Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting. Most people learn best by being “with it,” yet school makes them identify their personal, cognitive growth with elaborate planning and manipulation.
— Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society
Childhood is a stage of life primarily defined by being a student in most developed nations. While the concept has at least three components — legal (i.e., being less than 21 years of age in most states in the US), biological (i.e., being at a stage when most of the body is still developing — until about age 26), and social (i.e., studentdom) — it’s social component is the one by which we think of most children.
The average child spends eight-to-ten hours in school every day of the week — getting up before dawn, standing in the cold, getting on a bus, and sitting through learning materials that have been pre-determined to be necessary for their success as students. The average American elementary schooler spends 934 hours in school per year, and many spend much more time at boarding schools, after school programs, and after-school detention and suspension.
To what end?
Yesterday, I offered a few different ways to think about and categorize different models of schooling and mapped some of these models onto 2×2 matrices. Schools can be categorized in terms of their curriculum (open/closed), their centralization (centralized/decentralized), their setting of instruction (individualist/collectivist), and their setting of attendance (personal/communal).
These allow us to categorize schools down different verticals and can be useful heuristics when comparing different types of schooling, but even these categories exist on a spectrum.
Traditional schooling is unnatural, harmful, and stymies the social, intellectual, and cognitive development of young people. This is essentially the thesis of MIT Psychologist Peter Gray’s excellent 2013 work Free to Learn. Gray recounts his son telling him to “go to hell” after he and his wife try to keep him in a traditional school, where he is very clearly not meeting his fullest potential and acting out towards classmates and students. The book looks at anthropological and psychological work on the importance of play and the ways in which structured, top-down, administrator-to-teacher-to-student punitive schooling models* — like modern American public schools — fail to allow for the flourishing of these evolutionarily-imperative traits.