Chickens and Roads: Why Compulsory Schooling Is Unnecessary

08/15/2013 06:39 pm ET | Updated Oct 15, 2013

I work at a teen educational program where students have full control over their own schedules and have no academic requirements. We get a lot of questions about how this could possibly work. A frequent one is, "How will kids learn to do things they don't like if they are not made to do them?"

You would think that formal education would aim a little higher than teaching children how to endure. But the question comes up all the time.

Here's my response:

Unpleasant tasks abound. Life is absolutely overflowing with things one might prefer not to do. The laundry, the dishes, walking the dog, vacuuming the car, mowing the lawn, writing thank you notes to your grandmother, getting your car's oil changed, negotiating with the insurance company... There is an endless list of things we do even though we might rather not. Occasionally we put off one or another of these necessities, and suffer the consequences, whether that's temporarily living with dirty dishes or having the car impounded over unpaid tickets. We don't need practice doing things we don't like, and we don't need practice suffering consequences. Life is full of both. They can hardly be avoided.

Furthermore, in my experience I don't see any difference between those who have gone to school and those who have not when it comes to the ability to get unpleasant tasks done. Years of monotonous lessons and uninspired assignments do not seem to increase the likelihood that someone will get their teeth cleaned regularly, for example. Years of enforced, rote tasks may increase a person's compliance with an uninspired adult work life, but is that a worthy goal for education?

Why does the chicken cross the road? (To get to the other side, of course.) Why do we do anything? Simply to do it, or because there is something on the other side that we deem worth having or knowing or experiencing. No one has to make people (or chickens) cross roads. You can help someone achieve the goal by looking at a map with them or helping them think through their plans. There's no need to make them cross any particular road, metaphorical or otherwise. In fact, attempting to make them is a good way to prevent them from wanting to go or from getting anything out of the journey.

Making people do things they don't like encourages people to dislike the thing you are making them do, even when that thing is fun or valuable. If a person finds a road worth crossing, they'll cross it. The helpers in their life can be useful by believing that they can do it and that they will do it, and saying so. Other useful support will become evident through interaction and discussion.

How are young people going to learn to do things they don't like? By creating their own goals and having the confidence to work for them. No need to look for or create unpleasant challenges or obstacles. Those will find you. The person who is motivated by their own desires and vision will work through and around the obstacles. The practice is in the doing.

Every day at my workplace I see teens walk by games and fun on their way to class. Why would teens go to class when they could play outside or do some other enjoyable thing? Because they want to. There's no need to make them. The kids who are not in class are doing other important things, which could be anything from making friends to developing courage to suffering consequences.

Non-compulsory learning benefits from reflection, access, support, and discussion. Force is unnecessary for learning and actually counter-productive.

When we examine our own adult lives, these points are obvious. We do the things we are motivated to do and excel at the things we enjoy. Kids, too.