School is a poor environment for learning social skills or having authentic social exchanges and relationships.
At school, kids interact almost exclusively with people in the same grade as themselves. They might have some interaction with those one year above or below, but next to none with anyone outside that range.
That’s messed up.
It’s also very new. This experiment of confining and isolating kids has only been going 100-200 years in most societies. At no point in human history have kids been raised in such narrow social settings.
But why is it such a problem?
School narrows social interaction to peers-only
What do kids of the same age attending the same school also share? Almost invariably they share the same post code, socioeconomic status, culture, social activities. A great deal of their identity is common to their suburb.
They’re often more competitive with each other too—not in healthy ways—but in seeking approval from peers, forming cliques, in-groups and out-groups and so on. There’s no variety in who they see every day, so they behave differently to people outside the school environment.
Having been through school we accept this and think of it as normal behaviour, but it isn’t.
At school, tension and hostility tends to bubble just beneath the surface, which leads to bullying. In environments where this age segregation doesn’t exist, and people can interact more freely (such as free democratic schools as studied by Peter Gray), rates of bullying are much lower. They tend to be lower still in environments where bullying, manipulation and coercion aren’t directly modelled to the students by teachers on a daily basis.
School also limits access to adults
Kids interact almost exclusively with the same teacher all year, they might have an aide if they’re lucky. That’s predominantly one adult for an entire year, perhaps three or four, for any substantial amount of time.
That’s low but when you consider the nature of the relationship it’s even worse. School life is a life of following teacher instructions. In short, doing things that please them—the authority figure—and avoiding things that annoy them. There’s no mutual benefit or shared goal that student and teacher work towards. Kids simply learn to seek rewards and avoid painful consequences. The situation is analogous to that of prisoner and prison guard, even if there is a feigned benevolence. Cross the teacher and you will pay.
Where’s the social diversity?
Where are the relationships operating on mutual respect instead of control and coercion? Would kids not learn better from people in different stages of real careers? Why aren’t kids playing, helping, working or learning alongside people who do meaningful things and actually create value for others as part of their day to day life?
What about simply meeting and collaborating with a variety of people beyond the same few they see each and every day?
Regrettably, it’s absent.
What might real socialization look like?
An improvement to this would see kids interacting with a variety of people. Crucially—doing so on their own terms. They’d learn caring and nurturing skills when relating to people much younger than themselves, and the young ones would learn to negotiate and communicate better from their interactions with older kids and adults.
Kids would have more than one quality interaction with an adult every 2 months. They could speak with and learn from a multitude of people working and doing cool things in the fields, industries or places that interest them. They would have the opportunity to ask questions, help out and gain real skills from real people.
Not only that, but what they learn would truly matter to them.
These relationships would be more meaningful because all parties would have the power to choose to interact with or avoid whoever they please. This is not only a positive for well-being and treating kid in a humane way, it also prevents the authority pleasing mindset from hampering them long-term. This would end the notion young people have no voice and can be subjected to control and coercion no adult would tolerate.
Parents are already raising their kids this way
There are people already living like this. They’re ‘unschoolers’. While the unschooling spectrum can run from loose homeschooling to radical freedom and self-directed learning, it’s not hard to imagine that most of those kids are having a more diverse and meaningful social experience than their schooled peers.
Brad Matthews is a former primary school teacher turned unschooling and alternate education advocate. Disturbed by how schools control, coerce and destroy children’s natural love of learning, Brad now supports options that allow kids the freedom to live and learn.