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Can a book about how children learn set their parents free?

Updated: Feb 18

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: 

  • A commentary on the current state of education

  • How human beings actually learn

  • How and why childhood is so different today from generations past

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.

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