What would happen if children had a meaningful choice about their education?

by Sasha Alyson

How would you answer the question above?

I ran this poll on what at the time was called Twitter. People who follow my account are not a typical slice of the population, so I paid a promotion fee, attempting to get votes from the widest possible range of readers.

I was surprised to see so much support for what I thought would be a controversial concept.

Of course, much depends on how you define “significant level of choice.” I’m not talking about “You can study art or music as your 3:00 class.” Rather, for example, allow children to choose between:

#1. Attending a traditional classroom-based school;

#2. Attending a fundamentally different school, perhaps one based around activities and experience, rather than learning from a teacher and textbooks;

#3. Not attending school. Instead, children and their parents would decide what was best. But any child who didn’t have basic reading and math skills by age nine would be required to attend school until they learned those.

First let’s look at some likely objections to this:

“Children need to learn much more than just the basics.”

Very true. And right now, a great many learn far less. UNESCO reports that most children worldwide don’t even reach minimum proficiency in reading and math.(1) If I were a child who didn’t like school (and long ago, I was!), I’d try hard to learn those basics – which is not difficult, if you’re motivated.(2) Math is also easy, if approached thoughtfully. The school where I work uses games that make it fun to practice arithmetic; kids are eager to play and they get quite good.

As for everything else — other academic skills such as science, history, and geography; arts and music and dance and sports; life skills such as problem-solving, confidence, initiative, cooperation, critical-thinking, perseverance — I know of no one at all who believes the widespread school model, based on teaching for the test, is working well.

“We need schools to keep children off the streets.”

Are we truly proposing to shut children up in a place that many of them hate, which half the time doesn’t even achieve the low minimum standards it has set for itself, because otherwise we’d have to put down our phones and figure out something better? That sounds like a good definition of moral bankruptcy.

Children are eager to learn, if we create the right environment for them to do that. If we won’t do that much, we could at least stop putting them in the wrong environment.

“That range of choices doesn’t exist.”

Let’s break this down. Choice #1, traditional schools, usually do already exist. Choice #2, alternative schools, usually do not. In these cases, simply offering choice #1 or #3 would be a step forward. But other schools would soon be created, in an environment that supported them. Several countries have a “money follows the child” system: Public education funds go to whatever school a child attends.(3)

What about choice #3, letting children not attend school? There are many ways this could all be made available, much would depend on circumstances. Parents could put down their phone for 30 minutes a day (an hour would be nice; I’m trying to be realistic) and do enjoyable, educational activities with their children. A village or town could have a small library, with a librarian to help children learn to read, and to find books they will enjoy. The library doesn’t need to be large; it will need to have a careful selection of books and a well-trained librarian, perhaps half-time, or volunteer, where the population is small. Small businesses, farms, etc., could create part-time positions where children did useful work, in return for opportunities to acquire practical experience.

“We can’t leave such an important decision up to the children!”

In reality, it wouldn’t be up to them alone. It would nearly always end up as a family decision. But if we define this as a parental decision, children will often have little or no voice in the matter.

How would things change if children had greater choice?

Here’s the first big change: A truly bad school would no longer look successful simply because it was full of children who were required to attend. It would look empty.

Through competition, better ideas would develop. From what I can learn, a majority of the world’s children today are required to attend factory-style schools. These schools don’t need to get better because the funding flows in anyway. They’re mostly getting worse.

Young people would reach adulthood through a greater variety of routes. A thriving society needs people with diverse interests, personalities, and skills. One-size-fits-all schools do not create them. Do you want proof? Look at under- and unemployment rates in countries where rote-based schools have spread. Look at how many young people are desperate to emigrate. Look at petty-crime rates. There aren’t enough jobs, because these schools crush the initiative, creativity, and problem-solving instincts that would lead to job creation.

Children would gain experience making decisions about their lives, along with skill and confidence in doing so. And they’d reach adulthood expecting greater control of their lives. That will worry certain people. The rest of us should welcome it.

Comments from Twitter

Readers on Twitter made these comments about our poll:

Ted Shepherd Zabangana, @ZabanganaTMZ: The education system in my country does not allow one to choose.[Sasha: U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 stated that “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children,” but the U.N. has completely forgotten this. Its policies have resulted in compulsory, low-quality schooling for most of the world’s children, with children and parents often getting no choice in the matter.]

Kiao lives, @kiona384: Giving them the responsibility and the time to experiment at such a young age is the perfect recipe for a strong foundation. I think that’s how we make strong individuals who are grounded in who they are and what they want to do in the world. It’s a beautiful world to imagine.

Bambee, @itsbambee: No, but we should revise the way we look at education and focused attention from a fundamental level. Kids don’t know what’s best for them. People who were kids – can create proper solutions.

black lives matter, @pussymucher69: most people find it hard to believe that kids know what works best with them.

Notes and Sources

1. More Than One-Half of Children and Adolescents Are Not Learning Worldwide, by UNESCO Institute for Statistics. Sept. 2017. I have a low opinion of the UNESCO statistics unit, but it is the standard source for such statistics, and many other agree with the broad conclusion.

2. A World Bank reading specialist writes that in most languages, with suitable technique, most children will be reading after 100 days, and she gives a wealth of good advice about that technique. But those in charge aren’t motivated to look for better methods, if they can keep drawing a salary and have a full classroom anyway; she notes that “80-90 percent of second and third graders in some countries cannot even read a single word and may know few if any letters.” Literacy for All in 100 Days? A research-based strategy for fast progress in low-income countries, by Helen Abadzi.

3. Public funding of course raises questions: Would public funds support religious schools? How does it accommodate special-needs students? Would it allow for-profit schools? What basic requirements are necessary for independent schools to prevent scams, without overly restricting innovation? In the U.S., public funding of private education is a hot-button topic, but a great many countries already do allow it, and have addressed these issues in myriad ways. There are not perfect, fail-safe answers, but neither does the current system come close to being perfect. The question is, would giving children greater choice move things in a better direction?

Related stories

Left: Why are schools so bad? For most of the world’s poorest children, school is a disaster. There’s a reason for that. The brief stories listed here explain how this system benefits interests in the West, which aggressively pushes it onto the South.
Right: Francophonie. By forcing children in its former African colonies to study in French, France thought it was spreading the glory of the French language. But students ended up learning neither French, nor much of anything else.

Left: Cooking the numbers. 59% of 10-year-olds in Senegal can’t read, says a UN-World Bank report. Actually, the number is only about 7%. After denying the problem, now the global agencies exaggerate it. There’s a reason.
Right: Rethinking education. We need to understand the forces that have created bad schools. As we do that, we also need to ask: What SHOULD be the top priorities of education? Here are some ideas.

Left: Mimicry. The aid industry collects piles of data about things that don’t really matter, while ignoring the things that do. To understand this, it helps to understand the concept of mimicry.
Right: The origin of modern schooling: Worldwide, children attend schools that use rote memorization to teach for the test, and leave students unprepared for the real world. How did this system become so widespread?

Left: The campaign against reading. The aid industry says it promotes reading. But its actions — such as dumping unwanted books from the USA — are motivated by self-interest, and consistently undermine reading in the global South.
Right: Snake oil. Many Western NGOs will say pretty much anything to get your donation. We examine Save the Children’s claim that an extra year of school will bring great wage increases. It’s snake oil. But it brings in donations.

Other stories about karma colonialism

Left: Stop Patronizing Us! A Kenyan woman working in the women’s rights sector tells of her disappointment at inequalities and hierarchical behavior she has found in that space.
Right: Chocolate hands. You can buy chocolate hands at shops in Antwerp. So what? Well, one of the colonial era’s great atrocities involves Belgians chopping off the hands of Africans.

Left: How aid undermines education. Too many children in developing countries enter secondary school unable to read their own name. It wasn’t always this way. Here’s how self-serving Western aid has contributed to illiteracy.
Right: What would make a better future? There are ways that wealthier countries can genuinely help others, if they want to. Give the aid money directly to the poor, for example. Here are ideas.