032: Free to learn

Professor Peter Gray was primarily interested in the motivations and emotions of animals before his son Scott started struggling in school, at which point Professor Gray’s interests shifted to developing our understanding of self-directed learning and how play helps us to learn.  He has extensively studied the learning that occurs at the Sudbury Valley School in Sudbury Valley, MA – where children are free to associate with whomever they like, don’t have to take any classes at all, and yet go on college and to satisfying lives as adults.  How can this possibly be?  We’ll find out.



Gray, P (2013). Free to learn: Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. New York, NY: Basic Books. (Affiliate link)

Also see Professor Gray’s extensive posts on learning and education on the Psychology Today blog.


Read Full Transcript



Jen:     [00:00:39]

Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Before we get going with our awesome guest Professor Peter Gray, who’s going to talk with us about self-directed learning, I wanted to let you know that if what Peter says resonates with you, then I’m on the verge of launching a course to help parents decide whether homeschooling might be right for their family. I first started to think about homeschooling after I realized that I’d been doing everything I could to help my job to pursue learning for its own sake and engage in self-directed learning. But the more I read about school, the more I realized that at schooled, there really is no such thing as self-directed learning. Children learn what they’re told to learn when they’re told to learn it because that’s just how schools work. I mentioned in the episode on Betsy DeVos that I actually wrote my master’s thesis on what motivates children to learn in the absence of being told to do it and I was shocked to find that the system used in schools is pretty much the opposite of one that would really nurture children’s own love of learning.

Jen:    [00:01:36]

I did a lot of reading about learning and also about homeschooling and I developed the course because I realized that nobody had really collected all that information up in one place in a way that helps parents to understand the universe of information that needs to be considered to make this decision and also to support them through that process. Right now I’m recruiting people who’d be interested in helping me to pilot test the course. You get full access to all the research I’ve done on homeschooling based on over 50 books and 150 scientific research papers as well as interviews with more than 20 families who are already homeschooling and seven experts in the field. If you’d like to learn more, then please drop me an email at jen@yourparentingmojo.com And I’ll send you some information about it with no obligation to sign up. The cost to participate in the pilot will be $99, which will be half the cost of the course once it’s released to the general public and all I’d ask you to do in exchange is to share your honest thoughts of how the course worked for you, so please let me know if you’re interested. Again, that email address is jen@yourparentingmojo.com.

Jen:  [00:02:35]

Now, let’s get going with our interview. Today we’re joined by Peter Gray, who is a research professor of psychology at Boston College. Professor Gray was primarily interested in the motivations and emotions of animals before his son Scott started struggling in school, at which point professor Gray interest shifted to developing and understanding of self directed and how play helps us to learn. Professor Gray is the author of a textbook on general psychology that’s now in its seventh edition, as well as the book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Better, Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. Welcome Professor Gray.

Dr. Gray:    [00:03:17]

I’m glad to be here.

Jen:    [00:03:19]

Thank you. So let’s start with kind of a thorny question. Why, why do we have schools? I went to school and I think you went to school and in many ways it seems like it’s just something that is part of our lives. How did we get to this point?

Dr. Gray:    [00:03:34]

Yeah, that’s exactly right. It is part of our lives. It’s been part of our parents’ lives most, most for most of us, our grandparents; some of us, our great grandparents all went to school. It’s really, you know, schools as we know them today first appeared really in the late 17th century during the Protestant reformation, the Protestant reformers believed that it was very important for children to learn how to read so they could read the Bible. They believed that it was important for every human being to read the Bible for themselves. And so teaching reading was part of it, and in fact, the Bible or some primer version of the Bible was sort of the text that children learn from, but beyond teaching reading, at least as important to these reformers was to teach obedience, and not just to teach to read the Bible, but to teach children to believe the Bible, indoctrination, biblical indoctrination.

Dr. Gray:    [00:04:52]

So obedience training, indoctrination, reading: these were the primary purposes of, um, of the early schools. The leader in the formation of such schools was the German Republic of Prussia. And the person, if, if there’s a single father, if you will, of a modern day schooling, it would be August Hermann Francke, who was a pietist priest, a pietist or one of the, one of the, uh, the sect, of Protestantism, who was really in charge of starting schools in Prussia. So this was really the first, a widespread compulsory school system where children had to go to school. Uh, it wasn’t nearly as extensive as today. It wasn’t nearly as many days of the year or years of a child’s life, but for a certain number of years, children were expected to go school for a certain number of weeks.

Dr. Gray:   [00:05:59]

Um, the goal, the stated goal by Francke of his schools was to suppress children’s will remember, remember that at that time, willfulness was regarded as sinfulness. Children, human beings are born in sin. And a primary goal of education is to sort of, if you will beat the sinfulness of children. And that was very clearly the goal of these schools and so today, of course we don’t, most of us don’t think of that as the purpose of schools. But the fact of the matter is those schools founded by, by Francke and by other Protestant leaders elsewhere, including in the United States, in the colonies, I should say. And again, in the 17th century, Massachusetts was the first colony to have a compulsory schooling for at least some of its children. And again, they were Protestant schools. The reader was called the Little Bible of New England. It was based on biblical stories and the whole purpose of the tax was to insert the fear of God into little children.

Dr. Gray:   [00:07:15]

All kinds of ditties about how you will go to hell if you tell a lie and all sorts of things and the importance of obedience to your parents and to the school master and ultimately of course to God. So obedience was the big lesson and um, and that’s really where schools began and schools were well designed to teach obedience and to indoctrinate children in Biblical doctrine. They, the many number of children all in the same class, all doing the same thing at the same time. The primary job is to do exactly what you’re told to do. You don’t question the assignment, here are your job is to do the assignment, no questions asked. In fact, it’s quite impertinent to ask why you should be doing this. And that’s still true today. The mode of punishment has generally changed.

Dr. Gray:    [00:08:24]

In the early days, the primary mode of punishment was to beat the child. If the child didn’t learn what he or she was supposed to do; today we’re more likely in one way or another to shame the child by comparison, comparing them with other children and giving them the oppression that they’re stupid compared to other children we grade them. And so on and so forth. Although physical beating still does really occur in some American schools, is not nearly as prevalent as it was at that time, but we’re stuck with this system that was designed to teach obedience and to indoctrinate children. When the schools were taken over by the states, is the power of religions declined and power states increased, the method of schooling remained the same and more or less the goals of schooling remained. The the same; it was still obedience training; the states wanted to be and subjects, if you will, uh, and um, and the doc in the doctrine nation was not a doctrine of the Bible, but the doctrine of the state.

Dr. Gray:  [00:09:33]

So nationalism, belief in the, in the wonderful history of the culture that you are growing up and, and, uh, about how you’re surrounded by enemies became part of the doctrine, certainly in Germany and certainly in much of Europe and to a considerable degree in the United States as well. Over time the curriculum changed in various ways and we now look at schools for teaching all kinds of things. But the methods did not change. We still have the system of a bunch of kids, you know, somewhere between 20 and 40 kids in a classroom. They’re all sitting in rows looking at the teacher in front of them. And the job is to unquestioningly do what the teacher tells you to do. And in fact, it’s still the case today that really and truly the only way you can fail in school is by not doing what you’re told to do.

Dr. Gray: [00:10:32]             A

nd so obedience is absolutely still the primary lesson of school. It may not be consciously what teachers think is the primary lessons, but it clearly is. You cannot pass in school if you don’t do what you’re told to do, nor can you fail if you do what you’re told to do. The lessons are never very difficult, but they are tedious and it requires a lot of willingness to go through them and do what you’re told to do. And so still obedience is the primary skill that’s being taught in school. So here we are, interestingly, we’re in a world in which many people at least believe that the characteristics that are important for children to develop are things like creativity, critical thinking, curiosity, lifelong interest in learning and so on, but we have schools that were the not developed for those purposes.

Dr. Gray:      [00:11:31]

In fact, they were developed quite explicitly to suppress those characteristics and promote obedience and the memorization and feedback of doctrine. So that’s where we are. It’s a historical…there’s no good scientific reason for why we have such schools, given most people’s beliefs about what education should be about today, but it’s a historical reason. We human beings are creatures of social norms so we tend to do what was done to us and over, um, over historical time, schools have increased in their influence, in the sense that they take more and more of children’s lives. They take more and more of their day, more and more of, of their year, more and more years are spent and compulsory schooling. Um, but the basic system has not changed.

Jen:   [00:12:30]

It’s almost mind boggling to me that we didn’t choose this system; those of us who are today or the last generation or even the generation before that; that it came from something so long ago that had such a different purpose. And I’m reminded of the William Faulkner quote: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

Dr. Gray:    [00:12:53]


Jen:     [00:12:53]

It’s almost like we don’t really fully understand why we got here and while we’re in it, until we’re out of it and can kind of look back on it. So you raised a number of points in and your kind of introductory remarks and I went to get into a couple of them a little bit. I had always thought/assumed. I guess that the purpose of schools was to help young people develop to their full potential, um, I guess intellectually/academically and socially as well to some extent, and to help even out the discrepancies in opportunities that children have when they come from different backgrounds. But it seems as though that was not the purpose of schools. And so I guess maybe we shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t do that very well, right?

Dr. Gray:   [00:13:39]

Yeah, I think that’s right. That was certainly was not the original purpose of schools. I think for some time what you just described is the stated purpose of schools and, and certainly I don’t want to be too harsh on people who go into teaching or become educators. My mother was a school teacher, really have a sister who was a school teacher.

Jen:    [00:13:59]

My father was a school teacher…

Dr. Gray:    [00:14:00]

And so on. These are wonderful people. These are people who, you know, who went into this because they really want to help children and so on. But as I say, they’re stuck with this system. I do think that, for decades really, even for certainly more than probably since the, since the beginning of the 20th century, most people talking about schools in the United States talk about them as sort of the great equalizer.

Dr. Gray:   [00:14:35]

I mean, ideally the great equalizer, you know, whether you’re rich or poor, you have a public school to go to. And the ideal at least is that the public schools should provide the same education to everybody, whether you’re rich or poor. It shouldn’t be the great equalizer. I think also many people, um, you know, today, this doesn’t ring so ideal as it did sometime ago, but the idea of schools as, as homogenizers, you know, we are a country of immigrants. People come from different, came from different parts of the world with different sets of beliefs, different languages and so on. And part of the belief supporting schools was that we want to make everybody into an American. You know, there’s, there’s both the good and the bad side of that depending on how you look at it. But the idea that we, we have a common language, everybody’s going to speak English if they go through the public school, everybody’s going to have sort of the same concepts of history, everybody’s going to learn a little bit about the principles of American democracy. Everybody’s going to read some of the same literature and so on, and we will have a common culture as a result of that. I know people even today who strongly defend the public school system on grounds like that, and I can relate to that. I can understand why people would feel that the problem is that it, um, whether or not it ever worked very well for those purposes, it clearly isn’t working very well for those purposes today. And I don’t think it ever worked very well for those purposes. It does in some sense of homogenize, but I think that the acquisition of American culture is going to require going to come for people who live in America anyway.

Dr. Gray:    [00:16:26]

And the idea that, um, that it’s the great equalizer has certainly not panned out very well. It’s very clear that… Everybody, everybody in education is, and for long time has been concerned about the so called education gap. Kids from poor families do not do as well in school, do not succeed as well in school. The school system in some sense fails them compared to kids from Richard families. There is always exceptions. There’s always that rare kid you know, who grew up in the ghetto, if I may use that term, whose father was missing and whose mother was a drug addict. And somehow this young girl or young boy pulled herself or himself up by their own bootstraps, succeeded through the school, went on to college and became a major contributor to American culture.

Dr. Gray: [00:17:31]

Those stories are always nice and they’re always very much publicized, but they are very, very rare. The great majority of kids who come from poverty do not do well in the school system. And the more money we spend in schools, the more testing we do in schools, the more we do to try oftentimes in the name of getting rid of that education gap, the bigger that gap becomes. To me, that’s not surprising that that happens because I think we have a misunderstanding of why the gap is there in the first place and why schooling actually increases rather than decreases that gap.

Jen:  [00:18:11]

Yeah. And so your comments have focused mostly on the intellectual side of it. And there’s also the social side as well. I think middle class White parents particularly send their kids to school thinking, you know, I want them to be well rounded and to socialize and just be around people who don’t look like them so they can learn how to get on in the world. And I don’t have direct experience of this. I went to school in England in an area where there were literally two children in my high school that were not White. It was a very rural area. But I’ve read about this where the White kids all hang out together and yes, they may sit in a class with somebody of a different race from them, but socially everybody’s hanging out on their own cliques and they don’t cross those borders.

Dr. Gray:  [00:18:59]

Yeah, I think that’s true, that school has not been the solution to that problem.

Jen: [00:19:08]

Yeah. So after I read your book, I kind of developed this working hypothesis and I want to test it with you and it is that schools are about as unlike an optimal environment for learning and development as it’s possible to get. Do you agree with that and why or why not?

Dr. Gray: [00:19:25]

Yeah, I think so. Well, you know, I, of course my focus is on self-directed education and it’s very interesting, you know, I, among other things have written about… I’ve, I’ve studied self directed education and a remarkable school called the Sudbury Valley School, which has really set up for the purpose of allowing children to educate themselves in their own natural ways. And and it’s extraordinary successful school. It’s almost 50 years old at this point. It has hundreds of graduates of the school and they’re out… They’re very successful in the world and this is unlike a typical school, as you can imagine. It’s a place where children are allowed to play and explore in their own ways essentially all the time. There are no courses offered. Kids who want to create a course can get together and do so. But even that kind of course is very rare.

Dr. Gray:  [00:20:28]

Mostly you go, if you were to observe that school, kids are just playing, exploring, hanging out, talking to one another and doing all kinds of interesting things, but they’re not doing anything or very little that looks like school. If you were to go there anytime of day, you would just assume it must be recess time because nobody’s “doing school” here and the school doesn’t segregate children by age. There are kids there from age four, which is the youngest that they will take on through high school age, so until the late teenage years and they’re not. They’re not segregated by age. There’s no such thing as first graders, second graders and so on. They’re not evaluated in any way. That’s remarkable to most people. You know, there’s no judgment. The assumption is that the evaluation is their issue. Of course. If a, if a kid wants to go to a staff member and say, I just wrote this, this article, what do you think of it? Or I wrote this poem. Well, I’d love it if you read it, told me what you think of it. Of course the staff member would do that just as you would do that if I went to you of something I wrote, I wrote this. Could you edit it for me or could you tell me what mistakes I’ve made in it? Just as friends going to friends, it’s not… On the other hand, staff members would not impose themselves in that way. So I’ve done research looking at the graduates of the school and find they do very, very well in life. And so based on that and based on my also looking at how education occurs in hunter-gatherer cultures. And I’ve done that by interviewing anthropologists. And of course we were hunter gatherers for most of our existence as human beings, and so our instincts would have evolved during the hunter-gatherer times.

Dr. Gray: [00:22:19]

And so based on those studies, I’ve listed six characteristics that I think create the optimal environment for self directed education. I’ll just, I’ll just list them here. I can describe them in more detail, but what I want to point out in relation to your question is none of these characteristics exist in our standard schools. It’s as if we deliberately take away those characteristics of the environment that allow and promote children’s self-directed education. We deliberately take that away. And the reason we do so, it’s fairly obvious because children’s self-directed education interferes with the kind of indoctrination and obedience training that schools were initially all about. So here are the characteristics. The first is the social expectation that learning is children’s responsibility. The idea that it’s not my responsibility as an adult to make you learn. That’s your responsibility. And I argue that children come into the world believing it’s their responsibility.

Dr. Gray:  [00:23:35]

Every little kid is immediately educating themselves. It’s not that they consciously think they’re educating themselves, but they come into the world knowing in their bones, in their gut, in every fiber of their being that they’ve got to learn about the world around them to succeed in that world. Natural selection has ensured that they come into the world with that expectation because throughout the history of humanity, if you didn’t learn about your world including your social world and including how people make a living in your world and what you have to learn to make a living in your world, you would not have survived. So we all have those instincts. The second characteristic of such an environment is unlimited time to play and explore really unlimited time. You need time to try out different things. You need time to get bored and then to overcome boredom, you need time to immerse yourself in things that interest you and really immerse yourself, not you know it.

Dr. Gray: [00:24:37]

It destroys your interest. If every 40 minutes or 50 minutes, there’s going to be a bell ringing and now it’s time to do something else, you need time to… If you want to spend hours or days doing something, you need time to do that. That’s part of self education. Opportunity to play with the tools of the culture as characteristic number three, the real tools of the culture, whatever they are in a hunter-gatherer culture, their bows and arrows and fire and digging sticks and dug out canoes depending on the culture and kids are playing with these things and learning how to use them in the process of playing with and learning how to be creative with them. Learning how to create those tools themselves. In our culture, the primary tool of today is the computer and kids naturally are drawn to computers. Everybody growing up in our world can see the the one tool that I’ve got a master, no matter what career I go into, no matter what my life is going to be like is the computer, so of course kids are going to be drawn to that, but they’re also drawn to other tools and when we allow them to play with those other tools, they played with those other tools and become skilled at them.

Dr. Gray: [00:25:45]

The fourth characteristic is that there’ll be not just one adult that’s available, but a variety of adults so the kids can go to whatever adult they choose, depending upon what their needs are. Different adults are different and kids need to be able to see different adults. It’s not very helpful to see just one adult and as you do, as a typical kid does in a school that one teacher who’s only representing how to be a teacher, you’re not learning anything else about what it is to be an adult in the culture you’re growing up in in that classroom with one teacher there and the other thing is that those adults be helpers and not judges because if you are the judge, if you’re the one who determines whether the kid is passing or failing, you as the child, they’re not going to feel really comfortable about admitting your weaknesses to that adult are truly going to that adult for help with something.

Dr. Gray: [00:26:42]

You’re going to be more in impression management mode with that adult trying to show how smart you are and good you are. Rather than really being honest with that at all, it’s inevitable all of us, when we are around people who are our bosses or who are judging us and who decide whether we’re going to pass or fail, it creates a certain amount of tension in our relationship with that person and so that’s one of the reasons that kids are not so likely to really go to teachers in a school for for help that they need. But in a setting like Sudbury Valley or a hunter-gatherer band. The adults are like kindly uncles and aunts, you know hunter-gatherer bands. They literally are kindly, uncles and aunts for the most part, who loved the kids who are cheering for the but who are not.

Dr. Gray:  [00:27:31]

Don’t see it as their business. Do we evaluate them? A fifth characteristic is that is that the children are playing across ages. There’s no age segregation at Sudbury Valley or in hunter-gatherer groups and in my research and that of one of my graduate students indicates that’s really key to how the learning occurs in that environment. Younger children are playing with older children and in the process they’re learning advanced abilities. Older children are sort of scaffolding the younger ones up to higher levels of activity. The younger children are acquiring a new ideas, a richer vocabulary simply by hearing the older children talk, and older children are learning to be leaders, learning to be caretakers in a sense; nurturers, acquiring a sense of what it’s like to be a parent as they’re interacting with younger children. And I’ve done research and summarize other people’s research that suggests that the presence of younger children kind of brings out the nurturing instincts in older children and teenagers become nicer, not just to the younger children but to one another when there are younger children around.

Dr. Gray: [00:28:45]

And so, you know, what are the worst things we do in our culture is to segregate children by age. And that of course stems from our schools where they segregate them by age to put them in this kind of assembly line mode of education. And the sixth characteristic, which is one that I’ve added only somewhat recently because I’ve decided this really is also key, and that is immersion in a moral and democratic community. The sense of really being a part of this community so that you grow up feeling like I’m not just growing up for my own self. I’m growing up sort of as a member of a community as my learning, my actions are not only for my own personal good, but for the good of the others in my community. And that’s certainly true of children growing up in a hunter-gatherer band and for children growing at a school like the Sudbury Valley school, they’re part of the democratic process at the school. They make the rules along with the staff member and one person, one vote. All the rules of the school are made that way. They enforce the rules through judicial committee and they feel they begin to identify with the school. They care about the school as a community and care about the other students at the school and the community. And especially in growing up in a democratic culture such as ours, ideally is, what could be more important than that than to grow up with this sense of I’m responsible not just for myself, but I’m also responsible for the larger community within which I’m developing. So those I see as the ideal characteristics, the optimal kind of environment for some, for children’s education, for their self directed education and those are all absent and our standard schools.

Jen: [00:30:42]

Yeah. And it’s, I guess it’s not surprising given the place that school started. They weren’t started to help children learn and develop in their, in their own way.

Dr. Gray:  [00:30:55]

That’s right.

Jen:  [00:30:55]

So why would they have these characteristics that support that learning? Yeah, it in a way it seems to go back to the idea that well, how could children know everything they need to know? And so I guess maybe that goes to a deeper question that I have about how is it possible that some children sit in school for a decent chunk of time for a period of about 12 years and they do a lot of work in that school and they do possibly even more homework than that after and they go to college and some of them are decently well prepared, some of them aren’t and there are other children who are either attending a Sudbury Valley-like school or maybe homeschooled and using a certain method of homeschooling known as unschooling where the children pretty much seemed to just kind of hang out and discover what they’re interested in and maybe get really deep into something, but if they don’t want to do that, they can play video games if they want to and they can still go to college. And how is that possible that those two different systems can exist and one of not even really a system, and that the children can end up in the same place?

Dr. Gray: [00:32:03]

Yeah. Isn’t that interesting that I think that to me that was the most surprising finding from my. My first research study in this realm was the study of the graduates of Sudbury Valley school many, many years ago, and I kind of believed before I did that study that if there’s anything that you learned in school, it’s how to do school, right, learning how to take tests, learning, learning, whatever it takes to read books that are assigned to you rather than books that you chose to take, learning to discipline and that kind of specific kind of disciplining way that you need to do to succeed in school to do what you’re told to do without too much questioning about it. And so perhaps the most surprising finding to me in my study of the graduates of Sudbury Valley school was how many went on to college.

Dr. Gray:  [00:33:00]

I mean here are kids who rejected school when they were little kids and they ended up in Sudbury Valley, which is kind of a non school school I’m playing and exploring. And yet the majority of them at least not necessarily immediately after they leave Sudbury Valley. But in many cases immediately after. And the majority of them eventually go to college, and they don’t seem to have any difficulty getting into college. They don’t seem to have any difficulty doing well. Intelligence, despite not having done anything that looks like school before. I mean, here are people who have never read a textbook, never taken – in many cases, never taken a course that looks anything like in school course. Never taken a test until maybe they took the SAT tests. That’s the college admission test at least on the east coast schools in the US. And yet they don’t seem to have any difficulty doing that.

Dr. Gray:   [00:33:53]

Remarkable. And similar finding when I did a study much more recently of grown unschoolers people who have officially were homeschoolers, but we’re not being schooled at home in the sense of not being required to go through any curriculum, not taking tests that basically learning and the same kind of self-directed way that little kids learn before they start school. But in, but where the parents help them make contact with the larger world, helped connect them to other groups of people so as to provide at least to a considerable degree, those kinds of conditions that I just described as important for self directed education. Well, you know, of the sample of 75 that I studied in that, again, the majority of them went on to college and again, didn’t have any difficulty getting into college or doing well there. I think that there’s sort of two, as I try to understand this, here are some of the things that helped me understand this.

Dr. Gray:  [00:34:54]

Number one is that that despite all that time that children are spending supposedly studying and indeed in some sense are studying in school. There’s very little that’s actually learned that’s remembered. But what you learn in school is you learn to be very good at studying for a test. You know, cramming that information into your head for the test and then you forget it after the test. And so by the time you start, when you start college, let’s say that you’re going to take a biology course in college and let’s say you’ve taken biology in high school, chances are you remember very, very little of that high school biology and you probably are not at any great advantage compared to somebody who never took a biology course, you know?

Jen:   [00:35:47]

That’s kind of scary.

Dr. Gray:   [00:35:47]

And yeah. And in fact, professors very quickly learned that. I mean, I taught in college for 30 years and I realized I couldn’t make any assumptions that students, no matter what they had taken, really knew anything about what it was that the subject that they had taken.

Dr. Gray: [00:36:10]

So for example, I used to teach statistics and I could not assume that the students remembered any of the mathematics or really understood any of the mathematics they would have learned in high school. So whatever mathematics there was underlying the statistics I was teaching, I would, I would have to teach from scratch. I knew I had to do that. I’ve talked with biology professors – they don’t assume, you know, if they might assume that the students who are in their biology class maybe would have some foggy memory of a term like meiosis and mitosis and so on.

Jen:  [00:36:48]

I have foggy memories of those things!

Dr. Gray: [00:36:48]

Yeah, right, right. But they wouldn’t assume that people remembered or knew or understood what they are or what the process was. So you teach it from the beginning anyway. And so the kid who hasn’t taken the course is really not at any disadvantage. So that’s part of it.

Dr. Gray: [00:37:04]

And the second part of it, which is in some ways maybe the more important part is that if you grow up in control of your own learning and your own life and then you decide to go to college, you have made a real decision to go to college. This is your decision. You’re not going to college because you believe you have to go to college because your parents are making you do it. You know, first year in college doesn’t seem like 13th grade to you because you never went to twelfth grade. You never when you weren’t doing school before, so in some sense it’s kind of a fresh thing that you’ve chosen for yourself. You’re not burned out about this way of learning. You’ve chosen to do it and maybe you’ve chosen it because you’ve decided you want to be a doctor or a lawyer or you want to go into some kind of a profession that at least in our culture today, more or less requires college to do it.

Dr. Gray: [00:38:05]

You can’t very easily anyway go on to medical school or law school without doing that for your college first. So you recognize that all right, that’s the way the world is and I want to do this and so I want to go to college for that purpose and I’ve made this decision to go to college and it’s my own decision and by golly, I want to get the most out of it that I can get. And so you take advantage of it and even if you’re just the same age, even if you’re just 18 years old like the other students starting, you are in a certain sense, more mature because you have been in charge of your own life in many ways that other young people haven’t been. You have been responsible for your own decisions, so in some ways you have a headstart in college. You know what it is like to decide yourself to get up and make it to class because you haven’t been in a situation where your parents have done that for you or where the school system has made it… You know, in college. One difference between college and High School is that in college there’s nobody looking over your shoulder. You know you’re not doing homework at home, I hope – with your parents looking over your shoulder, making sure you do it. Unfortunately that’s becoming more common today with the cell phone and the connections between students and their parents, unfortunately, but for the most part at least it’s much less than when you were in high school. You don’t have teachers sort of micromanaging to quite the same degree how you do your work, what exactly you know, there’s more flexibility in how you do the assignments.

Dr. Gray: [00:39:48]

You have to make your judgments yourself and you have to be responsible. You have to decide, here you are, you’re now for the first time maybe in your life where you could choose to go out drinking all night instead of preparing for your course. And this is the first time you’ve ever really been in a situation where you have that choice. And as we know, one of the big problems in college, as many students can’t resist that choice of going out drinking all night and then they suffer in the classroom because they’re having a hangover or they’ve missed the test or whatever and, and so on. So that the students who’ve made this more mature decision, they’re not going out drinking all night. They, they’ve learned how to control the themselves, how to control their lives, and they’re there for a reason. And they, and they, they want to, they want to succeed as human beings and college is part of their plan for how they’re going to do that. So in that sense they have an advantage. And, and in my studies, the great majority of unschoolers who had gone on to college and of Sudbury Valley graduates have gone onto college, claimed that they were at an advantage and the primary reason that they were an advantage is they felt more mature and more responsible for their lives than what they perceived in their classmates.

Jen: [00:41:18]

And obviously I’ve read your book and I think for parents who are maybe hearing this for the first time, this might be kind of a lot to take in…

Dr. Gray:  [00:41:24]

Yes indeed.

Jen:   [00:41:24]

…the fact that the school system that they lived where they grew up in and assume that their children would go through as well may not be functioning in their child’s best interests. And I’m just trying to tie it all together and think about, well, if my child has the opportunity to do anything they want to do all day, how will they ever make the choice to go to college? And I’m just thinking about a lot of the examples that you cite in your book about societies that have been very successful in the absence of formal education and you also cite David Lancy book the Anthropology of Childhood, which we’ve discussed quite a lot here on the podcast.

Jen: [00:42:01]

And so there are a lot of societies in the world that don’t formally educate their children, but they’re not usually in places that David Lancy calls Western Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic or WEIRD societies. But most of the people who are listening to this probably are in WEIRD societies. And so what I’m trying to understand is how can we know that what helped our ancestors to learn as well as what helps people today in what we think of as “”less developed cultures to learn can work for children in our weird society. You know, if those are the kinds of cultures where children got to make those decisions for themselves, but maybe they don’t have to worry about going to college, how can we be sure that a child can become a successful adult in our society without an adult saying these are the things you need to know to go to college to be successful in life.

Dr. Gray: [00:42:53]

Right. Yeah. And, and this was certainly something I’ve given a lot of thought to and it’s a very reasonable question. I would say if it weren’t for the research that I’ve done in our society, I as an evolutionary psychologist would be among the first to say, well, you know, our society is very, very different certainly from a hunter gatherer society, but also from a traditional agricultural society. Different in a number of ways. Let me take a hunter-gatherer society, a hunter-gatherer society, and this is the kind of society that we evolved in through know agriculture is came around about 10,000 years ago. Ten thousand years is a blink of the eye from point of view of evolutionary history. So we evolved in a world of being hunter-gatherers in a hunter-gatherer cultures are illiterate cultures, there’s no, there’s no written language, so reading and writing, they are, for the most part, not numerous cultures. Most of the cultures don’t even have words for numbers beyond maybe one, two and many. So yeah. So they don’t use numbers, they don’t use reading it. So here are the three r’s was what we call it in the United States. Three, three R’s. Reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. Hunter-gatherers don’t need to learn those things. And uh, so maybe one could argue, well, the human brain evolved in such a way that we naturally learn all those kinds of things that kids in hunter-gatherer cultures have to learn, but we wouldn’t learn those things that kids in our culture have to learn in such a natural way because we didn’t involve in a world in which reading and writing and calculation with numbers was an important part of being a member of the culture and another way that we’re different and in this sense and most agricultural traditional agricultural cultures by the way, also, you know, they may or may not have written language, but it’s not a an essential part of almost everything is conducted orally and so on and there may be some use of numbers but very simple use of numbers and you can easily pick it up. And then the other way that we differ from these so called more “simple” societies is that in our culture, our culture is so much more complex. There’s so many different ways of making a living and we don’t automatically see them in our homes and in our local neighborhoods. So if you grow up in a hunter gatherer culture or in a, in a, in a traditional agricultural culture, you can just by looking around, you can see pretty much what everybody does and it’s all available to you. You can, as David Lancey points out, the primary learning throughout all these cultures is observation.

Dr. Gray:  [00:45:39]

You see it and therefore you, you see how to do it. And there may be a few different ways of making a living and their cultures. So depending on your sex, you’re going to grow up to be a hunter or a gatherer. You might also be a shaman. You’re also going to be likely to be a toolmaker and so on and so forth, and you see all these things going on and therefore you can easily incorporate that into your play. And you know what I often say is that hunter-gatherer kids have to learn at least as much as if not more than kids in our culture and it’s at least as complex, but the difference is that they observe it all. It’s very clear to them, whereas we have many more different choices. No human being can possibly learn even a tiny fraction of everything there is to know in our culture and therefore the problem is how do you decide which fraction you want to learn?

Dr. Gray:  [00:46:34]

You don’t have a lot of decision making to make about how you’re going to make a living. If you’re growing up in the hunter gatherer calls, you’re going to make a living by hunting and gathering, right, and you’re growing up in an agricultural culture. You’re going to make a living through farming through agriculture, and there might be some variations there, but in our culture there’s so many different possible ways of making a living and so these things make it all very different. So here’s my answer to your question. I think that those instincts that we develop that we acquired when we were hunter-gatherers, those basic learning characteristics, our curiosity, our playfulness, our sociability, our willfulness, our desire, in other words, to take charge of our own lives, our planfulness, our capacity to sort of think ahead. These are the five basic traits that I talk about as the educative instincts.

Dr. Gray: [00:47:27]

These instincts work today as well as ever if we provide the conditions in which they can work and they can work to to fully provide the foundation for education in our culture today if we as the adults provide the kind of setting that I just described, those six characteristics ideally that enable them to work. Those characteristics are pretty much automatically present in a hunter-gatherer band, but they’re not automatically present in our culture. We have to do something to make them present. In other words, I’m not arguing that you can just turn kids out on the street and they will become educated. Some of them will, some of them will find their way, but but the majority of them won’t. We have to provide the setting that optimizes young people’s opportunities to learn from their own experiences and that means generally speaking, if we’re homeschooling, for example, we have to provide something more than just the nuclear family as the place for the child.

Dr. Gray: [00:48:39]

No matter how good the nucleus, no matter how wonderful a family it is, children in order to really learn about their culture, need to learn about other people and other families and other settings and so those unschooling families where the where the young people really succeed are families that in one way or another are able to provide those kinds of conditions, other children to play with other adults to interact with not just the parents. Connections with the larger community. So you grow up feeling part of that community. So those kinds of opportunities when those can be provided. Then children develop in a way that they figure out what they want to do as adults and they and they proceed and do well as adults. But if we, if children are growing up, isolated from that, those opportunities and they’re not so likely they may, they may or may not find their way, but I would less likely predict that they would go on to happy and productive and successful adult lives if they’re not provided by the adults in the society that they’re growing up with, with those kinds of opportunities.

Jen: [00:49:57]

So it’s almost like… I think a lot of parents, when they start thinking about homeschooling, they think, well, I couldn’t homeschool. I don’t know everything my child needs to learn. And it seems as though what you’re saying is, A, You don’t need to. And B, it’s almost better if you don’t because your child needs to experience being around other people and learning from other people anyway.

Dr. Gray:  [00:50:17]

That’s, that’s exactly right. I think that’s the mistake. I mean, homeschooling implies schooling at home with the parents as teachers, but unschooling implies that the children are educating themselves and what you as the parent are doing. You’re not teaching your child, you’re not. Of course you are a little bit, but you know, just in the sense that we all teach one another. You know when your kid asks you a question, you answer the question and that’s teaching, right? But you want, you are responsible for if you are an unschooling parent is you are responsible to make sure that your child is able to pursue his or her own interests that your child is able to sample different kinds of ways of being; able to see what different adults are like and this culture; able to interact with kids, have a variety of ages and make friends and learn how to get along well with other kids and so on; get along well with peers, which was one of the most important skills that people need to learn in every culture. So as partly from that, that I would argue that I think that every, every normal child, every child, barring those children who have very serious brain disorders and who therefore need special education people, for example, with very severe autism or people with down syndrome or something like that, who really in order to optimize their potential, really need the help of experts who know how to help people who have that kind of disability. But other than that, every child does best in my view, in a self-education situation. But that doesn’t mean in my view that unschooling is the best choice for every family. I think that in order to be a good unschooling family, you have to be a kind of family that has the sorts of connections to the larger environment, the larger culture.

Dr. Gray: [00:52:19]

That doesn’t mean you have to be rich. There are many very successful unschooling families who have below the median income, but you have to be the kind of person who’s connected to other people; ideally your family, where people in the family read and talk about ideas and you know, and you understand… You sort of have a sense of what it’s like to be a successful person in the culture and you as the parents are kind of a successful person in the culture in whatever way you might define success and that doesn’t necessarily mean financial success, but success in the sense of being happy and being, having friends and being admired by other people in the culture so that your children are growing up with that kind of a sense of this kind of positive sense of what it’s like to be an adult in the world that they’re growing up in.

Dr. Gray:  [00:53:15]

But not every family has that. And there are some families where kids need to get away from their family for much more of the time than is possible for a homeschooled child. So that’s why I think that the solution, if we think of a solution of a cultural solution is to really create learning centers where children can spend as much time as they choose away from their family in a setting where there are lots of other kids, there are a number of other adults. There’s lots of interesting things to do. Whether that setting is something like a Sudbury school or like a co-op homeschooling learning center, which there are more and more of these kinds of places. I think once we have enough people who are opting for self directed education, then there will be kind of a voting block that will say, let’s spend some of that public money that we’re currently spending for compulsory schools.

Dr. Gray: [00:54:22]

Let’s spend some of that money for learning centers, maybe expansions of the library so the library becomes a place where kids can spend all day and there’s recreational opportunities there. There’s opportunities for all kinds of learning and activity and people of any age can take part in that. You know, wouldn’t it be nice if every community had such opportunities and that could be sort of the center and parents who have to go to work all day long where both parents are working can feel comfortable that their kids are happy there and that there’s plenty of opportunity for them to do various things and lots of people that they can be learning from. That’s kind of the world that I envision as the ideal for our children and I think it will happen. It’s not gonna happen overnight, but I think it will happen as we’re already on a trajectory in which more and more parents are choosing self-directed education, whether it’s unschooling or whether it’s, you know, there’s growing number of schools that are modeled after Sudbury Valley or that have similar characteristics to Sudbury Valley.

Dr. Gray: [00:55:33]

More and more parents are choosing that for their kids. At some point, everybody will know about this right now. Many, many people in our culture have never heard of this. As more and more people know about it and they see that it works, then more and more people will do it for their own kids and at some point I think we’ll reach a tipping point where everybody knows people doing this and suddenly I think people will, there will be a flood of people wanting to do it and as soon as that happens, then the politicians, the people in charge of how public money is spent, are going to have to respond to their constituents who are then going to be arguing, we need to use that money that’s currently going to these schools that are rapidly emptying out. We need to start using that money to create learning opportunities for self-directed learners.

Jen:  [00:56:30]

As we wrap up here, I’m just wondering if you see what seems to me a bit of a delicious irony that to some extent it applies to both you and me. I went back to school to get a master’s in psychology with a focus on child development partly because I have no parenting instincts whatsoever. I felt that I needed the knowledge and also partly because I was interested in starting this podcast and I knew that people wouldn’t really believe what I had to say unless I had that kind of credential behind my name. And you’re a professor within a traditional system of education, although granted, most people have made the choice to be in college by the time they get to you and you’re advocating for an approach that is very much outside the bounds of that system. Do you ever feel that irony?

Dr. Gray:   [00:57:12]

Oh yes, absolutely. So and in fact, I actually retired from teaching 15 years ago, early – officially I didn’t retire; I resigned. I was in a situation where I could afford to. There are many things I enjoyed about college teaching. I enjoyed the public speaking aspect of it to be honest and I would get very immersed in the subject matter and because I always actually enjoyed teaching the introductory psychology course because it didn’t involve sort of a understanding, sort of the philosophical foundations for all of psychology and I ended up writing at an introductory psychology textbook and it’s actually because of the textbook, as it turns out that I was able to retire financially, I made enough money from that. But the downside always right from the beginning, the idea that I have to be evaluating these students. It’s never, you know, I enjoyed oftentimes interacting with students.

Dr. Gray:  [00:58:11]

Especially when I used to have a laboratory that was doing lab research and students who would become involved in the research and get really interested in what I was doing and I would get to know them personally. That to me was real education and I enjoyed that aspect of it, but the realization that especially in some of my courses, a certain number of students were there only because it was a required course for what they wanted to pursue, that they didn’t really choose to be there, that my job in some sense was to entertain them, to sort of seduce them into an interest in this that they may not really have. Then in addition to that, in the end, if you think about it, the one product of a professor, certainly once you have tenure though, unless you do something terribly immoral, the only grounds on which you could be fired is if you don’t turn in those grades at the end of every semester.

Dr. Gray: [00:59:07]

That’s the evidence that you’re doing your job is that you’re turning in grades at the end of the semester. So you have to grade students and that means you have to be evaluating them. And that means that their job in some, no matter how you teach, is to please you to figure out what it is that you’re, that you’re evaluating them on that basis. And there’s no way around it. I mean, I found ways that I think given the system at least increase the degree to which students actually took personal responsibility for the course. They would help define the subject matter of the course in many of my courses I gave them active roles. They weren’t just passive recipients of lectures. There are certain techniques that I tried and found at least somewhat successful in increasing the likelihood that they would begin asking really sincere questions about the subject matter and would develop a real curiosity about it.

Dr. Gray: [01:00:06]

Those things helped but it didn’t overcome the basic problem that ultimately I’ve got a grade the students and ultimately that means that their job is to figure out how to please me, how to do what I whatever it was that I was grading them on. It’s not very satisfying and there’s no way really around it within a system that’s set up for one kind of one approach to education, you can’t within that system take an entirely different approach to education. It doesn’t work. The whole institution has to be set up for that. You can’t teach one course that is going to be…this is whatever you want to do and grading doesn’t count and so on and so forth in this one course because all their other courses are graded and so they’re going to quite reasonably net do nothing in your course because they don’t have to, and the other courses are requiring them to do stuff and so then they’re actually going to get mad at you because they actually wanted to do something in your course, but they can’t justify doing it if they don’t have.

Jen: [01:01:13]

Right. So here’s how you do self directed learning kids, but don’t take it too far.

Dr. Gray:  [01:01:18]

Okay. Well thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and your expertise with us. We’re gonng to be talking a lot more about education on the podcast in the next weeks and months and I’m very grateful for this overview of really what learning is about and not just assuming that school is the way to make that happen, but really thinking deeply about what is the kind of learning we want to equip our children with.

Dr. Gray:  [01:01:41]

Well, thank you. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.

Jen:    [01:01:44]

And so listeners who are interested in reading, Professor Gray’s book can find a link to it on the website for today’s episode under the references, which is at YourParentingMojo.com/freetolearn.


Also published on Medium.

About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.


  1. Kirsty Manuel, South Africa on April 16, 2017 at 2:53 PM

    School is so separate from real life that most vital real life skills are not learned there. It begs the question; is this then the best way to equip our kids for life? It’s no wonder kids struggle to make the transition from school to adulthood in our culture. They are, for the most part utterly unprepared for it, is this their fault? We expect them to do well in school without encouraging time spent outside of it to grow in other skill sets needed for life. How much better could their lives and our whole society be if we approached their education differently? What would it look like if schools really incorporated learning life skills necessary to succeed in life other than the learning of facts and gaining of knowledge in different areas? There seems to be a lopsided focus on things that often don’t add a whole lot of value to our life and so is generally forgotten. Why do we pour all our effort into learning these things? 12 years later, we are confused and disappointed having thought we were so well set up for life only to find we are not so highly set up for success if all we got was A’s. Who all does better in life by the same percentage level they did better than their peers in school? Surly it’s not simply based on that but we put all our time into it as if it were.

    • Jen Lumanlan on April 27, 2017 at 4:30 PM

      Kristy, it almost seems like you’ve done the same research I’ve done:-) Glad to hear you found this episode interesting. I’m on-board with Sudbury Valley-style schools as a way to support our children’s learning, but what if we don’t live near one (there are only about forty of them in the world!). I’m looking at homeschooling as the best way to provide this kind of environment for my daughter. There’s a ton of info online about how to homeschool, but very little on how to make the decision to homeschool in the first place. If you’re interested in checking out the course I built to address this, you can find it at http://www.yourhomeschoolingmojo.com

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