The Limits Of School As We Know It 

Back-to-school time stirs a range of emotions. Some of us have fond memories, but for others, Scout’s recollection of school in Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” resonates:

… as I inched sluggishly along the treadmill of the Maycomb County school system, I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something. Out of what I knew not, yet I did not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me.

Boredom and monotony, repetition and regurgitation remain characteristic of today’s compulsory mass schooling model even as the distance grows from its 19th century industrial roots.

Over the last two decades, U.S. schooling has become more restrictive, more test-driven and more standardized than ever before. Children spend more time in school and school-like activities, and less time at play, than they did a generation ago with mounting research suggesting a compelling link between less childhood play and more childhood mental health maladies.

Children become conditioned in school to be passive learners, to follow commands, to relay right answers, to conform.

Other data suggest a correlation between time in school and the rising teen suicide rate. Vanderbilt University researchers recently revealed that teens’ suicidal thoughts and actions decline during the summer months and spike at back-to-school time. If Scout was on a tedious treadmill of schooling, today’s treadmill may be downright dangerous.

Increasingly, parents and educators are finding or building alternatives to traditional school that offer young people more freedom and autonomy.

They are disillusioned by a one-size-fits-all model that seems resistant to change, and seek to disentangle school from education. For Kenneth Danford, a former eighth grade public school history teacher, frustration over the seemingly unbendable system led him to quit his teaching job in 1996 and create North Star, a self-directed learning center in Sunderland, Massachusetts.

Danford didn’t intend to launch a schooling alternative. In an interview, he told me: “I thought I could improve the system from within. I was going to be a reformer. But then I realized, this place doesn’t want to be reformed. It is doing exactly what it is supposed to do, what it was designed to do.”

Traditional school changes the way children naturally learn — through hands-on exploration and experimentation — and instead teaches children to be taught.

Children become conditioned in school to be passive learners, to follow commands, to relay right answers, to conform. The creativity and exuberance for learning that is so apparent when we are young, often fades as learning becomes a coercive chore.

MIT professor Seymour Papert, in his 1980 book “Mindstorms,” envisioned a more decentralized, self-directed learning environment that cultivates a child’s natural learning inclinations. He believed that “the model of successful learning is the way a child learns to talk, a process that takes place without deliberate and organized teaching.”

Places like North Star and the growing number of self-directed learning centers like it across the country, replace a top-down model of teaching and testing with a bottom-up framework that facilitates a child’s innate capacity to learn and do. Children do not need to be forced to learn.

These centers embrace an education philosophy known as “unschooling” that views education as separate and distinct from schooling. Schooling may be one method of education, but it is not the only one and, unschoolers argue, not the best one.

Unschoolers challenge the schooled mindset of education, valuing non-coercive learning that is driven by the child’s interests and facilitated by adults and the wider community. And preliminary research suggests that students who learn in this way turn out just fine in adulthood, often pursuing entrepreneurial careers based on interests they nurtured when they were young.

With so many parents and teachers frustrated with a mechanized, test-driven model, some school districts are experimenting with unschooling models.

The positive track record of unschoolers, along with the growth in alternatives that prioritize self-directed learning, has prompted a new generation of public school educators to inject unschooling ideals and practices into the existing school system.

With so many parents and teachers frustrated with a mechanized, test-driven model, some school districts are experimenting with unschooling models. Just outside of Sacramento, California, UnSchool San Juan opened last year as a public high school with more than 100 students. One student who was serious about photography worked at an internship with skilled photographers during the week, while also meeting with UnSchool teachers to create a rigorous, multidisciplinary photography exhibition that mapped her learning to state curriculum and graduation requirements.

The trend is spreading. In Somerville, Massachusetts, Powderhouse Studios is a fully self-directed public high school scheduled to open next fall. Like Unschool San Juan, Powderhouse will look nothing like a conventional school. Teenagers will work on personally meaningful projects in age-integrated teams with no standard grades, set curriculum or subject silos.

UnSchool San Juan and Powderhouse show the possibility for real education reform. They demonstrate the potential to shift from top-down teaching to bottom-up learning tied to a child’s distinct interests and natural curiosity.

Perhaps we can abandon the schooling treadmill altogether.


Headshot of Kerry McDonald

Kerry McDonald Cognoscenti contributor
Kerry McDonald is a senior education fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education and author of "Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom" (Chicago Review Press, 2019).



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