Schools don’t have to fail: Here’s how we fix education

Our schools imprison kids and undermine their zest for learning. It doesn't have to be that way. Fix it like this

Topics: schools, Education Reform, public schools, Editor's Picks, ,

In an earlier Salon article, I described the failure of our educational system, which imprisons children’s bodies and minds and undermines their natural curiosity and zest for learning. I also described a radically different paradigm, in which children are in charge of their own education and learn in their own natural ways, and I summarized evidence for the success of this approach. In response to that article, some have asked me how these ideas might be applied on a larger scale, to enable all children to learn this way. Here I describe a vision for the future of education in our society and a path for getting there.

Let’s start with what everyone can already see. A child engaged in self-directed learning is a marvelous sight to behold. Her unrestrained curiosity leads her to discover the things that genuinely interest and matter to her. Her drives to explore, understand, play with, and thereby master those things, and her joy when she succeeds, are palpable. Such a child is fully alive to the world and to learning. This is what education already looks like for children who have not yet reached “school age.” As I explained in the previous article, it continues to look like this, all the way through childhood and into adulthood, for those lucky enough to retain control of their own education, in settings where they can continuously expand their learning horizons. It can look like this for all children.

Now, as just one possible scene in the educational landscape of our future, imagine a center in your community where children—and adults—can come to play, explore, make new friends and learn. It might provide computers, art supplies, books, and athletic and science equipment. The public library might partner with it; in fact, the center might be considered an extension of the library and park systems, available for everyone’s use. There would be a gymnasium for vigorous indoor play and fields and trees for outdoor play. Classes might be offered in music, art, athletics, math, foreign languages, business management, checkbook balancing, wood- and metal-working or anything else that people consider fun, interesting or important enough to study or practice in a structured way. Some of the classes might be taught by local experts, who enjoy sharing their expertise. But there would be no requirements or stress-inducing comparisons among people. People of all ages could form groups to pursue their special interests.

Children would flock to such a center, not because they had to, but because that is where they could find their friends and many exciting things to do. The center might provide childcare too, in an efficient way that capitalizes on the joy and benefit that older kids get out of helping to care for younger ones. In this age-mixed environment, younger children would continuously learn new skills and practice higher ways of thinking through their interactions with older ones, and older ones would gain a sense of their own maturity and learn nurturing skills through interacting with younger ones. These are the ways that children are naturally designed to learn.

Those who join and use the center would govern it through democratic means. They might hire several adults, and maybe some teenagers, to help manage the daily activities. The members would decide democratically on rules of behavior and a system for enforcing them. Such a center would be a wonderful complement to the learning opportunities already available to children at home (through their families and the Internet) and elsewhere in the community.

This is just one of many possible scenes in the educational future I envision. The scenes will vary from place to place in accordance with local needs and wishes. The common denominator is that education is understood as something that arises from children’s natural drives and instincts—their curiosity, attentiveness, playfulness, sociability, desire to understand the world around them, desire to do what older children and adults can do and desire to prepare themselves for their future–not as something to be imposed upon them. Our public responsibility is to provide settings in which these natural drives and instincts can operate with maximal effectiveness for all children, not just those children born to middle- or upper-income parents.


Our system of public schools is supposed to be the “great equalizer,” but it is not. It fails children who come from economically poor families at far, far higher rates than those who are more well off. That is no surprise. The competitive, teach-and-test system of schooling, which pits student against student in the striving for grades, shoves a wedge between those who already know and those who don’t. The well-off, who learn at home much of the basics taught in school, can perform well (at least as measured by grades) in this environment, because they don’t have to learn much that is new. Those without the same home advantages must try to learn what the others already know, and the stress of failure makes this nearly impossible. Some develop a fatalistic belief in their own stupidity; others drop out, whether physically or just mentally, from the whole enterprise. And thus, with each grade in school, the gap between the more and the less advantaged increases.

Children from economically poor families are born with the same drives and abilities to educate themselves as those from wealthier ones, but they need environmental settings that empower and enable them to do so. They need settings where they see real people enjoying reading, writing, discussing ideas and politics. They need settings where they get to know real people who are doctors, engineers or business leaders, or who have in other ways achieved societal posts that they don’t see in their home or immediate neighborhood. They don’t find any of this in our schools today. They will find it in the community centers and other educational settings that I envision for tomorrow. (Of course, transformation in education is not a full solution to the problem of inequality and poverty in our society. We need to address that problem also through other means, regardless of the educational landscape.)


The need for educational transformation—to a model in which students are in charge of their own learning—is more apparent today then ever before. The world is changing rapidly, in ways that have powerful educational implications.

Any child or adult with an Internet connection has access to a world of information. With a few clicks, she can find information, theories and arguments that address any question that interests her. These then become fodder for her own thinking, which she can share with others, anywhere in the world, for their critical thoughts and other feedback. Our children are amazingly adept at using this powerful tool, when they are free to do so.

Self-directed education has never been easier. It has also never been more essential to success. Our rapidly changing economy puts a premium on self-motivation, innovation, and the continued, life-long ability to acquire new skills and evaluate new ideas. People don’t need to be stuffed with pre-filtered information; they need to feel empowered to seek out and think about information that is germane to their own real questions. Fortunately, this empowerment is natural to all human beings; it exists in every child. We simply have to stop quashing it.

The pace of change is such that we cannot predict what today’s students will need to know for tomorrow’s jobs. It makes less sense than ever to teach a standard curriculum. One thing we do know, however, is that our economy and society will benefit from, and reward, a diversity of talents and ideas. Imagine, therefore, a world in which our children will grow like the branches of a tree, reaching out in all directions to find the sunlight. We don’t need to direct them; we just need to provide them with educational settings where they can direct themselves.


Some people wonder if we can afford such educational transformation. Of course we can. Our current system of coercive schools costs us approximately $600 billion a year in tax money (federal, state and local combined) and another $50 billion in tuitions (for private schools). Depending on how you do the calculations, we are spending, on average, somewhere between $10,000 and $13,000 a year for every child in kindergarten through high school.

With such amounts of money, imagine the educational opportunities we could provide to facilitate self-directed education. Money is not the problem. Self-directed education is less expensive than top-down, forced education precisely because it is self-directed. The democratic school where I have conducted some of my research, where students control their own learning, operates on a per-student budget about half that of the local public schools.


How will we get from here to there – to become a nation where all children can learn in the ways they are designed to learn? The transformation will have to occur from the ground up. Our current educational establishment and political leaders are, in general, incapable of leading such a transformation. They have too many vested interests in the status quo. They continuously push for reforms, in one direction or another, because even they realize that our educational system is broken. But those reforms never turn the basic paradigm upside down, and that is why, in the long run, they have always proven ineffective.

We need to transform, rather than reform, the education landscape. This transformation has already begun, not within the standard school system, but outside of it. With each passing year, an increasing percentage of families are taking their children out of standard public and private schools, because they see the harm the schools are inflicting and the benefits of a different approach. Many of these families are opting for home-based self-directed learning for their children, and others are finding or creating democratic schools. Some democratic schools and community resource centers for self-directed learning are opening up in inner cities, deliberately aiming for a mix of children from middle- and low-income families and offering free tuition for those who cannot pay. These people are leading the way in the educational transformation. As more and more families follow, more and more others will see that self-directed education works, and the rate at which families opt out of standard schooling will accelerate.

The families that stop sending their children to standard schools will, over time, become an increasingly powerful voting bloc. They will insist that some of that $600 billion a year in public money currently supporting coercive schools be used, instead, to enrich the landscape of non-coercive educational opportunities. At some point in this process, our current system of public and private schools will either have to transform itself radically or become irrelevant.

Some people think that the kind of educational transformation I am describing here is a utopian fantasy; but it is not. It is already occurring, and the rate at which it is occurring is increasing. I’m a scientist, a realist and a person who has lived long enough to see some very positive changes in the direction of increased democracy and human rights in our society. We have made great strides in human rights for African Americans, for women, and, most recently, for gays and lesbians. The need for transformation in education that I have described here is not just a practical issue of how to improve education in our culture; it is also a human rights issue. Our children deserve—and need, for their well-being—the right to play, explore and learn in the ways that nature intended.

In the words of Victor Hugo, “An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.” One place to keep abreast of this new movement and join it is here.

Peter Gray is a research professor of psychology at Boston College. His most recent book is "Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self Reliant, and Better Prepared for Life" (Basic Books, 2013). He is also author of an introductory psychology textbook ("Psychology," Worth Publishers, now in its sixth edition), a regular blog for Psychology Today magazine called Freedom to Learn, and many academic articles dealing with children’s natural ways of learning. Along with a number of colleagues, he recently launched a web site ( designed to help families find or create settings for children’s self-directed learning.

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