Children Educate


by Peter Gray

Published in Psychology Today

Note: does not agree with all the conclusions reached in this series of articles nor does it necessarily wholly endorse such systems as the Sudbury Valley method. However, we agree with the general thrust of the research findings here that demonstrate that the school system is (a) not the only valid form of education and (b) not necessarily the best for learning or for the psychological welfare of children.

1. Outline of Some of the Evidence

As adults we do have certain responsibilities toward our children and the world's children. It is our responsibility to create safe, health-promoting, respectful environments in which children can develop. It is our responsibility to be sure that children have proper foods, fresh air, non-toxic places to play, and lots of opportunities to interact freely with other people across the whole spectrum of ages. It is our responsibility to be models of human decency. But one thing we do not have to worry about is how to educate children.

We do not have to worry about curricula, lesson plans, motivating children to learn, testing them, and all the rest that comes under the rubric of pedagogy. Lets turn that energy, instead, toward creating decent environments in which children can play. Children's education is children's responsibility, not ours. Only they can do it. They are built to do it. Our task regarding education is just to stand back and let it happen. The more we try to control it, the more we interfere.

When I say that education is children's responsibility and that they are by nature designed to assume that responsibility, I do not expect you to take that assertion on faith. We live in a world in which that assertion is not the self-evident truth that it once was. We live in a world in which almost all children and adolescents are sent to school, beginning at ever-younger ages and ending at ever-older ages, and in which "school" has a certain standard meaning. We measure education in terms of scores on tests and success in advancing through the school system from one level to the next. Naturally, then, we come almost automatically to think of education as something that is done at schools by specialists trained in the art and science of pedagogy, who know how to put children through the paces that will turn their raw potential into an educated product.

So, I take it as my task to present evidence to support my claim. The most direct lines of evidence come from settings where we can see children educating themselves without anything like what we think of as schooling. Here are three such settings, which I will elaborate on in the next three installments of this weekly blog.

1. A huge amount of children's education occurs before they start school. The most obvious evidence of children's capacity for self-education, available to any of us who opens our eyes, comes from watching kids in their first four or five years of life, before anyone tries in any systematic way to teach them anything. Think of all they learn in that period. They learn to walk, run, jump, climb. They learn about the physical properties of, and how to manipulate, all of the objects that are within their reach. They learn their native language, which is surely one of the most cognitively complex tasks that any human being ever masters. They learn the basic psychology of other people--how to please others, how to annoy them, how to get what they need or want from them. They learn all this not through lessons provided by anyone, but through their own free play, their insatiable curiosity, and their natural attentiveness to the behavior of other people. We can't stop them from learning all this and more unless we lock them up alone in closets.

2. Children in hunter-gatherer cultures become successful adults without anything like schooling. During most of human existence we lived in relatively small nomadic, foraging bands. Our basic human nature--including our playfulness, curiosity, and all of our other biological adaptations for learning--evolved in the context of that way of life. Some groups of hunter-gatherers managed to survive, with their cultures intact, into recent times. Anthropologist who have studied such groups--in Africa, Asia, New Zealand, South America, and elsewhere--have found a remarkable consistency across them in their attitudes toward children. In all of these cultures children and adolescents are permitted to play and follow their own interests, without adult interference, essentially from dawn to dusk every day. The belief of these people, borne out by millennia of experience, is that young people teach themselves through play and exploration and then, when ready to do so, begin naturally to put what they have learned to purposes that benefit the group as a whole. Through their own efforts hunter-gatherer children acquire the enormous sets of skills and knowledge they need to be successful adults in their culture.

3. Children at certain "non-school schools" in our culture become successful adults without anything like conventional schooling. I have for many years been an observer of children and adolescents at the Sudbury Valley School, in Framingham, Massachusetts. The school was founded forty years ago by people whose beliefs about education are remarkably similar to those of hunter-gatherers. The school is for young people aged four on through high school age, and it is nothing at all like a typical school. It is a democratic setting in which children truly have equal power to the adults and in which students learn entirely through their own self-directed activities. It is, essentially, a safe environment in which young people can play, explore, assume responsibility, and interact freely with others across the whole range of ages. There are no tests, no gold stars or other such rewards, no passing or failing, no required courses or coursework, no coercion or coaxing of children to learn, no expectations that the staff are responsible for children's learning. By now, many hundreds of young people have educated themselves in this environment. And, no, they don't become hunters and gatherers. They become artisans, artists, chefs, doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, musicians, scientists, social workers, and software designers. They can be found in the whole range of careers that we value in our culture.

In my next three weekly installments I will elaborate, one by one, on these three sources of evidence about young people's capacities for self-education. Now, please respond below with your own comments, arguments, and experiences. Your thoughts will help form my next installments and will contribute to the dialogue that we so much need if we are going to do anything to affect the way the world thinks about childhood and learning. If you think this dialogue is worthwhile, please email this installment to others and link to the blog from other relevant sites that you are involved with.

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2. We All Know That’s True for Little Kids

23 July 2008

Have you ever stopped to think about how much children learn in their first few years of life, before they start school, before anyone tries in any systematic way to teach them anything? Their learning comes naturally; it results from their instincts to play, explore, and observe others around them. But to say that it comes naturally is not to say that it comes effortlessly. Infants and young children put enormous energy into their learning. Their capacities for sustained attention, for physical and mental effort, and for overcoming frustrations and barriers are extraordinary. Next time you are in viewing range of a child under the age of about five years old, sit back and watch for awhile. Try to imagine what is going on in the child's mind each moment in his or her interactions with the world. If you allow yourself that luxury, you are in for a treat. The experience might lead you to think about education in a whole new light -- a light that shines from within the child rather than on the child.

Here I will sketch out a tiny bit of what developmental psychologists have learned about young children's learning. To help relate this knowledge to thoughts about education, I'll organize the sketch into categories of physical, linguistic, scientific, and social-moral education.

Physical Education

Lets begin with learning to walk. Walking on two legs is a species-typical trait of human beings. In some sense we are born for it. But even so it doesn't come easily. Every human being who comes into the world puts enormous effort into learning to walk.

I remember one spring day long ago when my son, somewhere near his first birthday, was at the stage where he could walk by holding onto something but could not take steps alone. We happened to be traveling that day on a large tourist boat, and my son insisted on spending the entire ride walking up and down the deck while holding my hand. We spent many hours walking the length of the boat, with me uncomfortably stooped over so my hand could reach his. The motivation, of course, was entirely his. I was just a convenient tool, a human walking stick. I kept trying to convince him to take a rest because I needed one; but he was a master at manipulating me back into walking whenever we did stop for a moment.

Researchers have found that toddlers at the peak of learning to walk spend, on average, 6 hours per day walking, during which time they take an average of 9,000 steps and travel the length of 29 football fields (Adolph et al., 2003, Child Development, 74, 475-497). They aren't trying to get anywhere in particular; they are just walking for the sake of walking. They become especially interested in walking when they are exposed to a new kind of surface. I suspect that my son on our boat ride was stimulated to walk partly because the boat's motion made walking difficult and added a new and exciting challenge.

Early in the stage of walking alone, children often fall and sometimes hurt themselves; but then they pull themselves right back up and try again--and again, and again, and again. After walking comes running, jumping, climbing, swinging, and all sorts of new ways of moving. We don't have to teach children any of this, and we certainly don't have to motivate them. All we have to do is provide appropriate safe places for them to practice.

Language Education

If you have ever tried to learn a new language as an adult, you know how difficult it is. There are thousands of words to learn and countless grammatical rules. Yet children more or less master their native language by the age of four. By that age, in conversations, they exhibit a sophisticated knowledge of word meanings and grammatical rules. In fact, children growing up in bilingual homes acquire two languages by the age of four and somehow manage to keep them distinct.

Four-year-olds can't describe the grammatical rules of their language (nor can most adults), but their implicit knowledge of the rules is clear in their speech and understanding. They add s to brand new nouns to make them plural, add ed to brand new verbs to put them into the past tense, and manifest an understanding of grammatical categories--nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and so on--in their construction of novel sentences. Infants may come into the world with some innate understanding of language, as Noam Chomsky long ago suggested, but the specific words and rules of every language are different and clearly have to be learned.

Infants and young children continuously educate themselves about language. Early in infancy they begin babbling language-like sounds, practicing the motor acts of articulation. With time they restrict their babbling more and more to the sounds of the specific language that they hear around them. By a few months of age they can be observed to pay close attention to the speech of others and to engage in activities that seem to be designed to help them figure out what others are saying. For example, they regularly follow the eyes of older children or adults, to see what the others are looking at, which helps them guess what they are talking about. With this strategy, a toddler in the garden who hears someone say, "What a pretty chrysanthemum," has a good chance of identifying what object is being referred to. Between the ages of two and 17, young people learn an average of about 60,000 words (Bloom, 2001, Behavior & Brain Sciences, 24, 1095-1103); that works out to nearly one new word for every hour that they are awake.

Language learning, like learning to walk, is play. It is absorbing, intense, done for its own sake. Young children go around naming things just for the fun of naming them, not for any other reward. And as children grow older their word play becomes ever more sophisticated, taking such forms as riddles, puns, and rhymes. We can't teach children language; all we can do is provide a normal human environment within which they can learn it and practice it, that is, an environment in which they can engage themselves with people who speak.

Science Education

Young children are enormously curious about all aspects of the world around them. Even within their first few days of life, infants spend more time looking at new objects than at those they have seen before. By the age at which they have enough eye-hand coordination to reach out and manipulate objects, they do just that--constantly. Six-month-olds examine every new object they can reach, in ways that are well designed to learn about it's physical properties. They squeeze it, pass it from hand to hand, look at it from all sides, shake it, drop it, watch to see what happens; and whenever something interesting happens they try to repeat it, as if to prove that it wasn't a fluke. Watch a six-month-old in action and see a scientist.

The primary goal of young people's exploration is to learn how to control their environment. Many experiments have shown that infants and young children are far more interested in objects whose actions they can control than in those they cannot control. For instance, an audio player that they can turn on and off through some effort of their own is far more fascinating to them than one that comes on and off by itself or is controlled by an adult. They are especially drawn to such objects during the period when they are learning how to control them. Once they have learned how to control an object and have exhausted all the possibilities for action on it, they tend to lose interest in it. That's why the cardboard carton that a fancy but uncontrollable toy comes in may sustain a child's interest for a longer time than does the toy.

The drive to figure out how objects work and how to control them does not end with early childhood; it continues on as long as children and adults are free to follow their own paths. This drive is the foundation of science. Nothing destroys it more quickly than an environment in which everyone is told what they must do with new objects and how to do it. The fun of science lies in the discovery, not in the knowledge that results. That is true for all of us, whether we are 6-month-olds exploring a mobile, two-year-olds exploring a cardboard box, or adult scientists exploring the properties of a physical particle or an enzyme. Nobody goes into science because they like to be told the answers to someone else's questions; they go into science because they like to discover the answers to their own questions. That's why our standard method of training people in science never turns them into scientists. Those who become scientists do so despite such training.

Social and Moral Education

Even more fascinating to young children than the physical environment is the social environment. Children are naturally drawn to others, especially to those others who are a little older than themselves and a little more competent. They want to do what those others do. They also want to play with others. Social play is the primary natural means of every child's social and moral education.

It is through play that children learn to get along with others. In play they must take into account the other children's needs, learn to see from others' points of view, learn to compromise, learn to negotiate differences, learn to control their own impulses, learn to please others so as to keep them as playmates. These are all hard lessons, and they are among the most important lessons that all of us must learn if we are to live happy lives. We can't possibly teach these lessons to children; all we can do is let them play with others and let them experience themselves the consequences of their social failures and successes. The strong innate drive to play with others is what motivates every normal child to work hard at getting along with others in play. Failure to get along ends the game, and that natural consequence is a powerful learning experience. No lectures or words of advice that we can provide can substitute for such experience. I'll not elaborate further on this now; it will be the topic of future installments.

What Happens to Motivation at Age Five or Six?

Once, when my son was about seven years old and in public school, I mentioned to his teacher that he seemed to have been far more interested in learning before he started school than he was now. Her response was something like this: "Well, I'm sure you know, as a psychologist, that this is a natural developmental change. Children by nature are spontaneous learners when they are little, but then they become more task oriented."

I can understand where she got that idea. I've seen developmental psychology textbooks that divide the units according to age and refer to the preschool years as "the play years." All the discussion of play occurs in those first chapters. It is as if play stops at age five or six. The remaining chapters largely have to do with studies of how children perform on tasks that adults give them to perform. I imagine that the teacher had read such a book when she was taking education courses. But such books present a distorted view of what is natural. In the next two installments I will present evidence that when young people beyond the age of five or six are permitted the freedom and opportunities to follow their own interests, their drives to play and explore continue to motivate them, as strongly as ever, toward ever more sophisticated forms of learning.

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3. The Wisdom of Hunter-Gatherers

2 August 2008

For hundreds of thousands of years, up until the time when agriculture was invented (a mere 10,000 years ago), we were all hunter-gatherers. Our human instincts, including all of the instinctive means by which we learn, came about in the context of that way of life. And so it is natural that in this series on children's instinctive ways of educating themselves I should ask: How do hunter-gatherer children learn what they need to know to become effective adults within their culture?

In the last half of the 20th century, anthropologists located and observed many groups of people--in remote parts Africa, Asia, Australia, New Guinea, South America, and elsewhere--who had maintained a hunting-and-gathering life, almost unaffected by modern ways. Although each group studied had its own language and other cultural traditions, the various groups were found to be similar in many basic ways, which allows us to speak of "the hunter-gatherer way of life" in the singular. Wherever they were found, hunter-gatherers lived in small nomadic bands (of about 25 to 50 people per band), made decisions democratically, had ethical systems that centered on egalitarian values and sharing, and had rich cultural traditions that included music, art, games, dances, and time-honored stories.

To supplement what we could find in the anthropological literature, several years ago Jonathan Ogas (then a graduate student) and I contacted a number of anthropologists who had lived among hunter-gatherers and asked them to respond to a written questionnaire about their observations of children's lives. Nine such scholars kindly responded to our questionnaire. Among them, they had studied six different hunter-gatherer cultures -- three in Africa, one in Malaysia, one in the Philippines, and one in New Guinea.

What I learned from my reading and our questionnaire was startling for its consistency from culture. Here I will summarize four conclusions, which I think are most relevant to the issue of self-education. Because I would like you to picture these practices as occurring now, I will use the present tense in describing them, even though the practices and the cultures themselves have been largely destroyed in recent years by intrusions from the more "developed" world around them.

1. Hunter-gatherer children must learn an enormous amount to become successful adults.

It would be a mistake to think that education is not a big issue for hunter-gatherers because they don't have to learn much. In fact, they have to learn an enormous amount.

To become effective hunters, boys must learn the habits of the two or three hundred different species of mammals and birds that the band hunts; must know how to track such game using the slightest clues; must be able to craft perfectly the tools of hunting, such as bows and arrows, blowguns and darts, snares or nets; and must be extraordinarily skilled at using those tools.

To become effective gatherers, girls must learn which of the countless varieties of roots, tubers, nuts, seeds, fruits, and greens in their area are edible and nutritious, when and where to find them, how to dig them (in the case of roots and tubers), how to extract the edible portions efficiently (in the case of grains, nuts, and certain plant fibers), and in some cases how to process them to make them edible or increase their nutritional value. These abilities include physical skills, honed by years of practice, as well as the capacity to remember, use, add to, and modify an enormous store of culturally shared verbal knowledge about the food materials.

In addition, hunter-gatherer children must learn how to navigate their huge foraging territory, build huts, make fires, cook, fend off predators, predict weather changes, treat wounds and diseases, assist births, care for infants, maintain harmony within their group, negotiate with neighboring groups, tell stories, make music, and engage in various dances and rituals of their culture. Since there is little specialization beyond that of men as hunters and women as gatherers, each person must acquire a large fraction of the total knowledge and skills of the culture.

2. The children learn all this without being taught.

Although hunter-gatherer children must learn an enormous amount, hunter-gatherers have nothing like school. Adults do not establish a curriculum, or attempt to motivate children to learn, or give lessons, or monitor children's progress. When asked how children learn what they need to know, hunter-gatherer adults invariably answer with words that mean essentially: "They teach themselves through their observations, play, and exploration." Occasionally an adult might offer a word of advice or demonstrate how to do something better, such as how to shape an arrowhead, but such help is given only when the child clearly desires it. Adults to not initiate, direct, or interfere with children's activities. Adults do not show any evidence of worry about their children's education; millennia of experience have proven to them that children are experts at educating themselves.[1]

3. The children are afforded enormous amounts of time to play and explore.

In response to our question about how much time children had for play, the anthropologists we surveyed were unanimous in indicating that the hunter-gatherer children they observed were free to play most if not all of the day, every day. Typical responses are the following:

    "[Batek] children were free to play nearly all the time; no one expected children to do serious work until they were in their late teens." (Karen Endicott)

    "Both girls and boys [among the Nharo] had almost all day every day free to play." (Alan Barnard)

    "[Efé] boys were free to play nearly all the time until age 15-17; for girls most of the day, in between a few errands and some babysitting, was spent in play." (Robert Bailey)

    "[!Kung] children played from dawn to dusk." (Nancy Howell)

The freedom that hunter-gatherer children enjoy to pursue their own interests comes partly from the adults' understanding that such pursuits are the surest path to education. It also comes from the general spirit of egalitarianism and personal autonomy that pervades hunter-gatherer cultures and applies as much to children as to adults [2]. Hunter-gatherer adults view children as complete individuals, with rights comparable to those of adults. Their assumption is that children will, of their own accord, begin contributing to the economy of the band when they are developmentally ready to do so. There is no need to make children or anyone else do what they don't want to do. It is remarkable to think that our instincts to learn and to contribute to the community evolved in a world in which our instincts were trusted!

4. Children observe adults' activities and incorporate those activities into their play.

Hunter-gatherer children are never isolated from adult activities. They observe directly all that occurs in camp--the preparations to move, the building of huts, the making and mending of tools and other artifacts, the food preparation and cooking, the nursing and care of infants, the precautions taken against predators and diseases, the gossip and discussions, the arguments and politics, the dances and festivities. They sometimes accompany adults on food gathering trips, and by age 10 or so boys sometimes accompany men on hunting trips.

The children not only observe all of these activities, but they also incorporate them into their play, and through that play they become skilled at the activities. As they grow older, their play turns gradually into the real thing. There is no sharp division between playful participation and real participation in the valued activities of the group.

For example boys who one day are playfully hunting butterflies with their little bows and arrows are, on a later day, playfully hunting small mammals and bringing some of them home to eat, and on yet a later day are joining men on real hunting trips, still in the spirit of play. As another example, both boys and girls commonly build play huts, modeled after the real huts that their parents build. In her response to our questionnaire, Nancy Howell pointed out that !Kung children commonly build a whole village of play huts a few hundred yards from the real village. The play village then becomes a playground where they act out many of the kinds of scenes that they observe among adults.

The respondents to our survey referred also to many other examples of valued adult activities that were emulated regularly by children in play. Digging up roots, fishing, smoking porcupines out of holes, cooking, caring for infants, climbing trees, building vine ladders, using knives and other tools, making tools, carrying heavy loads, building rafts, making fires, defending against attacks from predators, imitating animals (a means of identifying animals and learning their habits), making music, dancing, story telling, and arguing were all mentioned by one or more respondents. Because all this play occurs in an age-mixed environment, the smaller children are constantly learning from the older ones.

Nobody has to tell or encourage the children to do all this. They do it naturally because, like children everywhere, there is nothing that they desire more than to grow up and to be like the successful adults that they see around them. The desire to grow up is a powerful motive that blends with the drives to play and explore and ensures that children, if given a chance, will practice endlessly the skills that they need to develop to become effective adults.

What relevance might these observations have for education in our culture?

Our culture, of course, is very different from hunter-gatherer cultures. You might well doubt that the lessons about education that we learn from hunter-gatherers can be applied effectively in our culture today. For starters, hunter-gatherers do not have reading, writing, or arithmetic; maybe the natural, self-motivated means of learning don't work for learning the three R's. In our culture, unlike in hunter-gatherer cultures, there are countless different ways of making a living, countless different sets of skills and knowledge that children might acquire, and it is impossible for children in their daily lives to observe all those adult skills directly. In our culture, unlike in hunter-gatherer cultures, children are largely segregated from the adult work world, which reduces their opportunities to see what adults do and incorporate those activities into their play.

Yet, in the next installment, I am going to argue that the same natural means of learning that work so well for hunter-gatherers indeed do work equally well for our children, when we provide an educational setting that allows those means to work. My next installment, which I expect to post on Wednesday, August 13, will be about a school in Framingham, Massachusetts, where, for the past 40 years, children and teenagers have been educating themselves with extraordinary success through their self-directed play and exploration.

Notes [1] See, for example, Y. Gosso et al. (2005), Play in hunter-gatherer societies. In A. D. Pellegrini & P. K. Smith (Eds.), The nature of play: great apes and humans. New York: Guilford.
[2] See, for example, S. Kent (1996), Cultural diversity among African foragers: causes and implications. In S. Kent (Ed.), Cultural diversity among twentieth-century foragers: an African perspective. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

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4. Lessons from Sudbury Valley

13 August 2008

The Sudbury Valley School has, for the past forty years, been the best-kept secret in American education. Most students of education have never heard of it. Professors of education ignore it, not out of malice but because they cannot absorb it into their framework of educational thought. The Sudbury Valley model of education is not a variation of standard education. It is not a progressive version of traditional schooling. It is not a Montessori school or a Dewey school or a Piagetian constructivist school. It is something entirely different. To understand the school one has to begin with a completely different mindset from that which dominates current educational thinking. One has to begin with the thought: Adults do not control children's education; children educate themselves.

But the secret is getting out, spread largely by students and others who have experienced the Sudbury Valley School directly. Today at least two dozen schools throughout the world are modeled after Sudbury Valley. I predict that fifty years from now, if not sooner, the Sudbury Valley model will be featured in every standard textbook of education and will be adopted by many public school systems. In fifty years, I predict, today's approach to education will be seen by many if not most educators as a barbaric remnant of the past. People will wonder why the world took so long to come to grips with such a simple and self-evident idea as that upon which the Sudbury Valley School is founded: Children educate themselves; we don't have to do it for them.

In the last posting (#3 above) I summarized evidence that hunter-gatherer children learn the extraordinary amount that they must to become effective adults through their own self-directed play and exploration. In theposting before that (#2 above), I pointed out that children in our culture learn many of the most difficult lessons they will ever learn before they start school, entirely on their own initiatives, without adult direction or prodding. And now, based on the experiences of the Sudbury Valley School, I contend that self-education works just as well for school-aged children and adolescents in our culture as it does for preschoolers and for hunter-gatherers.

For many years I have had the opportunity to observe the Sudbury Valley School, both as the father of a student who went there and as an academician using the school as a resource to study play and self-directed learning. Here I'll tell you a little about the school.

First, a few mundane facts. The school was founded 40 years ago and has been in continuous operation since then. It is a private day school, in Framingham, Massachusetts, open to students age four on through high-school age. The school is not in any sense elitist. It admits students without regard to any measures of academic performance, and it operates at a per pupil cost that is about half that of the surrounding public schools. The school currently has about 200 students and ten adult staff members. It is housed in a Victorian mansion and a remodeled barn, which sit on ten acres of land in a part of town that was largely rural when the school began operating. Now, the more remarkable facts concerning the school's mode of operation:

The school operates as a participatory democracy

The Sudbury Valley School is first and foremost a community in which children and adolescents experience directly the privileges and responsibilities of democratic government. The primary administrative body is the School Meeting, which consists of all students and staff members. In one-person-one-vote fashion, the School Meeting, which meets once a week, creates all of the school's rules, makes decisions about school purchases, establishes committees to oversee the school's day-to-day operation, and hires and fires staff members. Four-year-olds at the school have the same vote as do older students and adult staff members in all of this.

No staff members at the school have tenure. All are on one-year contracts, which must be renewed each year through a secret-ballot election. As the student voters outnumber the staff by a factor of 20 to 1, the staff who survive this process and are re-elected year after year are those who are admired by the students. They are people who are kind, ethical, and competent, and who contribute significantly and positively to the school's environment. They are adults that the students may wish in some ways to emulate.

The school's rules are enforced by the Judicial Committee, which changes regularly in membership but always includes a staff member and students representing the full range of ages at the school. When a student or staff member is charged by another school member with violating a rule, the accuser and the accused must appear before the Judicial Committee, which determines innocence or guilt and, in the latter case, decides on an appropriate sentence. In all of this, staff members are treated in the same way as students. Nobody is above the law.

The school does not interfere with students' activities

Students are free, all day, every day, to do what they wish at the school, as long as they don't violate any of the school's rules. The rules, all made by the School Meeting, have to do with protecting the school and protecting students' opportunities to pursue their own interests unhindered by others. School members must not make noise in designated "quiet rooms," misuse equipment or fail to put it away when finished, deface school property, use illegal drugs on campus, or behave in any way toward another person that makes that person feel harassed. Behaviors of those sorts are the fodder of Judicial Committee complaints.

None of the school's rules have to do with learning. The school gives no tests. It does not evaluate or grade students' progress.[1] There is no curriculum and no attempt to motivate students to learn. Courses occur only when students take the initiative to organize them, and they last only as long as the students want them. Many students at the school never join a course, and the school sees no problem with that. The staff members at the school do not consider themselves to be teachers. They are, instead, adult members of the community who provide a wide variety of services, including some teaching. Most of their "teaching" is of the same variety as can be found in any human setting; it involves answering sincere questions and presenting ideas in the context of real conversations.

The school is a rich environment for play and exploration, and therefore for learning

Learning at Sudbury Valley is largely incidental. It occurs as a side effect of students' self-directed play and exploration. The school is a wonderful place to play and explore. It provides space and time for such activities. It also provides equipment--including computers, a fully equipped kitchen, a woodworking shop, an art room, playground equipment, toys and games of various sorts, and many books. Students also have access to a pond, a field, and a nearby forest for outdoor play and exploration. Those who develop a special interest, which needs some new piece of equipment, might convince the School Meeting to buy it, or they might raise the money and buy it themselves by some means such as selling cookies in the school.

The most important resource at the school, for most students, is other students, who among them manifest an enormous range of interests and abilities. Because of the free age mixing at the school, students are exposed regularly to the activities and ideas of others who are older and younger than themselves. Age-mixed play offers younger children continuous opportunities to learn from older ones. For example, many students at the school have learned to read as a side effect of playing games that involve written words (including computer games) with students who already know how to read. They learn to read without even being aware that they are doing so.

Much of the students' exploration at the school, especially that of the adolescents, takes place through conversations. Students talk about everything imaginable, with each other and with staff members, and through such talk they are exposed to a huge range of ideas and arguments. Because nobody is an official authority, everything that is said and heard in conversation is understood as something to think about, not as dogma to memorize or feed back on a test. Conversation, unlike memorizing material for a test, stimulates the intellect. The great Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky argued, long ago, that conversation is the foundation for higher thought; and my observations of students at Sudbury Valley convince me that he was right. Thought is internalized conversation; external conversation, with other people, gets it started.

Hundreds of graduates attest to the school's educational effectiveness

My own first study of the Sudbury Valley School, many years ago, was a follow-up study of the graduates. Since that time, the school itself has conducted several studies of graduates, which have been published as books.[2] All of these studies have shown that the school works well as an educational institution.

Graduates of Sudbury Valley can be found today in the whole range of careers that are valued by our society. They are skilled craftsmen, entrepreneurs, artists, musicians, scientists, social workers, nurses, doctors, and so on. Those who chose to pursue higher education had no particular difficulties getting into colleges and universities, including highly selective ones, or performing well there once admitted. Many others have become successful in careers without going to college. More important, former students report that they are happy with their lives. They are almost unanimous in reporting that they are glad that they attended Sudbury Valley and in believing that the school prepared them better than a traditional school would have for the realities of adult existence. To a considerable degree they maintain, in adulthood, the playful (and that means focused and intense as well as joyful) attitude to careers and life that they developed and refined while at the school.


If you are interested in learning more about the Sudbury Valley School, a good place to start is with the school's website. The leading philosopher of the school, and also one of the school's founders, is Daniel Greenberg. His books, and other books about the school, can be found at the school's website. Greenberg's most recent book, which I recommend, is "Turning Learning Right Side Up," co-authored with the noted business professor and innovator Russell Ackoff.

My own interest in this and future postings is not to promote Sudbury Valley as an institution, but to help create a dialogue about play, curiosity, human nature, and education that is informed, in part, by the experiences of the school. So far I have only scratched the surface. I'm sure that for most readers what I have said here raises many more questions than it answers. Ask away, and don't hesitate to include your doubts and objections. ----------


1. There is one exception to the statement that the school does not evaluate students. Students who wish to graduate with a high school diploma must prepare a written thesis defending the statement that they have prepared themselves for responsible adult life. That thesis is defended orally and evaluated by a panel of adults who are staff members at other Sudbury-model schools.
2. My study of the graduates, co-authored with David Chanoff, was published in the American Journal of Education, Volume 94, pp 182-213. The school's more recent studies of the graduates have been published by the Sudbury Valley School Press and can be found at the school's website.

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5. Trustful Parenting May Require an
Alternative to Conventional Schooling

26 Auhust 2009

My last several posts (before I went on vacation for two weeks) were about trustful parenting, the forces that work against it today, and ways of overcoming those forces. As I pointed out in the July 29 post, I think that the most powerful social force interfering with trustful parenting in our time is the school system. The power of schools over children and families has increased steadily over the decades, to the point where it is almost impossible now to be a trustful parent of a child in a typical public or private school.

As I write this essay, children and adolescents all over America are frantically completing their assigned summer reading, so they can turn in their book reports, due on the first day of class. Either that, or they are blowing off the assignments while their parents are frantically trying to get them to complete them. If your child fails to turn in those reports, the school will quite likely see that as your failing as well as your child's. You may well, at some point, be called in for a teacher's conference and reminded--as you sit, humiliated, in one of those little chairs in front of the teacher's desk -- of the importance of parental enforcement of school assignments.

The school system operates on the assumption that children, including teenagers, are incompetent to make their own decisions. They are not competent to pick their own reading (even their own summer reading!); they are not competent to learn on their own initiative. The assumption is that children need constant supervision in order to learn what they need to know to become, eventually, effective adults. Children left to their own devices will just waste their time, or worse, get into serious trouble. And you, the parent, may be seen as negligent if you do trust your child.

If your child blows off a homework assignment because she sees it as a waste of time -- which it usually is, and which it almost always is when done from a sense of coercion rather than choice--you may be as much to "blame" as your child. You are supposed to monitor, nudge, maybe even bribe or threaten your child--do whatever you must to get that slacker to do the assignment. Maybe you'll have to tell Mary, "No, you can't read Breaking Dawn (book 4 in the Twilight series), because that's not the book you need to write a report on."

Principals and teachers have figured out that the way to keep children on task, and to get those test scores up so the school and teachers will look good in their competitions with other schools and teachers, is to enlist parents to serve as homework enforcers. Parents today are routinely required to sign their children's homework assignments, sign and return regular reports sent to them about their children's successes and failures, and in other ways serve as enforcement assistants to the teachers. Email has promoted a quantum leap in the back-and-forth tattling between teachers and parents.

The home has become an extension of school, and parents have become teachers' assistants. Many parents buy into this all too readily; they, after all, are in competitions with other parents to produce kids with the best résumés. The loss, of course, lies in the children's own sense of autonomy and personal responsibility. Sadly, in many cases, the assumption that children are incompetent becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The children themselves become convinced of their incompetence.

To be a trustful parent, and to raise your children with the wonderful sense that they are trusted and trustworthy, you may have to remove them from the conventional school system. Here are two alternatives to consider.

Sudbury model democratic schools

In two previous posts (August 13, 2008, and Sept 3, 2008), I have described the Sudbury Valley School, which is where I have conducted some of my own research. Today there are somewhere between two and three dozen Sudbury model schools throughout the world, and Sudbury Valley itself provides guidance for groups who want to form new schools.

For 41 years, Sudbury Valley has been proving that, when given a chance, children and adolescents behave responsibly, take charge of their own lives, and learn on their own initiative what they need to know to become highly effective adults. The graduates of the school have been followed and documented more fully than have those of any other school I know of.[1] If any school has been proven to work, in terms of producing happy, effective adult citizens, it is Sudbury Valley.

The results of this 41-year-old "experiment," now being replicated throughout the world, defy today's common beliefs about education and children. At Sudbury Valley nobody tells children what they must learn or how they must spend their time. Instead, the school provides the ideal setting for self-education. There are other kids, of the whole range of ages (from age 4 through 18 or 19), to learn from. There are adult staff members with various special skills and knowledge, who will help any child who asks. There are computers and other forms of equipment useful in today's culture. Books are everywhere. The students and staff members govern the school democratically, on a one-person-one-vote basis, which not only leads to effective governance but also generates a profound sense of communal responsibility. The democratic decision-making and judicial system, and the continuous age mixing, promote a level of nurturance, care, and safety that is exceedingly rare in other schools.

You would send your child to such a school only if you are a trustful parent. Distrustful parents can't imagine that such a school could work, even if they have read the evidence and visited the school. If you are curious to learn more about Sudbury Valley and the schools modeled after it, look back at the posts I noted above, go to the Sudbury Valley website (which includes books about the school), and look at the list of Sudbury schools there or on Wikipedia.

Homeschooling and "unschooling."

For many parents, who do not have the choice of a Sudbury school, homeschooling may be the only alternative to conventional schooling. In recent decades, as schools have become increasingly intrusive in families' lives, the number of families choosing homeschooling has risen sharply--to over a million in the United States today.

Not every parent who chooses homeschooling, however, is trustful or particularly values children's freedom. Many parents choose homeschooling primarily for religious reasons; they want to raise their children in a certain religious tradition and protect them from other ideas and practices. Some parents choose homeschooling because they are extraordinarily untrusting; they want to have their children under their thumbs all the time. Some parents choose homeschooling because they believe (generally correctly) that they are more able to get their children into Harvard than is the local school system. Still others--who certainly have my sympathy--choose homeschooling primarily to protect their children from the harassment and bullying that they have experienced at the local public school.

The brand of homeschooling most compatible with trustful parenting is that often referred to by its adherents as unschooling -- a term coined in the 1970s by John Holt, in his magazine Growing Without Schooling. With a little Googling, you can find a number of fascinating and helpful websites devoted to unschooling and/or to homeschooling coupled with a good deal of children's freedom. One of my favorites is the Natural Child Project, where, among other things, you can find books by Jan Hunt, including The Natural Child and Unschooling.

But here are my caveats about unschooling or any form of homeschooling, for the trustful parent:

1. A big part of growing up is learning how to solve problems and get along independently of one's parents. Beginning at about age four, and increasingly after that, children are drawn to other children. In hunter-gatherer and other traditional cultures, and until recently in our culture, children beyond age 4 spent many hours every day playing and exploring in age-mixed groups out of sight of adults. In play of that sort, children learn how to solve problems independently. In my view, that is the fundamental task of education, and it can only occur when children are away from parents or other adults who are paying attention.

2. Children learn best from older and younger children. I have discussed the value of age-mixed interactions in a previous series of posts (starting with Sept. 9, 2008) and will not repeat myself here, except to say that younger children are strongly motivated to learn the skills that they observe in older children and that older children learn compassion and nurturance through interacting with younger ones.

3. Children need more adult models than just their parents. Children love their parents, and they need their parents' love, but they naturally look to other adults at least as much as to their parents to learn what it is like to be an adult. By seeing what other adults do and by overhearing other adults' ideas (including ones that their own parents would consider to be blasphemous), children are exposed to a menu of behaviors and ideas from which they can pick and choose. Children do not passively mimic either other children or adults. When exposed to a sufficient range of behaviors, ideas, and attitudes, they make their own value judgments and incorporate what they observe into their own growing repertoires, in ways that make them unique, not replicas of their parents or of anyone else.

I realize that many unschoolers have figured out ways of meeting the challenges suggested by these caveats. They have found ways for their children to play and explore away from themselves, to meet and make friends with other children over a broad age range, and to become naturally exposed to a variety of adults. But this is not easy, in our society where family sizes are small and where neighborhood friendships among families are generally lacking.

If you are one of the many homeschoolers and unschoolers who have been regular readers this blog, or even if you are a new reader, I hope you will contribute your thoughts, in the comments section below. What do you see to be the biggest challenges to your manner of helping your children educate themselves, and how do you meet those challenges? What books or websites would you recommend to others who are considering homeschooling or unschooling? What traps should be avoided?



[1] For followup studies of Sudbury Valley graduates and other former students, see: Peter Gray & David Chanoff, Democratic Schooling: What Happens to Young People Who Have Charge of their Own Education? American Journal of Education 94 (1986), 182-213; Daniel Greenberg & Mimsy Sadofsky, Legacy of Trust: Life after the Sudbury Valley School Experience (1992); Daniel Greenberg, Mimsy Sadofsky, & Jason Lempka, The Pursuit of Happiness: The Lives of Sudbury Valley Alumni (2005).

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Copyright © 2008 Peter Gray - All Rights Reserved

Last updated on 12 June 2011