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The Real Problem with Education Today? Kids Hate School -- and Here's Why

Author Peter Gray talks about why children today have such trouble learning.

The following is a Q&A with Peter Gray about his new book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, which argues that students learn better when they are free to play, explore and teach themselves.

1. Can you explain briefly why you were motivated to write this book? You wrote about your son, who had trouble learning in a traditional school?

I wouldn’t say that my son had trouble learning in a traditional school, certainly not any more so than anyone else.  I would say, rather, that he found that he was not free in school to follow his own interests, ask his own questions, solve problems in his own way, and present his own ideas honestly.  He found it to infringe on his rights as a human being.  Once he finally convinced his mother and me of this, we found a very different school—a school that is really a setting for self-directed learning.  Ultimately, this experience led me to change the direction of my research.  I began to focus on how children educate themselves—largely through free play and exploration—when they are free to do so and are provided with a setting that optimizes their ability to do so.  I wrote the book because I came to believe that we, as a society, are stunting children’s social, emotional, an intellectual development by depriving them of the freedom they need to play and explore.

2. You write in your book that not only is the decline in children’s freedom hindering learning, but also it’s actually increasing psychological, emotional and social disorders in children. Are people seeing this? Are parents seeing this? Why is there not more outrage?

The decline in children’s freedom to play and explore, undirected by adults, has been gradual over the past 50 or 60 years.  This gradual decline has been accompanied by a gradual increase in anxiety, depression, and other mental disorders in children.  Because the change is gradual, people don’t necessarily see it. Yet, over time, the change has been dramatic.  Today, by unchanged measures, the rates of anxiety disorders and major depression in children and adolescents are five to eight times what they were in the 1950s.  When people see that their own children are depressed or anxious, they tend to blame themselves, as parents, rather than the social conditions that have deprived children of freedom.  Or they assume that this is just a normal part of childhood or adolescence, because it is so common. 

3. In education discussions, people often talk about poverty and its relation to poor parenting and that relation to their children failing in school. But it was intriguing to read that parents who are over-concerned about their children’s education can perhaps be even more destructive to their growth. What are your thoughts on this?

Researchers have found that rates of anxiety, depression, drug abuse, and general cynicism are remarkably high among children and adolescents in middle-class and upper-class families, especially those in which the parents are carting their kids from one adult-directed activity to another and are insisting on high grades and honors in school.  These young people are seeing life as a series of hoops to jump through, hoops set by the adults in their world.  They are not seeing life as a joyful adventure in which they are in control.  They are not finding their own passions and pursuing them.  This is a very sad development.

4. Do you think part of the problem of teachers not allowing their students to take charge of their own education is that they don’t believe they can learn anything from their students? What should be the goal of a teacher? Should they have a desire to “learn from” instead of “teach to” students?