FAQs

Questions About Transforming The Education System:

What is this site’s position on public education?

A lot of people are passionately debating whether education should be funded through public or private channels. That is a very important but separate issue. This site’s mission is more fundamental—to change the dominant educational paradigm from top-down, teach-and-test schooling (with mandated learning targets) to a self-directed approach that is in tune with how children naturally learn. There is already adequate funding out there; how it is best structured (through public, private, or a combination of both channels) is an important decision that is outside the scope of this web site. What we do want people to understand is that money is not the issue. Our current system of public and private schools costs us approximately $600 billion dollars 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. Imagine the educational opportunities we could provide instead with those amounts, especially given that self-directed learning costs much less to implement. -

Why are you opposed to schools (except the ones known as “democratic schools”)?

This site makes a case against schools, but to be precise, it is actually the process of schooling that is the problem, rather than the school per se. Schooling in this case refers to compelling people, using a system of reward and punishment, to study a curriculum that has been designed by authority figures, and to do so on a schedule irrespective of the developmental nature of the individual student.

No one is opposed to instruction from a caring and knowledgeable source that has been invited by the recipient. If schools acted more like libraries, or the Internet, or chosen mentors—all of which say, in effect, “We have lots to share; come and take what you want”—there would be no need for the fundamental shift for which this site is advocating.

On the title page of his first book, “How Children Fail,” written 60 years ago, John Holt quoted his colleague Bill Hull as saying, “If we taught children to speak, they’d never learn.” (Italics added for emphasis.) We believe that the failure of forced schooling is largely because we are trying to do just that—teach what would otherwise be learned naturally.

 

How do we know that self-directed education isn’t just the latest craze and that its current supporters will come up with a different cure-all a few years down the road?

As explained in the How Children Learn section, the United States has a long history of philosophical and practical resistance to coercive schooling. Ever since Bronson Alcott, the father of Louisa May Alcott “Little Women,” etc.) refused to send his daughters to school and chose to homeschool them, there have been resisters. In the United States, there has been a near-continuous line of school critics who have espoused the benefits of play, self-directed learning, multi-year and even inter-generational mixing of learners, immersion in the culture during education, and self-generated exploration.

John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner (Waldorf Schools), Pestolozzi (the father of modern kindergarten), John Holt, Paul Goodman, and all of those who created The Eight Year Report in the period between World Wars I and II, are among literally hundreds of others who have all made the case for putting students more in charge of their own learning. AlternativesToSchool.com is standing on the shoulders of giants and continuing a long-standing critique that we hope will turn into a large-scale movement for all.

 

Why do we need to transform rather than just reform schools?

There are a lot of vested interests in preserving the status quo, and a change of this magnitude cannot be done gradually within a school or school system. The change requires a paradigm shift, from one in which external authority figures are in charge of the educational process to one in which each student is truly in charge of his or her own education.

The underlying beliefs about how children learn best are fundamentally at odds. As long as someone else sets a curriculum, no matter how many choices they offer within that curriculum, students will see it as someone else’s job, rather than theirs, to decide what to learn, and when and how to learn it. And as long as someone else is evaluating students’ progress, no matter how they do so, students will see that their job is to meet someone else’s expectations, rather than to establish and meet their own expectations.

You also can’t expect to eliminate evaluation gradually, one course at a time. Suppose you introduce into the curriculum one course in which students will not be graded. What you will find is that most students won’t do anything in that course, even if they want to, because they have grown dependent upon the reward of a grade. In a system where other courses are graded, the ungraded course is understood to be irrelevant. How can a good student justify devoting time to a course that is not graded if other courses are? In order to change that mindset, the whole system has to change.

I had some really good teachers that inspired and guided my learning; doesn’t that indicate that we just need to invest in bringing more such teachers into our current schools?

There are teachers in today’s schools who are genuinely helping to support self-directed learning. Many find it very hard to swim against the tide and continue doing this within the constraints of the current system and its prevailing paradigm. The classic examples tend to get fired (including John Taylor Gatto, author of “Dumbing Us Down,” and a New York City Teacher of the Year and New York State Teacher of the Year). Unfortunately (or not), many of the teachers who feel strongly about this–the cream of the crop–are now resigning in droves after beating their head against the system, against principals afraid of losing their jobs if test scores go down, etc.

If schools are as bad as you say they are, why do we have so many brilliant young people coming out of them, leading the world in such areas as technological innovation, science and business?

There is no doubt that there are many such youths in America. Some of these school graduates will even identify certain courses or instructors as being major contributors to, if not instigators of, their personal success. (“I would like to thank Mrs. Wilson, my eighth-grade English teacher, who told me I could be a great writer if I put my mind to it. She inspired me to write, write, write, and to read the works of great authors, and that made all the difference.”)

In general, however, the position expressed by the poet William Blake holds true: if a blighted tree bears fruit, never let it be said that it was the blight that produced the fruit. Many of our great inventors and leaders were successful in spite of their schooling, or at least outside of their schooling. They invented their breakthrough hardware in their garage at home; they failed most of their coursework and graduated only because the school didn’t want them around anymore—or they were simply ho-hum students who showed no promise at the time.

Something else was in play that led them to greatness—a parent, an uncle, a passion for animals or programming or music. Whatever it was, it was not what we have identified as the problem of schooling. They may have picked up some bits of useful information along the way, or even been introduced to a topic that later became their area of greatest interest. But these benefits for a few fortunate individuals do not justify the stultifying impact of schooling on the vast majority of students.

If more and more parents allow their children to direct their own education outside of a regular school, won’t that leave the public schools to the most marginalized groups in our society?

That is an important concern—although many marginalized families are also finding ways to help their children learn outside of traditional schooling. But hopefully this site will inspire people to foster freedom-based learning not just for their children, but for all young people. It is also a given that young people need safe, nurturing and resource-abundant environments in order to thrive, and in order for this to happen, our society needs to ensure that marginalized groups have access to such environments. But the answer lies not in perpetuating an inferior system but in redirecting resources (whether in the form of tuition or taxes) toward creating a far better system in its place. Furthermore, self-directed learning (in a democratic school or community resource center) is far more cost-efficient than standard schools.

Many children from poor families have managed to escape poverty because their parents emphasized education and studying hard. The approach advocated on this site is the complete opposite. How can you say it is better?

This question implies two things: that school is the key factor that has helped some people escape poverty, and that young people will “study and work hard” only when forced to by parents or teachers. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The “successes” are the exceptions; the big numbers show that schools in general are not helping youth out of poverty, and in fact are reinforcing their belief that they are losers and must find some other path to “success”–such as dealing drugs. (Many educators view schools as Rube Goldberg machines for eradicating poverty but, like those machines, schools are over-engineered and unnecessary for the purpose.)

Studies have shown for decades that one¹s socio-economic status has a very strong effect on one’s schooling. Children in poor neighborhoods go to poor public schools; children in rich neighborhoods go to rich public schools, and there is very little crossover, despite attempts such as forced busing of the poor into rich schools. School creates and solidifies more class differences, in every sense of that phrase, than erases them. Ivan Illich wrote about this issue in the 1970s, yet we still ignore it: “Even if they attend equal schools and begin at the same age, poor children lack most of the educational opportunities which are casually available to the middle-class child. These advantages range from conversation and books in the home to vacation travel and different sense of oneself, and apply, for the child who enjoys them, both in and out of school. So the poorer student will generally fall behind so long as he depends on school for advancement or learning.”(From Illich¹s “Deschooling Society,” p. 14) He went on to argue that, rather than giving low-income people money in a form that must be applied to schools, it is better to give them money that they can use to learn what they want or need.

Others have voiced the same views over the years, and many of them are summed up in John Marsh’s book, “Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality.” In short, schools didn¹t create poverty and inequality, so giving poor people more school degrees, instead of more money and better environments to live and work in, will not raise them out of poverty.

When children from poor families do manage to rise above those economic circumstances, it is generally because one or more adults (whether from their immediate or extended families, or the broader community) supported various aspects of their development. (The form of the support matters. The classic “successful” Asian student who is pressured to be at the top of his or her class often pays a high personal price. Many such students are miserable, and there is a whole cadre of “school refusers” in Japan and China. The measure of “success” is also very one-dimensional, and even the Chinese educational establishment is doing an about-turn to remedy what such a system promotes.]

The second issue, that children won¹t learn unless forced by teachers or parents to do so, also doesn¹t hold up scrutiny. No one works harder than an infant who is trying to roll over for the first time, and no one is more dedicated to achieving a goal than the toddler who is figuring out how to walk and how to speak and be understood. And look at the effort spent in activities such as building a tree house, becoming a good skater, or constructing a sailboat, all at remarkably young ages.

When youths do not continue to expend such effort, it is usually because their energies have been drained by meaningless (to them) busy-work from which they have no escape. History‹including up to the present time is filled with stories of remarkable accomplishments made by young people who have had only the opportunity to pursue their interests. Often they are on their own to “beg, borrow and steal” the resources they need for their creations. What is important is that their drive to do so has been kept intact. For some, this may lead to serious academic study; for others, their success comes from their intuition, their knowledge of people, and their ability to read various situations and figure out how to achieve their goal. Even for those in school, look how often the class clown returns to the 10th reunion a successful businessman, and to the 20th, a millionaire! If that is your measure of success, there is proof of the power of self-motivation. For others, the self-directed path leads to other accomplishments and overall life satisfaction.

It would seem that the population of a school such as Sudbury Valley is a self-selected one and unlikely to represent a cross-section of society in terms of race, ethnicity, economic level, etc. What makes you think this self-directed approach would work as well for minorities and working-class kids?

On its surface, this question seems highly discriminatory—akin to suggesting that African-Americans or women shouldn’t vote due to their lack of adequate intellect, rational decision-making, or some other inherent (or culturally induced) defect.

At the same time, there is a legitimate question about the ability of certain individuals—or category of individuals—to thrive, at least initially, in a setting that requires a certain significant amount of self-direction. Democratic schools almost always require a trial period of at least a week, sometimes more, during which time both the student and the community develop a sense as to whether or not this is likely to be a good “match.” Resource centers catering to self-directed learners have the same issue—in fact, so do all private schools, from the progressives to the military academies. There is no “one-size-fits-all” community, if for no other reason than normal human diversity.

With self-directed schools and centers, even the average student is likely to go through some period of adjustment—especially if he or she is coming from a traditional school where most of the major choices were made by adults, but also for some who had previously been left to their own devices to the point that they weren’t required to take the needs or interests of other youths into consideration on a regular basis.

It’s not at all unusual for the newly liberated public- or private-school student to celebrate a new lack of scholastic requirements by choosing to listen to music or play video games “all day, every day,” or shoot hoops or read comic books or simply “hang out” and talk with peers. This period has been referred to as “de-schooling,” and the rule of thumb has often been deemed to be “a month or more of de-schooling for every year that one was in school.” Sometimes a youth may seem to be “avoiding” sinking their teeth into anything “meaningful”—meaningful to the traditional adult eye, that is. And then they surprise the heck out of you, launching with gusto into some project or another, or mastering three “years’” worth of math in two months, becoming voracious readers and budding philosophy nerds, etc. In other words, once they realize there are no hoops they must jump through (except to be a decent citizen, which they learn quickly in a peer-led judicial system that is based on fairness, not domination), they become free to flourish in whatever ways they choose to become engaged.

As for those youths who are new to the world of intellectual engagement, due to the absence of adult as well as older peer models, they, too, are most likely to “get with the program” once they learn there is nothing to fight against, no “should” that is always demanding compliance and evoking rebellion. When all is said and done, Nature takes over. In this case, it is our human nature to learn, grow, and create. Only if someone is so badly wounded that they cannot process what is going on around them (or not going on) would they be incapable of benefiting from a self-directed environment—especially with a caring adult staff and youth population there to help with the transition. If there are no such models available, and suddenly all of the rules change without any provision for new and healthier models, then, yes, that is likely to present greater challenges. But would they be worse than the drugs and guns and everyday violence encountered in some of our current schools?

Can’t we fix schools by reducing class sizes, increasing funding, hiring better teachers, improving the nutritional intake of low-income kids, and getting parents to instill better educational values in their children?

There is little question that each of these would benefit a large segment of our youth population. Each one individually would increase the probability of success for the children involved—especially the ones that address the immediate effects of poverty, such as hunger, which extend well beyond the walls of schools. However, the point of AlternativesToSchool.com is to look at the current situation from a different perspective than merely repairing broken parts of a system. The goal instead is to challenge the most basic assumption—concerning children’s true natures—on which the current educational system (comprising both public and private schools) has been built. This scrutiny reveals a system that is fundamentally flawed, and shows that the best path forward is to replace it with a new one that better serves students and society (in fact, many talented teachers have already left their posts to either provide their own children with a home-based learning experience, or to start democratic schools and resource centers for self-directed learners in their communities). The current system views young people as stupid, lazy, unmotivated, and needing to be controlled. These views were not always prevalent. They developed at a time in human history when the paramount concern of well-meaning parents was to groom their children to survive as adults in societies where survival meant unquestioning submission to authority—first in feudal societies and later in industrial ones. Fortunately the world has changed, and our individual horizons are much broader. It’s high time to reconsider how anachronistic schooling is, and how out of sync it is to the true nature of children. Children are naturally smart, energetic, highly motivated to learn and create, and needing respect and consideration, rather than constant reminders that they are considered untrustworthy and incompetent. As long as they hold these negative beliefs about themselves, our young people will fail to reach their full potential. They will fight back in an effort to gain some measure of autonomy, no matter how self-destructive their choice may prove to be (even if it only amounts to falling into line, going through the motions, feigning interest and counting the days until their sentence is over). Once we made the decision to remove young people from society and isolate them in their own institutions—thereby depriving them of the opportunity to learn and to grow in the context of the world around them—we left them with little choice but to create their own world of petty escapes, continuous rebellion (or passive compliance and adaptation) and dissociated learning. To understand their motivations for negative behavior, just imagine yourself in prison for a crime (i.e., being young) you didn’t commit. Even if you obey the guards and spend your free time in the prison library, or even make friends with some of your fellow prisoners, your focus will remain on the day you come up for parole or when your sentence has been completed. We crave the sense of freedom that should have been ours all along. (The story for some, of course, is a much happier one—but they represent a small minority; for more on this, please refer to that question in the FAQ.) Even those who claim they enjoyed their school days are engaging either in selective memory or, more likely, referring to their interactions with their peers, not with much of their school work—so they are not really talking about school at all, in the sense of the supposed primary function of schools. The occasional inspirational teacher is an outlier and not indicative of most people’s basic school experience. Real learning begins before schooling starts, then lies in wait or hides in the shadows until graduation, and then, for the lucky ones, is revived when they are reunited with the real world.

Can change come from within the system?

There are certainly well-intentioned people who are critiquing their schools and constantly searching for ways to improve them. There have even been some moves to allow students greater freedom. But the success of those initiatives is limited by the paradigm that undergirds the system. We need to transform, rather than reform, our current education system. And with rare exceptions, our current educational establishment and political leaders are unlikely to lead such a transformation, because they are too invested in the status quo. Therefore the pressure for change will need to come from the outside.

Won’t the power of the Internet force the changes you are advocating?

The Internet will make some changes more practical, and it already has contributed to the sense of empowerment of many people with regard to taking charge of their own learning. However, many people see the Internet primarily (or even exclusively) as a more convenient encyclopedia—a place to “look stuff up,” to better fulfill school assignments such as research papers and book reports, and generally keep up with the times technologically—all while continuing to assume that it is still the school that should be telling youths what to learn and when to learn it. Even if you replace a push mower with a lawn tractor, you are still just mowing the lawn; more efficiently, perhaps, but still performing the same basic task.

Can we change a system that has been increasingly entrenched for 150 years?

While it would be great if policymakers and professional educators at all levels read the arguments spelled out on this site and immediately adopted a belief in the right and power of people of all ages to direct their own education, it is highly unlikely that most people with a stake in maintaining the status quo will embrace change quite so readily. Fortunately, that’s not a prerequisite for change, because the impetus can also come from outside the system. Change comes in two ways: trends and grander disruptive events. There is already a trend toward self-directed learning. Although there are no hard numbers, there is ample evidence that the number of families practicing this approach at home is growing steadily. Many democratic schools and resource centers catering to self-directed learners have also opened in recent years, and more are in the planning stages around the country (many of them are being started by teachers committed to helping children learn, and frustrated by the current system). The stage has been set for a grander disruptive event (or series of such events) to effect mass transformation in short order. Some relevant disruptive events have already begun, such as the rise of low-cost but high-quality online learning opportunities. Hopefully this web site can serve as another such catalyst, by bringing these views to the attention of the general public (including parents, teachers, and other concerned citizens), to prompt them to consider the viewpoint, and the supporting data, that represent self-directed learning and the benefits it offers to society as a whole, as well as to their own children. At some point in the not-so-distant future, forced schooling will likely go the way of other experiments that society has found severely wanting.

I want to be part of this movement. What can I do?

Please refer to our Join the Movement section. You may also wish to support this web site’s future information-gathering and awareness-raising efforts with a donation here.