Look around the playground on a summer afternoon. Some kids are playing a competitive round of tetherball. Others swing or slide, going doggedly up and gleefully down for hours.

One child takes refuge in the shade of the climbing wall, book open across her lap, while another clambers to the top, fists raised in triumph. A little boy runs in aimless circles around the whole area; another draws pictures in the dirt.

When we set kids free on the playground, we do not insist on a curriculum for their development. We do not instruct that first each child must learn to use the ladder and the slide, then swing for five minutes, then join a game of tetherball. We allow kids to interact with the playground space however they wish, led by their independent interests and fueled by excitement. And even though they are all interacting with the same space, we see immediately that no two kids play in exactly the same way.

Yet when the time comes for structured “schooling,” we take it for granted that all these kids, (some competitive, some contemplative; some incessantly active, some content to observe) should follow precisely the same rigid curriculum.

Even before kindergarten, the system prescribes what kids should be interested in and what they should achieve. Flashcards, sight words, checkmarks, and progress charts: every child, whether he is the energetic runner or the studious reader outside on the playground, is forced into the same rigid racing lane and prompted to run.

Children, after all, are people. People have different preferences, interests, and goals. But those individual characteristics are tossed aside by traditional schooling, which batters individual kids into conformity, compliance, competition, and, in the end, complacency. Cramming kids into a single “right way” to learn dooms some to falling behind the arbitrary standard, and many, even exceptionally intelligent students, quickly learn that school is simply not for them.

No amount of reform or reimagination of industrial, institutional schooling will address this fundamental flaw. Compulsory, one-size-fits-all schooling cannot be made into anything else.

The core value of the education choice movement is to offer educational options as varied and inventive as kids themselves.

Whatever the options that ultimately emerge from such freedoms, the central benefit is the options themselves: allowing kids to opt into methods that make sense to them, subjects that interest them, and activities that excite them.

True education depends on intrinsic motivation

Like all humans, kids learn best when they are intrinsically excited about what they’re learning. And contrary to many of our school experiences, any subject can be made compelling to any learner, if the instructor has the opportunity to know and respond to the individual mind of the student.

Kids naturally teach themselves what they are interested in: the names of a hundred dinosaurs or spacecraft or Pokemon. The same child whose teacher says he cannot learn the multiplication tables might memorize two dozen complex cheat codes for Minecraft.

A talented young writer may believe he is dumb, because he does not learn math the way his school teaches it. An avid little mathematician may be taught she is a failure, because she cannot fathom why every ‘c’ in Pacific Ocean is pronounced differently. An emotionally intelligent empath may be told he is bad, because he would rather talk to his classmates than be droned at by a teacher.

Students held to a single standard – which fits no one – internalize their own worth by comparison to a standard they never agreed to. Kids learn best when they are engaged in and care about what they are learning, when their intrinsic motivation and eagerness to know are aligned with support and appropropriate tools.

That may well be, the skeptic scoffs, but how can a teacher manage a classroom of 30 kids and tailor each lesson to individual students’ strengths and interests?She can’t. The dominant model of schooling is poorly suited to educating kids individually. Even a highly motivated teacher can’t offer individualized instruction to every kid, nor connect every child to his own love of learning, because one-size-fits-all school was designed to do exactly the opposite.

The generalized complacency and forced conformity of mass schooling virtually guarantees that talents are squandered and stultified.

Individualized education requires an ecosystem of options

Individualized education offers us an alternative. In fact, it offers dozens of alternatives.

Kids who learn well from screens and in online communities might join Synthesis, a gamified learning system focused on problem solving and meaning making.

Students who want to chart their own course in a rich instructional environment might enjoy Montessori, Acton Academy, and Higher Ground. They still get support from adult facilitators, but the course of study follows the students’ interests.

Budding tech entrepreneurs might likeBeta Camp, which promises to help kids build a real business with tactical hands-on learning.

Students in search of intentional culture, with strategies for growth and empowering role models, might find an Agile Learning Center offers them the best shot at success.

Future investors and Wall Street tycoons could step into a mental modeling and decision-making course, like those available through Farnam Street.

Artists, dancers, and thespians can blossom in nontraditional schools aimed at developing their creativity and expression. For decades, pundits and experts have despaired over the failures of institutional schooling, generating ever more plans for its reform and recentering. How, they ask again and again,do we fix the traditional school model?

The answer is that we don’t. Looking for the one-size-fits-all solution, that can solve one-size-fits-all education, simply perpetuates the problem – which is caused by trying to put every kid into the same box.

There is no one approach that can serve 50 million school kids. The only way out of our current quagmire is to acknowledge the diversity of learning styles, interests, talents, and goals. Plurality, not forced conformity, is how we set our kids up to thrive.

Kids and families should have many options to choose from, and students should be free to move from one kind of education to another during their school careers. A kid best served by Montessori in elementary school might opt for a rigorous STEM academy by middle school, and then an apprentice program in high school, putting those STEM skills to work in a real-world context.

When young people choose their own paths, their intrinsic motivation forges a love of learning and true fulfillment – which is what will set them up for a lifetime of success.

Bringing the freedom of the playground into the classroom

If you brought your child to a playground, and someone with a clipboard were stationed at each piece of equipment, you’d be instantly aware that something was wrong.

If the child who drew in the dirt were disciplined and his scribblings scrubbed away, you’d recognize the hurt in his eyes. If an adult rigidly prescribed this many minutes on the swing, then two trips down the slide, then tetherball, you’d see the joy of play drain out of kids who had been eager and excited moments before.

The spontaneity and enthusiasm would fade away. Going to the playground would become a tedious chore. Kids would come to dread the very same activities they loved when they were free to choose.

The appetite for learning is inherent in every toddler. They mimic their models, they tinker and experiment, they watch and absorb and strive. But when we bully those eager brains into rigid boxes, insisting that all must learn the same things at the same moment, those avid little learners disappear.

When we try to make kids into little learning robots, they rebel and refuse. Only choice restores joy and motivation. A wide variety of educational options is essential to supporting each kid in realizing their potential.

For every taste and desire, every interest and goal, there should be a corresponding educational style. Our job is not to force kids to learn, but to make an endless array of options available, so they can embrace the approach that allows them, individually, to thrive.


Laura Williams

Laura Williams

Laura Williams is a communication strategist, writer, educator, and mom to a self-directed learner based in Atlanta, GA. She is a passionate advocate for critical thinking, individual liberties, and the Oxford Comma.

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