If you’re thirty-something or older, then you probably think that childhood was better when you were young than it is now. You likely wax nostalgic about playing games without gaming consoles, kicking around balls without coaches, exploring the neighborhood without adult supervision, and sharing memories with friends without a social networking service. In his new book Free to Learn, Boston College psychologist Peter Gray also thinks that childhood was better in the old days. In the very old days. In the days of our lives as hunter-gatherers. In fact, Gray thinks we should return childhood to its formative roots and design learning environments around what he refers to as the core social values of hunter-gatherer society: autonomy, sharing, and equality.
There is no lack of criticisms against our education system, but why would a psychologist advocate for a return to Pleistocene era principles? As Gray explains, for the majority of human history, we lived as nomadic hunters and gatherers. Children spent most of their time on their own playing freely in multiage groups. Learning happened “on the job” as children collaborated with more skilled peers on meaningful tasks relevant to survival. It has only been within the last several hundred years (at most, and not yet universally) that formal education has been a childhood requirement. That’s less than one-tenth of one percent of humankind’s entire existence.
When you look at childhood through this evolutionary lens, it becomes clear that formal education and much of the skills children learn in school, like reading, writing, and most of modern day mathematics, are very recent phenomena in human history. The evolutionary novelty of schooling means, says Gray, that children did not evolve social and cognitive mechanisms adapted for preplanned curricula, rote memorization, and standardized assessments. Rather they evolved to expect the sorts of learning experiences that have been typical of our species for most of our history. Considering that the school house is a species-atypical environment for children, Gray thinks that we should not be surprised that many of them do not thrive in classroom settings.
Similar concerns about the unnaturalness of formal education have been expressed in other books, such as David Bjorklund’s Why Youth is Not Wasted On the Young: Immaturity in Human Development and my Your Brain on Childhood: The Unexpected Side Effects of Classrooms, Ballparks, Family Rooms, and the Minivan. But rather than focusing on unnaturalness as the reason for reform, Gray constructs a moral case against our current system of education. In a passionate polemic, he argues that our mode of “forced” education is an immoral infringement on children’s personal freedom. Gray believes that such “incarceration” goes against our society’s democratic values. Just as it is wrong to force citizens of a democracy to work a job or marry a person they don’t want to, it is wrong to force children to go to school if they don’t want to.
Gray’s appeal to ethics might catch some readers off guard. They may wonder: Is it also immoral to force nutritious meals, early bedtimes, minivan seatbelts, fluoride toothpaste, bicycle helmets, and routine vaccines if children don’t want them? Parents do all of these things because scientific research shows that they are for the good of children. And most parents likely would stop doing them if science demonstrated otherwise. Surely there are a minority of individual cases where getting a routine vaccine, wearing a minivan seatbelt, or going to formal school does more harm than good. And there always will be room to improve vaccines, seatbelts, and schools. But empirical literatures tell us that, on average, vaccines, seatbelts, and schooling are linked to positive life outcomes. Given this science, some parents might consider it a moral obligation to see that their children get recommended vaccines, wear seatbelts, and do their schoolwork.
Building his case against “forced” education, Gray likens the school house to prison. “Everyone who has ever been to school knows that school is a prison.” When I read this statement to my 9-year-old, he objected, “No way! You don’t learn things in prison.” So I decided to test Gray’s claim on a nonrandom sample of my children and their friends. Not a single one of these public school children considered their school a prison. Many griped about homework, worksheets, standardized exams, mean substitute teachers, and the insignificance of algebra to their everyday lives. But I also heard about the electrical circuits and vegetable gardens in science, the travel brochures and Greek mythology plays in social studies, the clay gargoyles and copper etchings in art, the poems and short stories in language arts, the pickup games at recess, and the camaraderie on the middle school track team. Sure these children viewed some of their assignments as drudgery and admitted they might not do them if they weren’t mandatory. But none saw the parallels to prison or felt unjustly forced to get on the school bus.
Gray, however, does not think that the drudgery of school is what most turns off children. The real reason, he argues, is the forced nature of the curriculum. “Children don’t like school because, like all human beings, they crave freedom, and in school they are not free.” Sure many children don’t like certain things about school and most don’t love it. It also might be the case that some children don’t like school for the very reason that it infringes on their freedom. But the reasons underlying children’s dislike of school is an empirical question for which Gray does not provide data. There likely are multiple reasons why children dislike school, and these reasons may be different for different children who have different experiences. I think where the real lack of freedom comes in is in what and how teachers can teach. Because of No Child Left Behind and its offshoots, even the best, most caring and talented teachers are constrained by a curriculum handed down by the state.
A larger issue that Gray’s book may bring up in the minds of readers is whether the modern American family is a democracy. If it is a democracy, then only a majority vote could force children to go to school. But I doubt whether many parents – or adults looking back on their own childhoods – would call their family a democracy. Most American families operate like a monarchy. The morality of this custom certainly could be debated, but I doubt whether many parents would want to remove themselves from the top of the hierarchy. Otherwise there might be chocolate cake sandwiches for lunch, moon bounces in the family room, and ponies in the backyard. Gray argues that we no longer run our families as democracies because we have lost the trust of children common in hunter-gatherer societies – where children play with sharp objects, roam freely, and have no set bedtime. But hunter-gatherer communities differ in so many ways from the modern world that some might see Gray as naïve to think that a true democracy would fly for most of his readers.
Gray argues that we limit children’s freedoms because we wrongly see them as immature and unsophisticated. This seems like an odd argument coming from someone who labels himself an evolutionary developmental psychologist. In the evolutionary developmental framework, theorists view childhood as fundamentally different from adulthood and see the immature behaviors of children not as weaknesses to be overcome but as adaptations designed by evolution to ensure typical development. For instance, young children’s egocentricity boosts learning and memory. Their tendency to misattribute the actions of others as something they did themselves results in better integrated and more easily retrievable memories. Similarly, young children’s poor metacognitive skills prompt them to overestimate their talents, but they also lead children to take on more challenging tasks and persist at them longer than if they accurately appraised their performance. Thus in an evolutionary developmental psychology view, children’s immaturity is by design and not a mere social construction of modern Western culture as Gray suggests.
In fact, the immaturities of children are exactly why some readers of Gray’s book may argue that children are not yet ready to be full participants in a democratic system. Indeed, the most robust democracies in the world are those whose participants are the most well-informed and the most able to make reasoned judgments. So a question for readers is to consider whether parents and educators would be better off preparing children for their active participation in democratic society as they develop into young adults than pushing them into it in kindergarten before they may be informed enough and sophisticated enough to make sound independent judgments that balance their own needs with those of the larger community.
In support of his ideals, Gray describes an institution that represents “a truly democratic school” and a return to hunter-gatherer learning principles. The Sudbury Valley School puts children’s education entirely into their own hands. Students at the school choose how to spend their days. They are not placed into grades or classrooms, but are free to move about the campus, interact with whomever they like, and use the ample school resources as they see fit. There are no curricula, no tests, and no grades. Classes in specific subjects are offered when there is interest, but attendance is never required and instruction ends when interest wanes. Each student and staff member has an equal voice in setting all school policies. Adults, whose yearly reappointments are dependent on a majority vote, are not considered teachers, but rather work to keep the school running and serve as resources when students request their help. To earn a diploma, students must write and defend a thesis explaining how they’ve prepared themselves for a successful adult life. Gray notes that more than half of Sudbury Valley students experienced major problems in public school, but that nearly all graduates go on to lead successful lives and reflect on their experiences at the alternative school positively.
This is clearly a compelling model that deserves further study. However, without doing the proper research it is impossible to know if the Sudbury Valley model is truly effective. We need longitudinal random assignment studies to know its impact—research that goes beyond claims for an association between a Sudbury Valley education and learning, and explores the mechanisms that drive this link. Without this sort of rigor, there is no way to know if Gray is merely onto a placebo effect. Any student who shells out a hefty tuition and invests multiple years at the same institution has a pretty strong incentive to think that his education was second to none. Given that there are multiple pathways to any developmental outcome, perhaps the most important contribution of Gray’s book is that he has given readers an alternate educational path to explore for students for whom traditional schooling has failed. And there may be some or even many aspects of the Sudbury Valley model from which all schools could benefit. But again this is an empirical question for future research.
Despite this call for more work on the Sudbury Valley model, Gray’s claims that school should be less about direct instruction, memorization, and one-right-answer testing, and more about play fit well with a voluminous literature demonstrating the benefits of free play for cognitive, social, and emotional development. Play gives children a motivating context to develop culturally relevant skills, solve complex problems, make new discoveries, and practice working with others. Gray’s arguments also are consistent with a large body of work showing that the current standards-movement focus on outcomes does not lead to the sorts of learning that satisfy children’s natural curiosity to learn. Memorizing the life cycle of a grasshopper, reading about the physical properties of a paperclip, and mapping the major battles of the revolutionary war so that you can pass the fourth grade does not satisfy children’s drive to learn any more than a cardboard cheeseburger would satisfy your hunger drive. Bottom line: We know that children thrive in active and playful learning environments—characteristics that seems to be commonplace in children’s education during hunter-gatherer times.
Based on a mix of political ideology, personal experience, and empirical work, Gray also works the reader through “seven sins” of “forced education.” None of these sins, however, hits on the central evolutionary developmental criticism of modern schooling, namely the “out of context” learning it demands. Today children learn technological skills for their own sake and not to solve any real-world problems. Think times tables and word study sorts. But for most of our history children learned new skills in the very contexts they were practiced and the reasons for learning each new skill were apparent. Adults didn’t teach children how to identify edible plants so they could demonstrate that knowledge on next Tuesday’s biology exam. Rather children learned this skill so they could forage for lunch safely. The usual evolutionary argument focuses on the importance of putting children’s learning back in context—to make it meaningful and consequently motivate learning. Why? Because, for example, the motivation to read is not driven by the process itself. It’s not driven by the thrill of sounding out isolated words, spelling them correctly, sorting them into patterns, or listing synonyms. It is motivated by being able to do meaningful things with words, like reading stories, writing messages, leaving notes, understanding signs, making out recipes, and sending texts. When meaning is apparent in curriculum, “freedom” in Gray’s sense might no longer be an issue because the motivation to learn will be there.
There is also a growing literature by Temple University’s Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and colleagues that demonstrates that, at least under some conditions, guided play provides a richer learning environment and better learning outcomes than either free play alone or direct instruction. There is much evidence that adults can promote learning by co-playing with children, asking open-ended questions, and suggesting novel ways for children to explore materials. These sorts of findings must be taken seriously by scientists like Gray who advocate for complete freedom in children’s learning. Perhaps Gray is confounding curriculum and pedagogy. Gray worries that a “forced” curriculum is dangerous because children were designed to play freely. But decades of research demonstrate that foundational academic and social skills are important for children’s success. A strong core curriculum and a playful pedagogy are not incompatible. Putting together Gray’s ideas along with those of Hirsh-Pasek and the evolutionary developmentalists suggest that the antidote to modern education might be delivering a strong curriculum in a playful and meaningful manner. Indeed, more high quality research is needed to examine the impact of playing learning, but there is every reason to suspect that this is what is needed to help children be active and engaged learners and become independent, responsible, and thoughtful adults in democratic society.
Watch our interview with Peter Gray: