Art Carden  

What I've Been Reading Lately: Schooling Edition

What I've Been Reading Lately... Vivek Wadhwa Responds...

Peter Gray, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. Gray's son went to Sudbury Valley School, where education was kind of a free-for-all in which self-organizing patterns emerged. I'm struck by two things. The first is the fact that enthusiasm for schooling as it is usually done is probably a function of status quo bias. As we've homeschooled/unschooled/whatever-schooled our kids, we've been struck with just how much they flourish within the loose confines of the framework we've developed. There's a daily reading lesson and we spend a lot of time together, but we don't have the regimentation that students would get in a more traditional environment. We're experimenting with different combinations of carrots and sticks in order to encourage pro-social and discourage anti-social behavior, but I'm very optimistic about the future of treating kids as "small people who don't know very much" rather than "pets who can talk," to borrow terms from David Friedman. We already spend a lot of time reading, we can probably spend more, and I'm considering the possibility of offering small amounts of money for book reviews.

Second, my sense from reading the chapter on Sudbury Valley School--at least, what I've read so far--is that it very closely resembles what most of us think of as the ideal for the University, at least on the faculty side: a self-governed community of scholars where we basically make our own decisions about what to do, what to study, which questions to ask, and so on.

I'm just over 100 pages into a 276-page book, and I hope to finish it this afternoon (see "make our own decisions about what to do" in the paragraph above). A question for readers: how can we better incorporate some of the best practices of homeschooling, unschooling, etc. into the college classroom? If there are any Sudbury Valley grads among EconLog readers, I'd be especially interested in hearing from you.

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
David Friedman writes:

I'm not a graduate of a Sudbury model school, but our children went to one for quite a while. The model has two elements, freedom and democracy. I'm in favor of freedom, but democracy can have its down side, since it means that people who are skilled in small group politics can end up running things, at the cost of people who are not. That's why we eventually switched to home unschooling.

You might want to look at my old blog post discussing the differences between the way we brought up our children and the way in which John Lott and Gertrude Fremling brought up theirs, two libertarian families with significantly different approaches, both of which seem to have worked. For an extra bonus, the comment thread includes comments by two of the children, one from each family.

Art Carden writes:

Professor Friedman,

Thank you for dropping in with your comment; I really appreciate it. We're planning a mix of both: we buy the kids food, clothing, shelter, and educational opportunities (we include iPads under "educational opportunities"). They're on their own for other stuff, and we're helping them find income-earning opportunities around the house.

Luba Vangelova writes:

Given the question you pose, this article may interest you as well:

I interviewed Dr. Gray and probed a bit more about how learning happens at Sudbury. He mentioned that the college classroom model is very inefficient, because 95 percent of what one needs to learn about most subjects (even the proverbial rocket science) can be learned independently; a teacher is only needed when learners come across something that stumps them. (Just for kicks, I ran this by a real rocket scientist, as well as by a college genetics professor, and they both agreed.)

So one innovation would be to reconsider the need for lectures. Another would be to emphasize peer-to-peer learning. Yet another would be to allow students to more generally slice and dice the higher ed experience to meet their individual needs (along the lines of what's described here:

There are a lot of innovative things going on out there that facilitate greater freedom, customization and peer-to-peer learning. The education sector will soon be unrecognizable from the one that we knew growing up.

Mike Sadofsky writes:

I too (like David Friedman) am not a graduate of a Sudbury school, but am the parent of three who went through Sudbury Valley School.

They are all quite pleased with both the knowledge and the learning skills they attained at Sudbury. And, in fact, all found themselves better equipped for University than many of their classmates from more conventional schools. Their years and experiences at Sudbury Valley School are not only remembered fondly, but provided a foundation for satisfying adulthoods.

If you are interested in how the Sudbury model works, I suggest you look into the many volumes published by and offered via the Sudbury Valley School Press; they offer a much more comprehensive treatment of the School than that which Peter Gray includes in Free to Learn.

John S writes:

Thank you for spreading the word about Peter Gray's work and the Sudbury Valley School.

Another great book to read on the SVS is "Free At Last: The Sudbury Valley School" (available for free on Google Books).

Here's a great video of the school:

The choices one makes about what to learn and do as a child will have profound effects on one's life outcomes. I don't see why the state should have any right to control kids' process of discovering the world or threaten to mark them as defective for life (i.e. grades) if they won't conform to a one-size-fits-all path.

John S writes:

I'm considering the possibility of offering small amounts of money for book reviews.

You may want to refer to Alfie Kohn's research on this (esp. his book "Punished by Rewards). Studies show that tying intrinsic motivation to external motivation tends to decrease intrinsic motivation once the external reward is removed.

I certainly don't mean any offense, but it may be best to simply nurture your kids' inborn curiosity.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

I think the challenge is that not all students posses equal "grit".

I was a high-IQ student with zero grit. Coasting by with B's was trivial for me. I loved to read about and explore all kinds of things, but unfortunately not the required educational skills (that in fact I probably did need). I did not get grit until I was about 25, with my frontal cortex fully developing and a girlfriend who withheld sex if I was late to a date. I can say that I had no internal desire to learn grit, it was a forced learning process!

Both IQ and grit are highly genetically correlated. I can tell my father also had high-IQ and low grit. He never learned to keep any room clean. At least I achieved that by age 30 (the girlfriend "helped" me learn this).

I suggest that low-grit students may benefit more greatly from forced, grit-enhancing training. We recognize that there are limits to how much grit can be learned above the inherited level, but the marginal benefits of grit-enhancement especially for the poorest low-grit students could be of great value.

I wish there was more good research on grit-enhancement training, as I may face this challenge with my own genetic children.

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