Juliet English

Home Educator

The Learning Delusion

This morning, I came across this article by Peter Gray on the Psychology Today website, which tells of kindergarten teachers from Brookline, Massachusetts, who presented a letter to the school committee to protest the approach to teaching children in kindergarten.

“Therefore, we are here tonight to share with you our concerns about a new kind of gap that is emerging in Brookline Kindergarten. It is a “reality gap”—a gap between the way research shows that young children learn best and the curriculum the district requires us to teach. It is a reality gap between Brookline educational values and what is actually happening to children in our classrooms.”

It is this “reality gap” which troubles me the most in respect of issues home educators are currently experiencing in the UK in dealing with authorities; it is this gap which teachers with a conscience are grappling with, as instructions come from “the top” – from politicians and policy-makers – setting out expectations which are often at odds with what research and experience have proven. Despite all the books, articles, TED talks, and protests by hands-on educators, despite all the research done over decades, involving thousands of children, despite all we know about child development, benefits of parental involvement (particularly in the early years), attachment, about how children engage with the world, we are still dealing with educational policies that entirely ignore all the evidence and continue to demand structured, content-heavy curricula which is measured by testing and exams, and a steady push to include even younger children in this approach.

As home educators, we encounter these attitudes within our Local Authority Elective Home Education officers, and it is reflected in the EHE government guidance. It appears to me, that it matters not whether the child is actually learning, as long as they produce reams of worksheets, dutifully completed, while sitting at a desk in a room with a person talking at them. And I want to scream at them:




Let’s compare the delusion with what common-sense and research are telling us (available as a download here): 


The Delusion says:

Common-sense and Research-based evidence says:

All children can be educated in a standard way to achieve a standard result

Children have different ways of learning, and a standardised approach will not work for every child

Children of the same age are all capable of performing at the same level

Children of the same age can differ developmentally, emotionally and physically. Therefore their ability will differ

Play is a frivolous and meaningless activity, a waste of time, and nothing to do with learning

Play is an essential part of a child’s development and is how they learn to make sense of the world. Skills learned through play are a better indicator of future success than whether or not a child can read and write at age 5

Children learn well in large groups

Large groups can be noisy and over-stimulating for many children. A child’s attention is far more likely to wander without direct eye-contact. A teacher is unlikely to be able to engage every child at the same level, in a way that is conducive to their own learning

Children learn well in a room with a chalk-/whiteboard and a person talking at them

Not all children learn in the same way, and whilst this method might work for a few, there are many who will not engage meaningfully

Children learn well by memorising and regurgitating information

Rote learning does not produce mastery. The real test is whether children can remember and apply knowledge several years later

Children’s brains are receptacles to be filled with knowledge by others

Most people learn best by doing for themselves, and when they are asking the questions for themselves

Children don’t really need parents involved in their learning

Relationship can be a key factor in how well children are able to engage and enjoy learning

You have to have qualifications to “teach” a child

When children are actively engaged in their own learning, a caring adult can facilitate and support the child with no qualifications whatsoever

For children to be successful, they should start formal education as young as possible

Children invariably learn best when they are mentally, emotionally and physically ready. They do not need to be taught how to learn – learning occurs naturally, driven by need and curiosity


A good place to start unpacking delusional thinking is to ask this question of adults:

“On reflection, would you say you learnt more at school, or learnt more after leaving school?”

In my experience, without fail, the answer has been that the person has learnt far more since leaving school than they ever did in school.  I then follow up with a second question:

“Why do you think that is? What do you think helped you learn more as an adult?”

The person will then generally respond with statements like:

“Well, I was learning about something that I was actually interested in!”

“I was able to learn about things because I wanted to!”

“I found it easier to learn when I was able to apply everything as I learned it!

I love to watch the lightbulb turn on as I then ask:

“Why do you think it’s any different for a child?”

Factor into that conversation things like negative school experiences (bullying, anxiety, stress, inability to perform, etc), and the fact that many adults carry the burden of those well into their adult years, some never recovering at all. It is worth delving a little deeper to help others realise that the traditional school model not only has flawed foundational thinking behind it, but can actually be an obstacle to our growth and development as human beings born with the ability to learn. 

“Learning is like breathing. It is a natural, human activity: it is part of being alive. A person who is active, curious, who explores the world using all his or her senses, who meets life with energy and enthusiasm – as all babies do – is learning. Our ability to learn, like our ability to breathe, does not need to be improved or tampered with. It is utter nonsense, not to mention deeply insulting, to say that people need to be taught how to learn and how to think. We are born knowing how to do these things. All that is needed is an interesting, accessible, intellible world, and a chance to play a meaningful part in it.”  Aaron Falbel

In spite of all that has been written, researched, and proven, it seems that we will continue to find ourselves up against faulty stereotypes and misinformed rhetoric that politicians and policy makers cling to and stubbornly perpetuate, simply because it is politically expedient to do so. 

Parents and teachers will only have a hope of turning the tide, and helping our children, by raising our voices louder and insisting that things change. 


To find out more, check out these resources:

One comment

  1. Thanks for this. I’m looking forward to exploring the reading list and I’d highly recommend “No Contest” and “Punished by Rewards” by Alfie Kohn, both paradigm-changing explorations of key problems in the standard educational model.

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