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


The following is a Q&A with Peter Gray about his 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?

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.

7. You state in your conclusion that you believe that “eventually the coercive system will fade away.” With our society getting worse and worse — more corruption, more inequality, more hatred (and therefore, having less and less of a hunter-gatherer society’s values) —how do you believe this to be true?

Actually, I don’t believe that our society is getting worse and worse.  In fact, even in my lifetime we have made great progress toward more equality, less corruption, less violence.  We now live in a world that, in theory, and increasingly in practice, accords equal human rights to people regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.  As Stephen Pinker documents in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, history has shown a continuous decline in violence of all sorts, worldwide, and increase in human tolerance.  We, of course, have a long way to go, abuses today are well known and are terrible; but we are, in fact, all in all, kinder and more tolerant of one another than we have been in the past.  We are also entering into an era of history in which creativity and initiative—rather than blind, rote, rule-following—are valued in the workplace.  Our school system has not caught up to these trends, and that is why many people are beginning to see it as repressive and counterproductive to healthy education in today’s world.  I think the change will come as people leave the school system, as they currently are at an accelerating rate. 

8. How is your son faring now? Did he attend Sudbury Valley? — the fascinating school you write about in your book that allows children to roam freely, educate themselves and attain a degree by preparing a thesis.

Yes, my son was a student at Sudbury Valley School from age 10 to 18.  Then he went on to college and did well there, though he claims that much of college was a waste of time and that he educated himself much more by reading books that were not assigned than by doing assignments. After that he worked for a while as a computer specialist.  He is now, very happily, a staff member at the Sudbury Valley School.

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