POST-REFORM PERSPECTIVES

NOTE: The articles or blog posts or comments copied here are from sources that we find primarily extremely informative and well-founded. We will make an attempt to obtain express permission to copy them here and we will clearly identify the authors and publications whenever possible. We call this the Post-Reform Perspectives Page, because the articles and other materials are written by professionals whom we believe to have abandoned "school reform" as it is typically envisioned. These authors have a view, in our understanding, that the profound changes that are needed and indeed that MUST take place will not happen by working "within the system" or by trying to alter the "educational establishment" by following the usual channels and protocols. We don't endorse every single statement made in these articles and we will do our best to clarify where there are disagreements whenever possible. The one most significant disagreement we have with all of them so far, is that these authors have all hoped for a time in the near future when the ideas, principles, discoveries, and beliefs that they espouse and that they have seen implemented in various demonstration schools or locations and in families or communities when a "critical mass" or a "tipping point" is reached and the general public will support and even demand that most or all schools adopt their methods and philosophy. That, in our estimation, cannot ever become the reality unless and until compulsory attendance laws are removed. We are persuaded that the top priority for all people concerned about improving schools and enhancing educational opportunities MUST be the elimination of the laws. Otherwise, there will be an ever widening divide between the few people who benefit from freedom and autonomy in their youth and those who remain mired in traditional schools. The laws set in concrete an authoritarian bureaucracy and an immutable institutional archeticture that establishes the destructive relationships between students and teachers. Power will not be relinquished until the Supreme Court declares coercion in school unconstitutional. 

“Why Don’t Students Like School?” Well, Duhhhh…

Children don't like school because they love freedom.

Dr. Peter Gray, Ph.D

Posted Sep 02, 2009

 

          Someone recently referred me to a book that they thought I'd like. It's a 2009 book, aimed toward teachers of grades K through 12, titled Why Don't Students Like School? It's by a cognitive scientist named Daniel T. Willingham, and it has received rave reviews by countless people involved in the school system. Google the title and author and you'll find pages and pages of doting reviews and nobody pointing out that the book totally and utterly fails to answer the question posed by its title.

            Willingham's thesis is that students don't like school because their teachers don't have a full understanding of certain cognitive principles and therefore don't teach as well as they could. They don't present material in ways that appeal best to students' minds. Presumably, if teachers followed Willingham's advice and used the latest information cognitive science has to offer about how the mind works, students would love school.

Talk about avoiding the elephant in the room!

             Ask any schoolchild why they don't like school and they'll tell you. "School is prison." They may not use those words, because they're too polite, or maybe they've already been brainwashed to believe that school is for their own good and therefore it can't be prison. But decipher their words and the translation generally is, "School is prison."

             Let me say that a few more times: School is prison. School is prison. School is prison. School is prison. School is prison.

             Willingham surely knows that school is prison. He can't help but know it; everyone knows it. But here he writes a whole book entitled "Why Don't Students Like School," and not once does he suggest that just possibly they don't like school because they like freedom, and in school they are not free.

               I shouldn't be too harsh on Willingham. He's not the only one avoiding this particular elephant in the room. Everyone who has ever been to school knows that school is prison, but almost nobody says it. It's not polite to say it. We all tiptoe around this truth, that school is prison, because telling the truth makes us all seem so mean. How could all these nice people be sending their children to prison for a good share of the first 18 years of their lives? How could our democratic government, which is founded on principles of freedom and self-determination, make laws requiring children and adolescents to spend a good portion of their days in prison? It's unthinkable, and so we try hard to avoid thinking it. Or, if we think it, we at least don't say it. When we talk about what's wrong with schools we pretend not to see the elephant, and we talk instead about some of the dander that's gathered around the elephant's periphery.

But I think it is time that we say it out loud. School is prison.

If you think school is not prison, please explain the difference.

               The only difference I can think of is that to get into prison you have to commit a crime, but they put you in school just because of your age. In other respects school and prison are the same. In both places you are stripped of your freedom and dignity. You are told exactly what you must do, and you are punished for failing to comply. Actually, in school you must spend more time doing exactly what you are told to do than is true in adult prisons, so in that sense school is worse than prison.

                At some level of their consciousness, everyone who has ever been to school knows that it is prison. How could they not know? But people rationalize it by saying (not usually in these words) that children need this particular kind of prison and may even like it if the prison is run well. If children don't like school, according to this rationalization, it's not because school is prison, but is because the wardens are not kind enough, or amusing enough, or smart enough to keep the children's minds occupied appropriately.

               But anyone who knows anything about children and who allows himself or herself to think honestly should be able to see through this rationalization. Children, like all human beings, crave freedom. They hate to have their freedom restricted. To a large extent they use their freedom precisely to educate themselves. They are biologically prepared to do that. That's what many of my previous posts have been about (for an overview, see my July 16, 2008, post). Children explore and play, freely, in ways designed to learn about the physical and social world in which they are developing. In school they are told they must stop following their interests and, instead, do just what the teacher is telling them they must do. That is why they don't like school.

               As a society we could, perhaps, rationalize forcing children to go to school if we could prove that they need this particular kind of prison in order to gain the skills and knowledge necessary to become good citizens, to be happy in adulthood, and to get good jobs. Many people, perhaps most people, think this has been proven, because the educational establishment talks about it as if it has. But, in truth, it has not been proven at all.

                In fact, for decades, families who have chosen to "unschool" their children, or to send them to the Sudbury Valley School (which is, essentially, an "unschool" school) have been proving the opposite (see, for example, my August 13, 2008, post). Children who are provided the tools for learning, including access to a wide range of other people from whom to learn, learn what they need to know--and much more--through their own self-directed play and exploration. There is no evidence at all that children who are sent to prison come out better than those who are provided the tools and allowed to use them freely. How, then, can we continue to rationalize sending children to prison?

               I think the educational establishment deliberately avoids looking honestly at the experiences of unschoolers and Sudbury Valley because they are afraid of what they will find. If school as prison isn't necessary, then what becomes of this whole huge enterprise, which employs so many and is so fully embedded in the culture (see my posts on Why Schools Are What they Are)?

              Willingham's book is in a long tradition of attempts to bring the "latest findings" of psychology to bear on issues of education. All of those efforts have avoided the elephant and focused instead on trying to clean up the dander. But as long as the elephant is there, the dander just keeps piling up.

               In a future post I'll talk about some of the history of psychology's failed attempts to improve education. Every new generation of parents, and every new batch of fresh and eager teachers, hears or reads about some "new theory" or "new findings" from psychology that, at long last, will make schools more fun and improve learning. But none of it has worked. And none of it will until people face the truth: Children hate school because in school they are not free. Joyful learning requires freedom.

Peter Gray is a research professor of psychology at Boston College. His most recent book is"Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self Reliant, and Better Prepared for Life" (Basic Books, 2013). He is also author of an introductory psychology textbook ("Psychology," Worth Publishers, now in its sixth edition), a regular blog for Psychology Today magazine called Freedom to Learn, and many academic articles dealing with children’s natural ways of learning. Along with a number of colleagues, he recently launched a web site (AlternativesToSchool.com) designed to help families find or create settings for children’s self-directed learning.

 

 

Education: Reform or Remodel?

by Chris Mercogliano on September 12, 2013

 

Reform: to put or change into an improved form or condition.

Remodel: to alter the structure of; remake.

 

                It’s an age-old question now: Do we keep trying to improve the flawed educational model we have; or is it time to declare it too broke to fix and develop an entirely different one? A total remake, in other words.

               There is no shortage of proponents, past and present, of either possibility. We sometimes forget the original school reformer was Horace Mann, his mission to institute a kinder, gentler, more interesting version of the heavily starched model handed down to his generation by his Calvinist forebearers. As such, he was able to separate public education from a puritanical religion that viewed children as the devil’s handiwork and to lobby with some success against corporal punishment in school (which still remains legal in 19 states). He also preferred leading children to discover underlying principles and relationships to the rote teaching of out-of-context facts and information.

               Still, Mann never intended to alter the structure of the model, with its emphasis on conformity, obedience, and competition; and its reliance on highly structured, teacher-centered, carrot and stick learning.

A contemporary of Mann’s, meanwhile, the future literary giant Leo Tolstoy, visited the Prussian schools that became Mann’s model in America and declared them an abomination. Upon his return to his ancestral estate not far from Moscow, he started a short-lived revolution in Russian education by turning half of the manor house into a school with a radically different model for the 80 or so children of his serfs. A sign hanging over the door read “Do As You Like!” and indeed, there were no compulsory lessons and students were free to manage their own learning.

The school was shut down by the Czar’s secret police three years later.

               And so it goes today. A contemporary school reform movement sprang to life here after the publication of “A Nation at Risk,” the iconic education report commissioned by the Reagan administration in 1983. Citing falling test scores and the increasing failure of our schools to measure up to their overseas counterparts, the authors warned: “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.” The ensuing panic became the source of today’s obsession with standards and accountability. The irony of these  “reforms,” of course, is that they are ushering back the very same drill and kill approach from which Horace Mann tried to steer education away.

               It is equally ironic that just a few years later in post-Soviet Moscow, Alexander Tubelsky founded the School of Self-Determination, a public school for 600 k-12 students that features non-compulsory class attendance, project- and interest-based learning, and democratic governance by a council half of whose members are students. Unlike Tolstoy’s school, the Russian government continues to support this highly successful alternative, which is part of a network of similarly democratic schools around the world.

                It was John Holt who fueled the current movement to remodel education in the U.S. with the 10 books he wrote about education between 1964 and 1985. Holt’s thinking ultimately evolved to the point where he decided that school in any form is unreformable. His remake became known as “unschooling”—children educating themselves organically at home in the context of family and community. While the number of children pursuing their education outside of school is impossible to count accurately, current estimates average 2,000,000—a figure that continues to rise despite the leveling off of the overall number of school-age children due to a declining birth rate.

                My own answer to the question of reform or remodel should be obvious given the 40 years I have spent practicing and writing about a school-based model that closely resembles Holt’s, except that the locus is a building full of children and adults who are for the most part biologically unrelated.

                 I entirely agree with Holt (and others) that what I now call the “conventional model” is based on too many false premises and defended by too many powerful political and economic interests to ever change in any fundamental way. Not to mention the fact that science is making it increasingly clear how antithetical the model’s structural components—standardized, infocentric curriculum; extrinsic motivation; teacher-directed learning; competition; etc.—are to what we now know about how children actually learn and develop.

                 The charter school movement—the subject of a future post—is a good example of a current failed reform. It began with the fantasy of developing innovative practices that the rest of the system would then adopt if they worked well enough. But in reality, the truly innovative charters have either been isolated from the rest of the system or shut down altogether, and private corporations operating highly conventional schools on a for-profit basis have gradually co-opted the movement. Nowhere in the nation are there examples of the other schools in a district adopting successful charter innovations.

                So I shout REMODEL! because the conventional model rests on such a rotten foundation and history has proven it so impervious to real change. But I am quickly silenced by another hard reality: The overwhelming majority of children on the planet attend schools that operate according to the conventional model—and it is a situation unlikely to shift anytime soon.

                Which means to me that framing the solution to the problem as an either/or as I did at the start of this post is part of the problem, when what needs to happen is that some of us have to keep fighting to make the conventional model better at the same time that others continue to develop and spread new models that operate on different principles.

               And perhaps most importantly of all, reformers and remodelers need to communicate and cooperate with each other so that the successes of one group inform the work of the other. It isn’t the rightness of one side of the polarity or the other that matters; it’s the well-being of an entire generation of children.

 

Educating Children in a Violent World

Chris Mercogliano

              I was recently asked to write a column for a national education magazine. When the editor told me the theme of the issue was educating children in a world of violence, I immediately thought to myself, “That’s precisely the problem—most children are being educated in a world of violence.”

Here I very specifically mean the world of school itself, not the surrounding layers of family, society and culture, because all too often the violence embedded in the educational process goes unnoticed. Education is, after all, one of America’s most sacred cows.

               Lest you think I am overreacting when I declare that the means and methods by which nearly all of the children in this country are educated are inherently violent, consider what Webster’s lists as its third definition for “violent”: “caused by force; not natural, as in a violent death.”

               Conventional education is all about force, beginning with each state’s compulsory education statute. The failure to cover the state mandated curriculum, or its equivalent, is punishable by law. Even worse, students and teachers trapped inside schools that sort, grade, and rank children like fruits and vegetables face an increasing specter of punishment if the students don’t measure up on mandatory—and soon to be nationwide—high stakes standardized tests. Students are told that, if they don’t pass, then they can’t move on to the next level. Teachers are told that, if their students don’t pass, then it’s time to look for another job. The indelible bottom line: learn or else.

                And then there is the competition that urges the educational process forward, whereby learning is stripped of its individual sanctity and turned into a group contest to see who can be fastest and best. But isn’t competition, the drive to gain superiority over others, one of the root causes of violence of all kinds and at all levels, from city streets to nation-states?

               Which brings us to the second half of the dictionary definition of “violent.” What could be more “not natural” than confining education to sterile, age-segregated classrooms, and demanding that it progress according to a standardized timeline? Add to this artificial mix the pre-packaged curricula to which most teachers are chained today, and the technology that has almost entirely supplanted nature as a primary source of learning, and there you have the recipe for a “violent” education—as in a “violent” death.

                Fortunately, a growing number of groups and individuals are committed to removing violence in all its various forms from education. A million or more homeschooling families are a living demonstration that learning is a natural, joyful act. The success of an entire generation of homeschoolers who are now adults proves without a doubt that it in no way depends on coercion and government regulation.The proliferation of school-based educational alternatives, both public and private, also stand as powerful models of non-coercive, cooperative, self-directed, and meaningful education.

                  Within the conventional system, too, there exist important catalysts for change. Linda Lantieri, a former teacher and administrator in Harlem, founded a national program for teachers, students, and their parents that promotes emotional awareness, intercultural understanding and positive ways of dealing with differences. The Resolving Conflict Creatively Program (RCCP) is being practiced in 375 schools in the United States, with pilot programs in Brazil and Puerto Rico. An independent study of schools where the RCCP is in place found that 64% of the teachers reported less physical violence in their classrooms, while 92% of the students reported feeling better about themselves.

                 Then there is young Bill Wetzel, who, while still in high school, started the national organization ”Power to the Youth” to support “youth (and cool adults) around the nation who are taking charge of their schools, lives, and world.” His activism quickly led him to start yet another national organization, Students Against Testing, in order to confront the high stakes testing epidemic.

                 A rapidly expanding “small schools movement” urges the founding of schools with no more than 350 students at the elementary and 500 at the secondary level. Small schools foster democratic practices, community, and student autonomy. A good example is the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, a.k.a. the Met, in Providence, Rhode Island.

                  The Met is an innovative, publicly funded high school for predominantly at-risk youth that has no required courses and no set curriculum. Instead, each student creates his or her own individualized learning plan—including extensive internships and community service—along with an advisor, parent, and a mentor. In the school’s first graduating class, in 1999, all fifty students were accepted into four-year colleges. The Met’s extraordinary success recently led the Gates Foundation to contribute $10,000,000 toward the creation of ten more Met prototypes around the country.

                  Hopefully, efforts to lead us toward non-violent forms of education aren’t too little, too late; for if the goal is to help our children find fulfillment in a world that daily grows more violent, then surely we must begin by removing the violence from the educational process itself.

 

 

MONDAY, AUG 26, 2013 04:45 AM PDT

School is a prison — and damaging our kids

Longer school years aren't the answer. The problem is school itself. Compulsory teach-and-test simply doesn't work

PETER GRAY

 

                 Parents send their children to school with the best of intentions, believing that’s what they need to become productive and happy adults. Many have qualms about how well schools are performing, but the conventional wisdom is that these issues can be resolved with more money, better teachers, more challenging curricula and/or more rigorous tests.

                 But what if the real problem is school itself? The unfortunate fact is that one of our most cherished institutions is, by its very nature, failing our children and our society.

                 School is a place where children are compelled to be, and where their freedom is greatly restricted — far more restricted than most adults would tolerate in their workplaces. In recent decades, we have been compelling our children to spend ever more time in this kind of setting, and there is strong evidence (summarized in my recent book) that this is causing serious psychological damage to many of them. Moreover, the more scientists have learned about how children naturally learn, the more we have come to realize that children learn most deeply and fully, and with greatest enthusiasm, in conditions that are almost opposite to those of school.

                 Compulsory schooling has been a fixture of our culture now for several generations. It’s hard today for most people to even imagine how children would learn what they must for success in our culture without it. President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are so enamored with schooling that they want even longer school days and school years. Most people assume that the basic design of schools, as we know them today, emerged from scientific evidence about how children learn best. But, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

                 Schools as we know them today are a product of history, not of research into how children learn. The blueprint still used for today’s schools was developed during the Protestant Reformation, when schools were created to teach children to read the Bible, to believe scripture without questioning it, and to obey authority figures without questioning them. The early founders of schools were quite clear about this in their writings. The idea that schools might be places for nurturing critical thought, creativity, self-initiative or ability to learn on one’s own — the kinds of skills most needed for success in today’s economy — was the furthest thing from their minds. To them, willfulness was sinfulness, to be drilled or beaten out of children, not encouraged.

                 When schools were taken over by the state and made compulsory, and directed toward secular ends, the basic structure and methods of schooling remained unchanged. Subsequent attempts at reform have failed because, though they have tinkered some with the structure, they haven’t altered the basic blueprint. The top-down, teach-and-test method, in which learning is motivated by a system of rewards and punishments rather than by curiosity or by any real, felt desire to know, is well designed for indoctrination and obedience training but not much else. It’s no wonder that many of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs and innovators either left school early (like Thomas Edison), or said they hated school and learned despite it, not because of it (like Albert Einstein).

                It’s no wonder that, today, even the “best students” (maybe especially them) often report that they are “burned out” by the schooling process. One recent top graduate, explaining to a newspaper reporter why he was postponing college, put it this way:  “I was consumed with doing well and didn’t sleep a lot the last two years. I would have five or six hours of homework each night. The last thing I wanted was more school.”

               Most students — whether A students, C students, or failing ones — have lost their zest for learning by the time they reach middle school or high school. In a recent research study, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyl and Jeremy Hunter fitted more than 800 sixth- through 12th-graders, from 33 different schools across the country, with special wristwatches that provided a signal at random times of day. Whenever the signal appeared, they were to fill out a questionnaire indicating where they were, what they were doing, and how happy or unhappy they were at the moment. The lowest levels of happiness, by far, occurred when they were in school and the highest levels occurred when they were out of school playing or talking with friends. In school, they were often bored, anxious or both. Other researchers have shown that, with each successive grade, students develop increasingly negative attitudes toward the subjects taught, especially math and science.

               As a society, we tend to shrug off such findings. We’re not surprised that learning is unpleasant. We think of it as bad-tasting medicine, tough to swallow but good for children in the long run. Some people even think that the very unpleasantness of school is good for children, so they will learn to tolerate unpleasantness, because life after school is unpleasant. Perhaps this sad view of life derives from schooling. Of course, life has its ups and downs, in adulthood and in childhood. But there are plenty of opportunities to learn to tolerate unpleasantness without adding unpleasant schooling to the mix. Research has shown that people of all ages learn best when they are self-motivated, pursuing questions that are their own real questions, and goals that are their own real-life goals. In such conditions, learning is usually joyful.

* * *

                I have spent much of my research career studying how children learn. Children come into the world beautifully designed to direct their own education. They are endowed by nature with powerful educative instincts, including curiosity, playfulness, sociability, attentiveness to the activities around them, desire to grow up and desire to do what older children and adults can do.

                The evidence for all this as it applies to little children lies before the eyes of anyone who has watched a child grow from birth up to school age. Through their own efforts, children learn to walk, run, jump and climb. They learn from scratch their native language, and with that, they learn to assert their will, argue, amuse, annoy, befriend, charm and ask questions. Through questioning and exploring, they acquire an enormous amount of knowledge about the physical and social world around them, and in their play, they practice skills that promote their physical, intellectual, social and emotional development. They do all this before anyone, in any systematic way, tries to teach them anything.

                 This amazing drive and capacity to learn does not turn itself off when children turn 5 or 6. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling. The biggest, most enduring lesson of our system of schooling is that learning is work, to be avoided when possible.

                 The focus of my own research has been on learning in children who are of “school age,” but who aren’t sent to school, or not to school as conventionally understood. I’ve examined how children learn in cultures that don’t have schools, especially hunter-gatherer cultures, the kinds of cultures in which our species evolved. I’ve also studied learning in our culture by children who are trusted to take charge of their own education and are provided with the opportunity and means to educate themselves. In these settings, children’s natural curiosity and zest for learning persist all the way through childhood and adolescence, and into adulthood.

                    Another researcher who has documented the power of self-directed learning isSugata Mitra. He set up outdoor computers in very poor neighborhoods in India, where most children did not go to school and many were illiterate. Wherever he placed such a computer, dozens of children would gather around and, with no help from adults, figure out how to use it. Those who could not read began to do so through interacting with the computer and with other children around it. The computers gave the children access to the whole world’s knowledge — in one remote village, children who previously knew nothing about microorganisms learned about bacteria and viruses through their interactions with the computer and began to use this new knowledge appropriately in conversations.

                 Mitra’s experiments illustrate how three core aspects of human nature — curiosity, playfulness and sociability — can combine beautifully to serve the purpose of education. Curiosity drew the children to the computer and motivated them to explore it; playfulness motivated them to practice many computer skills; and sociability allowed each child’s learning to spread like wildfire to dozens of other children.

                 In our culture today, there are many routes through which children can apply their natural drives and instincts to learn everything they need to know for a successful adulthood. More than 2 million children in the United States now base their education at home and in the larger community rather than at school, and an ever-increasing proportion of their families have scrapped set curricular approaches in favor of self-directed learning. These parents do not give lessons or tests, but provide a home environment that facilitates learning, and they help connect their children to community activities from which they learn. Some of these families began this approach long ago and have adult children who are now thriving in higher education and careers.

                  My colleague Gina Riley and I recently surveyed 232 such families. According to these families’ reports, the main benefits of this approach lie in the children’s continued curiosity, creativity and zest  for learning, and in the freedom and harmony the entire family experiences when relieved of the pressures and schedules of school and the burden of manipulating children into doing homework that doesn’t interest them. As one parent put it, “Our lives are essentially stress free … We have a very close relationship built on love, mutual trust, and mutual respect.” She went on to write: “As an educator I see that my daughter has amazing critical thinking skills that many of my adult college students lack … My daughter lives and learns in the real world and loves it. What more could I ask for?”

                 Riley and I are currently completing a study of approximately 80 adults who themselves were home schooled in this self-directed way when they were of “school age.”  The full results are not yet in, but it is clear that those who took this approach came from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and have, as a whole, gone on very successfully into adulthood.

                As the self-directed approach to home education has increased in popularity, more and more centers and networks have popped up to offer resources, social connections and additional educational opportunities for children and families taking this approach (many are listed on a new compendium website, AlternativesToSchool.com). With these — along with libraries and other community resources that have always been available and, of course, the Internet — the educational opportunities are boundless.

                But not every family has the wherewithal or desire to facilitate children’s self-directed education at home. For many, a better option is a so-called democratic school, where children have charge of their own education in a setting that optimizes their educational opportunities and where there are many other children with whom to socialize and learn. (Such schools should not be confused with Montessori schools or other types of “progressive” schools that permit more play and offer more choices than do standard schools but nevertheless maintain a top-down, teacher-to-student system of authority and a relatively uniform curriculum that all students are expected to follow.)

                  Over many years, I’ve observed learning at one such place, the Sudbury Valley School, in Framingham, Mass. It’s called a school, but is as different as you can imagine from what we usually think of as “school.”  The students, who range in age from 4 to about 18, are free all day to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t break any of the school rules. The rules, which are created democratically at the School Meeting by students and staff together, have nothing to do with learning; they have to do with keeping peace and order and are enforced by a judicial system modeled after that of our larger society. The school currently has about 150 students and 10 staff members, and it operates on a per-student budget that is less than half that of the surrounding public schools. It accepts essentially all students who apply and whose parents agree to enroll them.

                  Today approximately two dozen schools exist in the United States that are explicitly modeled after Sudbury Valley, and others exist that have most of its basic characteristics. Compared to other private schools, these schools charge low tuitions, and some have sliding tuition scales. Students come from a wide variety of backgrounds and with a wide variety of personalities.

                To people who haven’t witnessed it firsthand, it’s hard to imagine how such a school could work. Yet Sudbury Valley has been in existence now for 45 years and has hundreds of graduates, who are doing just fine in the real world.

                Many years ago, my colleague David Chanoff and I conducted a follow-up study of the school’s graduates. We found that those who had pursued higher education (about 75 percent) reported no particular difficulty getting into the schools of their choice and doing well there once admitted. Some, including a few who had never previously taken a formal course, had gone on successfully to highly prestigious colleges and universities. As a group, regardless of whether or not they had pursued higher education, they were remarkably successful in finding employment. They had gone into a wide range of occupations, including business, arts, science, medicine, other service professions, and skilled trades. Most said that a major benefit of their Sudbury Valley education was that they had acquired a sense of personal responsibility and capacity for self-control that served them well in all aspects of their lives.  Many also commented on the importance of the democratic values that they had acquired, through practice, at the school.  More recently, two larger studies of graduates, conducted by the school itself, have produced similar results and been published as books.

                 Students in this setting learn to read, calculate and use computers in the same playful ways that kids in hunter-gatherer cultures learn to hunt and gather. They also develop more specialized interests and passions, which can lead directly or indirectly to careers. For example, a highly successful machinist and inventor spent his childhood playfully building things and taking things apart to see how they worked. Another graduate, who became a professor of mathematics, had played intensively and creatively with math. And yet another, a high-fashion pattern maker, had played at making doll clothes and then clothes for herself and friends.

                  I’m convinced that Sudbury Valley works so well as an educational setting because it provides the conditions that optimize children’s natural abilities to educate themselves. These conditions include a) unlimited opportunity to play and explore (which allows them to discover and pursue their interests); b) access to a variety of caring and knowledgeable adults who are helpers, not judges; c) free age mixing among children and adolescents (age-mixed play is far more conducive to learning than is play among those who are all at the same level); and d) direct participation in a stable, moral, democratic community in which they acquire a sense of responsibility for others, not just for themselves. Think about it: None of these conditions are present in standard schools.

                   I don’t mean to paint self-directed education as a panacea. Life is not always smooth, no matter what the conditions. But my research and others’ research in these settings has convinced me, beyond any doubt, that the natural drives and abilities of young people to learn are fully sufficient to motivate their entire education. When they want or need help from others, they ask for it. We don’t have to force people to learn; all we need to do is provide them the freedom and opportunities to do so. Of course, not everyone is going to learn the same things, in the same way, or at the same time. But that’s a good thing. Our society thrives on diversity. Our culture needs people with many different kinds of skills, interests and personalities. Most of all, we need people who are pursuing life with passion and who take responsibility for themselves throughout life. These are the common denominators of people who have taken charge of their own education.

Peter Gray is a research professor of psychology at Boston College. His most recent book is"Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self Reliant, and Better Prepared for Life" (Basic Books, 2013). He is also author of an introductory psychology textbook ("Psychology," Worth Publishers, now in its sixth edition), a regular blog for Psychology Today magazine called Freedom to Learn, and many academic articles dealing with children’s natural ways of learning. Along with a number of colleagues, he recently launched a web site (AlternativesToSchool.com) designed to help families find or create settings for children’s self-directed learning.