Reflections from the Road

One fact is overwhelming: this country is massive. As I drive for hours a day, with wide expanses constantly coming into and exiting view, I’m struck by just how massive this country is. Each change in terrain hints at ever more variation outward across landscapes unseen. Driving through farmland, rolling hills, and mountains, I wonder what life is like in the places I pass. I imagine myself growing up there, moving there. The possibilities seem endless.

I stayed with my friend Ben in Des Moines. We walked toward downtown, through a sculpture garden, and ate dinner on the sidewalk. I learned that insurance and finance are the big industries in Des Moines. We went to a public art exhibit. On the roof of a theater we met some cycling dudes who said they wished they would’ve brought more beer (for us). We found a “world food & drink” fair winding down. We walked through it as people were leaving, styrofoam plates blowing across the street like tumbleweeds, and smelled the eclectic mix of aromas.

In Rapid City I couchsurfed for the first time. Skyler was a great host. Anthony, another couchsurfer, and I played soccer and skateboarded with his two sons—bright, observant little boys with big imaginations. We ate homemade burritos. We conversed—about couchsurfing culture, about our perspectives on life and spirituality. In the morning Anthony and I drove to Mount Rushmore and per Skyler’s advice parked on the side of the road instead of going through the official tourist entrance. We found what seemed like a trail, or dried up stream, and followed it. We eventually made our way up some large rocks and found a stunning view. We were up close to the monument (even though we only had good views of Washington and Lincoln), and we could look out in all directions at the mountain scenery.

In Billings I couchsurfed again. Rob and Carey generously welcomed me into their home. I got to know Carey, her daughter and a couple of their friends, who were working on the roof. We went to the grocery store, then returned and prepared a big dinner—spaghetti with lamb sauce, salad, garlic bread, sautéed zucchini, and lemon meringue pie. Rob came home during dinner. We talked about education, couchsurfing, traveling, and Rob and Carey mentioned a school in Billings I might be interested in. Rob and Carey’s grandchildren go to ‘Zooschool,’ a preschool inside of a zoo. The next morning I met their daughter-in-law, Heidi, there. She showed me around and I spoke with some of the teachers. The kids seemed excited about being around animals.

Right now I’m in a coffee shop in Missoula. I’m staying here with my friend Derek. Last night we went to bar trivia at a VFW bar. Needless to say, we won. $20 between four of us—us and two of Derek’s friends from his fiction MFA program. This morning I saw The Clark Fork school, a parent co-op preschool/kindergarten that emphasizes place-based learning and connection with nature. They take students on “saunters” around the neighborhood and nearby nature areas (the school is located at the base of what is, at least by my Midwestern standards, a mountain). They seek to make education as hands-on, relevant, and locally-inspired as possible. In the school’s natural history room, the shelves are lined with skeletons, stuffed birds, and other animal paraphernalia. I lifted an elk horn off a shelf. It was heavier than I expected. The kids get plenty of time for unstructured play outside on the playground, and during class they learn how to garden and to respect and take care of animals, among other activities.

My next stop is Spokane, where I’ll be couchsurfing again. Couchsurfing has been an excellent experience so far. My hosts have all been generous, accepting, passionate people. When I told friends and family I was going to couchsurf, the almost inevitable question (sometimes accompanied by a raised eyebrow) was, “What’s in it for them?” Why do people open their homes to strangers without monetary compensation? Do they have some nefarious motives?

First of all, hosts get to see your profile, including your couchsurfing references, communicate with you, and decide whether or not to host you. They’re not obligated to host any surfer, nor is any surfer obligated to stay with any host. But more importantly, the reason many people host is simply to meet others and to learn about their experiences.

I’ve met really interesting people, exchanged ideas and philosophies, and learned about their backgrounds and experiences. You can learn much more about a place from people who live there than from maps, travel guides, or the internet. It’s nice that couchsurfing is free, but if hotels were free I’d still prefer couchsurfing. Every now and then I might want a hotel room for a night, but for the most part hotel-staying is a lonely affair. Some people seem to have this notion that if you’re not spending money, no value is being created or exchanged. But that’s just not true. Connections are made, and networks and worldviews are expanded. What is the monetary value of these things? It may not be easily measured.

I think back to when Anthony and I hiked near Mount Rushmore. I owe couchsurfing and Skyler for that experience. Skyler opened us to the possibility of just hiking up the mountain instead of paying to park and take pictures on the tourist platform. With a little determination and some trial and error—trying one rock until it got too steep and we couldn’t go any higher, then turning around and trying another way—we made a pretty significant ascent and stood on top of some large rocks where we got a close up view of the faces and could look out in all directions.

I think it’s easy to get stuck in a groove of thinking in which we see only a few possibilities in front of us. Park in the official entrance, pay the fee, and take some pictures, or maybe circumvent that and park elsewhere, a little farther away, and take pictures for free. But we don’t think to hike. And if we did, we might say, “I don’t see any signs for trails.” Where we see only a few possibilities, only a few paths, there are likely many more ways to go than we initially imagine. We need to look around, generate ideas with a creative mind, then act on and adjust those ideas as we go along. Climb that rock there until it gets too steep and you have to turn back and find another way up. Keep this trial and error up and eventually you will reach your goal. If the desire to get to the top (of the mountain, not of others) is strong, you will find a way. Your passion, and the clarity with which you see your goal, will be the impetus for generating creative routes.

Education should foster this creative process, not inhibit it. It should help people generate their own ideas about how to go about achieving their own goals. I believe that in order to do that we must give the reins of self-determination to the young people we seek to educate, not the adults trying to teach them. Too many children are being taught, implicitly or explicitly, that they must need and want certain things and that there are a few prescribed routes for getting those things. Rather, we should show young people the many possibilities, lifestyles, and avenues of human endeavor out there. Let them choose their goals for themselves. When they do, they will do so with passion, and when they have a clear vision of what they want, they’ll see a thousand paths where they might otherwise see none.

mount rushmore view

The view from Mount Rushmore

mount rushmore


The Montessori School of Englewood

Chicago, Illinois, September 12th

Kelly, the Director of Social and Emotional Support, gave me a tour of the school. She explained that the school has 250 students (up from 190 the year before, and 95 the year before that). There are headstart/preschool classes, kindergarten classes, 6-9 year old classes, and a 9-12 year old class.

First I observed a kindergarten class. The children—some on their own and some in small groups—were doing a number of different activities around the room. One drew on a canvas, some arranged puzzle pieces, another filled a bucket with soapy water to use for cleaning a table. There were lots of activities and materials available in the room, and the students chose what to do (Montessori practitioners call it “freedom within limits”). The teacher sat with three or four students, showing them how to put together a certain type of puzzle. Once they were working on their own, the teacher went to check on other kids. In addition to the teacher there was a teacher’s assistant helping some of the kids. Some of the students talked while working, some sang.

The Montessori materials seemed to involve a lot of tasks involving sorting, arranging, and ordering. For example, a little girl had a bunch of pictures of things and had to sort them into two groups: one of ‘living’ things and one of ‘non-living’ things.

In the older class of (6-9 year-olds), kids were reading individually when I entered the room. One boy was flipping through pages of pictures books, making up stories that corresponded with the pictures. Then a teacher’s assistant came over and helped the boy to actually read the words of a different story. To get all the students’ attention, the teacher tapped a gong three times—which seemed like a very calm way to capture attention.

The Montessori School of Englewood is a public charter school, meaning it’s open to the public, who apply for a ‘lottery,’ and the winners get to enroll. The school is partially funded by Chicago Public Schools and partially funded by private donors. As a charter school, they have control over the structure and activities of the school. However, their contract with CPS requires them to administer standardized tests to the students at points throughout the year.

In the past, the school did not make any effort to integrate testing standards into its curriculum. This year though, they are trying to think of ways to softly introduce some standards into the Montessori activities—but they are adamant that they will not change the Montessori approach. Simply put, the test scores are not the priority. The intellectual, social, and emotional development of the children is the priority. The best path to aid in that development, the administrators are convinced, is through the Montessori way.

You can read a very thorough Q & A about Montessori education on The Montessori School of Englewood’s website.

Kelly told me about a number of social-emotional development programs they use in the school. Below is a list of some resources Kelly gave me (with links). Anyone interested in the social-emotional side of education would benefit from looking into these programs/books:

No Nonsense Nurturing

Conscious Discipline

PATHS (Providing Alternative THinking Strategies)

The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog

Power Struggles

It was very refreshing to see a school so focused on the social and emotional needs of its students. It seems that many charter schools serving underprivileged areas don’t focus on this aspect of education. With a few exceptions, the larger charter school movement has made raising test scores its priority, often to the neglect of students’ social-emotional development.


Urban Prairie Waldorf School

Chicago, Illinois, September 10th

Peggy, one of the administrators, greeted me. I asked Peggy what makes Waldorf education different from traditional school. Firstly, she said, the kids get a more hands-on approach to learning. They get to see and do what it is they’re learning about. There are no textbooks for the students—they’re encouraged to make something during every learning activity they do (usually in form of writings or drawings in a workbook). By the end of the year, they have a whole lot of their own work collected in these workbooks, and they can look back at all they’ve learned and all the hard work they’ve put in.

Another interesting feature of Waldorf is that teachers continue with their students throughout the grades—so your first grade teacher will continue to be your teacher all the way through fifth (sometimes up to eighth) grade.

According to an information packet Peggy gave me, Rudolf Steiner, a philosopher and scientist, developed Waldorf education in Germany in the early 20th century. After World War I, “people were devastated physically, emotionally, and spiritually.” The goal was to produce “a school that could develop the full range of students’ capabilities and allow them to become free, self-reliant individuals capable of contributing fresh insights and initiatives to the world.”

In the younger grades, kids get plenty of time for play and socialization. The mornings are reserved for the important lesson or academic focus of the day, but then the afternoons, especially for the little ones, involve a lot of free time.

The curriculum at most Waldorf schools is more or less the same. Students progress along a set track of topics, lessons, and ideas. For example, for language development first graders focus on fairy tales, second graders on fables, third graders on the Old Testament, fourth graders on Norse mythology… The goal is to steadily build students’ language ability and understanding of narrative.

In the younger grades, game-playing and music/movement was a common feature. When I walked into the second grade class, the entire class was singing a song—very beautifully and in harmony—while moving in a circle. Then the teacher brought out bean bags and threw them one at a time to the students—part of building fine motor skills I assume.

In third grade, the class played “Zip Zap Zop,” a movement and concentration game I first encountered in an improv class at The Second City. After the game, they took their seats for a math exercise (an addition worksheet). Next they discussed the story of Cain and Able.

When I entered the fourth grade class, the teacher was leading the class in singing and movements. Peggy informed me they were practicing for an upcoming school-wide pageant. Then they played a jump-roping game during which each student had to shout out a multiple of 8 in succession.

In the mixed fifth and sixth grade classroom, the teacher was reading a passage about the biology/anatomy of bees while one student wrote what she said on the blackboard and the rest of the students copied the paragraph down. After the writing portion of the lesson, the teacher brought out a large drawing of a bee and the class started to copy it down in their workbooks.

After observing the four classrooms, I sat down to have a discussion with Mat, the 3rd grade teacher and faculty chair. He spoke about three important aspects of developmental that Waldorf focuses on: the hands, the head, and the heart. The hands involve fine motor skills at the lower level, artistic and handiwork ability at the higher levels. The head involves intellectual development—knowledge and critical thinking skills. And the heart involves socialization, emotional growth, and the feeling that oneself and one’s work contain meaning.

As far as traditional options go, this type of school seems like a good one. The school didn’t strike me as being all that alternative. There may be a little more physical movement and a little more arts integration, but overall it seems pretty much like a traditional school. The teachers still direct and correct the students during lessons. The kids don’t really get to choose what to learn about. And the desks are positioned traditionally—in rows, facing the front of the room. Waldorf does utilize an important alternative practice: instead of testing and giving out grades, the teachers write holistic assessments of each child and meet with the parents regularly to discuss progress–a much better approach to assessment that doesn’t rely on external reward and doesn’t breed as much competition or people-pleasing (it also simply offers a more informative and useful assessment of the child).

Mat and I agreed that grading young students can take away their inclination to learn for learning’s sake. Mat said that they have absolutely no problems with cheating at Urban Prairie—the thought doesn’t even cross students’ minds. External rewards are minimal. The reward for good work is internal—meaningful learning—so one gains no benefit from simply reproducing ‘the right answer.’

The reward for students comes in the way of feeling more confident in one’s abilities. By the end of the year the students’ workbooks are full of their creative, hard work, and they are meant to serve as reminders that one is capable of learning and producing meaningful things.

Overall, Waldorf seems like an interesting model. It’s not quite as radical as some other alternatives, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

You can read more about Urban Prairie at their website.

You can read more about Waldorf education here.


Free, at Tallgrass Sudbury School

Riverside, Illinois, September 9th

When I arrived at Tallgrass Sudbury School, I met Natalie and Helen, the two full-time staff members. They gave me a tour of the school, which rents the second floor of a church building. There was a meeting room/art room with some tables, couches, and sewing machines. In the library—an isolated single room lined with books—a girl sat reading. Students can come to the library whenever they please to read in a quiet environment. In fact, the students may go anywhere in the school at any time, and may do whatever activity they’d like to.

Sudbury is a truly democratic model of education. Children choose what activities to do. It’s pretty much as simple as that. There are staff members around, but they don’t make requests for the kids to learn about this or that. If the kids ask the staff members to teach them something, that’s great. If not, the staff member won’t force a child to learn anything. The goal is to empower children to take control and responsibility over their own educations. In addition to choosing their own activities, children are responsible for creating and enforcing school rules—all through democratic processes.

Natalie said the students sign up for chores and have to clean up after themselves. “We’re our own janitors,” she said. If they fail to do chores or clean up after themselves, they may face disciplinary action from a committee made up of their peers.

In the hallway, a boy walked by us and introduced himself. I asked what he was up to. He said, “I think I’m going to draw.” A few minutes later he presented me with a comic drawn on a page—about a man in a restaurant who complains about an eyeball being on his plate. The waiter asks, “If you didn’t want an eyeball, why did you order the Mystery Surprise?” The eyeball proceeds to morph into a monster.

In the computer room, four kids were playing a video game on computers, talking casually.

There are a total of 17 kids at Tallgrass, ranging from ages 5-18. There are no grades or age groups. 5 year olds and 15 year olds are treated as equals.

Back in the main room, I met Karin, a teacher from Sweden who has been taking her two children to Tallgrass while they visit the US. In a few months they’ll return to Sweden. Karin, Natalie, Helen and I had a great conversation about education. Karin has been a math and science classroom teacher for 20 years. She said they don’t have anything like Sudbury in Sweden. Though she doesn’t know whether she’s entirely sold on the Sudbury model, she does see some benefits from it. She said something that stood out to me. She said that as a teacher, one of her most pressing questions is, “How do I get them to want to seek knowledge?” That is the question I’m asking in my project too. The Sudbury philosophy might say, “You don’t have to get them to. They will naturally.” Most adults aren’t immediately sold on that premise. My thought is that kids will seek knowledge naturally, but the difficulty comes in providing an environment stimulating enough to pique that interest. Adults don’t necessarily have to ‘create’ that environment artificially; they just need to know how to set up a child for meaningful exploration. These are just some ideas; I believe I still have a lot to learn.

Natalie talked about Peter Gray’s book, Free to Learn. I had heard of the book before, and was even planning on buying it. Natalie couldn’t stress enough just how good a book it was. I ended up buying a copy from the school, and I’m excited to start reading it. Peter Gray is slated to speak at Tallgrass in October (Thursday, October 16th to be precise. If you can, you should go. See the Tallgrass website for more info). You can read some of Peter Gray’s work here.

After lunch, a boy made an announcement: “J.C. meeting! J.C. in the J.C. room!” I had been waiting for this. J.C. stands for Judicial Committee. I had been told I could observe the meeting.

We sat down in the J.C. room (which doubled as the music room, equipped with a piano, a drum, and some smaller instruments) at an oval table. One boy, the J.C. clerk, initiated the meeting. Here’s how it works: anyone, child or staff, can fill out a complaint form. In it they record what happened and who the complaint is against (sometimes the guilty party is unknown). The JC, consisting of 5 elected students from across the age spectrum, votes on whether or not to investigate. If they vote to do so, they send for individuals, question them, and then deliberate until they reach a decision. At that point, they call the guilty party in, inform them of the rule they’ve broken (there’s a handbook with a number of school rules), and issue the resultant penalty (usually an extra chore). The child can choose to plead not guilty, but then some complicated mess occurs, they told me, and this rarely occurs (the suspect usually owns up to doing it or the JC doesn’t enforce a penalty). On this day, three complaints were lodged. Someone didn’t put away their drawing materials. Someone didn’t put away toys. And another person left a box of macaroni, a dirty bowl, and a fork out in the food room. All three incidents were solved and extra chores were dished out.

At first I was thinking it was all kind of silly. Why spend so much time and effort on addressing such little incidents in such a formal way? But then I suddenly realized that something special was actually happening. The point was not to punish seemingly minute infractions or to enforce nitpicky rules. The point was that these kids were partaking in a democratic process, one in which they were responsible and engaged participants. This was perfect practice for anything in the field of law. This was perfect practice for living in a democratic community. Actually, it was living in a democratic community.

As mentioned before, the structure of the school was pretty simple: The kids just did what they pleased. This included snacking, drawing, reading, watching videos on an iPad, playing card games, playing video games, talking with each other. At one point, a boy announced they were going to hold a ‘funeral’ for a girl’s macaroni noodles, which had met their fate on the floor. I attended the funeral, during which children pretended to sob and gave faux-heartfelt speeches while one played the low keys on the piano and another slowly beat a drum. It was a completely child-organized, child-led drama/comedy. This was unfettered childhood.

So no, I did not see many examples of learning in a traditional, academic sense. Although some chose to read, no one chose to learn math, science, or any other traditionally recognized subject. Is that a problem? I don’t know. But I can say that I was very impressed by the maturity and sociability of the kids here. The kids were active, responsible members of a social group that transcended the artificial boundaries of age groupings and cliques. The younger kids looked up to the older ones, and the older ones taught the younger ones—both directly and by example.

I imagine that the experience of a 6 year old here is much different than that of a 6 year old entering a classroom for the first time with 20 other 6 year olds. The 6 year old at Tallgrass seems to be on a smoother and more organic path of social and emotional development. They have role models and friends in the older students, and they naturally grow into older students who in turn can be role models and friends to new younger students. Everyone is an equal member of a democratic system, and each feels a real responsibility for their own actions (a natural result of their freedom). And the kids seem happy here, even if boredom rears its head every now and then for some of them.

I think the question I’m asking now, and the question Sudbury practitioners maybe ought to ask themselves, is how to create an environment that allows children to see all the many options of activities that are out there and from there pursue their interests. If the environment at Tallgrass is at all limiting it’s only because there aren’t all that many things to do in any school building, even a free one like Tallgrass. Books, toys, and computers can offer some meaningful experiences to kids, but if they had more exposure to other fields of knowledge and areas of practice, they might naturally engage in more academically demanding pursuits. This is just a thought—I really don’t know.

So even though I didn’t see very much observable, ‘classical’ learning taking place, there were some very special things going on at Tallgrass.

You can read more about Sudbury schools here.


The Children’s School

Berwyn, Illinois, September 5th

I arrived at The Children’s School around 9:00am. I met Christy, the director of curriculum and instruction, who led me to a room where an open house for parents was beginning. There I spoke with a few parents. Brian was a professor of education and had two children at the school. He described the school as a “gem,” doing what most schools only theorized or talked about doing. Antoine had three children go through Chicago Public Schools, and while he said that for the most part they all had good experiences with CPS, he decided on The Children’s School for his youngest because he and his partner wanted something different. He said he’s noticed something different in the way his youngest is learning—she is more excited and motivated to learn than her older siblings were.

Pam, another administrator, explained to me that The Children’s School uses a progressive methodology based on John Dewey’s ideas—namely that education should prepare people to be active members of a productive, democratic society. One of the main goals of The Children’s School is to foster joy of learning in its students. Teachers do not give grades. Project-based learning is employed as often as possible, in order to give students a connection between what they’re doing in the classroom and the real world. On top of lending meaning to students’ learning and fostering creative thinking, project-based learning is more collaborative than lecture-based learning, leading to a greater ability to cooperate and learn in groups.

We entered a classroom of 3rd and 4th graders (some classrooms include students from across grades). The students were in the corner, having a conversation with the teacher. The teacher explained one of the boards on the wall. It was the “How am I feeling?” board. There were numbers one through five and clothespins with the students’ names on them. At any point during the school day, a student could go to the board and change their number if they’d like to. The teacher explained that this would help her monitor how the students felt throughout the day, so if something were to happen that upsets or elates them, she could inquire about what sparked the change.

Besides the How Am I Feeling board and a few other posters here and there, the walls were mostly bare. Christy pointed that out to me, and said that that’s common this early in the school year because the school wants the children to have a decision in how their environment looks (and to gradually fill the walls over time). The teacher got into a discussion of multiple intelligences and the students went to tables to start an exercise.

Next we saw some younger classes, where students were voting on a ‘class name.’ Some options included The Sharks and The Dragons. Another one of The Children’s School’s main goals is to engage students democratically, to encourage them to raise their voices and express their opinions. Every other week the whole school convenes for a ‘town hall meeting’ in which students voice concerns, ideas, and recommendations. If one group or person proposes something, the students can vote on how to proceed. I was told of a brilliant moment during one of last year’s town hall meetings, in which a group of students proposed that students ought to be allowed to eat lunch in any classroom of their choosing. Most students were in agreement with this notion, and would likely have voted to abolish the current location-restricting lunch policy. But then two 1st graders bravely and eloquently explained to the whole school that they had peanut allergies, that they know their classmates don’t bring peanut-containing food but that they don’t know whether others would, and that they might feel unsafe if the policy were to change. Suddenly everyone’s mind changed—they hadn’t thought of that.

We went to the middle school building, where 7th graders were transferring maps from atlases onto poster paper. The atmosphere was very casual. Some students were actively tracing countries onto the maps that were presumably going to be hung around the room while others sat around nearby, everyone engaged in discussion. In the 6th grade classroom, 6 students (the whole class) sat talking with their teacher about what subjects and ideas they might want to learn about this year.

We went outside and around the building to where a young class was playing in a sand mound, building things out of sand using their hands and tools. Another class came outside to read on the grass. We went back inside and I inquired about how much freedom the teachers are granted. Christy said a lot. She said there are certain things they agree on and that the administrators keep the teachers to, but as long as they meet those basic responsibilities (such as helping students achieve developmentally appropriate skills) they have the freedom to foster learning however they would like. Teachers, or students themselves (provided the teacher allows it), can decide to go outside to learn, to use the art/project room, even to go on field trips to places of their choosing. Christy said that if there was a spectrum, on one end traditional public school and on the other end unschooling, they’d be right around the middle.

To me, the students seemed engaged and excited to learn. They also seemed to feel like they had a voice and a say in how things were done—some control and responsibility over their own education. And it was very refreshing to see how the school had patience for the development of each individual child. There was no great rush to teach rigid, ‘age-specific’ standards—the school recognized that each student learns at an individual pace and in an individual way.

You can read more about The Children’s School and its philosophy at its website:

The Childrens School

Learning All the Time by John Holt

I recently finished reading Learning All the Time, a collection of essays by John Holt. The book is subtitled, “How small children begin to read, write, count, and investigate the world, without being taught.” John Holt was a prominent writer on education in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. He sees children as naturally inclined, self-driven learners, if only we’d foster their exploration instead of trying to take control over it.

He feels children are “passionately eager to make as much sense as they can of the world around them, are extremely good at it, and do it as scientists do, by creating knowledge out of experience. Children observe, wonder, find, or make and then test the answers to questions they ask themselves. When they are not actually prevented from doing these things, they continue to do them and to get better and better at it” (152). According to Holt, we ought to constantly remember that instead of receiving knowledge, children create knowledge. Like scientists, they observe, hypothesize, test, and re-hypothesize as they build their mental model of the world.

Small children have the amazing ability to learn how to interpret and use language. How do they do this? It’s not by sitting in a classroom while someone ‘teaches’ them how to use language. Instead, they learn language by being immersed in its use. One learns language by absorbing it for a while, eventually trying to speak, adjusting oneself until one succeeds, then cycling through the process again and again. People around the baby use language, and the baby picks up on it. Holt asks why we approach reading, writing, or arithmetic any differently.

Children start speaking because they have something to say. They should write because they have something they want to get down on paper, just like they see adults doing. They should read because they want to know what those voices on the page are saying, what stories they tell. They should learn math by taking part in those everyday things that require addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. The focus should shift from ‘future preparedness’ in the classroom to present needs or interests in the real world.

Holt puts it simply: “The trouble with any kind of external motivation, whether it be negative (threats of punishments or scoldings) or positive (gold stars, M&M’s, grades, Ph.D.’s, or Phi Beta Kappa keys), is that it displaces or submerges internal motivation” (140). According to Holt, and I agree, internal motivation is the key to meaningful learning and to a meaningful education. Is this not self-evident?

Holt believes, as radical as this sounds to many, that children should learn what they want to and in the ways they want to. This greater educational freedom is in the exact opposite direction that most educational institutions are heading toward today. In our obsession with the teaching and testing of prescribed “college and career ready standards,” and with our constant need to use external motivation toward that end, we are failing to foster the development of students’ intellectual and even emotional freedom. I am (and I hope you are too) coming to recognize the choice of what one wants to learn about as the right of every young person.

It’s frustrating that Holt’s insights, collected in this book in 1989 and as true-to-life as they are, are still largely ignored by mainstream education. Why does educational change happen at such a slow pace? Why does it continually fail to provide meaningful learning to so many young people? What can we do to make positive change in our education system?