[The text below is an excerpt from a peer-reviewed journal article authored by Professor Peter Gray, an evolutionary biologist and learning researcher at Boston College. We are reproducing it here because we agree with Dr. Gray wholeheartedly. Here is his blog.]

Despite all of this time in school and our culture’s extreme emphasis on schooling, the evidence is that children do not learn much in school. I, like other college professors, must more or less start from scratch in teaching college courses; I cannot assume that the students remember anything from comparable courses in high school. For example, students spend thousands of hours on math drill in
school, and yet, a year or two out, they know little more math than what they would have learned anyway, just in the course of life. Worse, many of them, because of their school experience, have developed such fears of math that they avoid it like the plague (Burns 1998).

Our schools do so poorly because they are settings that more or less deliberately deprive children of all of the conditions, described above, that are essential for self-education:


  • Children are not free to play, explore, and roam in school. They are instead required to follow a curriculum chosen for them by others and to spend most of the day sitting in their seats.
  • Children are strictly segregated by age in school, almost completely deprived of opportunities to interact with older and younger children, from whom they have the most to learn.
  • In the classroom, there is typically only one adult, who may or may not be a caring person, and who may or may not be approachable by students seeking help or comfort. Moreover, that adult is often not seen by the children as a full person, but as someone playing a certain role, that of teacher. Models of other professions and interests are completely lacking.

  • Children may be exposed, in school, to some of the equipment valued by our culture, but the exposure typically occurs in ways that are controlled by the adults and do not permit the sort of free play that promotes deep and lasting learning.
  • Free exchange of ideas is cut off in school, by the prescriptions of the curriculum and by the tests that provide “right” and “wrong” answers to essentially every question.
  • Because of the age segregation and the competitive environment and the lack of freedom to leave when one feels harassed, bullying and anxiety are part and parcel of many children’s everyday school experience.
  • Our standard schools are not, by any stretch of imagination, democratic communities. They are highly stratified top-down structures, with students at the very bottom of the hierarchy.

So, what we do in our schools is to deprive children of all of the conditions that they need to educate themselves, and then we try to teach them something. No wonder the teacher’s job is so hard. No wonder our children learn and remember so little of what they are taught. No wonder most children are less happy in school than almost anywhere else (Csikszentmihalyi and Hunter 2003; Herman et al. 2009).

[Gray, Peter. The Evolutionary Biology of Education: How Our Hunter-Gatherer Educative Instincts Could Form the Basis for Education Today. Evolution: Education and Outreach. ISSN 1936-6426. Volume 4, Number 1, Page 38.]