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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.

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I don’t blame teachers for the problem.  The problem is a structural one.  It is impossible, given the structure of our schools, to allow students to take charge of their own education in school.  To do that we need to start from scratch and re-design schools in such a way that the adults are helpers and not directors.  I think teachers can make some difference, however, by creating as much flexibility as the system allows, by respecting students, and by permitting students to pursue their own interests to the degree that the system permits.  Unfortunately, it is harder now than ever before for even the most enlightened teachers to follow this path.  Increasingly, their job is being defined as that of somehow getting students to score higher on standardized tests.  Nobody is much concerned any more about true learning in school—the concern now focuses on test scores.

5. There are students who would claim to enjoy school and its structured environment — probably the “expert” students who excel almost effortlessly. Are they different? Or are they repressing something?

Research has shown that, overall, students are much less happy in school than in any other setting in which they regularly find themselves.  However, it is true that some students claim to enjoy school.  I think many of these are people who have learned to enjoy the competition of school.  They feel good about getting high grades, praise, and other rewards for doing well.  Even many of those students, however, when questioned, will show cynicism about the actual learning that occurs in school.  They will admit that they have mastered the art of figuring out what the teachers want and then supplying it. I should add, however, that many students say they enjoy school because that is where they see their friends.  Kids really need friends; if school is the only place where they can see them, then, for that reason, they like school.  If they had a chance to play with friends out of school, they would like that much more.

6. You talk about human beings as having a “natural” state, which you say is best expressed in a hunter-gatherer society. You blame agriculture as the beginning of the shift away from a hunter-gatherer society to an industrial society, where children generally don’t like school and, to add my own extension, adults generally don’t like work. If we are “naturally” inclined to live in a hunter-gatherer society where children can teach themselves and adults can produce what they desire, why did we move away from it? Can it be that agriculture was a pure mistake that snowballed into today’s society?

We were hunter-gatherers during all but a very small portion of our evolutionary history, so in that sense the hunter-gatherer way of life is more natural to us than is our present way of life.  However, we are also extraordinarily adaptable and inventive.  It’s not hard to imagine how and why humans in various parts of the world began moving gradually toward agriculture beginning around 12,000 years ago.  Inventive people began to realize that they could increase the yield of vegetation if they scattered seeds or planted roots and dug some ditches for irrigation.  Ultimately, this led to full cultivation, tending of the land, domestication of animals, and so on.  It also, of course, led to land ownership, status hierarchies (as those who owned land had power over those who did not) and hierarchical systems of governance.  The end result was a world in which children had to be trained to obey those in authority in order to survive.  This led to systems of child rearing aimed at suppressing the child’s will rather than fostering the child’s will.  Our schools emerged a few centuries ago out of that atmosphere.  The early developers of our modern system of schooling were quite clear in their writings that the purpose of schools was indoctrination and obedience training; they spoke openly of the duty of school masters to break students’ wills.  Remember, by that point in history, willfulness and sinfulness were considered to be almost synonyms.