When you think about your child's education do you feel relaxed and free or stressed and constrained? If the word "school" feels a bit stifling, perhaps this might throw open a door, or at least a window...
A parent from our school suggested we start a book club - obviously a virtual one in this time of social distancing - and she suggested we start with the book Free to Learn by Dr. Peter Gray. If you’ve read other blog entries here, you’ve seen the title referenced frequently. Like many other educators and parents, it was a seminal work for me so I was delighted others wanted to talk about it too. I hope by the end of this post you will be so curious yourself that you too will dive in and see how it might change your life for the better as a parent, person, and/or educator.
I realized a few pages in that I had been ready to read this book for years, without knowing it. Teaching languages, literature, and science for many years, I came to the firm belief that we only truly learn things we feel are real, useful, fascinating, or essential for survival. The survival approach was one of my favorites in language instruction. While I dutifully scaffolded, I knew that only authentic contexts and the right amount of real frustration would bring deep learning. I would see this learning happen almost magically the more I stepped aside and let my students engage with each other more authentically. I was frustrated by giving grades, though. They felt time- and energy-consuming for all of us and took the focus off of learning as growth. I could feel in my bones there had to be a different way, a more human approach.
Peter is a professor and researcher at Boston College, frequent writer for Psychology Today, worldwide lecturer and author, and founder of the Alliance for Self-Directed Education. He’s also a very down-to-earth writer who helps readers to see childhood and learning from a dynamic historical, even anthropological, perspective. He gently blows open what can feel like a closed system of education today. He does this not with anger or finger pointing, but with carefully curated curiosity and compassion.
Our book club met for the first time about two week ago and launched feet first into this rich resource. “What is it really about?” was the first question. There’s not really a spoiler alert to give here. What I’ll share from our conversation will potentially strike a chord with your or your child’s journey (or struggle) with education and childhood. It may whet your appetite for the substance found in these pages. Maybe you’ll take them as Cliff’s Notes in installments and wait for future blog posts. If you’re anything like me, you might find yourself hungry for this fresh, intelligent perspective on important things that occupy a good chunk of parental time and energy. I found freedom in these pages and hope to pass that freedom on to others. Read on if you’re ready...
What’s this book really about? We identified 3 basic themes in what we’d read so far:
Commentary on the current state of education
What is this thing called “school” that we find being played out around the country? It seems to be a game in which adults provide a lot of discrete content for a group of young people who have little choice in the matter. The adults then require the young people to give that cache of content back to them in some version of performance that can be qualified and quantified, rewarded or punished. Isn’t that just education? Wasn’t it always this way? What’s so interesting is that the answer is no! What?!?
Peter provides the salient details, but the model we all know of separating children by ages then dividing learning into “subjects,” and marching linearly through a predetermined curriculum as a uniform cohort was not really a “thing” until it was imported from Prussia to the US. It was promoted in large part for the systematic molding of citizens through shared nationalism (later it would model factories, as you likely know already). The choice of this system was not based on educational research regarding how children learn best. It’s foundations are not in child development but rather in nationalism. Discussing education is never a quick topic, so this is no attempt to argue all the aspects of it, but knowing it “wasn’t always this way” seems to be helpful in stepping back for a little perspective.
Our group commented on how they’ve seen traditional schools feel like a “game” of teachers testing students and in turn students testing teachers (not in the graded way). We talked about feeling our children were mostly expected to “do what the teacher says” as the main way of “winning” this game, and that kids can see right through this exercise in frustration. They may question all the pushing and prodding or succumb (as many adults have) to the worldview that learning must be stressful work best done quickly and never done when not rewarded with a grade.
I shared an anecdote about a time a younger family member came to our house and asked our oldest son why he was reading. Not what he was reading, but why he was reading. He said he didn’t understand her question (we were homeschooling/unschooling at the time and I’d already stopped pushing learning to let it happen). She asked, “Like, do you have a report on it? Is there a test on it?” He looked at her again like she was asking why he was eating lunch. He just wanted to read it. I don’t think there was anything particularly remarkable in his approach, or there shouldn’t be. It did feel like she had been trained to see books as a means to an end, advancement toward the goal of better grades or avoidance of punishment. Is this really what we want for our children? Is the grade worth the trade?
How human beings actually learn
So, if it wasn’t always in classrooms like we now know, how did and do human beings actually learn? Good question! Our group was fired up. Play, Peter argues. Play, play, play. He methodically and realistically details how powerful a learning tool play is for our young (and not just the 0-to-4-year-old crowd at all). What is learned in play is not as easily quantifiable as content acquisition seems to be (though studies of content retention make one wonder if it was worth the time and effort - a topic for another day). Play provides procedural knowledge. Play builds skills that virtually every employer would list as essential and increasingly lacking: interpersonal interaction, negotiation, creativity, persistence, compromise, delight, problem solving, experimentation, and frustration tolerance, to name a few. Mixed-age play has shown to be an incredible vocabulary builder for everyone in the group, in addition to providing practice in scaling up or down the intensity of an interaction based on the participants.
We remarked that we know it’s hard for us as adults to see kids having fun and think of it as “learning,” but that’s evidently exactly when they’re learning the most! Relaxed and engaged are some of the best conditions, potentially prerequisites, for deep learning. Someone wisely asked the group, “What is more important than learning about human relationships?” The demonstrated mastery of historical timelines and mathematical theorems does not necessarily equate to the kinds of skills one needs to lead a successful and fulfilling life, including an academic one.
All of us in the group had been overachievers in our own traditional schooling. Whether it had been interesting or boring, we learned to play the game with high scores. And then what? Were we ready to succeed? A cousin of mine has talked about when she started college feeling she was able to recognize which of her peers had held down a job in high school or not. There were just some practical skills and perspectives that seemed to result from doing the kind of work that wasn’t simply performing for a grade in a teacher-moderated environment. Managing real world expectations and interactions in a job that could fire them gave them an edge that another’s AP classes simply didn’t.
This was clearly speaking to us on the personal level of our own experiences of childhood and we began to contrast that with what we observe of our own children’s paradigms of childhood.
How and why is childhood so different today from generations past?
We’d mostly all grown up in different places - some of us here in Miami, the Midwest, and even as far as Brazil and Germany. Our experiences of freedom, even just to be outdoors, was pretty varied (the Miami contingent chuckled at the quaint stories of roaming the Midwestern woods alone with friends). What we did all note is that regardless of the particulars of our baseline freedoms, there seems to be a significant shift today away from trusting children. Besides an even more intense focus on safety, we commented how adult organized and managed our children’s play has become. The entire day for many kids is completely structured (school, teams, homework, repeat) with little to no time for free play. It’s no wonder so many kids turn to devices to escape and have at least one domain they control and have free rein in - Peter gets to that topic in a later chapter.
With the best of intentions, we’ve become a culture that spoon-feeds and then force-feeds our children with what we deem important or educational. We wondered if this new generation is losing the confidence to teach and trust themselves, and frankly if they’re burning out from all the pressure.
We all talked about some of our own most memorable learning coming from mentors - the person and not the dry content. Modeled behavior teaches so much more effectively than lecture or direct instruction. Why? Because we are human! Especially for the young person, abstract instruction - and the seemingly arbitrary requirement to spend your time and energy on things you cannot see a direct connection or meaning for, - is part of what makes school a bore or worse for so many. Even the “good students” going through the motions may be longing for context and meaning, for ownership of their day.
Understandably, parents have the fear that their child will not be prepared to succeed if they don’t push them during childhood. They may have unconscious images of illiterate, unemployable children hanging around their house on the couch forever. The truth, though, is that today literacy is as much a tool as walking and speaking - and they very effectively and largely independently learned those skills by observation and trial and error. In fact, the less we pressure our children in speech and mobility, usually the more relaxed and adept they become. Peter argues that the same holds true for all learning for our young people. This is a truly radical notion supported by some very sobering facts.
What do you think - too “pie in the sky”? Does any of this resonate with you? Does any of this smell like freedom to you? The next question of course is what it could mean practically for us and our children. We want our children to feel that we trust them to think for themselves and learn new things. Let’s trust ourselves to acquire this new information and see where it takes us all.
Our book club meets again this Wednesday night - send me a message if you’re interested in joining us or hearing more about the discussion as we move through the book. Or, just dip your toe in yourself - read or listen and see what you think.
The Best of Intentions in Unprecedented Times
I had every intention of doing a lot of writing during this quarantine/isolation time - I thought at first it would be such an opportunity of time and space to reflect, refine, and to offer hopefully helpful thoughts and ideas. I thought maybe I would even publish two blog entries a week! Ha! That might have been the case were this just a kind of stay-cation, but it has been quite different for me, and I suspect for many others as well.
I’ve found that I’ve been exhausted, like I started a new job, or perhaps more like I squished two or three jobs together. Emotionally, this time feels both unreal and too real. It has so much unknown future hanging over the always immediate needs of the present. If you have children at home, you know that there’s often little time to really sit and transition ourselves, let alone our children, and that our young may not verbally express existential angst, but it vibrates out into the home in invisible yet palpable ways.
One of my mentors recommended this past week that I simply try to be patient with myself - that there’s a connectedness in knowing that so many of us around the world are experiencing this wild newness. While that is playing out differently in every city and household, there is a kind of solidarity right now. It’s ok if we only “accomplish” 1-2 things in a day. We’re running a background program of concern, question, caution, and changes large and small. We will talk more about “accomplishment” for our children in just a bit.
Opportunities & Challenges
I’ve heard some describe this time in terms of opportunity - having more time with children now that everyone has to be home together, getting creative in connecting with family and school communities, and reassessing how we fulfill our needs without the luxury of zipping off to a store. The car and bus traffic on the roads has significantly decreased and the foot and bike traffic (at least in Miami) is at unprecedented levels. Life has slowed down for so many. It has become an up close mash up for others.
All of a sudden, we all have lost either all or part of our primary sources of income, or know someone who has. It takes a lot of mental and emotional energy to suddenly find ourselves in these precarious positions. Perhaps our jobs have remained but have gone “virtual,” and we wrestle now with balancing “productivity” and the practical logistics of a home-space merged work-space that we suddenly share in isolation. There’s a lot of newness.
Right as we closed our school doors three weeks ago, I asked what blog topic would be most helpful: 1) Do we demand learning at this time from our children? or 2) Is boredom educational? There was an almost 50-50 split in expressed interest. I felt excited to launch into these topics - I actually see them as quite related. At the same time as we closed our doors, I joined an “isolation bubble” with some family members close by and began doing childcare for upwards of 7 children ages 7 months to 11 years (including our 3) while working with my unique school community on what it means to be a democratic community at a distance, combing through budgets for sustainability projections, learning new ways to grocery shop, and contending with all the existential exhaustion that this time suddenly brought with it. Lo and behold, I found I was demanding productivity from myself when all I wanted to do was to be bored or to escape into a novel or to take a nap. Oh, the beautiful way and often ironic ways that life continues to be my most relevant and challenging teacher.
Are these questions of demands and boredom still relevant to you? They are so perennial, are they not? And now we find ourselves with much more direct contact time with our children to concern ourselves with them.
What to do?
What should our children be doing during this time? Many parents are feeling overwhelmed with their own work transitions and then feel the added pressure of wondering how much they need to facilitate learning for their children. By children, of course, each family is potentially speaking about a wide range of ages. The schools they were recently at may have sent instructions for “virtual learning” modules or sessions. Maybe they were given a schedule to follow or maybe they were given little in terms of clear direction.
If it helps, my understanding is that many traditional schools are doing an unprecedented level of “letting go” in terms of grades, attendance, and pressure. For my part, I can say, “Thank goodness. Did it take a pandemic to inspire such a breath?” Even many “rigorously academic” schools have scaled back to about 3 hours of virtual “class time” and some with a greater emphasis on discussion and creative expression in this moment calling for exactly that. There are no longer truly “captive audiences” and it opens up a phenomenal line of questioning for many students and their families about what is truly possible outside of the “rigorous” schedule many have become accustomed to. Many students miss this actual social contact. Many may be glad for some distance from bullies or even overly harsh school staff. For some, school is an oasis while for others it feels like a prison. What is now?
I’ve heard from fellow educators more recently that while there have been fascinating evolutions in their teaching due to the innovation this time calls for, and that at first students seemed intrigued by school going “online,” there’s a waning of motivation and even the most engaging teachers are watching the screen for distracted or distracting students. Many parents feel they suddenly were pushed into the role of school administrator and enforcer. Many parents also feel they are getting to see what their children are being asked to do and wondering how “worth it” it really is.
So let’s step back a moment ourselves and ask the underlying question here - what is “educational” or “productive” for young people? Should they be “learning” a particular cannon of discrete information? Are they wasting time otherwise?
I’ve mentioned the book Free to Learn by Dr. Peter Gray before. He writes so well about what “kind” of learning our human young require and thrive on that it’s really just better to read it yourself - or listen to it (being an audio learner is a real thing that shouldn’t be considered second-best to visual/text learning).
If you’re reading this, you most likely went through a traditional K-12 grade to grade, test to test, project to project, year after year program. Socially it may have been fine, fun, or phenomenally frustrating. You may have pleased your parents with report cards or received some punishment for less than perfect grades. And then you emerged. Did you wonder whether all that work was worth it? Did you find you had a vague memory of many vague things that vaguely gave little direction to your next steps? Many of us did.
What would have been more productive for us as we were growing? Have we taken time to contemplate the question?
Would any of us want someone to look at us and say, “Now, you better use this time productively, you hear? I’m watching.” Firstly, it would make us feel like the assumption is we wouldn’t naturally do anything productive, that we require constant supervision, and that the person “watching” is far superior in their command of “productivity.”
Over the years, and especially since researching and embracing the Sudbury model of education, I’ve learned to stop and ask myself what I would want for myself, as an adult, when I start wondering what I should ask for from children. It’s interesting that this should be such a novel thought. I would venture that most of us were acculturated to consider children as beings constantly needing direction. There’s wonderful research on how this idea has become more pronounced over recent decades with parents directing their children toward “educational” toys or enrolling them in classes or onto teams. Many parents feel anxious if they see their children look “bored,” and subsequently children themselves feel anxious about these un-directed and un-filled moments.
Many people might feel right now like their buzzing routines came to a sudden halt and the void feels unnerving and unnatural. When this first began, at least for us here in Miami, I heard people wondering how much TV series binge watching people were going to do. Or maybe you made a list, like I did (and then barely followed). While it’s easy for many parents to accept our children making productivity lists, it’s less tasteful to think of them also contemplating binge watching (though eventually most everyone will get tired of that).
“This is the perfect opportunity for my child to…” and then we see lists of all these educational games or resources available online and imagine our children making brilliant use of them - did you hear the MET is streaming encore performances? It’s so tempting to want our children to have our same interests and to fill their time with “enriching” activities or content, and to forget that one of the most powerful ingredients to any meaningful learning is choosing.
The Power of Choice
We all have had the experience of coercion, from clear or obtuse manipulation to direct demanding. We may have complied or rebelled. Often when we’re younger we’re so excited to be doing any activity that we don’t particularly notice that it was orchestrated for us. But it matters. Choosing what we do builds muscles inside of us, the executive functioning part of us, that cannot be built when everything is chosen or decided for us. This doesn’t mean we let our children choose to spill milk all over the floor and leave it there - that doesn’t work for the family system and is quite rude - that’s not the kind of choosing we’re talking about here.
Many parents these past few weeks have felt the pressure to create activities, to fill up time or keep kids from nagging. It feels nice to have colorful photos for social media and to feel like we’ve created fun for our little ones. What would it be like to pull back from that? To let our children take the lead in planning and creating activities or the lack of activity? This is the radical suggestion here.
But they’ll nag me that they’re bored!
The Fear of Boredom
It’s tempting to rescue our children from “I’m bored,” or to be rather annoyed at the statement (or both). Our children are not us. They are their own people. If they’re bored, that’s actually not our problem to solve! We can empathize - we’ve all felt bored - and then let them figure it out. If we “jump to” right away, we rob them of the chance to choose what to do next.
This does not mean that we should turn around and demand boredom because “it’s good for them.” Simply in refusing to orchestrate the day for them (I often call it “cruise directing”), we allow for important things like choice and boredom.
As is becoming a theme with variation in this blog, I want to also suggest that instead of demanding our ideal, that we model them - yes, even boredom. I feel like a rebel without much more of a cause than modeling humanness when I sit and don’t look at something on my phone, or even pick up a book. I give my mind time to percolate, to rest, to not engage. There’s research to suggest that these times are actually essential for us.
Like us, if our children have a screen to turn to, they probably will. It’s not necessarily a terrible thing because eventually most will get “bored” even of that and will be looking around for models of what to do. They are not looking for nagging and unsolicited suggestions - just as we probably aren’t either.
How Will They Learn?
Our world today is more integrated and interconnected than ever. Information is not confined to textbooks, encyclopedias, “experts,” or “educational websites.” We have more than we know what to do with at our actual fingertips. The issue isn’t access as much as navigation - and no sailor became the captain of a ship just from watching someone else steer through calm waters. We all require life experience to hook our learning to. It does not magically happen because we found the “perfect online program.” It just doesn’t.
Ironically perhaps, the less we demand, often the more our children pick up the reigns themselves. We’ve mostly told our own children that we trust them to learn what they need - and it’s incredible to watch that become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I stopped “picking out books” for my children years ago, and stopped myself from making comments that amount to, “Oh, that’s so great that you did that thing I approve of!” I think I would dislike it if my mother did that to me. I believe as a result, they are empowered to seek out their own books and games and activities. Don’t imagine for a moment that our household is free of all strife, but we’ve clearly communicated confidence in our children’s ability to learn, and so learn they do - not for us, but for themselves. Too good to be true? No time like the present to try it out. Again, get some support for how and why to do this - it really helps.
This is an unprecedented time with unprecedented challenges and opportunities. That does not mean our children will and must experience them in the same way that we do. They may see this period as the unexpected gift of time, choice, and opportunity for boredom. They may learn better what it means to be on a family team and to pitch in together. Whatever they learn, they are always learning. They do not have to be on a computer program but they may also be on a computer program or game or YouTube and still be learning. Mostly, they are learning by watching us and by practicing life.
I’ll allow myself to not feel so “productive,” (having felt underwater these past few weeks) and encourage us all to be a bit more gentle in our expectations both with ourselves and those around us. We all need time and space to process this in our own ways, including our children.
Please share your comments and ideas. The goal is for all of us to feel more empowered as parents - which helps us to empower our children (while still nurturing physical, mental, and emotional health and growth for us all). Thanks for reading. - Christen
MAIN Author: CHRISTEN PARKER-YARNAL