Monday, July 12, 2010

Psychology Today: Why Children Don't Like School

Peter Gray, a research professor in Developmental, Evolutionary, Comparative, and Educational Psychology (Boston College), has written a series of fantastic blog articles for Psychology Today about trustful parenting, the importance of play, children's natural inclination to learn and school as a detriment to learning.

He's a proponent of self-education. In fact, he says that is how children learn. Period. In order to self-educate, children must have freedom (not usually available in a school setting except perhaps in an alternate setting like Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts). And he says that schools "suck the fun out of everything they teach." Well, yes.

So, why don't children like school? Gray states,

Ask any school child why they don't like school and they'll tell you. "School is prison." They may not use those words, because they're too polite, or maybe they've already been brainwashed to believe that school is for their own good and therefore it can't be prison. But decipher their words and the translation generally is, "School is prison."
Every new generation of parents, and every new batch of fresh and eager teachers, hears or reads about some "new theory" or "new findings" from psychology that, at long last, will make schools more fun and improve learning. But none of it has worked. And none of it will until people face the truth: Children hate school because in school they are not free. Joyful learning requires freedom.

Gray points out that if you listen to Edu-speak (teacher banter), you'll hear statements like "schools need to motivate children to learn," the assumption being that children past the age of 5 are not capable of demonstrating interest in learning on their own. As Gray says,

One reason for the perception that school-aged kids are not motivated to learn on their own comes from our culture's general acceptance of the school system's definition of learning. If learning is defined as doing school assignments or work that looks a lot like school assignments, then it is certainly true that kids who are "unschooled" or who attend Sudbury schools spend little time "learning." Instead, they spend their time playing and exploring, in unpredictable ways, and they pick up the culture's knowledge and skills as a side effect.

Motivation comes down to the "real truth" about which is more effective in terms of learning - extrinsic carrot/stick (reward/punishment) that is part of the school culture (grades) or intrinsic coming from a sense of involvement and purpose.

In a very recent TED Talk, Dan Pink talks about why we have it all wrong. This fits so well with Alfie Kohn's work, Punished by Rewards. Even though Pink is primarily talking about motivation in business settings, his ideas are definitely applicable to educational settings as well. He says that an extrinsic reward/punishment (carrot/stick) model is detrimental to motivation and that true motivation requires three intrinsic components: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. And he can quote the research that proves it.

I recently had a lunch date with a couple of public school teachers and the "why do you [or why would you want to] homeschool" question came up, along with all the prejudices and misunderstandings about home learning. Because it was a social visit, I was able to address their concerns and also frame the problematic examples given as representing only a very small proportion of homeschooling children (who are now in school precisely because it wasn't working at home, for whatever reason). I also brought up John Holt and the unschooling movement. They wanted to know why Holt, as a teacher himself, didn't lobby for school reform (rather than propose that children learn at home). I told them that he did but that no one listened or acted. Finally, he decided that the only way to reform education was to do it outside of the system - within families, at home.

When children learn at home, they have the potential freedom to learn according to their own developmental timelines and according to their strengths, their interests, their passions. They can create their own fun, their own sense of purpose, their own motivation based on what's important and meaningful to them. And they are able, as learning organisms, to develop as their individual and unique biology intends them to. And that's powerful stuff.

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