Peter Gray has studied how learning happens without any academic requirements at a democratic school. The Boston College research professor also wrote about the long history and benefits of age-mixed, self-directed education in his book Free to Learn. Over the years, as he encountered more and more families who had adopted this approach at home (these so-called “unschoolers” are estimated to represent about 10 percent of the more than two million homeschooled children), he began to wonder about its outcomes in that setting. Finding no academic studies that adequately answered his question, he decided to conduct his own.
In 2011, he and colleague Gina Riley surveyed 232 parents who unschool their children, which they defined as not following any curriculum, instead letting the children take charge of their own education. The respondents were overwhelmingly positive about their unschooling experience, saying it improved their children’s general well-being as well as their learning, and also enhanced family harmony. Their challenges primarily stemmed from feeling a need to defend their practices to family and friends, and overcoming their own deeply ingrained ways of thinking about education. (The results are discussed at length here.)
This led Gray to wonder how unschooled children themselves felt about the experience, and what impact it may have had on their ability to pursue higher education and find gainful and satisfying employment. So last year, he asked readers of his blog to disseminate a survey to their networks, and received 75 responses from adults ranging in age from 18 to 49; almost all of them had had at least three years of unschooling experience. They were split almost evenly among three groups: those who had never attended school; those who had only attended school for some portion of kindergarten through sixth grades; and those with either type of early experience who had also attended school for some portion of seventh through 10th grades, but not afterward. (The results are explained in detail in Gray’s recent four-part blog series, which begins here.)
He was satisfied with the number of responses, but cautions that, as with many social science studies, the necessarily limited collection method may have produced a biased sample that may not represent the entire population of unschoolers. Such studies can nevertheless yield useful insights, he says, especially when considered in concert with other data, such as other surveys, or patterns that emerge from anecdotal accounts.
Gray found that the results did correlate closely with his more thorough studies of alumni from the Sudbury Valley School (a democratic school in Sudbury Valley, Massachusetts), as well as what he’d personally heard from unschoolers, and what he’d read online. Moreover, even taken in isolation, “what the study does unambiguously show,” he says, “is that it is possible to take the unschooling route and then go on to a highly satisfying adult life.”
The Pros and Cons of Unschooling
All but three of the 75 respondents felt the advantages of unschooling clearly outweighed the disadvantages. Almost all said they benefited from having had the time and freedom to discover and pursue their personal interests, giving them a head start on figuring out their career preferences and developing expertise in relevant areas. Seventy percent also said “the experience enabled them to develop as highly self-motivated, self-directed individuals,” Gray notes on his blog. Other commonly cited benefits included having a broader range of learning opportunities; a richer, age-mixed social life; and a relatively seamless transition to adult life. “In many ways I started as an adult, responsible for my own thinking and doing,” said one woman who responded to Gray’s survey.
“Very few had any serious complaints against unschooling,” Gray says, and more than a third of the respondents said they could think of no disadvantages at all. For the remainder, the most significant disadvantages were: dealing with others’ judgments; some degree of social isolation; and the challenges they experienced adjusting to the social styles and values of their schooled peers.
Social isolation (cited by 21 percent of respondents) usually stemmed from a dearth of other nearby unschoolers and the difficulty of socializing with school children with busy schedules and a “different orientation toward life,” Gray says. He cautions that it’s best to consider these results within the broader cultural context: “If I were to ask people who went to school, I would probably find a similar number who felt socially isolated.”
What stood out, he adds, is that “many more said they felt their social experiences were better than they would have had in school.” Sixty-nine percent were “clearly happy with their social lives,” he says, and made friends through such avenues as local homeschooling groups, organized afterschool activities, church, volunteer or youth organizations, jobs, and neighbors. In particular, “they really treasured the fact that they had friends who were older or younger, including adults. They felt this was a more normal kind of socializing experience than just being with other people your age.”
Only 11 percent said they felt behind in one or more academic areas (most commonly math), which they overcame by applying themselves when the need arose. Only two felt their learning gaps hindered them from succeeding in life, and judging by their full responses, “it was almost more like a self-image issue—they grew up feeling ignorant and then made choices based on that feeling,” Gray says. More typical experiences were like that of a woman who earned a B.A. in both computer science and mathematics, despite entering college without any formal math training beyond fifth grade. Another noted that unschooling “follows the premise that if a child has a goal, they’ll learn whatever they need to in order to meet it. For instance, I don’t like math, but I knew I would need to learn it in order to graduate. So that’s what I did.”
Three people were very dissatisfied overall. In all three cases, the respondents said their mothers were in poor mental health and the fathers were uninvolved. Two of the three also happened to be the only ones who mentioned having been raised in a fundamentalist religious home, though the survey didn’t ask this question specifically. It appeared to Gray that the unschooling was not intentional—the parent had aimed to teach a religious curriculum, “but was incompetent and stopped teaching,” he notes. In all of these cases, the children’s contact with other people was also very restricted; moreover, they were not given any choice about their schooling and therefore felt deprived of school.
Can Unschoolers be “College and Career Ready”?
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