As James and I debated the idea of self-directed education the other day, an interesting questions was posed: are humans inherently lazy? John Holt, one of the thought pioneers of alternatives to the institution of schools, heavily favoured the idea of making school attendance voluntary. His view is that the compulsory nature of schools is anti-American, and that to maintain the precious gift of freedom meant that no one should be forced to attend school.
But if children (and their parents) were given the choice, would anyone go? Are the majority of people capable of self-directed learning? Do they have the desire and the drive? It would hardly be necessary to insist that everyone learn in this manner; certainly not everyone actually learns from our current form of compulsory schooling. Today's buzz words of illiterate graduates and low test scores are evidence that sitting in a classroom for 12 years doesn't make everyone "educated" as it is.
The big question, when it comes to self-directed learning, revolves around our inherent drive. James put forth the idea that if kids didn't have to go to school, they wouldn't, and as a result would not learn the fundamental things needed to function in society. I concede that many of today's school-aged kids would likely opt out of school if you asked them. Remember the old rhyme of
No more pencils, no more books
No more teachers' dirty looks
I think this is obvious, deeply entrenched evidence of how kids feel about school. There is no doubt that if we made school voluntary tomorrow that the vast majority of desks would be empty the day after. Aha! some would say: a solid case that children are lazy and would not take the initiative to educate themselves.
But I think you need to back up to determine if they are indeed capable of learning on their own. By the time kids have been in school for a couple of years, I think they have learned the habit of being lazy. Babies, toddlers and preschoolers are probably the brightest and quickest people on the planet. They learn languages and social concepts and shapes and colours and how to read and sing and walk and interact...the list of things children learn in the first 3 or 4 years of their life is amazing, and at such an incredible rate. John Holt has a valid point if you observe young children: they want to learn, and they do it informally, not in a desk, and often with no formal teaching practices at all. They ask a billion questions, and if those questions are answered, they ask more. Their memory and rate of retention is unparalelled. So what is it that slows or stops this incredible learning curve?
By watching young children I think we answer the question "are we inherently lazy?" No, not in the least. Therefore laziness is something we learn as we grow, perhaps in schools, perhaps from society, maybe even from parental examples. I think if we fostered that love of learning in children when they are young, allowing them to ask questions they want to ask, teaching them as they desire, their education would be fast-tracked way beyond the current level. Does that mean we should dispense with schools entirely? No, of course not. We need somewhere to go to access the knowledge we desire to pursue. But I think the laziness factor is something to consider when designing a model of education.