Is forced education–and the consequential imprisonment of children–a good thing or a bad thing?

The author of an interesting article over at Psychology Today says it’s bad thing. Peter Gray of the Freedom to Learn: The Roles of Play and Curiosity as Foundations for Learning blog suggests that perhaps we could do school differently if we re-think the issue of compulsory education.

Gray also suggests that there are seven sins associated with forcing kids to attend school. He spends significant time explaining his seven sins but I’ve pasted just a taste below:

  • Denial of liberty on the basis of age.
    In my system of values, and in that long endorsed by democratic thinkers, it is wrong to deny anyone liberty without just cause
  • Fostering of shame, on the one hand, and hubris, on the other.
    It is not easy to force people to do what they do not want to do. We no longer use the cane, as schoolmasters once did, but instead rely on a system of incessant testing, grading, and ranking of children compared with their peers.
  • Interference with the development of cooperation and nurturance.
    We are an intensely social species, designed for cooperation. Children naturally want to help their friends, and even in school they find ways to do so. But our competition-based system of ranking and grading students works against the cooperative drive.
  • Interference with the development of personal responsibility and self-direction
    A theme of the entire series of essays in this blog is that children are biologically predisposed to take responsibility for their own education. They play and explore in ways that allow them to learn about the social and physical world around them. They think about their own future and take steps to prepare themselves for it. By confining children to school and to other adult-directed settings, and by filling their time with assignments, we deprive them of the opportunities and time they need to assume such responsibility.
  • Linking of learning with fear, loathing, and drudgery.
    For many students, school generates intense anxiety associated with learning.
  • Inhibition of critical thinking.
    Presumably, one of the great general goals of education is the promotion of critical thinking. But despite all the lip service that educators devote to that goal, most students–including most “honors students”–learn to avoid thinking critically about their schoolwork.
  • Reduction in diversity of skills, knowledge, and ways of thinking.
    By forcing all schoolchildren through the same standard curriculum, we reduce their opportunities to follow alternative pathways.

Gray admits that his seven sins are “not novel” but I do think that he puts a unique spin on how he presents them. I believe that many teachers work very hard to counter-act these tendencies of the larger educational system. Gray claims that the system works against them.

And while I agree with Gray’s comments, I am also convinced that too many teachers contribute to the problems he describes. I would add an eighth sin – too many teachers and their administrators are too comfortable as part of the system.

One of the basic ideas of economics is that people change only when there are sufficient incentives. Tenured educators often don’t see enough incentive to work against Gray’s seven sins. We need to find ways of encouraging teachers to be more proactive in making changes in their behavior.

More and more I’m becoming a fan of Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools system. Rhee pushed for a two-tier teacher contract system last year that would allow teachers to earn higher salaries for better teaching. The system pushed back and that idea is now gone. But I still like the idea.

If we truly want learners to be successful in a different world, than those in charge of the learning will need to start acting differently.