Another Example of Less Teaching Leading to More Learning

BY Peter Gray Ph.D.Freedom to Learn

Delinquent boys made huge academic gains when freed from classroom lessons.

Some of the most fascinating experiments in education occurred in the 1920s and ‘30s, and almost nobody talks about them today.  That was an era when progressive ideas about education were in the air.  Even public schools were experimenting with the idea that less teaching and more opportunity for self-direction would pay big educational dividends.

Benezet’s experiment on the non-teaching of arithmetic

Source: Pixabay free pictures

In a previous post (here) I described an experiment conducted by L. P. Benezet when he was superintendent of schools in the Manchester, New Hampshire, in the late 1920s and early ‘30s.  He altered the curriculum for half of the schoolchildren in the poorest schools in his district, so they would not be taught arithmetic until 6th grade.  He found that those children, at the beginning of 6th grade, before they had received any arithmetic instruction at all, performed much better than the others on math story problems—the kinds of problems that require common sense applied to numbers.  They were even better on those than were the kids in the rich schools, all of whom had been studying arithmetic all along.  Of course, they were behind the others in doing calculations (adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing) set up in the usual school way, but by the end of 6th grade they had fully caught up to the others on that and were still ahead on story problems.

Benezet concluded that the early teaching of arithmetic was not only a waste of everyone’s time, but was counterproductive to the eventual learning of arithmetic.  In his words, the early teaching of arithmetic was “chloroforming the children’s minds,” leading them to lose their common sense about anything to do with numbers.  Nobody in education talks about Benezet’s experiment these days.  Few people in education seem to have even heard of it.  Benezet’s results fit well with research showing that school children make greater gains in mathematical reasoning during summer vacation than they do during the school year (see here), which is another finding that nobody in education talks about.

Williams’s experiment in which delinquent boys were freed from being taught

Now here’s yet another bit of education research that nobody today talks about.  It was published in 1930 in the academic journal School and Society under the title “An Experiment in Self-Directed Education,” by Herbert Williams, the teacher who carried out the research.

The practical problem Williams was trying to address was what to do about delinquent boys, who were frequently absent from school and were causing trouble in the community.  For the sake of this experiment, he went through the Juvenile Court records for the city of population 300,000 and identified the “worst” boys he could find.  To that group the school principals added a few more, whom they considered to be their “most serious problems.”  He ended up with a group that “ranged in age from eight to nearly sixteen, in IQ from 60 to 120, and included colored, Polish, Hungarians, and native white Americans.”

The experiment was started in January, 1924, and lasted until the beginning of June that year. During that period the boys were excused from regular school classes and, instead, were assigned to a special room created for them in a technical school.  The room was equipped with desks, blackboards, a large table, and a collection of books, including storybooks, nonfiction works, and textbooks for the various grades. The boys were given standard academic achievement tests in January and again, four months later, in May.

And now, I know no better way to convey what happened than to quote Williams directly:

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