Thursday, August 29, 2013

Toward An Alternative To Traditional School

In yesterday's post, I wrote about why it is children don't much like school, especially as they get older, inking to several articles by Peter Gray, author and research professor of psychology at Boston College.  Several commenters wrote asking about or wishing for alternatives to traditional public schools.

Gray is a leading proponent for self-directed home schooling, unschooling, and democratic schools, all of which are models built upon children's natural capacity to educate themselves through play. In a recent piece at Salon entitled School is a prison -- and damaging our kids, he writes:

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 . . . 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 . . . . and in their play, they practice skills that promote their physical, intellectual, social and emotional development . . . 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.

I began looking into the idea of democratic free schools several years ago and in viewing the trajectory of our own school, Woodland Park, I can see that we have been moving in that direction over the course of the last decade, not because of any dogma on my part, but rather because it has been in that direction that I've found children to be the most joyfully engaged. And honestly, I don't see any reason other than political ones why our public schools cannot move in this direction as well, although those political hurdles are enormous. It's in this direction, however, that I would like to see us push public education, and given our economic challenges, now might be a particularly ripe moment given that there is no reason it should cost more, and would probably cost less, than what we have today.

For details, I'd urge you to have a look at Gray's Salon article as well as to take a look at a new website

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Zan said...

Have you seen this school? It might be something you'd want to look into :)

Anonymous said...

As a home schooling Mother I am incredibly grateful you are a teacher thinking outside of the box. It's where we need to move our children and our society! Thank you for inspiring us Teacher Tom!

Grace said...

The reason why school systems will not and can not move in this direction is that they were created for exactly the opposite end result. Compliance, not curioosity. Conformity, not creativity. Standardization, not idiosyncratic exploration. I could not agree more with your hopes, but I am doubtful that the system itself is where change can happen.

Teacher Tom said...

Thanks Zan! Yes, I do know about Summerhill. I believe it is the oldest continuously running democratic school in the world.

Christine Hawkins said...

Thank you for this post. I am an Childcare Educator in Newcastle Australia. I am currently struggling with the fact that I am child led in my Family Day Care setting then sending these children off to a schooling system that has no connection to what we are doing in Early Childcare.
My own 7 year old son is in this system and achieving academically wonderful things but is socially inept. He came from a early childcare setting that was very structured and we thought he was thriving as he was exceeding with reading/ writing etc but how wrong were we.
Now how do we undo these wrongs.....

Teacher Tom said...

Christine, I wrote a post just a few days ago on this topic:

As for your son, the best thing would be to look around for an alternative school. Given time to play, he'll return to himself.

NinianLif said...

There are two schools in Sydney based on the principles of democratic free schools - Currambena ( and Kinma ( My kids (8 & 11) go to Kinma school and I can't recommend it highly enough.