Some Ways to Think About Schooling, Part I

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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.

This is not a review of Gray’s book (though I would give it a 5/5 if I were to recommend it — easily the best book on schooling I read last year), but raises an interesting point — how should we think of schooling?

Centralization and Individualism

Educational libertarians tend to support decentralization of education — the abolition of the Department of Education, returning power to local school boards, and allowing teachers and principals to make decisions appropriate for their students. But Gray’s research would tell us that this doesn’t go far enough (indeed, Gray says compulsory schools are by definition prisons). And most people who opt out of the traditional schooling model — whether they homeschool or use cyberschooling — don’t do it primarily because of a federalism issue. They primarily do it for the issue of freedom, whether that is for their family or for the individual student.

So, we can think of common types of schooling on at least two verticals:

Centralized/Decentralized: How far removed are the deciders for curricular matters? Who gets to decide what the student, school, or curriculum looks like? Are they bureaucrats and politicians in the county seat? The state capital? Washington, D.C.? American public education is currently a heavily-centralized model, with some variation from state-to-state, but with that dissipating as Common Core standards go into effect.

Collectivist/Individualist: Where does the learning take place? With how many people? Who gets to decide the pace of the learning? Traditional schools, where students sit in classrooms and the pace of the class is determined by an instructor, are collectivist rather than individualist. Cyber-schooling is moderately individualist and probably the most individualist form of centralized schooling, since students can oftentimes engage with the content at their own pace, though the curriculum is set by somebody outside of the student’s community (home, town, county).


Schooling Matrix (1)

If Gray and proponents of play-based models are correct, then a decentralized, individualist model like homeschooling would be superior to traditional schools.

Instructors and Community

Homeschooling and non-traditional schooling models come in their own unique flavors and variations, too. Go to any homeschooling convention and you can see this for yourself just by the titles of the breakout sessions and the exhibitors. The theme that ties all the attendees together is that they have the very strong belief that they can provide something better to their children than traditional schools. Once you get beneath that, you see there’s an entire iceberg of variation.

Non-traditional schooling models can vary based on a number of different factors, but can be boiled down to at least two areas of major differences:

Instructor/No Instructor: Is there somebody who leads the learning? An adult in whom some kind of formal or informal authority is vested? This doesn’t necessarily mean the adult has to impose a structured curriculum (i.e., “Today we will be studying X, Y, and Z. You have A, B, and C assignments”), but simply that they are recognized as the figureheads of a classroom.

Traditional homeschooling, while varying from family-to-family, will usually have a curriculum that a parent or instructor follows and requests the student to complete assignments.

Montessori Schools have Montessori-trained instructors in them, who are akin to tools for the students to pull on while they are engaged in learning, but they still ultimately control the structure of the day, and can drive students towards one set of activities or another — they may lead them in song, art, or reading — but they do not necessarily impose a curriculum with assignments on the students.

Unschoolers go about their days and primarily learn from their interaction with the world around them. They may assign themselves assignments online, through books they have, or through real-world tasks, but they do not follow a formal curriculum.

Sudbury Schools are akin to unschooling insofar as there is not overarching structure to the year. There are no objective facts all students must learn. While adults are present, they are primarily there for legal purposes and to be used as tools for the students if the students wish for their help.

Personal/Communal: What’s the environment like where students learn? Do they learn with other students, or will they largely (without additional tools or developments) be working with themselves and those very near to them?

Traditional homeschooling and unschooling are primarily kept to the individual students, their families, and organizations or meet-ups the students and families may join.

Montessori Schools and Sudbury Schools are communal. The structure of the style of education has other young people built into it. Sudbury Schools are actually governed (i.e., administration) on a democratic basis, where students and adults get equal votes. This is why they are also known as “Democratic Schools.”

Non-traditional schooling matrix (1)

Furthermore, we can break down the emphasis on curriculum even more. While Montessori and Traditional Homeschooling both have overarching objectives and goals, and while Sudbury and Montessori Schools are both communal, only Sudbury Schools have Open curricula and a Communal structure — leaving the goals and objectives learned by students to themselves to be determined (note of interest: this doesn’t just mean that students do nothing for 12 years — they learn by interacting and playing with other students, asking older students to teach them skills, de-escalating situations with younger students, and eventually doing a graduation presentation to a panel at the end of the schooling — this is ultimately the style of education that Gray advocates in Free to Learn, and for good reason).

Open and Fixed Curriculum

Open/Fixed Curriculum: Are there objective goals to be achieved from the schooling? Is a curriculum used? Is success primarily measured on the basis of the ability of the student to meet the standards of the curriculum?

Traditional Homeschools oftentimes have fixed curricula — or curricula up to the discretion of the parent or instructor. They are akin to Traditional Schools in this sense.

Sudbury Schools and Unschooling provide the openness and freedom for students to experiment with the ends of their schooling and set those ends for themselves. In this sense, the standards for success in these styles is much more subjective.

Open vs Fixed Curriculum

Sudbury Schools can be thought of as unschooling schools in this sense. The characteristic that differentiates them from Montessori Schools is that Montessori education has an overarching structure and set of goals for students to achieve (and Montessori schools tend to only be pre-K-6 — Sudbury schools are the equivalent of pre-K-12), while this is left up to the student in Sudbury Schools.

Sudbury Schools prioritize the ability and development of the student to learn and educate themselves in a social environment and world. Practically, they provide an outlet for families that wish to unschool, but can’t for whatever reasons. Students learn what it is like to interact with people older and younger than themselves — they aren’t divided into age-based classes like in Traditional Schools — and to solve the myriad social issues that come with that. They become life-learners, knowing how to learn from the child and adolescent’s equivalent of “the real-world,” because they are in it — something that Traditional School reformers (e.g., politicians, superintendents, consultants, principals, teachers) speak platitudes to, but rarely ever achieve.

Of course, there are more than just 5-7 types of schooling out there, and other types can be organized by different manners. 2×2 matrices only allow us to think in terms of archetypes and extremes. Schooling styles exist on a spectrum, and matrices can only do so much for us — but they allow us to organize the ways in which we think of different types of schooling and education.


* Throughout this post, I use the phrase “traditional schools” and variations on it. When I say that, I am referring to the classroom, teacher-in-the-front-with-administrators-over-her-shoulder model that American public schools embody. Most charter schools and private schools would also fall into this model.

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