Have you visited your grade school as an adult?

If not, the experience will surprise you. The building feels eerily smaller. The teachers seem more human.

I visited my grade school when I returned to Philadelphia for graduate school after college in New York City. I saw my fifth grade teacher. We were surprised and happy to recognize each other.

After hello, almost immediately she said, "I'm so glad to see you. I have my first student like you since you."

Wow, did I feel great! Over a decade later, she remembered how great a student I was. After all, I was about to start an Ivy League graduate program in physics, eventually to help build a satellite now in space. I must have stood out.

She continued, "Maybe you can help. He won't pay attention. He disrupts class constantly. He won't stop talking to his neighbors. I haven't seen such disruption since you. I don't know what to do."

Wait, what?

How could I not have been a model student? Did she remember me wrong?

I later told my mom, "Can you believe my teacher remembered me as one of her most disruptive in decades?"

She said, "Oh yes. They called me in constantly because of your antics."

What was my mom saying?

She continued, "If you weren't challenged, you gave them hell. The teachers who challenged you loved you, though."

It turns out I remembered me wrong.

I took time and reflection to reconcile my once-a-decade level of grade school misbehavior with my love for learning that brought me to graduate school at such a high level in such a challenging field.

I Love Learning

How much do I love learning?

I started majoring second semester junior year. Since many physics majors know their choice since high school, I had to take introductory classes with freshmen. They hadn't forgotten as much as I had so I had to work like crazy to catch up, let alone to get into graduate school.

Finishing a major like physics in three semesters felt like riding a bucking bronco. I had to hold on with all I had to keep from being thrown by the intense subject. I feared that missing one class. But like a cowboy at a rodeo, I loved my self-imposed challenge and thrived.

There's no point to disrupt a goal you chose. On the contrary, I befriended many teachers and felt their passion rub off on me.

Loving learning as an adult must have suppressed my memories of rebelling against school as a child.

How could someone who loved learning so much have detested school so much?

The question remained how the same person could have loved and detested school so much.

My mother's conditional--". . . if you weren't challenged . . ."--was the clue I needed. She wasn't just saying something nice about her son. She helped me distinguish between learning and school. One is a practice, the other an institution.

I loved learning. You won't get far "kind of" liking learning physics.

Grade school, I came to see, isn't about learning.

Rather, you do learning in grade school, just not what the institution thinks it's teaching you.

Another comment from my mother clarified what they teach. When I was a child she said, "You should be a lawyer when you grow up since you love to argue so much." My sisters remember her saying it too.

I didn't love to argue, but I don't like bull, and even as a child I could tell when people were feeding it to me.

Reading evolutionary biologist Peter Gray's book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, and his column at Psychology Today, reconciled all the memories.

The content and subjects they teach pales in importance to the behavior school coerces into us. Humans learn more through behavior we see and do than words we hear. School teaches us to sit in rows, do what we're told, follow rules, and so on.

We consider such coercion necessary to gain compliance to teach.

What if that coercion and compliance hurts students more than helps? What if it doesn't help?

Gray writes how for nearly all of human existence and in many cultures today, children learn without formal education or even from adults at all. Moreover, they learn more complex and challenging information and behavior, mastering social, emotional, cognitive, and practical skills at younger ages than in ours.

Children outside our culture learn beyond what our educational system produces in many adults.

Not "Progressive" Education

As a professor at NYU, I've practiced non-traditional, non-coercive, non-compliance based teaching. I started learning it from the community at Science Leadership Academy, its founding Principal Chris Lehmann, and its annual Educon. Improving my practice let me to continue tracing its roots to John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and more.

Many call what I learned and practice progressive education. On starting to read Gray's column, I expected to read more about progressive education.

He distinguishes what he's writing from progressive education, which he calls self-directed learning. I could only describe self-directed learning as mind-blowing, as I did in  http://joshuaspodek.com/mind-blowing-educational-practicesthis blog post compiling many links on it, even after over a decade of teaching and pushing myself to learn and practice progressive techniques.

Gray highlights a specific place where children learn from each other--the Sudbury Valley School outside Boston. He learned of it from his son who misbehaved in mainstream school. He transfered there and flourished, which led Gray to focus his research to understand how something could serve children so well despite, or perhaps because of, it diverging so much from mainstream education.

Sudbury has no curriculum, required classes, grades, bells, hall passes, or any other coercive measures of control. It has some adults, but in educative matters and conflict resolution the students have equal say. All such matters it resolves through votes and a judicial committee in which everyone participates equally.

Five-year-olds vote and adjudicate with the same voice as adults.

If the idea shocks you and sounds as unbelievable to you as it did me, Free to Learn will resolve it and wake you to the biggest bull crap school fed me that I rebelled against.

Gray points out that most educators and education researchers have never heard of self-directed learning or dismiss it without meaningful understanding or consideration. Yet Sudbury emerged from schools before it, has succeeded for over half a century of incredible turmoil and turnover in other schools, and has contributed to growing free school and unschooling movements.

How Sudbury works and serves its attendees, I'll leave to Gray's column and book, since the nuances matter and I want to motivate your reading more.

Gray recounts how our educational system evolved starting centuries before the factory model most people know about. He recounts how other cultures educate. He recounts the sad results of our system--children's anxiety, dependence, inability to resolve conflict, obesity, and other well-documented side effects of a coercive, compliance-based system relative to other cultures', as well as Sudbury.

Content Versus Behavior

Free to Learn clarified the difference between content and behavior, which explained all my rebellion against school despite loving learning.

In terms of content, schools teach democracy and independence.

In terms of behavior, schools subject students to perhaps the most authoritarian anti-democracy humans have created, including compared to prisons. They teach dependence and quash independence.

Children at Sudbury, like children in many cultures and for most of homo sapiens' hundreds of thousands of years of existence, learn by playing, creating and resolving conflict, dealing with the results of their action, not being judged or coerced by adults, and so on. You'll have to read Gray's work to learn beyond this tip of the iceberg, but he backs it up with generations of data.

Does it work?

My biggest question was if can self-directed learning can work. I'll leave the results of research Gray and others performed for the book, but to say it has worked for a great majority and share one example of a Sudbury child. Despite no formal math classes for at least the first sixteen years of his life and showing no signs of being a prodigy, this student grew to earn a PhD in math from MIT.

Even absent Free to Learn's more comprehensive research, I'd be hard-pressed to reject even this one-person case as anecdotal. I took a lot of math and considered it as challenging and cumulative like physics--a bucking bronco impossible to get back on once it throws you. You only need n=1 to disprove impossibility.

Digesting that children teaching each other can enable unremarkable children to attain the highest degree in a tough subject at global powerhouse competitive just to get into redefined education for me.

After Free to Learn, you may see the greatest testament to children's resilience that our educational system doesn't break us completely. Sadly, it keeps us from our potential and we're doubling down on the system's failure by increasing testing, increasing work hours, increasing homework, decreasing recess, decreasing play, decreasing activity, increasing drugs, increasing protection, decreasing responsibility, and more.

If you have a child who hates school, loves school, or anywhere in between, or if you live in a society where children will grow up to become adults who run society--that is, anyone and everyone--you will never look at our educational system again after reading Free to Learn.

If you yourself hated or loved school or anywhere in between, if you yourself participate in a society intended to be a democracy, Free to Learn will change your view on your education, your society, and how you can interact with other people and society in general.

Gray suggests that future generations will look back at our current system as barbaric. The more such language sounds overblown, the more value Free to Learn offers.

Published on: Oct 31, 2018