in before it spoiled and to ensure supplies for the winter.

      Because of this, farming requires disciplined labor to become the primary food supply.

    • Sean C.

      No kidding! We can dream of the United Federation of Planets all we like but the bare fact is that we can’t all be “free agent foragers of knowledge and ideas”.

      It will always require labour to turn raw materials into finished goods like food, shelter and technology.

      Unless everyone is willing to become self sufficient in those areas as well, there will always be specialization. And probably hierarchy.

      • Buck Farmer

        Why spend 20+ years re-training humans into good institutionalized slaves when robots could be built like that from the start?

        ‘course, we don’t quite have the AI yet…but someday?

    • anon

      I suspect that these forager societies did not use the concept of money much.

      Actually, there is plenty of evidence that hunter-gatherer societies used money-like tokens, although these tokens were also used as markers of social status. Hierarchy and feudal aristocracy are dependent on farming, and farming probably required disciplined labor as well.

    • I was going to tell you what James told you, but yeah, he already did. Money and slavery have nothing essential in common. You need to polish those basic concepts first — otherwise you are doomed to reach false conclusions.

      • A dude

        Money has several meanings. “Medium of exchange” meaning is trivial. “Unit of account” and “store of value” are the non-trivial meanings. Both pertain to credit. Credit = Debt = the the means of making people work. Now, and this is a can of worms to post on a forum, there are ways to organize credit without humans stratifying into slaves and absentee landlords. But we haven’t seen it yet.

        I’m not being all negative on money, debt, or absentee landlords. This system allows complex forms of organization to hold together (just like like slaves built awsome pyramids).

  • Buck Farmer

    I like the quotation: “It’s a great model for some students — but I would say that for every kind of education.”

    Are there collective welfare gains to be had from either (1) diversifying the offering of educational institutions or (2) shifting more from farmer-training to forager-training?

    I’m less interested in this from a personal freedom/happiness standpoint and more from a gross economic production and technological advance standpoint.

    In Robin’s imagined very-long-run will our distant progeny be more like farmers or foragers? What is necessary when ekeing out the last bits of welfare from a scarcity of quantum states?

  • Robin, is there any information on how math is taught at these skills? I’m curious!

    Ah, I see there is:

  • Well useful stuff could be made boring and tedious enough to work for the reason you put forth. You could still require punctuality and lots of boring work. So why do we not try to move in that direction?

  • BTW I tend to think that schooling is ineffective at training people and thus is more a test.

    So school might be an attempt to train children to be more compliant and punctual but it may fail at that and just show the world who makes a more profitable associate.

  • Philo

    Why do you believe that “kids can learn modern skills this way today”? Forager kids don’t learn to read and write; they don’t learn much mathematics; the science they learn doesn’t include much useful theory.

    At Clearwater School the lack of adult guidance is disturbing, though surely there is a lot of not-overtly-coercive “nudging.” Who decided what resources would be available to the “students”? Who hired the “teachers”? Who set the initial rules of conduct (subject, of course, to democratic revision–but who established and who enforces the democratic principle)? Finally, how does one prove that he is prepared to be a “responsible adult”? (In any case, as an institutional objective this seems too low.)

    What would your ideal school look like? Would you want attending it and graduating from it to have *no* value as a *signal*?

    • I agree that this “free school” concept is just as extreme as 100% rote memorization. When all you need to learn to succeed in life is to mimick the physical activity and spoken language of the older people around you, then no formal schooling is necessary. But in a society where most labor is specialized, some kind of guidance is going to be necessary.

      I think, though, that there is a great deal of value in making room for “child-directed learning” (my own term–I am not an educator or a sociologist) within a generally structured curriculum. My own experience in most of my primary and much of my secondary education was that I discovered things in a self-directed way (either at home or during self-study time at school), and that this knowledge was then organized and/or reinforced during the formal lessons.

      Also, don’t knock the role of formal schooling in preparing students to work in industrial jobs. While more and more employment these days is not in the traditional 9-to-5 working on an assembly line or behind a desk model, many (most?) of today’s students will find themselves working in that type of environment after they complete their education.

      • anon

        “Child-directed learning” has been tried and it’s a disaster. It leads to e.g. literacy instruction that is not based on systematically teaching English orthography, but simply exposes the student to written sentences and expects her to pick up the writing system on her own. Or math textbooks that don’t really teach anything at all because each student should “discover the answer for herself” and “come up with her own methods”–no matter whether these methods are actually sound.

      • I agree that you can’t expect students to learn phonics and the finer points of grammar by reading alone, without explaining the rules at some point. (I had a substitute English teacher in middle school who was a terrible speller because she’d never been taught the concept of phonics, and therefore had no idea how to spell a word unless she’d memorized it.)

        The same goes for just about every other subject. But I do think it is valuable to in some fashion guide a student to “discover” concepts, rather than simply drill them into their minds. The “aha!” moment where a person realizes (partly on their own) the usefulness of a concept, is an extremely powerful learning tool.

  • Hunter gatherers are enormously diverse, and some are hierarchical. (For example, Indians of the northwest coast of North America.) Some beat their kids for slacking. And some do work that they regard as laborious, like digging roots. They also go hungry on a regular basis. The statement “Hunter gatherers are like x” is almost always false. More here:

  • Brian Scurfield

    There is a full-blown philosophy developed by Professor David Deutsch of Oxford University called “Taking Children Seriously” that is based on the idea that children – like adults – are universal knowledge creators that learn via a Popperian process of conjectures and refutations. According to TCS, all disagreements should be resolved in a truth-seeking way; that is, children should never be coerced into enacted an idea when a conflicting idea is active in their mind. To do so is to impair the growth of knowledge within the child’s mind and that includes the growth of knowledge about how to control his or her own mind. For this reason, TCS agrees that schools are harmful.

    • Buck Farmer

      Many adults are coerced to accept things without Popperian learning.

      I’m not even talking about covert coercion, but overt acceptance of authority in the workplace. If the boss says “Black is White” then even though you do not think the boss is an authority on this, it is more expedient for you to use this assumption than it is to do the legwork to disprove it.

      This is politics. School is good at teaching kids when it is expedient and when it is not to question authority…maybe not for social welfare, but possibly for personal.

  • ad

    kids can learn modern skills this way today

    I daresay they can. As long as they want to. Not every school is full of kids who want to learn algebra.

  • Gil

    I agree with some here in that hunterer-gatherer societies don’t have any “wow” factor that makes our society look pale in comparison. I also doubt any hunterer-gatherer society are/were partcularly highly-skilled. I’ll take modern society warts and all than some romantic view of some of poorest parts of the world.

  • Robert Speirs

    “When they feel like” hunting or foraging appears to equate to “when they’re desperately hungry”. Most moderns have no idea what an incentive hunger can be and how appealing a regimented life with a full barn can be.

    • ad

      Really? Seems to me that many people enjoy hunting, even when they are not at all hungry.

      • Hyena

        No, they enjoy drinking beer, yacking with friends and comparing guns. This is quite different from hunting.

  • Challenge

    The question for me is, how can we counter-act 20 years of institutionalized brainwashing?

    For example, I notice I’m much more inclined to seek steady, safe employment than investigate even one venture that might not pay off, but if it did pay off, would lead to $500k a year income. Even at a 1/20 chance of paying off, the expected utility from seeking such ventures over a 40 year “career” would be extremely high.

  • Challenge

    Crunched the math. Regard the venture above,

    E(venture) = 5,250,000 over 20 years.
    E(job @ 150k) = 3,000,000 over 20 years.

    E(venture) = 20,500,000 over 40 years.
    E(job @ 200k) = 8,000,000 over 40 years.

  • Robin, I continue to be amused and saddened that you accept the Foucault critique of modern society without any moral outrage or calls for change.

  • Julia

    I don’t think we’d loose people who do the boring stuff like office work etc. if everybody went to a free school. I believe our personality differences are responsible for what we want to do and I guess there are a lot of people out there who just love to put things in order, calculate, make repetitive phonecalls and like the idea that they are helping the world to stay on top of things.
    I went to a pretty mainstream socialist school (former East Germany) and I got it all in a prechewed way. There was no freedom AT ALL. I am not into office work or any repetetive work. I am actually pretty artsy and all over the place 🙂 Which might as well be a response to the way our schools functioned…. combined with my genes and everything else that has contributed to the way I am.
    Maybe graduates from these free schools will pick office work for themselves also as a response to this school type. Maybe due to there personality they are struggling with that much freedom and the mass of opportunities that they seek out something more predictable and repetitive. And may even start to do so at school by seeking out other folks who function in similar ways and become “the boring group” who counts sticks and puts them neatly into selfmade cotton folders.
    I totally resonate with the free school philosophy and am glad I read about this (having a two year old son). I am totally in favour of letting the child take the lead and support and trust him in his choices and his innate curiosity about the world. Would be interesting to read some more about former Sudbury Valley School students and what they are doing now.

  • Sarah

    “Hunter-gatherers do not have a concept of toil.”

    Isn’t it fairer to say, based on the rest of that paragraph, that hunter-gatherers do not have a concept of play? Children’s play, apparently, is just a miniature and symbolic version of adult work.

    In a modern, commercial society, we have forms of leisure that have nothing to do with any productive work. Modern children don’t always play at adult work; they also dress up their dolls, build lego fortresses, watch videos. If we’re sufficiently affluent and safe, we can produce recreational activities so pleasant that work is unappealing by comparison. This may be why schoolroom and workplace discipline is necessary today; work is competing with very good toys.

  • mike

    There’s really nothing stopping you from living a nomadic hunter/gatherer life in modern america. What’s hypocritical is to expect to live such a life and enjoy anything more than a sustenance level of material wealth.

    you want to live a life like that don’t bitch when you don’t have a car, or a TV, internet, regular meals, or health care….

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