Friday, April 11, 2014

School is a prison — and damaging our kids Longer school years aren't the answer.

Longer school years aren't the answer. The problem is school itself. Compulsory teach-and-test simply doesn't work

Parents send their children to school with the best of intentions, believing that’s what they need to become productive and happy adults. Many have qualms about how well schools are performing, but the conventional wisdom is that these issues can be resolved with more money, better teachers, more challenging curricula and/or more rigorous tests.
But what if the real problem is school itself? The unfortunate fact is that one of our most cherished institutions is, by its very nature, failing our children and our society.
School is a place where children are compelled to be, and where their freedom is greatly restricted — far more restricted than most adults would tolerate in their workplaces. In recent decades, we have been compelling our children to spend ever more time in this kind of setting, and there is strong evidence (summarized in my recent book) that this is causing serious psychological damage to many of them. Moreover, the more scientists have learned about how children naturally learn, the more we have come to realize that children learn most deeply and fully, and with greatest enthusiasm, in conditions that are almost opposite to those of school.
Compulsory schooling has been a fixture of our culture now for several generations. It’s hard today for most people to even imagine how children would learn what they must for success in our culture without it. President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are so enamored with schooling that they want even longer school days and school years. Most people assume that the basic design of schools, as we know them today, emerged from scientific evidence about how children learn best. But, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Schools as we know them today are a product of history, not of research into how children learn. The blueprint still used for today’s schools was developed during the Protestant Reformation, when schools were created to teach children to read the Bible, to believe scripture without questioning it, and to obey authority figures without questioning them. The early founders of schools were quite clear about this in their writings. The idea that schools might be places for nurturing critical thought, creativity, self-initiative or ability to learn on one’s own — the kinds of skills most needed for success in today’s economy — was the furthest thing from their minds. To them, willfulness was sinfulness, to be drilled or beaten out of children, not encouraged.

When schools were taken over by the state and made compulsory, and directed toward secular ends, the basic structure and methods of schooling remained unchanged. Subsequent attempts at reform have failed because, though they have tinkered some with the structure, they haven’t altered the basic blueprint. The top-down, teach-and-test method, in which learning is motivated by a system of rewards and punishments rather than by curiosity or by any real, felt desire to know, is well designed for indoctrination and obedience training but not much else. It’s no wonder that many of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs and innovators either left school early (like Thomas Edison), or said they hated school and learned despite it, not because of it (like Albert Einstein).
It’s no wonder that, today, even the “best students” (maybe especially them) often report that they are “burned out” by the schooling process. One recent top graduate, explaining to a newspaper reporter why he was postponing college, put it this way:  “I was consumed with doing well and didn’t sleep a lot the last two years. I would have five or six hours of homework each night. The last thing I wanted was more school.”
Most students — whether A students, C students, or failing ones — have lost their zest for learning by the time they reach middle school or high school. In a recent research study, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyl and Jeremy Hunter fitted more than 800 sixth- through 12th-graders, from 33 different schools across the country, with special wristwatches that provided a signal at random times of day. Whenever the signal appeared, they were to fill out a questionnaire indicating where they were, what they were doing, and how happy or unhappy they were at the moment. The lowest levels of happiness, by far, occurred when they were in school and the highest levels occurred when they were out of school playing or talking with friends. In school, they were often bored, anxious or both. Other researchers have shown that, with each successive grade, students develop increasingly negative attitudes toward the subjects taught, especially math and science.
As a society, we tend to shrug off such findings. We’re not surprised that learning is unpleasant. We think of it as bad-tasting medicine, tough to swallow but good for children in the long run. Some people even think that the very unpleasantness of school is good for children, so they will learn to tolerate unpleasantness, because life after school is unpleasant. Perhaps this sad view of life derives from schooling. Of course, life has its ups and downs, in adulthood and in childhood. But there are plenty of opportunities to learn to tolerate unpleasantness without adding unpleasant schooling to the mix. Research has shown that people of all ages learn best when they are self-motivated, pursuing questions that are their own real questions, and goals that are their own real-life goals. In such conditions, learning is usually joyful.
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I have spent much of my research career studying how children learn. Children come into the world beautifully designed to direct their own education. They are endowed by nature with powerful educative instincts, including curiosity, playfulness, sociability, attentiveness to the activities around them, desire to grow up and desire to do what older children and adults can do.
The evidence for all this as it applies to little children lies before the eyes of anyone who has watched a child grow from birth up to school age. Through their own efforts, children learn to walk, run, jump and climb. They learn from scratch their native language, and with that, they learn to assert their will, argue, amuse, annoy, befriend, charm and ask questions. Through questioning and exploring, they acquire an enormous amount of knowledge about the physical and social world around them, and in their play, they practice skills that promote their physical, intellectual, social and emotional development. They do all this before anyone, in any systematic way, tries to teach them anything.
This amazing drive and capacity to learn does not turn itself off when children turn 5 or 6. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling. The biggest, most enduring lesson of our system of schooling is that learning is work, to be avoided when possible.
The focus of my own research has been on learning in children who are of “school age,” but who aren’t sent to school, or not to school as conventionally understood. I’ve examined how children learn in cultures that don’t have schools, especially hunter-gatherer cultures, the kinds of cultures in which our species evolved. I’ve also studied learning in our culture by children who are trusted to take charge of their own education and are provided with the opportunity and means to educate themselves. In these settings, children’s natural curiosity and zest for learning persist all the way through childhood and adolescence, and into adulthood.
Another researcher who has documented the power of self-directed learning is Sugata Mitra. He set up outdoor computers in very poor neighborhoods in India, where most children did not go to school and many were illiterate. Wherever he placed such a computer, dozens of children would gather around and, with no help from adults, figure out how to use it. Those who could not read began to do so through interacting with the computer and with other children around it. The computers gave the children access to the whole world’s knowledge — in one remote village, children who previously knew nothing about microorganisms learned about bacteria and viruses through their interactions with the computer and began to use this new knowledge appropriately in conversations.
Mitra’s experiments illustrate how three core aspects of human nature — curiosity, playfulness and sociability — can combine beautifully to serve the purpose of education. Curiosity drew the children to the computer and motivated them to explore it; playfulness motivated them to practice many computer skills; and sociability allowed each child’s learning to spread like wildfire to dozens of other children.
* * *
In our culture today, there are many routes through which children can apply their natural drives and instincts to learn everything they need to know for a successful adulthood. More than 2 million children in the United States now base their education at home and in the larger community rather than at school, and an ever-increasing proportion of their families have scrapped set curricular approaches in favor of self-directed learning. These parents do not give lessons or tests, but provide a home environment that facilitates learning, and they help connect their children to community activities from which they learn. Some of these families began this approach long ago and have adult children who are now thriving in higher education and careers.
My colleague Gina Riley and I recently surveyed 232 such families. According to these families’ reports, the main benefits of this approach lie in the children’s continued curiosity, creativity and zest  for learning, and in the freedom and harmony the entire family experiences when relieved of the pressures and schedules of school and the burden of manipulating children into doing homework that doesn’t interest them. As one parent put it, “Our lives are essentially stress free … We have a very close relationship built on love, mutual trust, and mutual respect.” She went on to write: “As an educator I see that my daughter has amazing critical thinking skills that many of my adult college students lack … My daughter lives and learns in the real world and loves it. What more could I ask for?”
Riley and I are currently completing a study of approximately 80 adults who themselves were home schooled in this self-directed way when they were of “school age.”  The full results are not yet in, but it is clear that those who took this approach came from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and have, as a whole, gone on very successfully into adulthood.
As the self-directed approach to home education has increased in popularity, more and more centers and networks have popped up to offer resources, social connections and additional educational opportunities for children and families taking this approach (many are listed on a new compendium website, With these — along with libraries and other community resources that have always been available and, of course, the Internet — the educational opportunities are boundless.
But not every family has the wherewithal or desire to facilitate children’s self-directed education at home. For many, a better option is a so-called democratic school, where children have charge of their own education in a setting that optimizes their educational opportunities and where there are many other children with whom to socialize and learn. (Such schools should not be confused with Montessori schools or other types of “progressive” schools that permit more play and offer more choices than do standard schools but nevertheless maintain a top-down, teacher-to-student system of authority and a relatively uniform curriculum that all students are expected to follow.)
Over many years, I’ve observed learning at one such place, the Sudbury Valley School, in Framingham, Mass. It’s called a school, but is as different as you can imagine from what we usually think of as “school.”  The students, who range in age from 4 to about 18, are free all day to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t break any of the school rules. The rules, which are created democratically at the School Meeting by students and staff together, have nothing to do with learning; they have to do with keeping peace and order and are enforced by a judicial system modeled after that of our larger society. The school currently has about 150 students and 10 staff members, and it operates on a per-student budget that is less than half that of the surrounding public schools. It accepts essentially all students who apply and whose parents agree to enroll them.
Today approximately two dozen schools exist in the United States that are explicitly modeled after Sudbury Valley, and others exist that have most of its basic characteristics. Compared to other private schools, these schools charge low tuitions, and some have sliding tuition scales. Students come from a wide variety of backgrounds and with a wide variety of personalities.
To people who haven’t witnessed it firsthand, it’s hard to imagine how such a school could work. Yet Sudbury Valley has been in existence now for 45 years and has hundreds of graduates, who are doing just fine in the real world.
Many years ago, my colleague David Chanoff and I conducted a follow-up study of the school’s graduates. We found that those who had pursued higher education (about 75 percent) reported no particular difficulty getting into the schools of their choice and doing well there once admitted. Some, including a few who had never previously taken a formal course, had gone on successfully to highly prestigious colleges and universities. As a group, regardless of whether or not they had pursued higher education, they were remarkably successful in finding employment. They had gone into a wide range of occupations, including business, arts, science, medicine, other service professions, and skilled trades. Most said that a major benefit of their Sudbury Valley education was that they had acquired a sense of personal responsibility and capacity for self-control that served them well in all aspects of their lives.  Many also commented on the importance of the democratic values that they had acquired, through practice, at the school.  More recently, two larger studies of graduates, conducted by the school itself, have produced similar results and been published as books.
Students in this setting learn to read, calculate and use computers in the same playful ways that kids in hunter-gatherer cultures learn to hunt and gather. They also develop more specialized interests and passions, which can lead directly or indirectly to careers. For example, a highly successful machinist and inventor spent his childhood playfully building things and taking things apart to see how they worked. Another graduate, who became a professor of mathematics, had played intensively and creatively with math. And yet another, a high-fashion pattern maker, had played at making doll clothes and then clothes for herself and friends.
I’m convinced that Sudbury Valley works so well as an educational setting because it provides the conditions that optimize children’s natural abilities to educate themselves. These conditions include a) unlimited opportunity to play and explore (which allows them to discover and pursue their interests); b) access to a variety of caring and knowledgeable adults who are helpers, not judges; c) free age mixing among children and adolescents (age-mixed play is far more conducive to learning than is play among those who are all at the same level); and d) direct participation in a stable, moral, democratic community in which they acquire a sense of responsibility for others, not just for themselves. Think about it: None of these conditions are present in standard schools.
I don’t mean to paint self-directed education as a panacea. Life is not always smooth, no matter what the conditions. But my research and others’ research in these settings has convinced me, beyond any doubt, that the natural drives and abilities of young people to learn are fully sufficient to motivate their entire education. When they want or need help from others, they ask for it. We don’t have to force people to learn; all we need to do is provide them the freedom and opportunities to do so. Of course, not everyone is going to learn the same things, in the same way, or at the same time. But that’s a good thing. Our society thrives on diversity. Our culture needs people with many different kinds of skills, interests and personalities. Most of all, we need people who are pursuing life with passion and who take responsibility for themselves throughout life. These are the common denominators of people who have taken charge of their own education.
Peter Gray is a research professor of psychology at Boston College. His most recent book is "Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self Reliant, and Better Prepared for Life" (Basic Books, 2013). He is also author of an introductory psychology textbook ("Psychology," Worth Publishers, now in its sixth edition), a regular blog for Psychology Today magazine called Freedom to Learn, and many academic articles dealing with children’s natural ways of learning. Along with a number of colleagues, he recently launched a web site ( designed to help families find or create settings for children’s self-directed learning.

How Moscow is Trying to Integrate Crimean Muslims

Ravil Gainutdin attends the assembly of Crimean Tatars, in Bakhchisaray, March 29, 2014.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of Crimea on March 18, he highlighted the area’s sacred history, invoking the tenth-century conversion of Vladimir the Great to Christianity. But Putin’s references to religion were complicated by the absence at the ceremonies of Kirill I, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In the third row, however, behind pro-Kremlin representatives of the Russian Crimean community and other Russian lawmakers and officials, sat the Russian Federation’s two highest-ranking Muslim clerics. Although Putin never mentioned Islam in his speech, their presence at the ceremony, accentuated by their turbans and robes amid a sea of black suits and ties, sent an unmistakable message. The Crimean crisis is not just about Russia’s relationship with the West; it is also very much about Islam’s role in Russia.
Russia's Muslim elites have long played an important role in Russian state expansion. At key junctures in Russian and Soviet history, Muslim clerics from the Volga region cajoled Muslim populations along the southern and eastern frontiers of the empire to become subjects of the tsar. Formal expansion was typically followed by a wave of Tatar merchants, who thrived in newly incorporated territories and helped integrate Muslims into imperial trade networks. In the Soviet period, a number of Tatars led efforts to create a synthesis between socialism and Islam -- and a bridge between the U.S.S.R. and the Muslim world.
From the first days of the upheaval in Ukraine, prominent members of Russia’s Muslim community have mobilized to court their co-religionists on behalf of Moscow. Talgat Tadzhuddin, who is the head of one of the most powerful Muslim institutions in Russia and was one of the clerics in attendance at Putin's speech, has portrayed the annexation as an act of good will. As Tadzhuddin said in an interview with a Russian news agency, "When a neighbor has a fire, you have to help, considering that the flames might jump to your house." The other leading Muslim cleric who attended Putin's speech, Ravil Gainutdin, has been less effusive than his rival, Tadzhuddin, but has generally toed the Kremlin's line. On the eve of Crimea’s referendum on joining Russia, he reminded the region’s 300,000-strong Tatar population that they comprised only 12 percent of the territory’s population, implying that they should accede to the will of the pro-Moscow majority.
Russia's Muslim elites have long played an important role in Russian state expansion.
Tadzhuddin’s deputies have been even more direct in insisting that Tatars should embrace Russian rule. Pointing to Russia’s large Muslim population, one of his deputies, Damir Gizatullin, asserted in an interview with the Russian press that Russia's compatriots in Ukraine included not just Russians but Tatars as well. He added that Islam would be more secure under Russian rule, because Crimean Tatars would otherwise have to fear the rise of Saudi-influenced radicals in the region: "Ukraine's laws did not forbid the activity of 'members of sects' -- Salafis, all kinds of Wahhabis, and various radical currents that are forbidden in the Russian Federation." (His implicit counterpoint was Russia, where Muslim institutions have enforced Moscow’s edicts against “extremism” in brutal fashion.)
For his part, in late March, Gainutdin traveled to Crimea to meet with the head of the Muslim hierarchy there, Hajji Emirali Ablaev. During his visit, he made a proclamation that his Web site summarized as follows: "The Almighty has ordained that Crimea be attached to the Russian Federation and that the Crimean Tatar nation join the twenty-million strong ummah [Muslim community] of Russia."
But Crimean Tatar elites have mostly responded coolly to these overtures. The Crimean Tatar community generally does not have warm memories of Russian rule. Their ancestors, descendants of Genghis Khan, founded a state of their own in the region in the fifteenth century. Closely tied to the Ottoman Empire, this state, the Crimean Khanate, served as a buffer for the Ottomans and challenged the Muscovites for control of the Black Sea and the steppe region now divided between Ukraine and Russia. In 1783, Catherine the Great dismantled it and integrated the region into the Russian empire.
Some Tatar elites fared well under the new system and even entered the imperial elite. But repeated warfare between the Russians and Ottomans heightened Russian suspicions about the loyalties of these Muslim subjects on Russia's southern frontier. After the Crimean War, which raged among Russia and France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia between 1853 and 1856, tsarist forces pushed perhaps as many as 100,000 Tatars out of the territory. Doubts about the political allegiances of this community persisted into the Soviet period. Under German occupation, some Crimean Tatars -- much like Soviet citizens under Nazi rule elsewhere -- joined special units aligned with the occupiers. When the Red Army retook the peninsula in 1944, Joseph Stalin responded by ordering a police operation to sweep away the entire Crimean Tatar population (along with some Greeks and Germans) from the region once and for all. Entire Tatar villages and towns were forced into railway cars and shipped to Central Asia and elsewhere in the U.S.S.R.
After Stalin’s death, those lucky enough to survive the journey were determined to end their exile, but the state repressed or ignored their petitions and protests. They only began returning to Crimea in significant numbers in the late 1980s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Crimean Tatar nationalist movement pushed for the new Ukrainian state to restore their property, language, and civic rights, but the Russian majority in Crimea and the government in Kiev showed little sympathy.
In 2013, Tatar relations soured with both Moscow and Kiev. A film titled Khaitarma, which dramatized Stalin's deportation of the Crimean Tatars through the story of a decorated Tatar fighter pilot (who had been declared the "hero of the Soviet Union"), became a flashpoint for conflict. The Russian consul in Crimea provoked outrage among Tatars when he asserted that the filmmakers had distorted the history of World War II and revived accusations about Tatars’ collaboration with the Nazis. Meanwhile, Crimean Tatar leaders stepped up pressure on the Ukrainian government for assistance in organizing repatriation efforts, expanded language rights, and quotas for Tatar inclusion in local government. When protesters took to the Maidan in Kiev last fall, nationalist leaders such as Refat Chubarov, the head of the Crimean Tatar nationalist assembly, the Mejlis, joined the fray and spoke before the demonstrators. It soon became clear, however, that the Crimean Tatars (and Ukraine's Muslims in general) were divided over how to respond to the incipient revolution. At least six clerical institutions and two organizations claimed to speak for Ukrainian Muslims and Islam. Some supported the Maidan protesters, but others were more skeptical and remained apolitical or sympathized with the pro-Russian orientation of the government. Confusion about the position of Ukrainian Muslims was reflected in the case of one activist at the demonstrations, Alexander Krivonosov, who claimed to speak for a Muslim organization but was soon revealed to be a KGB veteran of the Afghan war and was quickly disavowed by the group.
Russia's incursion into Crimea heightened the Crimean Tatars’ anxieties, as they nervously monitored the activities of the assorted gangs of Cossacks, paramilitaries, and bikers that accompanied Russian forces. (At least one Tatar has been murdered in a case in which Crimean Tatar leaders blame pro-Russian militants.) A former Soviet dissident and Crimean Tatar activist, Mustafa Dzhemilev, warned that Russia might face a "jihad" if it mistreated the Tatar population. Others expressed anxiety over a new wave of expulsions. Muslim delegations from Russia have gone to Crimea to try to allay the Tatars’ fears. But Crimean Tatars remain suspicious of Moscow, and they mostly refused to participate in the referendum requesting annexation.
Despite Tatars’ suspicions of Putin, his post-annexation speech rather dramatically promised to fulfill many long-standing Crimean Tatar nationalist demands. He declared that Tatar would be made an official language in Crimea on a par with Russian and Ukrainian. He also made a rare acknowledgement of the Soviet deportation of Tatars from Crimea, even if he added that "Russian people" had suffered more than others from the repressions of that era. The president promised to take "all necessary political and legislative decisions to complete the process of the rehabilitation of the Crimean Tatar people, which restore their rights and good name to the fullest extent." (In turn, on March 20, in a symbolic gesture rendered moot by the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea, Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, finally recognized the Tatars as an "indigenous people" -- a gesture their leaders had long connected to the rights spelled out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of 2007 -- and offered to recognize the Mejlis and another Tatar representative body, the Kurultai.)
Putin recognizes that Muslim cooperation is a necessity for his other foreign policy goals, including the maintenance of solid relations with Iran, Syria, and other states in the Muslim world that might serve as counterweights to the expansion of U.S. power. The Kremlin has so far managed to avoid having its annexation of Crimea complicate its relations with these countries. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, an international organization of Muslim states, has issued a statement calling for the rights of Crimean Tatars to be respected, and some Turkish politicians have objected to Russian aggression, but these have so far been only very faint voices.
It remains to be seen whether Putin’s pledges and Russian Muslims’ integrative efforts can assuage the Crimean Tatars’ anxieties. Even Russian Muslim elites’ calls for solidarity within the Islamic ummah may not overcome the Crimean Tatars’ doubts. But whatever eventually happens to the Tatars, broad Russian Muslim mobilization on behalf of the Kremlin's geopolitical vision highlights that Muslims have become an important pillar of political support for Putin’s regime. It is difficult to know what senior Muslim clerics may think in private about the Crimean annexation, but in public they have gladly portrayed the move as one that benefits the ummah and Islam. Muslim clerical elites consider Crimea an area where their interests overlap with those of the Putin administration.
But they also undoubtedly expect some political compensation for their pro-Moscow lobbying. Though far from a monolithic group, many Russian Muslims seem authentically moved by the prospect of absorbing Crimea’s Tatar population and reshaping Islam in the region. In Bashkortostan and other regions with sizeable Muslim populations, Muslims have offered declarations of support (including donations for the restoration of mosques and religious landmarks) and participated in rallies celebrating the Russian annexation of Crimea. Leaders of the Tatar diaspora have also welcomed the "return" of their ethnic brothers to Russia. And Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin's strongman in Chechnya, has hailed Russia's expansion, even pledging financial support to sweeten the deal for the residents of Crimea. Few Russian Muslims seem bothered by the fact that Russia's newest territory is an economic basket case and a potential hotbed of ethnic conflict.

For now, the annexation of Crimea has mostly had a paradoxical effect: On the one hand, it has heightened the profile of Russia's Muslim leaders and drawn them closer to the Putin government while straining the Kremlin's relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, which fears losing its Ukrainian flock as a result of Moscow's aggression. The nationalist leadership of the Crimean Tatars, on the other hand, has been outflanked. Yet there is no telling whether Crimea’s Muslim population will remain a stable part of Russia’s Muslim social and political order. If Russia’s Muslim elites try to rid Crimea of ostensibly foreign and dangerous interpretations of Islam, as they have done elsewhere in Russia, Tatars are likely to resist. In that sense, Putin’s success in Crimea may depend not just upon economics or international politics but also on delicate negotiations between Russian Muslim clerics and their fellow believers in Russia’s newest region.