Free to Learn by Peter Gray
Updated: Apr 3
Our education system is not serving humanity, but breaking it. It goes against the way we are wired to learn to learn. Humans learn best through play.
There I was, sitting in a classroom. The schedule was strict. 50 minutes of lecture and 10 minutes break time. A one hour lunch was permitted from 12-1. I was thankful that each student required a computer with internet access. No human could stay engaged in lecture on this schedule. Did I mention this was a five day class? I thought about my boys in their schools. They had less time between classes and would have to raise their hands to use the restroom. I could just walk out, even if what I was really doing was getting a little fresh air or making a phone call. Their lunch break was only thirty minutes and they did not have a recess. If I, as an adult, couldn’t handle this repetitive lecture schedule for one week, how could they, as children, handle it all. Year. Long.
I did pay attention as much as was possible, but I am convinced the human brain can only absorb so much from lecture in a given period of time, especially when one is not an auditory learner, but more visual and kinesthetic.
I recalled a conversation with a co-worker about a private school which followed the Sudbury model. I decided to look it up. Yes, I looked it up during class. The interest level I held for Network Security had declined significantly as of day three.
Most private schools tout a more rigorous curriculum, but both of my boys have ADHD and the younger of the two is Autistic as well. Public school was not serving their needs. It was frustrating them and teaching them that learning is boring. There were a couple of schools catering to children with ADHD which highlighted their increase in physical activity. It wasn’t much. About thirty minutes before school each morning. The Sudbury School allowed free play and self-directed learning all day. There were twelve acres to explore, including a stream regularly replenished by nature with fresh fossils. They had other exploratory areas as well such as a music studio, a wood shop, an art studio, a computer room, a dance and theater area and two kitchens.
Although my co-worker’s wife had blown off this educational approach as “glorified day-care” I was intrigued. I had homeschooled my children in the early years, for about thirteen years, and had seen the value in allowing children to learn according to their own learning styles and based on their own interests. Math and reading were much more easily absorbed when always framed around the child’s most recent “obsession” like sharks or space or foxes. The children could become nearly encyclopedic in their knowledge on a topic when they were hungry for it. Sticking to a formulaic curriculum was simply painful, both for the student and the teacher. Team work was much more effective and kept sanity levels manageable, even happy!
Interested in space? Great! Let’s calculate how far we are from the sun and discover which planets we can find in the night sky!
The children practically wrote the curriculum for me.
Now, though, I am a working mother, divorced (quite gratefully) and re-married (quite joyfully). I cannot homeschool and I have only recently worked my career into a place where any other option might be feasible. As I continued utilizing the research of this new (to me) educational method as a survival tactic for my own prison of lecture, I was very much understanding why my boys came home from school every day looking exhausted but seemed to have nothing interesting to talk about. Learning was not enjoyable to them.
My classroom environment gave me much empathy for them… and time to research.
I found a Sudbury school near me and enrolled my boys. One of the staff members (they don't call the adults "teachers" but "staff members") recommended a book; “Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant and Better Students for Life” by Peter Gray.
Here are some noteworthy excerpts.
Chapter 1: What Have We Done to Childhood?”
“Children are pawns in a competitive game in which the adults around them are trying to squeeze the highest possible scores out of them on standardized tests. Anything that increases performance short of outright cheating is considered ‘education’ in this high-stakes game.” (p. 9)
Yes, true. The thought made my shoulders tense.
“In a long term study of this sort, sociologist Sandra Hofferth and her colleagues compared the amount of time that representative samples of children spent daily on activities in 1997 with the time that similar samples spent at the same activities in 1981. Among other things, the study revealed that children age six to eight spent 18 percent more time in school, 145 percent more time doing schoolwork at home, 168 percent more time shopping with parents, 55 percent less time conversing with others at home, 19 percent less time watching television and 25 percent less time playing in 1997 than they did in 1981.” (p.11)
I knew it. It was much worse than when I was in school. I recalled having at least two recess periods in elementary school and one in middle school. Middle school no longer has a recess period. Elementary school utilizes the remainder of the lunch period as a recess time.
Then the author discussed rates of stress related mental disorders in children.
On to Chapter 2: “The Play-Filled Lives of Hunter Gatherer Children”
“They [children of the Ju/’hoan tribe] run, chase, leap, climb, throw, and dance, and in doing so they develop fit and coordinated bodies. They make musical instruments and play the familiar Ju/’hoan songs and create new ones. They do all this because they want to. Nobody tells them they must. Nobody tests them. No adults try to direct their play, though sometimes adults, especially the younger ones, join in for fun, and sometimes Kwi and friends join games and dances initiated by adults. Their guide is their own free will.
This is childhood as nature designed it.”(p. 22)
The picture painted in my mind caused my shoulders to relax a bit. A sigh of of relief came over me. But, relief from what exactly?
“Anthropologists have aptly described hunter-gatherer existence as the only stable way of life our species has ever known.” (p 22)
“A term often used by researchers to describe adults’ general treatment of children in hunter-gatherer societies is indulgent, but perhaps a better term is trustful.” (p. 26)
The author went on to describe the bright and happy children this method consistently produced rather than the spoiled rotten brat we are encouraged to believe would result from this style of parenting here in the Western world. He expounds on the core value of sharing and giving in these societies and the lack of hierarchy, all being equal participants with different talents, none is better than the other, there is no Chief, but decisions are made as a group, including input from the children. This felt right.
Chapter 3: “Why Schools Are What They Are: A Brief History of Education”
I was very interested to know whose brilliant idea this modern education system was exactly (please read with great sarcasm inflected).
“Agriculture, once established, kicked off an ever-accelerating whirlwind of changes in our ways of living, and those changes dramatically altered our ways of thinking about and rearing children.” (p43)
Had I not been a product of American public schooling, I likely would have already explored these ideas on my own. But this modern society does not allow one time and space to think about those things one wants to think about, only what must be accomplished. I am sure the rise of agriculture was a part of the mandatory curriculum in a few of my Social Studies classes, the lectures endured by doodling in a notebook, the tests aced by a quick cram study and a dump of information into multiple choice and short answer tests. I was a straight A’s student, but the things they were “teaching” me did not remain in my brain, unless I really wanted them to. At this moment, some corner of my brain has now acquired the spongy form required to absorb this information. I am curious. I want to know now.
The author delved into permanent dwellings, the increase in the number of children, the ability to amass wealth and therefore… develop a class system in which some humans are more valuable than others. “Big men” became more powerful and dominated tribes… and dominated women, treating all brutally. In a hunter gatherer society, hunting and gathering were not considered “labor” but merely an extension of play and community. In an agricultural society, the need for labor is greatly increased and children are quickly set to labor alongside their parents. Still today anthropologists find that children in hunter gatherer societies have vastly more time for play than do those in agricultural and industrial societies. They also have virtually no mental illnesses. Or political quarrels. Or technical issues. Or junk mail.
I’m just dreaming now. Back to the book.
“The more a culture depended on agriculture and the less it depended on hunting and gathering, the more likely it was to value obedience, devalue self-assertion, and use harsh means to discipline children.” (p 48)
“Not surprisingly, they found the more violent a society was overall, the more likely it was that parents use corporal punishment. The beating of children corresponded positively with frequencies of wife beating, harsh punishment of criminals, wars and other indicies of societal violence….. The researchers suggested, from this finding, that parents use corporal punishment ultimately to teach their children to respect the hierarchy of power. Some people are more powerful than others and must be obeyed, no questions asked.” (p 49)
There is that tension again. And now a bit of anger as well. Here is where a light-bulb went off for me. The why of religious dogma.
“Religious beliefs reflect political and economic realities and commonly serve the purpose of those in power.”
YES, I emphatically agree… go on.
“Hunter gatherer’ religions were nondogmatic and playful. Their deities, which generally represented the forces of nature, were relatively equal to one another, had little or no authority over humans, and were sources of amusement, inspiration and understanding. But as agriculture developed and societies became hierarchical, religions followed suit. Gods became more fearsome, demanding worship and obedience and some gods came to be viewed as more powerful than others.”
Ok, no mocking or condescending comments about how long you have known that for or how young you were when you learned it ok? We all learn differently and at different rates. Speaking of which, aren’t we talking about education and not religion? Yes… and no… or both. The next segment of the book is sub-titled “Catholicism and the Top-Down Control of Learning.” Obedience. Authority. Serfdom. Heirarchy. It was all making sense. The Catholic structure of authority almost perfectly mirrors a Kingdom/Serfdom system. The same system that allowed Lords to beat boys at age seven or eight to ensure they would never question their Master’s orders. The same system which would threaten to burn at the stake those who would present new ideas which might threaten their hierarchy (such as Galileo’s theory that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around). Higher knowledge was locked behind the Latin language and access required you to attend a Church- run University.
“The Church developed universities not for the purpose of free inquiry, but for the purposes of formulating and controlling doctrine.”
“The hierarchical structure of medieval society and of the Church itself depended on unquestioned obedience, enforced by every means possible, including beatings, torture, death and threats of hell.” (p 55)
I thought about the sweet farewell gift given to my youngest son on his last day of Fifth grade in a public school. Each student had written a note for him on a coloring page with a section available for a note. It had been made into a book using a three-ring hole punch and yarn. At least half of the pages praised him for being “a good student because you always do what you are told.”
Public school was certainly not bringing my child down the path I wanted to lead him.
I also thought about the role of sharing in hunter gatherer societies as expressed back in chapter two.
“Their core social values… are autonomy (personal freedom), sharing and equality. We, in modern cultures generally hold these values as well, but hunter gatherer’s understanding of and emphasis on them go way beyond ours.” (p 24)
Autonomy: “Each person, including each child, is free to make his or her own choices, as long as those choices don’t interfere with others’ freedoms or violate a social taboo.”
Sharing: “The hunter-gatherer concept of sharing is different from our Western understanding…for hunter-gatherers, sharing is neither a generous act nor an implicit bargain, but a duty. It is taken for granted that you will share if you have more than others; failure to do so would invite ridicule and scorn.”
Equality: “Everyone’s needs are equally important, that no one is considered superior to others and no one possesses more material goods than anyone else.”
Modern society seems to value productivity, wealth and the almighty Economy. Even now in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, I hear much more on the news about the economy than about people. I see governments coming together and spending trillions of dollars to save the Economy. They did not do that when there was a humanitarian crisis at the border. They have not shown this level of solidarity to save the planet.
Greed is not becoming of humanity. How can we rid ourselves of it?