Alternatives to Compulsory Schooling: Standing Room Only

We (Peter Gray, Peter Bergson, Stephen Dill, Cevin Soling and myself) had no idea what we’d discover when Cevin decided to create the Alternatives to Compulsory Education conference at Harvard University this past Saturday, and what we discovered is fascinating. Harvard’s school of education can be considered a major artery to the heart of America’s education/industrial complex, with many of the Common Core and No Child Left Behind initiatives receiving major support from Harvard, so I figured we wouldn’t get anyone from the Harvard community to attend. However, there were some students and faculty present and while some of them probably think we’re all nuts and our solutions only work for wealthy white people (a funny criticism coming from Harvard, and something that is easily disproved if you look at all the demographic data concerning homeschooling), I suspect we at least nudged some educators to consider the value of these ideas. The event certainly energized the non-school people who want alternatives for their children and others.

One of our goals with this project is to move the public into a national dialog about the value of play and time away from adult supervision for children, and how our machine-like conception of schooling stunts a child’s innate processes for learning. I thought each of our talks presented a different point of view on the issue and we wound up complementing each other nicely. With just a few weeks notice, we didn’t know how many people would actually attend. We had 60 people pre-registered the day before, but on the day of the event we easily had 120 in the room; there was standing room only.

Cevin opened the proceedings with a rousing and ironically humorous talk about why schools can’t be reformed and how they are much worse and hypocritical about how poorly they treat students than the media, politicians, and educationists claim. I spoke next, presenting an overview of homeschooling and unschooling as a way for people to escape bad schooling situations, but with a focus on how Holt’s ideas about unschooling require an end-run around compulsory attendance laws and how that has been, and continues to be, accomplished by people who let their children live and learn without marching through school curricula.

Peter Gray followed me with a great presentation about the evolutionary, biological, and psychological evidence for letting children learn through play. He uses the Sudbury Schools as his example for how these ideas can be implemented in modern times, and he expands this concept into non-school settings, too. Peter’s work contains a wealth of data and research, and his handout contained much of it. Peter Bergson, who was the master of ceremonies for the day, spoke last. He described his journey into homeschooling through his reading of John Holt’s books and how he and his wife, a Montessori teacher, founded Open Connections, a learning center (not a school) that has been operating in PA for decades. Peter’s descriptions of how they created, operate, and fund the center were very helpful, especially to those who came to the event seeking to support alternatives through the creation of a learning center. Peter’s slides of children building and using “water transportation devices,” making art with natural objects, and crawling on logs were good reminders for folks that kids don’t just need or want the latest technology and adult ideas for how to fill their time.

There were so many interesting people at the event, and some traveled quite a distance to attend; there were folks from CT, NH, NJ, VT, MI and NY. Ken Danford, Catherine Gobron, and Susannah Sheffer from North Star traveled from western MA for the event and, as always, they shared their good will and ideas with folks during the informal networking moments that arose during the day. Indeed, I had to break away from a group at 3:30 so I could eat lunch: we should have scheduled a lunch break into the event, which is something we should remember if we do it again.

I’m attaching a copy of the program for the day for you to download if you would like to see the various groups who supported this effort. Cevin is viewing and editing the video made of the conference and he expects it will be ready for free, public viewing on YouTube in a couple of weeks. I’ll post the links on my blog, Twitter, and FB when they are available.

I personally want to thank everyone who responded to our invitations to come and support this event; to create even a small conference like this in less four weeks and sell it out is a testament to the pent-up demand for alternatives to compulsory education that people are seeking.