Monday, 6 May 2013

Free to Learn by Peter Gray

Lowdown: Our children need an environment of freedom in order learn; our current education system provides the opposite, thus damaging them.
I am a parent riddled with guilt feelings.
During the bulk of the nearly two decades of my life I had spent under some formal studying environment I have suffered and complained. I did not enjoy school, I did not enjoy university, I was bored shitless most of the time, and I felt like I was wasting my time. At sixth grade, when I wrote in a school project that I do not think school managed to endow me with any worthwhile values, I was invited to a polite chat with the authorities. By university time my colleagues and I stopped beating around the bush: we were not studying for the purpose of learning, we were studying in order to maximize our grades (personally, my fear of failing gave me that extra push to get even better grades). There were no holds barred in that quest for the grade, a crusade that was beneficial to both us students as well as our teachers whose reputations were driven by the success of their students. It all felt like one foul, gigantic con.
What kept me going throughout is the knowledge that at the end of this borefest I will receive some sort of a certificate that would, later on, open up various doors for me and allow me to live a comfortable [remainder of] life. Is that justification good enough? I do not know; what I do know is that this year is my son’s first year at school. Although far better than the school I have attended at his age, I can clearly see him going through the same torture I did; in some respects he already is. There lies the source of my guilt: what crime did my son commit that I am sending him to his own decades of frustration?
Along comes Peter Gray, and in his book Free to Learn he tells me I am not alone. He had to deal with a far more serious school related affair his son went through, and in the process he learned a lot about the education of children. Essentially, his main point is that children learn best through their built in motivation, driven by their own curiosity. He finds support for his point in anthropological studies of hunter/gatherer societies and the way they conduct themselves. Further, play is the best teaching aid at our disposal, a point further made through anthropological studies as well as personal experience gathered through years of unsupervised play as a child (an experience I fully concur with, by the way).
Yet what are we doing with the education system we have erected over the past few centuries? We are doing all the wrong things. Our schools are the historical leftovers of institutions designed to break and mold children into obedient, god observant creatures. Our institutions regards play as wasteful. And for various financial reasons, our streets are now devoid of playing kids; unsupervised play, the best tool for children to learn to cope with others, is all but extinct, replaced by ultra-supervised activities. These, according to the author, are actually harmful to the development of our children. Thus, in effect, the only good educational time our children have, a time when they truly learn, is recess. The rest of the time, the “quality” time, only serves to switch off their enthusiasm about anything and everything, producing children that never practiced getting along with one another who will thus have a hard time orienting themselves in society when set at large.
Gray argues there are things we can do for our children, though. He spends a lot of his book reviewing the way one special school, Sudbury Valley School, conducts itself, and he recommends parents try and emulate that school’s experience for their children. Alas, although by now there are numerous schools emulating the Sudbury way, none operate in Australia (although some of my readers would be interested to know there are a couple working in Israel).
As you might have gathered by now, I generally agree with most of Gray’s arguments. For example, his arguments about the value of unsupervised play between children rang a strong bell with me: I remember how I got along with both children younger than me and older than me to, for example, play football. I also remember how, as Gray mentions, we had our set of unwritten rules: no one did anything to deliberately hurt someone else playing, no one kicked the ball too hard so as to potentially harm another player. Even when we fought one another we never let it all out: there was never any hair pulling, never scratching, and hits were always held back. Compare that to, say, adult supervised football training: a player that doesn’t give it all when tackling an opponent is automatically branded a loser.
Where I had problems accepting Gray’s arguments is where my own personal experience lacked. For example, I accept his evidence regarding the virtues of education in hunter/gatherer societies; however, can we really tell whether their free play would work in today’s complicated world? I do not know. I would love to agree with Gray that kids will find their drive to learn, particularly through examples set by older kids, but I just do not have enough evidence at my disposal to be able to confidently accept Gray’s claims. Further, at one stage or another children will have to face testing of sorts, at least until Sudbury style universities come about; and while Gray claims Sudbury kids do well, or even better, when their time comes, I – again – need further evidence.
This Free to Learn gave me lots of things to think about, but mostly frustrated me in the sense of it illustrating how my son is very much doomed to follow where I have trodden before. I do hope, however, to be able to provide sanctuaries along the way: to create, for examples, unsupervised play opportunities; or, and that's much easier for me, to allow him to have the alternative of video gaming available. Regardless, Free to Learn indicates how valuable the freedom my son had at kinder was; it's just a pity that experience cannot continue throughout his school years.
Overall: An important, thought provoking book, of the type I wish more would read so as we can start improving our society towards evidence based policies - this time in education. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

1 comment:

Mike said...

A couple of comments:
Sudbury kids excel in the work force and higher education because they are pursuing their dreams. They learn to take exams and excel because the exams are recognized as milestone on their personal path to knowledge that they want. Sudbury Valley School press has at least 2 studies dealing with the lives of former students.
There was a small Sudbury school in the Queensland hinterlands (Booroobin) until the provincial government in Brisbane forced them to close. There is some current interest in the model in Sydney. If you have further interest, contact me privately.