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Photo by Kristin Jillson

What if They Just...?
Maybe it isn’t that school is so structured because kids are incapable, but that kids seem incapable because we only see what they are doing in schools that are so structured.

But what if they just waste their time playing video games all day? But what if they really don’t know what is best for themselves? But what if they just do stuff that is easy and never challenge themselves? One thing I can be fairly sure of in conversations explaining Self-Directed Education is that at some point early on, there will be a question that starts: “But what if they just...?”

What concerns me about the questions isn’t the content of the concerns, but the attitude toward young people these (often rhetorical) questions generally reflect. Surely, it is valid to question whether, in the absence of tests and grades, students will challenge themselves adequately, or whether students will learn worthwhile things without a formal curriculum. The problem is “But what if they just...?” tends to be grounded in very negative ideas about what kids are like, one that I suspect is partly shaped by looking at them in places like conventional schools.

There are two things that could be going on here. Maybe our negative view of what youth will do without coerced guidance is justified, and that is why we give so few freedoms to kids at school and elsewhere. Or – and this is my suspicion – it is sort of the reverse. Maybe kids look like they will flounder without adult guidance precisely because we are judging their behavior in institutions that are so repressively structured.

a girl playing a video game
Photo by Kristin Jillson

In school, kids are directed by adult authorities for a good majority of their time. They are told where to go, when and how to talk, what to pay attention to, and a host of other things. This makes it easy, first of all, to think of kids as naturally dependent on external structures like teacher orders and bell schedules. After all, since we don’t see them make a lot of decisions, and they don’t get to regularly practice making significant decisions, we will likely come to believe that kids just aren’t capable of making decisions. And if we do ever get to see those kids making decisions on their own, they are more liable to make poor ones, maybe not because kids just have bad judgments, but because we’ve never given them opportunities to develop better judgment.

I’d even argue that many kids learn quickly in school that it is best not to make their own judgments, but to follow the teacher’s judgment instead. In his book Life in Classrooms, psychologist Philip Jackson observed several schools and wrote about what he found there. One thing he noticed is that, from a fairly early age, kids learn that in school, it generally pays to be quite malleable:

Another aspect of school life, related to the general phenomena of distractions and interruptions, is the recurring demand that the student ignore those who are around him. In elementary classrooms students are frequently assigned seatwork on which they are expected to focus their individual energies they must learn to be patient. This means that they must be able to disengage, at least temporarily, their feelings from their actions. It also means, of course, that they must be able to re-engage feelings and actions when conditions are appropriate.

In this type of environment, kids learn that on some level, they should subordinate what they think is best to what will be convenient for the classroom and the teacher. In other words, they learn not to decide for themselves how to learn math, but to adjust how they will learn math to how others tell them it must be learned. In that environment, of course it is easy to get the (hasty and possibly wrong) impression that kids aren’t capable of judging for themselves.

There is another way the structured nature of school might cause us to adopt a negative view of youth’s abilities. School severely limits the freedom of young people, and where some will accept the challenge and become docile (because docility pays), others will rebel or take any chance they can to gain (and probably abuse) any measure of freedom.

By analogy, think about dieting. Imagine a person on an impossibly restrictive diet, and for good measure, imagine that someone else forced that person to be on this diet. The more restrictive the diet, the more likely that as soon as no one is looking and willpower has run dry, they will use the opportunity to binge. “In real life,” they might not be the type who binges at every opportunity, but the restrictive nature of the diet may have so depleted their willpower, that they will use every opportunity of dietary freedom to indulge what they’ve been forced to repress.

When kids are quick to abuse the small freedoms they are given in school and similarly repressive environments, it is easy to blame the person, not the “diet.” One natural response is to say, “See, this is why we can’t give them freedom. Look at what happens when we give them freedom!” But like with the dieting scenario, what if the better response is that the other way around: what if they are abusing the freedom precisely because we restrict them so much on a regular basis?

children flying a kite
Photo by Rhonda Saunders

Will kids make mistakes with freedom? Sure. I am familiar enough with the literature on why kids may be more impulsive than adults owing to a less mature prefrontal cortex. (I am also familiar with research calling this hypothesis into question.) And surely, kids are less wise than adults owing to general lack of experience. But we all make mistakes when we learn. In fact, making mistakes is how we learn not to make mistakes.

Will some kids not use their time wisely? That’s a more difficult question, because the (problematic) assumption is that the adults are the only person who gets to define “wisely.” Even then, we can surely still suppose that there will be kids who really do use their time unwisely. It still isn’t clear to me that enough kids, if allowed to direct their own time, will waste their time in a way that justifies treating all kids as “guilty until proven innocent.”

Moreover, leaving kids to manage their time doesn’t mean that adults cannot offer advice along the way. And if the alternative to some kids mismanaging their time is for us to manage their time for them, I am not convinced that this doesn’t ultimately postpone their inability to manage their own time wisely. It’d be like not teaching someone to drive because you are convinced they can’t yet drive: it just postpones the problem.

“But what if they just...?” Well, they may just.... They might just play video games, just do things with their time that you are convinced are less than useful, just make mistake after mistake, just not learn the lessons you think they should learn. They could, it is true, do those things. But they could also really surprise you. Maybe the reason we think kids can’t handle freedom and autonomy is that we are judging their capabilities within systems where freedom and autonomy aren’t welcome. What will any given child look like if given freedom and the time and space to come into their own with it? Who knows?! They might just... prosper.