It was that very first sentence, in the article’s title line, that said: “Maybe Free-Range Students Isn’t the Way to Go” that got me to thinking, yet once again, about schools. At the W.S.Symposium when it was my turn to speak I had said that schools were perhaps not the answer to how to educate our children. And, although perhaps I didn’t say it then, my life had been one long question regarding the efficacy of schools, and more and more I have grown to believe that kids might best learn not in schools at all, but by themselves if we but got out of their way (that I did say) and thereby allowing them to turn their attention to following their own interests, their own gifts and talents wherever these might take them. And this, you remember, was why I had so admired Daniel Greenberg, the founder of the Sudbury Valley School, (as well as of course his predecessor, A.S.Neil, the founder of Summerhill).
Those two had acted on the courage of their convictions. Had I, when we founded the W.S.? Greenberg and Neil seemed to have understood from the beginning that kids would learn best when allowed to pursue their own interests, the best example being the youngster who spent his first three years or so at Sudbury Valley fishing, yes fishing, with hook and line, in the school pond —what happened with him? I know he’s not now a fisherman, maybe a computer programmer, or professional of some sort.
Play is certainly how my own two grandchildren, who are being homeschooled and who spend a lot of their time with us, learn some things best. I’ve never taught Mateo this but he knows more now, already about the Apple OS, El Capitan, as well as all the various working parts of our home network system, than I do, his “knowledge” proceeding in most every case directly from his curiosity, from his having the freedom living with us to go wherever his interest and curiosity would take him, for him that being a kind of play.
And if education were all about kids becoming computer literate it would probably make good sense for all of us to stay out of their way all of the time. Indeed, I’m sure those of you with young children yourselves have never had to give them any instruction at all regarding their learning about video games, for the games are everywhere about us, easily accessible and kids readily zero in on them and quickly acquire mastery.
But the WSJ article is suggesting that perhaps this is not the way to go, “for a make-your own curriculum can hamper growth, in part by teaching us to quit anything we don’t find fun.” Now this caveat introduces another trope, another image or idea that has been around forever, that being if you’re having fun you’re not learning. For a long time, 100 years or more, people have felt that learning has to be hard work, there being even those who go so far as to say that it’s got to be painful, as in learning Latin declensions and trig identities that which we all, at least those of my generation, suffered through.
And then how many of you have said to your own children, stop playing and get to work the playing probably referring to the ubiquitous video games as well as the equally ubiquitous “dessins animés,” the comics. (It being understood that you’re being unhappy, or at least not having fun, will show the adults you’re learning.) Well, we’re thankfully over that attitude and now readily admit that playing can also be learning, although we’re not there yet, not yet at all sure how to bring play and learning together into the very same spaces. (Isn’t Google doing that in Silicon Valley?)
The answer of course had to be somewhere in the middle, combining both play and hard work, that being not only how kids best learn, but simply how kids learn. I often ask why, since the answers are always in the middle, do we go on creating and tolerating the extremes at either end?
We see these extreme positions especially among the Republican presidential candidates, the election campaigns being much more about the extreme policies of the various groups within the Republican electorate, —Tea Partiers, evolution and global warming deniers, worshippers of the Bible and the Quran, both texts long out of date and with little if any relevance to our lives, than they are about moderate policies and proposals in defense of reasonable positions relevant to real problems, such as the seemingly endless war in the Middle East, the widespread economic inequality, and the no less widespread and usually forced movement of peoples fleeing joblessness and war.
Again, the answer to how kids best learn is to combine both play and work. Thinking of my own grandchildren, yes they learn all the time through their play, which begins when they first open their eyes in the morning, and they learn by being able to follow their natural interests and talents.
But they also learn by being subject to a schedule (the closest they come to being in a “school”) by having, yes “having,” not being given a choice to do this or that. In some ways this brings about the very best results, but only as long as the play, the spontaneity, is allowed comparable room in their lives.
But I’d be the first to say that it’s because of learning schedules, practice times when they were not given a choice, but were told simply and clearly what they had to do, that they learned well, made remarkable progress. I take the example of music, Soleil on the cello, and Mateo on the violin, at 6 and 8 they have left their age groups well behind in regard to having achieved a beginning mastery of a discipline, a musical instrument, Mateo at 8 years being already first stand in his youth orchestra.
But schools have genuinely failed in their attempts to help their students achieve a mastery of anything, certainly not the violin or cello, but also not a foreign language, not history (look at the graduates of our schools who are now voting for the crazies, not from their knowledge but from their ignorance of the world).
The few kids that do succeed in our failed school system probably do so in spite of the school environment, or perhaps, as in some well know instances, by dropping out of the school altogether.
Why have the schools failed to educate? Probably because for so many students school is only work, work schedules, work assignments, and constant test taking on that work to see that the work was, in fact, done. There is little place in our present system for the students’ own “work,” let alone for their interests. And fun? There is little of that in the schools. All this, even though as the article’s author points out, “free range students” are still not the way to go.