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Monday, March 13, 2023

Review: Free to Learn

 Free to Learn is Peter Gray's indictment of the modern industrial style school. It starts with a personal story about his child rebelling against school and comparing it with imprisonment. After that, he went and found Sudbury Valley School, where the school is run democratically, not by adults, but by the kids voting on what they want to do. There are no formal classes, no formal sporting activities, and the staff of the school is there as resources for the children in that school.

I'm naturally sympathetic to this approach. While I did well in formal schooling, over time, particularly my last few years in high school, I discovered that for many things, I would read about them myself and learn on my own, and it was far more effective for me to do so than attending a high school physics class where the teacher herself didn't actually understand the concepts and couldn't communicate them properly. (And before you think that my high school was a crap high school, it was billed by the Wall Street Journal as the Gateway to the Ivy Leagues) My uncle (one of the first in the family to attend college) would tell my mom that reading comics were bad for me, but of course on the first day of my GP class, I would turn out to be the only kid who knew who FDR was, something I learned from a Frank Miller Batman comic.

Gray points out that in the hunter-gather society, most learning is not driven by parents or adults, but by the children themselves. I'm not sympathetic to that argument --- just because it was something that humans evolved to do, doesn't mean that it's not maladaptive to modern society. What is compelling to me are the stories (granted, anecdotes isn't data) of children who did badly in traditional schools moving to the Sudbury system and successfully educating themselves. Even more compelling was that those same kids who did badly in traditional schools would do well in colleges like Columbia college.

The book covers other important aspects of the school. For instance, mixing the ages of the kids naturally does several things: first, it allows the younger kids to do more sophisticated play, developing their language arts and math skills faster. The teaches the older kids empathy, and as we all know, to teach a subject properly requires a better understanding of it than mere regurgitation of the material on the exam requires. The staff at the school notes that in recent years kids have been learning to read and do math earlier and earlier because of the desire to play video games. Gray points out that given a chance to do free play outdoors, however, kids actually choose to do so rather than being immersed in a video game!

Another fascinating topic Gray notes is that the lack of a formal sports program means that all sporting play outdoors are informal. Mixed ages means that the children themselves modulate play so that younger kids can participate, and that the older kids actually deliberately handicap themselves in order to make the game challenging for themselves. The rules are negotiated informally, but more importantly, the kids learn to compromise because everyone has to be happy with the rules or the game will not continue. In fact, it turns out that in many games, kids spend as much time negotiating as they do playing, which sounds inefficient but is actually better preparation for the modern white collar workplace than adult-regulated formal games!

Finally, no book like this one is sufficient without talking about the free range parenting movement, the homeschooling movement, and the unschooling movement. Gray is actually optimistic that eventually the system will learn that the current structure schooling system is failing our kids and change. I'm actually quite doubtful, since many kids go through the current system and turn out fine, and change requires courage which the bureaucracy is designed to thwart.

Regardless, for the ideas, arguments, and approaches that could work, I think regardless of whether you're sympathetic to Peter Gray's ideas, you will not find this book a waste of your time. It's very much worth reading! If nothing else, using the approach in this book might give your kids an advantage over the traditional tiger parented kids. After all, those people who participate in competitive parenting will never consider letting their kids play to learn, no matter how many studies show that the latter approach is far more effective for real world learning.

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