Freedom to Learn

The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

A Survey of Grown Unschoolers I: Overview of Findings

How do people who didn't go to school or do curriculum-based homeschooling as children and teenagers fare in adult life? Can they go to college and do well there without previous schooling? What kinds of careers do they pursue? In retrospect, are they happy or unhappy with their unschooled background? In this study, 75 grown unschoolers tell us about their experiences. Read More

So helpful

This is so helpful, Peter. As a homeschooling mother of four, I lean towards unschooling...yet I hold back. I guess I'm fearful, or too indoctrinated by the school system myself. My gut is not at all surprised by your findings. I'm hopeful that this research will help to bring my brain around, too.

Just Do It!

Jennifer Jo: I did it, so ANYONE (or nearly anyone) can! I pulled my son from 7th grade; he's now a couple of months shy of 17. If I could do one thing differently it's this: I would have started sooner, and without the hesitation. You might find it helpful to join the Yahoo Group "AlwaysLearning". It's a radical unschooling group run by Sandra Dodd and a few others. I rarely participate in posting myself, and I was often put off by the directness of their opinions early on, but it really resonated with me and I stuck with it. Now, several years down the road, I can say with certainty that that group has guided my own "deschooling" process more than anything else.

Take a deep breath, have faith, and let go...your kids will thank you!

Self-made diplomas

A self-made diploma will be taken seriously by college admission offices if is accompanied by a detailed, well-formatted transcript that shows high-level achievement in a convincing way.

To Jennifer

I've worked with unschoolers who have been accepted at Stanford, MIT, NYU, UC Berkeley, and a number of other schools. Some have chosen not to go to college, and they have been successful in a number of ways. Those who do want to go to college need to include traditional subjects in their studies, but they need not be studied in traditional ways; nontraditional studies can be undertaken also. As I wrote in my first comment (my apologies for leaving out "it"), the key is to write a convincing transcript.

Thanks, Wes.

I appreciate your feedback and encouragement. But didn't Peter report that the majority made it to college via community college? I was assuming that meant without transcripts. But maybe I misread that?

Unschooling study.

I enjoyed reading the study and look forward to the rest of the installments. Thank you for all the time and energy you spent on all this research. I have four children and started unschooling late in the game because I caved under the pressure that they should be in school. My oldest signed himself out in 12th grade. Having started so late with my three youngest (16,15.12) I wonder if the damage is already done. I guess I will never really know but after reading the survey it seemed the children who were unschooled from the beginning fared better in their futures. My 12 year old is wanting to go back. She's been home for 6 months. I don't want her to go back..at all... but I won't stop her if that's what she truly desires. I suspect if I forced her to stay home it would backfire eventually and possibly effect her negatively. Have you come across this dilemma before and could you tell me how it worked out if you have?

Freedom to go to school if desired

Hi Jaemae,

Concerning your first concern, I should note that the unschoolers in all three of the groups in our study--including the group that left school the latest--seemed to be doing well and were happy with their lives. Those who left later were less likely (though not statistically significantly less) to go on to a bachelor's degree program, and significantly less likely to pursue a career in the arts, than were those in the never-schooled group, but I'm not sure that either of these should be evaluated as "good" or "bad."

And yes, I agree with you about your 12 year old. Any child who really prefers to go to school should be allowed to do so. Two of the respondents to our survey were really angry about their unschooling experiences and both said they wanted to go to school but weren't allowed to. In my mind forcing a child to stay home from school is no more enlightened--maybe less so--than forcing a child to go to school.

I think "self-determined learning" is a more relevant concept, here, than "self-directed learning." A child who has a real choice but chooses a standard school is still a self-determined learner.

It is relatively common for children to go in and out of school. It's interesting to see that the adjustment is not difficult, despite what the school personnel might think. Kids who have been unschooled for years seem to do very well at any grade level of school if they choose to go.

Best wishes,
Peter

Thank you, Peter . . .

. . . for the phrase "self-determined learning." It will be a significant part of my working vocabulary from now on.

Thank you for responding. I

Thank you for responding. I take some comfort from your words and results of this study. It's a rare chance at a glimpse into the possible future for "current unschoolers". I guess they can't be called Pioneers (I was going to use that word) because before there was brick and mortar or what we now know as traditional school, every one was unschooled! And the human race has seem to come along just fine. ;)

Re: Freedom to go to School If Desired

Peter, I just wanted to add my 2 cents to agree with you about the importance of "self-determined learning". I am one of the moms who responded to your and Gina's survey of parents of unschooled kids. My son, after being unschooled for 5 years (starting in what would have been his 5th grade year), chose to go to public high school. He liked the school, and attended for 3 years, grades 10-12, and graduated with honors.
Because it was his decision to go, he seemed, to me, more like a college student than a high school kid.
I treated him as an adult, i.e., I did not (and am not the type to) impose any kinds of "rules" about getting homework done, watching TV, using the computer, or playing video games, etc, nor did I ever impose any sort of curfew.
He behaved very responsibly in all areas of his life - including keeping up with his studies and assignments, helping with household chores when asked, and in his activities away from home, including driving.
We generally got/get along very well, although I can't say that my son was ever one of my "best friends", as I would say of my daughter, who was unschooled from age 8 through her teen years and still lives at home, while working and attending college.
My son moved out when he started college, and has been living in apartments with roommates, working part-time and supporting himself ever since.
Knowing as many unschoolers as I do, and based on all my years of reading about the Sudbury schools, I am convinced that that vast majority of children behave responsibly and have good relationships with their parents, when given the freedom of self-determination in their educations, social activities, and general comings-and-goings.

Not challenged by School Curriculum

My Gifted son was misdiagnosed as having ODD (a cruel and spurious diagnosis), despite having absolutely none of the symptoms (he was simply zoning out in class for which he was considered oppositional and defiant by his school Principal).

The misdiagnosis all too late accepted by diagnosing agency. However, the damage done by the stigmatizing diagnosis and by the initial failure to make correct diagnosis (giftedness is recognised under Educational legislation as being "special needs", i.e. requiring, inter alia, challenging material) had made school his life unbearable and so he eventually dropped out two years ago, despite getting "amazing in the circumstances" exams results.

There are many children like my son whose real ability and consequent special needs are never discovered. After all the school teaching system is really only suitable for 40%, the remaining 60% being too diverse.

I worry about what will become of my son; your article has given me hope. Thank you so much

Self-made transcripts

I should add to my comments above that some colleges will insist that a transcript come from an accredited school and will therefore not accept a self-made transcript, but in my experience these schools are in the minority.

Problems in school?

The people doing the survey are likely positively biased, as you write, because people with a good experience are more likely to participate (and to hear of the survey). On the other hand, I am wrong to assume that children that are unschooled will more often have had problems in school? That would produce a negative bias.

Re: Problems in school?

I get what you're saying. But why is there any reason to think that unschoolers would more often have had problems in school than, say, homeschoolers? I've never heard that before. And wouldn't you get the same kind of "bias" regardless of topic: the people who are interested in the topic are more likely to respond?

Just speaking for my family, my son was not, in fact, having any problems in school, other than boredom. I was the one who had changed: I couldn't stand my own cognitive dissonance another minute.

Bias

Hi Susan, I was only trying to make a comment on the science of Peters study and it was purely intended in a statistical way. Every individual person and situation is different and I did not want to comment on that or put anyone in bad light.

If you unschooled your son because he was bored, that could also be a source of bias, if that is more common and would thus be a problem for this kind of study. Parents that trust themselves enough to unschool their children is another source of bias.

Your idea of also studying home schooled children is perfect. You could make a similar self-selection survey of home schooled children and compare that to this one. In case of home schooled children (or all children not in schools) it might be possible to make a representative study (if the school districts are willing to give out such information). The results of such a representative study could then be compared with the self-selected study to get a grip on the biases.

Problems of sampling

Victor, you make a good point here. Besides any biases that stem from who, among unschoolers, chose to respond to the survey, there are biases that come from the initial choice to unschool.

Your comment leads me to share my speculation about one of the group differences I noted in the article. Those in the always-unschooled group were more likely to go on to a bachelor's degree than those in the other groups. Perhaps that is because, on average, they were a different population to begin with. Unlike the other group, they are not people who tried school and found it distasteful or for other reasons had difficulty with it. One could argue that respondents in Groups II and III are to some degree a self-selected group of school rejectors. In contrast, those in Group I had parents who were school-rejectors, but may not have been so themselves, as they never tried school.

I want to make the general point that all studies of this nature must be interpreted cautiously, as I pointed out in the article. We can't really say, from such studies, that one route is better than another for the population as a whole. What we can say is this:

"Hey, here's a group of people who didn't go to school and seem to be doing just fine in life--they are going on to higher education if they choose; they are supporting themselves in jobs they claim to love; and they are very happy with the decision not to attend school in K-12 (or some part of that)." -- For most people in our society that is a revelation.

The real point should be about choice. The ultimate message should be that the unschooling option is a valid one. States and nations that have laws against this option (as so many do), should reconsider!

-Peter

Responding to Jennifer

Most of the young people I work with begin at a community college. Admission requirements vary from state to state. In California anyone 18 or older can attend a community college without regard to any previous school experience and records. Most of my students are younger than 18, sometimes quite a bit younger, and, in order to be regular students, they need a diploma and a transcript (or an equivalent certificate earned through the California High School Proficiency Exam). The transcripts I write for the purpose of community college admission are purely narrative. When someone wants to go directly to a four-year school and has accomplishments that are suitable, I write a much more traditional transcript, showing courses (devising course titles for sometimes nontraditional experiences), grades, credits, a GPA, and test scores. Following a more-or-less standard list of these things, I follow up with course descriptions, reading lists, evaluations from knowledgeable people, and anything else that confirms the student's abilities and accomplishments. These transcript are sometimes 15 pages or more. My school is nothing more than a home office, and it is unaccredited, but graduates have been accepted at many four-year colleges and universities across the country. Any homeschooling family in California can do everything I do, and so can people in some other states. I'd be happy to send a pamphlet on writing transcripts to anyone who requests it in an e-mail sent to beachhi@cruzio.com .

Thank you, Wes

Wes, thank you for contributing your expertise to this discussion. It looks to me like 7 of the respondents mentioned some sort of self-made diploma as part of their answer to the question of how they got into some form of higher education. We may go back and look more specifically at that before final publication. -Peter

I'm pleased . . .

. . . to have added a bit. I'm looking forward to reading more of the study.

Free School Versus Unschool

I started unschooling my child, but found that even with a wide range of home school groups in my area, I was unable to meet her social needs. It was hard having a child who is extroverted, when I am the opposite. Someone on one of my homeschooling lists suggested I look into a freeschool - and at first I really bristled at the suggestion of putting her into any sort of school.

After I looked at it, I realized to my way of looking at things, it was my idealized version of unschooling with lots of strewing and many friends to socialize with.

Freeschooling has worked very well for my 3 daughters - as they are self directed in their education with freedom for play. I only mention this because of the people in the study who were unhappy about the isolation of unschooling. Free Schooling is a viable alternative for those of a similar mindset.

Democratic, free schools

Thanks for this comment, Anonymous. As many readers know, my interest in children's self-determined education began long ago with a follow-up study of graduates of the Sudbury Valley School--a democratic school where children control their own learning. I have written about this extensively. Research at Sudbury Valley provides much of the context for my book, Free to Learn. Sudbury Valley and schools modeled after it provide a rich educational environment, including an age-mixed group of friends. -Peter

Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering & Math

I'm curious, how many of these young adults reported going in to STEM fields?

With the kinds of resources available online today, I _assume_ it would be easier than ever to pursue STEM knowledge and experience while unschooling, but your survey would actually have the data.

For comparison, I think STEM workers make up about 5% of the US labor force as a whole.

STEM

Great question, Alec. I just did a quick count, based on our summary list of careers. I come up with 9 out of the 75 = 11% in STEM fields. But here's the kicker, 6 of these 9 are men, and there are only 16 men in the whole sample, so by this count 38% of the men are in STEM and only 5% (3/58) of the women are.

Of course, we know that in the society as a whole men are much more likely than women to go into STEM careers. Apparently this gender difference in career choice is as strong among unschoolers as it is in the rest of the population. (I wonder if it might even be stronger among unschoolers.) --

[Again, these numbers come from a count based on the career labels in our summary table. We didn't code for STEM, based on a careful definition of the category followed by coding specifically for it based on the participants' descriptions of their work. Your question leads me to think we should do that, and perhaps we will before final publication. A careful coding might change the percentages from what I presented here, but it is very unlikely to change the overall conclusion.]

Your question and my answer really point to the problem of the gender bias in who responded to the survey. If we had more men we would see a different distribution of careers (fewer in the arts, more in STEM).

Addition to comment, June 20, 2014. We have now more carefully coded the careers for STEM, using the NSF definition. There are more STEM than my initial quick count. By the more careful coding, 22% of the women and 50% of the men are in STEM careers. I'll say more on this in the third post of this series. --- Again, thank you for getting us to look at this question.

-Peter

this is crazy. let your kids

this is crazy. let your kids learn life and not be so protected.

Re: let your kids learn life

Anonymous wrote:
this is crazy. let your kids learn life and not be so protected.

Many parents keep their kids home for this very reason: to allow them to "learn life and not be so protected". At 16, my son has the freedom to choose virtually everything in his life: when and how much he sleeps, what and when he eats, how he spends his time and with whom, and what he wants to learn. His life is HIS. He values his life because it is valuable. Self-determination is the essence of self-ownership...and last time I checked, they weren't teaching that in school.

I think that most parents want their children to grow up to be happy, healthy adults who will be able to participate in happy, healthy relationships, and to be able to function independently from the state. I don't think committing a child to the care of a state institution for 13+ years is the best way of achieving these goals. Do you?

Re: careers and interests, my

Re: careers and interests, my 2 girls were both pretty much unschooled. They both have careers from childhood interests that began around 8-10 yrs old. One has a masters in violin performance, so that would be arts. The other has a biology major with chemistry minor and an RN degree, so that would be stem. Both started at community college before they turned 18

Self selected by being successful enough to engage

Whilst it is no surprise that for SOME children this has worked well, the reality is that those who needed far more structure and were doing little but sit watching TV / computer games / playing sport ALL the time would not appear in this survey. Hopefully the parents would have realised that they needed structure and imposed something closer to homeschooling; those who won't will have ended up totally uneducated. I have no doubt this is a great approach for some - the danger is that it becomes an excuse for parents to avoid their responsibilities; certainly the reality of the parents of neglected children playing the homeschooling 'card' to get social workers off their backs is one that discredits the whole movement.

let's turn it around

Whilst it's no surprise that SOME children survive and even thrive in the environment of conventional schooling, the reality is that many end up with a life-long hatred for learning, under-achieve, and develop depression or other emotional problems due to the toxic environment. Some even become criminals or get addicted to drugs.

Do you see how bizarre your comments sound when applied to conventional schooling, even though everything I stated is inarguable fact?

Sadly, if a homeschooled or unschooled child fails to meet their potential, unschooling will be blamed, even though far more conventionally schooled children develop problems.

Re: "Let's Turn It Around"

Well Said, Anonymous!

I was interested to note that

I was interested to note that you included 'playing sport ALL the time' as a negative. What would you think of homeschooled kids who became professional athletes? Was all that sport just wasting time?

Here is a list of home-(not necessarily un-schooled) famous athletes, in case you are interested:
http://www.famoushomeschoolers.net/athletes.html#.U5flZpSwIxE

And if you want to be a computer game designer then playing games all day might be quite useful.

What about if the homeschooler spent all their time reading? Would they then be 'neglected' and in need of some structure to get a proper education? Even a generation ago reading all day could be seen as problematic and unhealthy.

My point is not that people, kids or not, unschooled or not, cannot spend their time in unhealthy ways, or even that homeschooled children are never neglected. I just think it's worth drawing attention to some of your assumptions. If there is a problem, it does not lie in what kids are doing per se, but somewhere else in their situation or attitudes.

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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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