Saturday, October 22, 2016

How Did Our Schools Get Here?

Free to Learn by Peter Gray

Chapter 3 - Why Schools Are What They Are
Chapter 4 - Seven Sins of Our System of Forced Education

"Children's instincts for self-directed learning can work today as well as they ever did."

Peter Gray offers a brief history of our educational system. He says that education and schools today are a product of our history. As cultures turned to agriculture, children were expected to do more work to support and help the family and had less time for self-directed exploration and play. Values within the system shifted to see work as more desired and play as wasteful use of time. Feudalism and industrialism created power structures from the top down and those in lower ranks were more dependent on the powerful. This was imparted to children as well.

Education grew from religious institutions, with the primary method of instruction as rote memorization. Hard work was emphasized and valued. "Learning was understood to be work, not play." Later the government took over education. "Schooling came to be seen as a state function that was essential for national security...", shaping future citizens. Education became compulsory and more standardized (in both content and method). These concepts of education continue down to the present-day. "We automatically think of learning as work, which children must be forced to do in special work places, schools, modeled after factories," writes Gray.

He lists seven sins of the system of compulsory ("forced") education:
  1. Denial of liberty without just cause and due process.
    (Should children be required to attend school?)
  2. Interference with the development of personal responsibility and self-direction.
    (We assume children are not able to be responsible for their own education due to their age. Schools do not allow children to self-direct their education or assume responsibility for it.)
  3. Undermining of intrinsic motivation to learn (turning learning into work).
    ("Anything a person is forced to do, according to someone else's schedule, using procedures that someone dictates, is work." Schools circumvent the child's natural tendencies to learn and explore.)
  4. Judging students in ways that foster shame, hubris, cynicism, and cheating.
    (Continual testing creates inferior and superior feelings in students; focus on grades and no real focus on actual learning; pressure to perform)
  5. Interference with the development of cooperation and promotion of bullying.
    (Schools force competitiveness on children and promote selfishness. Lack of age-mixed play discourages cooperative and nurturing among students.)
  6. Inhibition of critical thinking.
    (Grading is powerful force against honest debate and critical thought. Focus on correct answers to other's questions rather than own thoughts and questions. Increased anxiety inhibits playfulness and critical thinking.)
  7. Reduction in diversity of skills and knowledge.
    (On their own, children follow diverse paths and unpredictable connections in education; but in prescribed curriculum, no room is allowed for a child's own interests. Schools don't adjust to different personalities; they try to mold students to fit the system.)

These two chapters did provide some insights into our current approach to educating children. I agree that schools provide little in the way of diverse approaches to education. That goes for teachers, too. Sometimes it's hard for teachers to deviate much from the norm; the pressure to do it the "right" way is often very real. 

It seems that, in the current climate, the tendency is more standardization, more testing, more "work" for students. More hoops, more data, more directives for teachers. I have heard people say that we cannot fix our current system; the only way we can change what's happening is to start from scratch with a new system. That seems to be where Peter Gray is going, too.

I am interested to see where the book will be going next. Peter Gray certainly writes with a specific point of view...and I wonder how his view of things will align with my own.

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