No formal instruction was given

Friday, January 25th, 2019

Some of the most fascinating experiments in education occurred in the 1920s and ‘30s, Peter Gray notes, and almost nobody talks about them today:

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:

No formal instruction was given. In the beginning of the experiment the children were told to keep busy and refrain from annoying any of the others. This was the only rule that was enforced. Otherwise, they were permitted to occupy themselves as they saw fit. The instructor [Williams] from time to time passed from one to another to see what was being done. One child might be busily occupied in copying a picture from one of the books; another might be reading a fairy story; another occupied with a problem in arithmetic; another reading a history; others might be looking up places on a geography map; and still others would be studying about some machinery.

Whenever a child was found manifesting an interest in some particular thing, opportunity and encouragement were given him to develop that interest…The child with an interest and aptitude for mechanical work was given an opportunity to do this sort of work in the high-school machine shop. The same was true for those interested in automobile mechanics, woodworking, printing and the like. Arrangements were made for recreation at the neighborhood YMCA…

Each child was told of his accomplishments on the achievement test and encouraged to make up for any deficiencies, but he was not forced to devote his time to these. It was a revelation to the writer how these children turned naturally from one subject to another. A boy might spend an entire day on some book that he was reading. The next day he might devote to arithmetic. One 10-year-old became interested in working square root problems and worked all of these he could find in the arithmetic book. A colored boy became interested in history and read all the histories we could supply. His accounts of interesting historical events kept the entire group keenly interested as he related them. Whenever one of the boys found something in his reading which he felt would prove interesting he was permitted to tell it to the group. However, they were not required to pay attention to the speaker if they wanted to continue what they were doing.

Many of the boys went to the blackboard to work arithmetic problems, primarily for the activity involved. They made up certain games involving arithmetic processes… For example, two or more boys would start at a given signal to add by seventeens to a thousand. The rivalry was often intense, and for some of the boys the increase in speed and accuracy in the fundamentals was striking. The reports of the various boys on interesting material read would stimulate other boys to read the same thing or something of like nature. It is quite possible, too, that the desire to obtain recognition from their fellows motivated them to do tasks that would not have been otherwise attempted.

Although a total of twenty-six boys were in attendance in this special experimental group for shorter or longer periods, only thirteen were present for both the January, Form A, and May, Form B, Stanford Achievement Tests. This was due to out-of-school adjustments, transfers and other causes. Social adjustment was given first importance, and completeness of the experimental records was not allowed to prevent placing a boy on a farm, for example, if this met a pressing need.

Here are the results from the achievement tests:

Over the 4 months period of this experiment, the thirteen children gained an average of slightly over 15 months in language age, 14 months in arithmetic; 11 months in reading; 11 months in science; and 6 months in both history and literature. By the end of the experiment all of these children were above grade level overall. The three boys who showed the least gains were also the three who, for reasons of health or family problems, were most often absent from the group. The average gains for the ten students who were regularly present were 17.4 months for language and arithmetic; 15.8 months for science; and 15.5 months for reading.


  1. No Smoke says:

    Reminds me of Summerhill by A.S. Neill. :) Summerhill was a real school in the UK, first half of 20th century. A “free school” — no class attendance required, but teachers readily available. Had pretty interesting results, good ones.

  2. Kirk says:

    There’s an effect to be seen in anything, where when you pay attention to it, it magically improves–Because someone is paying attention to it.

    It has been run into on multiple occasions studying factory productivity and other things, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this were what happened here. The boys in the experiment were having, perhaps for the first time in their lives, attention paid to them. So… Improvements.

    Would this “un-schooling” translate well into full-scale use? Don’t know–Some would thrive, others would not.

  3. Aretae says:

    It’s as if trying to force learning has similar results to trying to force other otherwise pleasurable activities.

  4. Scott says:

    This sort of unschooling is exactly what I’ve done with my kids. The oldest just started college at 16. The middle one is motivated by nothing but keeping up academically with her friends. The youngest is super smart but so distracted by life that she doesn’t apply herself much.

    I also think of anecdotes from teachers I know, about their classrooms full of kids that have zero desire to learn and peer pressure to remain stupid.

    I think the bottom line here is that given freedom to do as they please, kids will react to societal expectations, and even then there is tremendous variation between kids. I think this experiment would work great with kids from families and cultures that expect you to lead a productive life, and it would bomb miserably in the inner city, for example.

  5. Harry Jones says:

    I recently met a guy whose native language is not English and who has never been to an English speaking country. His English is far better than many who learn it as a second language in school. He told he he learned it by conversing with English speakers at every opportunity.

    Structure matters, but motivation matters more than structure. Get motivated, and you will go out and find or create the right structure. But no motivation, no learning.

    I blew off language classes because they weren’t working for me. I didn’t give up learning, though. I just tried different ways.

    And the best way to learn a skill is to force yourself to use it.

  6. Grasspunk says:

    When we moved to France our eldest was 6 which was within a range I was comfortable with for her to pick up a new language. She did not speak any French but is the most garrulous, loud and fearless of my children so I had no worries.

    She started by picking up a friend who had never spoken French. I think she was born in Vietnam to a Vietnamese mother/French father and for some reason had never said a word at school or at home even though they spoke French at both places. My kid spoke at her constantly, mostly in English spoken in a French accent and gradually adding in words as she picked them up. Her friend said nothing but played along. Within a month the Vietnamese girl started to speak. The parents were delighted with the teacher, but I think the poor kid finally mustered up the courage to tell mine to shut the fuck up.

  7. CVLR says:

    “It’s as if trying to force learning has similar results to trying to force other otherwise pleasurable activities.”

    Rape of the mind. Consult John Taylor Gatto.

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