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”?
Overall, 83 percent of the respondents had gone on to pursue some form of higher education. Almost half of those had either completed a bachelor’s degree or higher, or were currently enrolled in such a program; they attended (or had graduated from) a wide range of colleges, from Ivy League universities to state universities and smaller liberal-arts colleges.
Several themes emerged: Getting into college was typically a fairly smooth process for this group; they adjusted to the academics fairly easily, quickly picking up skills such as class note-taking or essay composition; and most felt at a distinct advantage due to their high self-motivation and capacity for self-direction. “The most frequent complaints,” Gray notes on his blog, “were about the lack of motivation and intellectual curiosity among their college classmates, the constricted social life of college, and, in a few cases, constraints imposed by the curriculum or grading system.”
Most of those who went on to college did so without either a high school diploma or general education diploma (GED), and without taking the SAT or ACT. Several credited interviews and portfolios for their acceptance to college, but by far the most common route to a four-year college was to start at a community college (typically begun at age 16, but sometimes even younger).
None of the respondents found college academically difficult, but some found the rules and conventions strange and sometimes off-putting. Young people who were used to having to find things out on their own were taken aback, and even in some cases felt insulted, “when professors assumed they had to tell them what they were supposed to learn,” Gray says.
In the words of one woman: “I already had a wealth of experience with self-directed study. I knew how to motivate myself, manage my time, and complete assignments without the structure that most traditional students are accustomed to. … I know how to figure things out for myself and how to get help when I need it.” Added another: “I discovered that people wanted the teacher to tell them what to think. … It had never, ever occurred to me to ask someone else to tell me what to think when I read something.”
All survey respondents were also asked about their employment status and career, and 63 answered a follow-up survey asking about their work in more detail. More than three-quarters of those who answered the follow-up survey said they were financially self-sufficient; the rest were either students, stay-at-home parents, or under the age of 21 and launching businesses while living at home. But a number of those who were self-sufficient noted that this hinged on their ability to maintain a frugal lifestyle (several added that this was a conscious choice, allowing them to do enjoyable and meaningful work).
The range of jobs and careers was very broad—from film production assistant to tall-ship bosun, urban planner, aerial wildlife photographer, and founder of a construction company—but a few generalizations emerged. Compared to the general population, an unusually high percentage of the survey respondents went on to careers in the creative arts—about half overall, rising to nearly four out of five in the always-unschooled group. Similarly, a high number of respondents (half of the men and about 20 percent of the women) went on to science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) careers. (The same held true in another recent survey of unschoolers.) “STEM careers are also kind of creative careers—they involve looking for something, seeking answers, solving problems,” Gray says. “When you’re looking at it that way, it sort of fits.”
The reason for this correlation is something this survey can’t answer. “Maybe unschooling promotes creativity, or maybe dispositionally creative people or families are more likely to choose unschooling,” Gray says. “It’s probably a little bit of both.”
Additionally, just more than half of the respondents were entrepreneurs (this category overlapped considerably with the creative arts category). But what Gray found most striking is the complete absence (in both this and his Sudbury study samples) of “the typical person who gets an MBA and goes on to become an accountant or middle manager in some business. People with these educational backgrounds don’t go on to bureaucratic jobs. They do work in teams, but where there is a more democratic relationship within the team.”
He adds that this trend manifests across white- and blue-collar careers. “In the Sudbury survey, there were people working as carpenters or auto mechanics, etcetera, but in situations where they were occupationally self-directed, set their own schedules, and solved their own problems, rather than shuffled papers, or worked on assembly lines where no original work was being done.” In other words, he says, unschoolers of all types had overwhelmingly chosen careers high in those qualities that sociologists have found lead to the highest levels of work satisfaction.
What Factors Matter Most in Unschooling
Finally, the survey offered some insights about what makes for successful unschooling. Parents’ involvement levels with their children differed a lot, Gray says. Some were more hands-off, whereas others helped with learning, and in some cases even learned things (such as a foreign language) alongside their child, following the child’s lead. “All of those ways seem to work,” he says. “People only complained when they felt their parents were negligent about treating the child as a human being who has needs—including emotional needs—and who helped fill those needs.”
The results also led to another important conclusion: “The need for parents to be aware that children need more than their families,” Gray says. “People are designed to learn not just from their own parents, but from the wider world. If you don’t send your child to school where they’re automatically connected to other kids, other values, etcetera, it’s important to find a way that the family can be sufficiently involved in the larger community, or that the child has ways to be involved. Kids need that both socially and for their learning.” This ties in with the fact that “a major complaint of the three who disliked unschooling was that their parents isolated them and prevented them from exploring outside of the family or outside of the insular group with which the family was tied,” Gray adds on his blog.
In sum: “The findings of our survey suggest that unschooling can work beautifully if the whole family, including the children, buy into it, if the parents are psychologically healthy and happy, and if the parents are socially connected to the broader world and facilitate their children’s involvement with that world. It can even work well when some of these criteria are not fully met.”