Freedom to Learn

The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

Is Real Educational Reform Possible? If So, How?

Our present compulsory school system is like the hulking dinosaurs of the late Mesozoic. Those people and groups who have walked away from the school system—the homeschoolers, unschoolers, Sudbury schoolers, and so on—are like the Mesozoic’s little mouse-like mammals. . . . My money is on the mice. Read More

For whom the school bell tolls

I've always found your arguments for a radical change of approach to education convincing despite having been one of those odd kids who actually rather liked school -- one of those traditional study-your-Latin red brick prep schools at that. Unfortunately, I also find convincing your assessment of the enormous institutionalized forces upholding the status quo. Any change will have to be the decisions of individual parents who may well face legal repercussions.

The daycare function of schools?

In this world you hypothesize (which does seem better in a lot of ways), what replaces the daycare function of schools? Many parents simply have no option but to put their young kids somewhere with adult supervision so the adult(s) can go to work. And public schools are free to the user, even if expensive to society. How can we make "opting out" something broadly available, rather than the privilege of an upper class that can afford it?

excellent point

I too wonder whether families that consist of 2 full time working parents, which are now in the majority, really have any choice about sending their kids to school. What other choices do they have? Leaving the kids at home alone? Taking them to work with them? Previous societies didn't need schools because it was feasible to watch and even teach kids while doing work yourself. Is it feasible for most adults to do that now? I don't see how.

It certainly isn't possible

It certainly isn't possible for everyone, but is often possible for more people than you might think. My husband and I have both worked outside the home. We have juggled homeschooling through the help of grandparents, all day homeschool co-ops, trading off with friends, staggering our hours at work, taking our child to work, even paying for a college student to baby sit and engage in conversation and play. Most of the time we have been able to get by with my working half-time rather than full-time which is a big help. I know of other families who work from home and make it work, or one parent works 12 hour shifts on the weekend while the other has a more traditional 40 hour work week during the week. Alternative schools and educational centers would certainly ease this juggling act for many.

I do agree we need some sort of public education system. Not everyone can homeschool even with herculean juggling and sacrifice. However, I agree with this article that it will be unlikely that we can reform the current system sufficiently without a near complete shut down. That is a frightening prospect, but all dramatic change is frightening. It would take a great deal of courage to scrap what we know for the hope of something dramatically better. Kind of like the individual leap of faith it takes to walk away from the system with your child.

It would be nice if they

It would be nice if they simply made public school available to people, but didn't force them to attend. Could that work?

Getting rid of truancy laws

Getting rid of truancy laws would be an astonishing step forward.
But it obviously isn't a first step, since the vested economic interests in keeping traditional schools mandatory would set the community against it (teachers unions, textbook publishers, creators of specialist educational materials, Ritalin-pushing-pharmacists, tutors, school-bus drivers, IEP consultants; the list goes on).
The first step (and second step, third step, etcetera)is to slowly increase the number number of people who do something else. We do this by founding small schools that draw tiny proportions of the population, keep up an active presence in the wider community, and publish publish publish. As that increase gains momentum, eventually the proportion of voters who know 2-3 kids that have not used traditional school and turned out "fine" will reach the point that we can start to debate truancy laws. (Sort of like gay marriage became feasible in most people's minds, once most people knew a few couples with a homosexual orientation, who were just fine.)
Though even then I doubt that we will repeal truancy laws until people know more kids who have "made it" without traditional school, than they know people who feel that their personal livelihoods depend on traditional education.

new to 'unschooling'

aelizabetht wrote:
It would be nice if they simply made public school available to people, but didn't force them to attend. Could that work?

I agree and this is essentially true, here in the UK it is anyway. No-one has to send their child to school, but very few people know that. Or like i thought only a few months ago, they think Home Education means doing the same at home as is done in school, which to most of us something we wouldn't want to do or feel able to do. Many people i have spoken to since home educating have said they thought you had to follow the National Curriculam and have to do SATS etc. They have never heard of 'unschooling' and didn't know it was allowed. I had never heard of it either. I wish i had now looked into this myself before my son reached school age as i am pretty sure i would not have sent him to school at all. It is kept well hidden and its only by knowing someone who does it that you realise its an option, and even then most would only look into it when their child starts to have problems at school.
I would like to see 'unschooling' become more open and known to the general public, that way we can all have more choice about how we want our children to be educated. The changes have to come in what is seen and heard about it on tv. If parents knew that it could be an option for them, that they were able to do it and that going to school is a choice for them at any stage i think that is the start of educational reform.

new to 'unschooling'

aelizabetht wrote:
It would be nice if they simply made public school available to people, but didn't force them to attend. Could that work?

I agree and this is essentially true, here in the UK it is anyway. No-one has to send their children to school. But most people do not know that, or they think as i did only a few months ago, that Home Education has to be the same as school, but at home. Many people have said to me they thought you had to follow the National Curriculum and do all the tests. This wouldn't be something they would want to do or feel able to do. They have never heard of 'unschooling' and i had never heard of it either. I wish now that i had looked into it before my son was school age as i am pretty sure i would not have sent him to school at all. Our society, and most others, make us believe school is the only way for our children to learn, most people send their children to school without thinking about it, they don't choose it, they just do it.
I think that 'unschooling needs to be out in the open more, it needs to be known by the general public. This means it being on tv and other media more, being shown as 'normal' and relevant to all. People need to know that it is an option and that they are able to do it, and that their children will get a good education. School should be an option too, for those whom want it. If parents have real choice about their childrens education then that is the start of reform in education.

2 income families

To the extent that this thinking takes hold, the situations which require 2 incomes will decrease (not be eliminated, but decrease). Some of the need for 2 incomes is from a desire to live in a community which has good schools, which tend to be more expensive. As school-based expenses decrease - including college loans for degrees that don't have real benefit to the degree owner - then the need for 2 incomes will also decrease. This, of course, will require time, and I don't have any fantasy that this will happen very soon, or will happen completely, but my experience as an unschooling parent is that when you can escape the compulsory schooling mindset, you can question many of the decisions that get made that force situations like 2 incomes.

Again, this will be gradual.

Well, we'll make it happen by

Well, we'll make it happen by making it a priority and figuring it out. We don't know how yet, because we are the first people to live in this here and now, just like everyone in the past were the first people to live in that here and now. We get to figure it out! Maybe the unschool/homeschool children of today will be better adapted to figure it out than those of us who have already been through the machine?

My understand is that this

My understand is that this article does not suggest that schools should be done away with all together, only that all children be in an environment, whether at home or in a school that provides "daycare" for working parents, that supports their self-directed exploration and learning. I went to a Sudbury school that did just that. While not all Sudbury schools provide this option, the one I attended had a sliding scale tuition, the basic premise of which is that the wealthier families pay a little more to subsidize tuition for low-income families. Whenever possible, they also offer full scholarships to those who needed it. The school offers tuition assistance to over 80% of enrolled families. They are not located in a wealthy area and many of their students come from single-parent homes. (Dr. Gray is right when he states that schools without a directed curriculum are much cheaper to run--such schools don't have to pay for expensive "learning materials" devised to engage kids in pointless busywork, and self-directed learners are a lot more resourceful.) When the economic recession hit both my parents lost their jobs within six with each other. To make things worse, only my mom qualified for unemployment benefits. Despite being in rather dire financial shape, we were able to make an arrangement with the school that allowed my sister and I to keep attending. So, in the scenario of two working parents, or even a single working parent, in need of "daycare" (I believe the school was far more beneficial to me than just providing babysitting), this is definitely a viable option. And the upper class that can afford it could easily subsidize the lower class that could not. Currently it may not be a perfect egalitarian solution, but turning walking away from a promising option that doesn't yet have the scale and support to include everybody insures that it never will.

Continuing need for "schools."

Thanks, R. H. Your answer to Anonymous and Nic (above) is very much like mine. My hope is that all sorts of "schools" will spring up, where children can pursue their interests in safe places away from home, where others know them, care for them, and where all feel part of the same community. I see this as valuable not just because of the babysitting function, but even more so because of the educative function. In these settings children can learn from the examples of many children and at least several adults, beyond those in their own family, so they can go beyond whatever resources are available home. Not all families are able to provide at home the sort of "rich" learning environment I describe in the article. I see it as our public, social responsibility to provide such environments, available to everyone. As I said, this can be done for far less tax money than we are currently spending on coercive schools. -Peter

We have public homeschool charter programs...

In our area that basically meet your vision. Not all day every day, so it won't replace traditional school hours for parents that need that time child-free. Our local school district realized over 20 years ago that they were losing kids to homeschooling (we're in an area of the country with strong "hippy" values). So they decided to offer support to these parents in exchange for the funding each child enrolled provides. I've been told that the costs to the district is less than 25% of what traditionally-schooled kids cost. Our son is starting kindergarten with one of these programs this year. He'll be in a multi-age classroom (K-5th) 2 days per week, 4 hours per day. His time spent there will be mostly self-directed, with games, books, crafts, projects at his disposal. We will have to complete attendance records and submit "proof" of his learning, but I'm hoping that aspect can be managed in an unschooling way. I would be all for unschooling, except he's very certain he wants regular classroom time. We have an active and social life (I'm self-employed, and he comes with me for my work with horses), but he wants that class experience with other kids. Too bad there isn't a democratic school in our area - it would be the perfect fit.

Hippie Values

I love that comment in reference to your community. I was wondering if you could expand on that idea some more in terms of what values you believe foster starting these types of schools in a community.

Also, would you mind sharing the name of the "public homeschool charter program" in your community.

Lastly, here is a great workshop on starting your own school offered by AERO

Thanks Tim -

I've often thought we should start our own school, but that's an undertaking I'm not sure I'm prepared to do. It would be nice to have a democratic school for all ages for parents that need to work regular hours.

By hippie values - we're in Santa Cruz County, CA. Independent thought is not a rare thing around here, and in most cases, accepted and valued. Last I heard, our homeschool rate for all school-age kids in our district is about 8%. Some people wanted to avoid public school for religious reasons, others because they want more individual freedom for their kids to learn at their own pace. There also seems to be a larger-than-usual number of self-employed, flexibly-employed parents (like myself); so we have more ability to be our child's primary educator.

We're signed on with Fall Creek Charter, which is under a larger system of charters within the district. Weird, their website seems to be down, but we're in the SLV school district.

independent thinkers and

independent thinkers and doers favor independent learning environments...which harvests independent thinkers and doers..I think we have found the key to making this happen.

Since you have to be held to

Since you have to be held to some level of "proof" of learning (testing??), do you feel that you have truly stepped away from the traditional public school system? I know you have more freedom than you would in the ps but if they are measuring your child, at all, then I, personally, don't see it as homeschooling. Many others would disagree. The gov't is still in your life, holding your child up to a yard stick of their own making. Again, that isn't a problem for many people. Homeschool co-ops may also be a good fit for your child, just a thought, since he enjoys the class experience. At least with co-ops you are in charge of his path.


Everyone has the choice, at least in this culture. I know single homeschooling parents. I know low and/or single income homeschooling families.

If there is a will, there is a way. It really is that simple. Most people find the odds overwhelming and don't choose that.

I don't like the argument that opting out is the privilege of the upper class that can afford it. My family is living proof that it isn't the case.

We chose to stay married over getting divorced when things were rough. We chose single income over new cars. We chose thrift stores over brand names and new. We go without sometimes, but we don't go without each other. We don't go without learning.

Our priority is happiness and learning and being together as a family. Our house is tiny and crowded. Kids come here and never want to leave. I didn't expect that. We don't have the latest and greatest of everything, but what we have is a fun filled happy atmosphere where people can be themselves and learn and live.

Use school to your advantage,

Use school to your advantage, whatever that might be. Free yourself from a process that rewards compliance, if need be. There is no one to complain to. You are driving your life. Everything is broken in the same way. The fracture is structural.

You will own your education when you own yourself. Until then, you are a citizen enslaved administratively by the socio-economic system you participate within by default.

Individual sovereignty is the only force behind the signature 'John Hancock' meaning anything in this world. Your citizen-ID is not composed of any of that power. You are an asset, organized as a social liability, fortunate to be "free" by the services of the state. No need to argue about it. Thats what is.

Owning yourself is critical. Opportunity is inborn in this life, but the freedom and accountability scales are yours to manage. We will know of another way when we start approaching existence Individually in a sustainable way, and stop accepting freedumb as our only structural option.

The $$$ is the issue

Anonymous wrote:
In this world you hypothesize (which does seem better in a lot of ways), what replaces the daycare function of schools? Many parents simply have no option but to put their young kids somewhere with adult supervision so the adult(s) can go to work. And public schools are free to the user, even if expensive to society. How can we make "opting out" something broadly available, rather than the privilege of an upper class that can afford it?

You hit the nail on the head. Yes, individuals will home or un-school and there will be a scattering of democratic free schools around - for those who can afford it. But My question is how can this model - which I support very much - take root in an institutional way, which includes real sources of funding rather than just eking by with an underfunded staff and "school"?

Well, most people can live on

Well, most people can live on far less than they think they can. I stayed at home with my kids while my spouse worked at a low wage job, but I shopped at thrift stores and yard sales and we only ate at restaurants on special occasions. There is actually a rather strong community in our city that respects and supports such values, but I can see it would be hard to live like we did if our family and neighbors were living differently. I guess it is all about believing in your choices and finding the support you need to make it happen. As more people make these choices, the easier they will become! Also, as the years pass, you can see where your choices paid off, and it turns the hopes you had into faith, and that brings joy.


Thanks for the great article, Peter. Just "walk away" is exactly what our family did, too. And now we thank our lucky stars that we stumbled upon Montessori after doing so. Montessori is a method of education that fits nicely with all of your excellent points above, with the added benefit of having a successful track record over one hundred years, in countries and cultures all over the world. Here is a 5 minute YouTube video you may enjoy on a parent's view of Montessori education:

Squeak! Squeak! My money is on the mice too!

A CREATIVE Brain beats Brawn
(an excerpt from Aesop's Fables)
"The Lion and the Mouse

A lion lay asleep in the forest, his great head resting on his paws. A timid little mouse came upon him unexpectedly, and in her fright and haste to get away, ran across the lion's nose. Woken from his nap, the lion laid his huge paw angrily on the tiny creature to kill her.

"Spare me!" begged the poor mouse. "Please let me go and some day I will surely repay you."

The lion was so amused at the idea of the little mouse being able to help the King of Beasts, that he lifted up his paw and let her go.

Some weeks later, the lion was caught in a net. The hunters, who desired to carry the lion alive to their King, tied him to a tree while they went in search of a wagon to carry him.

Just then the little mouse happened to pass by, and seeing the lion's sad plight, went up to him and soon gnawed away the ropes of the net, freeing the lion.

"You have helped me and now I have returned the favor. Was I not right - even a mouse can help a lion!" said the little mouse."


Yes, alternatives are needed!

But there are very large problems with abandoning the public school system in this country outright.

For one thing, you would be forcing any family who couldn't homeschool to find some sort of alternative, which may be far to expensive for them to afford. Where do the children go then?

For another, people with extremely limited resources, in the lowest socioeconomic classes in our society, who might have had limited educational resources growing up themselves, will be hard-pressed to find the time and resources to provide a quality education for their children.

Trashing the public school system outright leaves many families with no options, and creates disadvantage, rather than providing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all citizens.

As we know, the healthiest ecosystems have a proliferation of life-forms. As the number of life-forms within an ecosystem begins to dwindle, so does the resiliency of that ecosystem. Environmental collapse is a much greater danger in such ecosystems. I think the education system is no different. Multiple options provide multiple intelligences. There is no single "Right" or "Best" way.

So rather than being black and white about it, I think it's healthy to be aggressively reformist.

Let's focus on making our public school system the best that it possibly can be. Finland has done a good job. We might be able to learn some lessons from their methods.

Let's focus on supporting alternative schools more broadly. Alternative schools are part of local-community ecosystems. The health of local alternative schools reflects the health of the community they're in.

Let's focus on creating radical new learning paradigms using the internet, public libraries, and other free resources, that challenge the current paradigm.

But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Keep the baby and foster its growth. And dump the bathwater on the garden.

A multitude of life forms

Josh, some of what you are saying is no different from what I'm saying. I'm not suggesting that we suddenly throw out the school system we have. I'm saying, let's not require people to do top-down directed schooling if they don't want to. Let's let real alternatives be legal and let's do what we can to make them affordable and available. My view is that as an increasing number of people leave the present public schooling system for one or another of these alternatives, there will be a clamor to use some of the tax money that is saved to provide public support for the kinds of learning centers and Sudbury type schools that I envision. Where we may differ is in the degree to which it is possible to work toward real change within the existing public school system. You say the only problem is the bathwater; I say the problem is the baby. But, in my mind, that's an issue for people to decide with their feet, when they have a real choice. -Peter

Germany has outlawed homeschooling.

Some countries make homeschooling your children even harder. Germany for example has outlawed homeschooling. Your article mentioned the cost of public schools and the cost of keeping inmates in a prison, a lot of students feel like they are in a prison.

since young, i've an

since young, i've an insatiable curiosity to learn, and i learn best when i'm allowed ample space to explore, whether through books or in the natural environment.

after i've been placed in the classroom when i reached seven, i got the shock of my life that we'll be punish if we don't learn effectively, in a limited time. this forced learning has made me into an anxious person, especially when i'm slower than my peers in processing math info. whenever i got below grade A, i'll be caned by the teacher, and that improved my maths, in a wrong n' grave way.

in the conventional school, i've learnt the hard way that teachers or authorities will only approve us if we achieve outstanding results, apart from being obedient.

now i'm a university student and i'm still very unhappy. i've given up attaining good grades, and prefer to learn whatever that interests me, outside the curriculum. but without a decent gpa, i wonder what my future would hold. all my dreams had fled me... *sigh*

Thank you Peter for this and

Thank you Peter for this and all your other interesting blog postings. I completely agree with your argument that traditionalists and progressives, for the most part, simply nudge the pendulum one way or another and ultimately don't contribute significant enough change to truly improve the state of education for all. However, your vision of the future evolution of our education system raises many questions for me.

When envisioning a future where it is mainstream to be home schooled and/or attend free or democratic schools, what will the job market be like? How will employers select their employees? Will we still live in a very diverse, segregated and socially stratified society in which certain people have advantages over others in attaining generally desired opportunities?

If so, I would imagine that distinctions will still make their way into the culture. Such as, some free or democratic schools being considered more prestigious than others - for example, you may have some free schools in certain communities whose student bodies come from greater social/cultural/financial capital and it clearly is evident in the resources available and reputation of these schools…and vice versa. How will this be prevented?

Also, will the higher education academic credential still have the influence that it does today? Because these youngsters will have grown up with the idea that they do not need to be forced into any type of learning setting, I would suspect this would radically change the motives and amount of people entering the university system. How will this radical change affect the role and nature of the university system? Will it continue to or no longer provide an advantage for people hoping to enter certain professions?

Ultimately what I'm questioning is how this reformed system of education will actually disrupt or simply continue to contribute to (just in a different way) the culture of inequality that exists.

Great questions Emmanuel!

Great questions Emmanuel!

The credentialing function of schools

Great question, Emmanuel. If we don't have schools that grade and rank students, or if we don't use standardized tests to do so, how will institutions of higher education know whom to choose? How will employers know whom to hire? In theory, our existing educational system is supposed to create a level playing field, by giving everyone the same chance regardless of where they are coming from. We know, of course, that the theory doesn't hold, except to a small degree in a few cases.

In the world I envision, selective institutions for advanced study would have to figure out their own way of choosing the students they most want. Perhaps their process would include tests, of their own creation, as well as interviews and reviews of portfolios, designed to identify the candidates that most appeal to them. The same for employers. Already, employers are little concerned with school grades; they are much more concerned with real evidence of knowledge, skills, interests, and creative potential suitable for the job. (Although, I admit, some are overly impressed by the name of the particular school you did or did not graduate from.)

In the world I envision, people would have the freedom to use various resources to prepare for the kind of higher education and/or employment that they wish to pursue. People would have to figure out what they must do to prepare, and then take the initiative to do so, each person in his or her own way, using a wide variety of publicly available resources.


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Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, is author of the newly published book Free to Learn (Basic Books) and Psychology (a textbook now in its 6th edition).


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