Letters and other media of support for Alternative Education by experienced professionals.
Alternative Education Cyprus Online Summit September 2021.
Dr Naomi Fisher Clinical Psychologist UK. Author of ‘Changing our Minds’
Dr Naomi Fisher, PhD, DClinPsy, MACantab (I)
I am a clinical psychologist and expert in education otherwise than at school. I have a First Class Honours Degree in Experimental Psychology from Cambridge University, a PhD in Developmental Cognitive Psychology and a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology, both from Kings’ College London. I am the author of ‘Changing Our Minds; How Children Can Take Control of Their Own Learning’ a guide to the research, theory and practice of self-directed education. I have hands-on experience of home education and facilitating self-directed education. This statement is of my expert opinion as a psychologist.
Expert Opinion Statement
Education can be summarised as the process by which children and young people acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to become a functioning adult in the society they live in. In the 20th and 21st century, education has increasingly been delivered by schools. In fact, in the mind of many, school has become synonymous with education.
This belief is a recent one. Home education, or education otherwise than at school, has a long history and predates schooling as the dominant method of education. Reports of how children are educated in countries which do not have universal schooling describe a mixture of play, apprenticeship, observing adults and older children, some direct instruction and use of stories and songs to pass on traditions and history. Children play with tools of the culture and in doing so, acquire the skills they need for adult life (Gray, 2017). Studies of home educated children show something similar. Outside school, children learn through a variety of methods, most of which do not look like a formalised classroom setting.
Learning happens in many ways. Dr Ian Cunningham, founder of the Self-Managed Learning College and an expert in self-managed learning, has identified over 57 different ways in which young people can learn, only few of which are facilitated within a school environment. (Cunningham, 2020). Professor Gina Riley, a professor of adolescent special education, writes about unschooling, the practice of home educating without a curriculum, for which there is a growing evidence base (Riley, 2020). When unschooling, young people learn through following their interests. Research shows that unschooled young people can go onto university (Arnall, 2018) and the majority report being happy with their education (Riley & Gray, 2015).
Research into home education has found that children often develop skills at a different pace to children educated at school (Pattison, 2016), but that they can and do succeed. Children who have special educational needs and who need extra time to acquire skills such as reading may particularly benefit from home education, as they can take the time that they need to understand new information without needing to keep up with the group.
Home education does not exclude any form of learning, and parents may use tutors, cooperative groups, classes and organised activities, as well as individualised learning at home.
Human children are highly diverse and have different strengths and weaknesses. Some children do not learn well at school, and are better suited to alternative approaches . Home education provides a viable and cost-effective alternative to school for these children.
No system can work for everyone. For those who are not able to attend school, it is necessary that alternatives are possible. There are many reasons a child may not be able to attend school, including disability, physical and mental health problems. It is crucially important that a legal alternative is available for parents who are able and willing to educate their children at home. Otherwise, these children may not receive an education at all.
It is my professional opinion that home education is a viable alternative to school-based education. For some, it is essential. Home education can make the difference between an unhappy and anxious young person at school, and a thriving and progressing young person at home. It is therefore essential that this option should be available in a country which values its young people and its future.
Arnall, Judy (2018). Unschooling to University. Relationships Matter Most in a World Crammed with Content. Professional Parenting Canada.
Cunningham, Ian (2020) Self-Managed Learning and the New Educational Paradigm, Routledge
Fisher, Naomi (2021) Changing Our Minds: How Children Can Take Control of Their Own Learning. Robinson.
Gray, Peter (2013). Free to Learn. Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play will make our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant and Better Students. Basic Books.
Riley, G (2020) Unschooling: Exploring Learning beyond the Classroom. Palgrave MacMillan
Riley & Gray (2015) Grown Unschoolers Evaluations of Their Unschooling Experiences: Report 1 on a Survey of 75 Unschooled Adults.
Pattison, H (2016) Rethinking Learning to Read. EHP.
Wendy Charles – Warner. Chair of Education Otherwise.
Ref: Elective Home Education
I am writing to you in respect of Elective Home Education following a request from Cypriot families living within the UK.
In addition to being chair of Education Otherwise, I am a well-respected and established independent researcher in the field of Elective Home Education. I frequently work in conjunction with university based, think tank based and Government researchers.
I bring approaching four decades of experience to the field of Elective Home Education practice, research and assessment. My Elective Home Education expertise is widely accepted, consulted and respected by individuals, local authorities, NGOs and governments. I have advised National Governments in respect of Elective Home Education and am regularly asked to contribute to articles, conferences and consultations on Elective Home Education. I was invited to give evidence to the Welsh Assembly Government in respect of Elective Home Education.
In 2021, I was invited to give oral evidence to the Parliamentary Education Select Committee in respect of Elective Home Education. I am also a member of the Government expert witness panel for Covid 19, in respect of Elective Home Education.
Education Otherwise (EO) is a UK based charitable organisation which has been supporting home education and home educating families for over forty years.
A great many children are happy in a school environment and their parents content that a school environment is in their child’s best interests. This is not the case for every child, not least because every child is an individual with their own unique skills, abilities and needs; it is a given that no matter how good a school curriculum and teaching, it must be delivered in a curriculum centric manner in order to provide education to a wide audience. Elective Home Education is a child centred provision which delivers an education tailored to the individual needs of each child.
For most parents the choice to home educate is a lifestyle choice, requiring significant commitment in terms of time and resources; it is not something which parents generally decide to do without a great deal of research and thought. The decision to home educate can be made for a great many reasons, such as wanting to travel widely in order to broaden the child’s knowledge in our international world; having parents from different nations and wanting the child to experience both cultures; wanting to nurture a child’s special interests; accommodating a child’s individual learning style; educating a child with special needs; addressing issues of school based trauma and bullying; or simply that the child is less well suited to a school environment.
Whatever the basis of the parents’ original choice to home educate a child, research finds home educated children to be on average one full school year ahead of their school based peers and at least as well socialised as their school based peers. In short, it works and works well.
At EO we operate a helpline for parents who either home educate their child, or who are considering whether, or not to do so. To give a few examples of calls we have received:
An English mum living separately from her Cypriot husband because their child could not cope in school due to an anxiety disorder. Dad has to remain working in Cyprus to support the family, whilst Mum has had to bring their child to the UK to be home educated, in order to support the child’s mental health needs. They want to be home together in your beautiful country;
An English couple with a home in Cyprus, who home educate their four children. Cypriot authorities have informed them that if they visit their Cypriot home for as little as four weeks, their children must attend a school in Cyprus. These children have never been to school and would be deeply distressed and disadvantaged if forced to do so. Their parents contribute significantly to the Cypriot economy and feel allegiance to Cyprus, but are considering selling their properties in Cyprus because of this restriction;
We frequently hear from parents of children with special educational needs to tell us that since being taken out of the school system to be home educated, they have “got their child back”, meaning that their child is thriving once more;
Parents of gifted and talented children whose individual skills and abilities are not catered for within the school curriculum, tell us that their children have achieved phenomenally high levels in their fields, ones which schools do not cater for and
We receive calls from older children and young adults to thank us for supporting their parents to enable them to be home educated. These young people tell us that they would not have achieved their potential had they had to remain in school.
There are many advantages in Elective Home Education for a great many children, some of which are detailed below.
Every child deserves the support to reach their potential and for some, Elective Home Education will be the choice which works best to ensure that they can do so.
At Education Otherwise we urge you to accept Elective Home Education as an equally viable and acceptable choice for parents.
For and on behalf of
|Comparisions between home education and school|
|Elective Home Education:||School|
|Child has her choice of approach||Set curriculum|
|Can study at her own pace||Set hours for set lessons|
|Child can spend as long as required on each topic until they understands it thoroughly||Child can only have set time to study topic|
|They can take their choice of exams at any point where appropriate||Set exams at set times, with courses set by the school|
|Their education is individualised and||Designed to provide a set amount of|
|incorporates their interests.||information, to a large group of children, in a set way.|
|Learning is one to one or in small groups.||Teacher cannot provide one to one or small groups to class of children.|
|Quiet and nurturing environment||Noisy and busy environment|
|Wide range of friendships and natural social interaction||Limited friendships of one set age|
|Opportunity to attend events and trips at any time throughout the year||Only able to take trips and events at holiday times.|
|He child is the central focus of the learning. This enables them to achieve their potential.||Subject led. The curriculum is the centre of the provision. Pre-determined set standards.|
|Child’s needs are met according to age, ability and aptitude||Curriculum designed in part to test schools’ delivery.|
|Supportive and nurturing relationships with other home educated children.||Competitive and peer pressure.|
|Peer bullying extremely rare.||Bullying common.|
|Every experience is a learning opportunity for the child.||Learning opportunities limited by curriculum and set lessons.|
|Most home educated children are ahead of their schooled peers.||Cyprus ranks 53rd on the PISA averages tables with 25.7% of children below average in maths, reading and science.|
|As young adults, unemployment is rare amongst home educated children and further education common.||Youth unemployment in Cyprus is reported at 15.72% in 2020, a rise from 2019.|
|Fosters entrepreneurial spirit, creativity and originality||Fosters conformity and not originality|
|High degree of self-motivation valued by higher education institutions.||Often lack self-motivation|
Anamaria Gheorghiu. Educational Psychologist. Cyprus.
RECOMMENDATION A VOICE FOR ALTERNATIVE EDUCATION
My name is Anamaria Gheorghiu, Romanian citizen and permanent resident of Cyprus since 2018. I am 53 years old and have been working as an educational psychologist for 17 years.
I am trained in Psychology and Educational Sciences, as well as Naturopathy. Recently, I transitioned my practice online, whole remaining in contact with teachers, parents and school children. From my entire practice, I noticed that many modern parents are dissatisfied with the existing educational system.
The main reasons: its quality and facilities, as well as the risk of development of several complexes in children. Instead, a certain popularity was gained by alternative education – an option more and more taken into consideration by the parents. The benefits of this kind of educational system consist mainly in a more flexible curriculum, less conventional teaching methods, and a wide range of learning strategies.
Many alternatives in the field of education are characterised by small class sizes, close relations between pupils and teachers, and a sense of community. Such a learning environment can be established in state, statutory, and independent schools, as well as at home. The mission of such an educational system could be the following: “To equip all students with basic knowledge and skills that will be prepared in an academic, social and emotional way, which will help to succeed in the global community.” Among other features, here are some obvious advantages that recommend alternative education as a viable option for schooling:
All students can learn and succeed with a variety of methods. Progress in learning comes when the student is expected to achieve great achievements. It is important to develop confidence and competence in each student. One can learn in any environment, not necessarily in the classroom. An alternative learning environment develops independence, skill, and creative thinking. Learning is an active collaboration between pupils, parents, society, and school. If the student is able to share his knowledge with others, he is on the right path.
Learning is a continuous process, it continues the entire life. A less conventional environment will develop broader thinking and stimulate the adaptation abilities of pupils. Smaller class sizes. This allows teachers to pay more attention to each student. More flexible schedules and requirements. Children and adolescents can choose the subjects, as well as the time of visit.
Also, there is a wide variety of teaching methods. In such systems, emphasis is on creativity and interaction, and teachers change strategies to see what works and what does not. Non-traditional methods of estimation. Some educational systems, instead of the usual written assessments, turn to the student or parents.
This helps to find out what the problem is, and in what areas there are successes. Address the student’s social, mental and emotional needs. Such systems strive not only to provide academic knowledge, but also to educate a person with high emotional intelligence. Students seldom skip. And it’s true: children themselves want to acquire knowledge, because they are trusted and given freedom.
It is also worth mentioning that alternative education specialises in the use of diverse and creative ways of teaching the material, and their methods are often more adapted to the preferences of each student.
Every year, more and more parents are turning to alternative education, and they would very much like to choose this system, if possible. Among the issues that would be solved in an alternative educational system would be:
- Bullying; there are so many children (mainly in mixed communities of several nationalities, races etc.) that are being bullied in every school.
- Complying with the norm: while in large classes of more than 20 pupils, a child with slower thinking or too sharp mind will generally be out of the norm (being difficult for him/her to adapt), in small sized communities this problem is solved by default.
- Creativity: some minds are so sharp and out-of-the-box, that they need a different environment to express themselves and grow. There is nothing as good as an alternative education system. As a trained, experienced specialist in the field of educational psychology, I would highly sustain and recommend the creation of legal environments and facilities to implement alternative education as a practical, active option to the classic educational school system.
Date: June 16, 2021
Signed: Anamaria Gheorghiu Psychologist, Holistic Therapist, Formator
Το όνομά μου είναι Anamaria Gheorghiu, κατάγομαι από τη Ρουμανία αλλά είμαι μόνιμη κάτοικος Κύπρου από το 2018. Είμαι 53 ετών και εργάζομαι ως εκπαιδευτική ψυχολόγος εδώ και 17 χρόνια. Έχω εκπαίδευση στην Ψυχολογία και τις Παιδαγωγικές Επιστήμες, καθώς και στη Naturopathy (ένα σύστημα εναλλακτικής ιατρικής που βασίζεται στη θεωρία ότι οι ασθένειες μπορούν να αντιμετωπιστούν με επιτυχία ή να προληφθούν χωρίς τη χρήση φαρμάκων, με τεχνικές όπως ο έλεγχος της διατροφής, η άσκηση και το μασάζ). Τώρα, μετέφερα την πρακτική μου στο Διαδίκτυο, εξακολουθώντας να έχω επαφή με δασκάλους, γονείς και παιδιά σχολείων.
Από όλη μου την εμπειρία, παρατήρησα ότι πολλοί σύγχρονοι γονείς είναι δυσαρεστημένοι με το υπάρχον εκπαιδευτικό σύστημα. Οι κύριοι λόγοι: η ποιότητα και οι εγκαταστάσεις, καθώς και ο κίνδυνος ανάπτυξης πολλών ανασφαλειών στα παιδιά. Εξού και η δημοτικότητα που απέκτησε η εναλλακτική εκπαίδευση – μια επιλογή που λαμβάνεται όλο και περισσότερο υπόψη από τους γονείς.
Τα οφέλη αυτού του είδους εκπαιδευτικού συστήματος συνίστανται κυρίως σε ένα πιο ευέλικτο πρόγραμμα σπουδών, λιγότερο συμβατικές μεθόδους διδασκαλίας και ένα ευρύ φάσμα στρατηγικών μάθησης. Πολλές εναλλακτικές λύσεις στον τομέα της εκπαίδευσης χαρακτηρίζονται από μικρά μεγέθη τάξεων, στενές σχέσεις μεταξύ μαθητών και δασκάλων και την αίσθηση της κοινότητας. Ένα τέτοιο μαθησιακό περιβάλλον μπορεί να δημιουργηθεί σε κρατικά, θεσμπισμένα και ανεξάρτητα σχολεία, καθώς και στο σπίτι.
Η αποστολή ενός τέτοιου εκπαιδευτικού συστήματος θα μπορούσε να είναι η ακόλουθη: «Να εξοπλίσει όλους τους μαθητές με βασικές γνώσεις και δεξιότητες ώστε να προετοιμαστούν με ακαδημαϊκό, κοινωνικό και συναισθηματικό τρόπο, κάτι που θα τους βοηθήσει να επιτύχουν στην παγκόσμια κοινότητα». Μεταξύ άλλων χαρακτηριστικών, εδώ είναι μερικά προφανή πλεονεκτήματα που προτείνουν την εναλλακτική εκπαίδευση ως βιώσιμη επιλογή για τη σχολική εκπαίδευση:
1. Όλοι οι μαθητές μπορούν να μάθουν και να πετύχουν με μια ποικιλία μεθόδων. Η πρόοδος στη μάθηση έρχεται όταν ο μαθητής αναμένεται να επιτύχει μεγάλα επιτεύγματα. Είναι σημαντικό να αναπτυχθεί η εμπιστοσύνη και η ικανότητα σε κάθε μαθητή.
2. Κάποιος μπορεί να μάθει σε οποιοδήποτε περιβάλλον, όχι απαραίτητα στην τάξη. Ένα εναλλακτικό μαθησιακό περιβάλλον αναπτύσσει ανεξαρτησία, δεξιότητες και δημιουργική σκέψη.
3. Η μάθηση είναι μια ενεργή συνεργασία μεταξύ μαθητών, γονέων, κοινωνίας και σχολείου. Εάν ο μαθητής είναι σε θέση να μοιραστεί τις γνώσεις του με άλλους, βρίσκεται στο σωστό δρόμο.
4. Η μάθηση είναι μια συνεχής διαδικασία, συνεχίζει εφ’ όρου ζωής. Ένα λιγότερο συμβατικό περιβάλλον θα αναπτύξει μια ευρύτερη σκέψη και θα τονώσει τις ικανότητες προσαρμογής των μαθητών.
5. Μικρότερα μεγέθη τάξης. Αυτό επιτρέπει στους εκπαιδευτικούς να δώσουν μεγαλύτερη προσοχή σε κάθε μαθητή.
6. Πιο ευέλικτα χρονοδιαγράμματα και απαιτήσεις. Τα παιδιά και οι έφηβοι μπορούν να επιλέξουν τα θέματα, καθώς και την ώρα της επίσκεψης. Επίσης, υπάρχει μια μεγάλη ποικιλία μεθόδων διδασκαλίας. Σε τέτοια συστήματα, η έμφαση δίνεται στη δημιουργικότητα και την αλληλεπίδραση και οι εκπαιδευτικοί αλλάζουν στρατηγικές για να δουν τι λειτουργεί και τι όχι.
7. Μη-παραδοσιακές μέθοδοι αξιολόγησης. Ορισμένα εκπαιδευτικά συστήματα, αντί των συνηθισμένων γραπτών αξιολογήσεων, απευθύνονται στον μαθητή ή στους γονείς. Αυτό βοηθά να μάθετε ποιο είναι το πρόβλημα και σε ποιους τομείς υπάρχουν επιτυχίες.
8. Αντιμετώπιση των κοινωνικών, διανοητικών και συναισθηματικών αναγκών του μαθητή. Τέτοια συστήματα προσπαθούν όχι μόνο να παρέχουν ακαδημαϊκές γνώσεις, αλλά και να εκπαιδεύσουν ένα άτομο με υψηλή συναισθηματική νοημοσύνη.
9. Οι μαθητές σπάνια κάνουν σκασιαρχείο. Και είναι αλήθεια: τα ίδια τα παιδιά θέλουν να αποκτήσουν γνώση, επειδή τους εμπιστεύονται και τους δίνεται ελευθερία.
Αξίζει επίσης να σημειωθεί ότι η εναλλακτική εκπαίδευση ειδικεύεται στη χρήση διαφορετικών και δημιουργικών τρόπων διδασκαλίας του υλικού και οι μέθοδοι διδασκαλίας είναι συχνά πιο προσαρμοσμένες στις προτιμήσεις κάθε μαθητή.
Κάθε χρόνο, όλο και περισσότεροι γονείς ισχυρίζονται ότι προτιμούν την εναλλακτική εκπαίδευση και θα ήθελαν πολύ να επιλέξουν αυτό το σύστημα, εάν ήταν εφικτό.
Μεταξύ των ζητημάτων που θα μπορούσαν να επιλυθούν σε ένα εναλλακτικό εκπαιδευτικό σύστημα θα ήταν:
– Εκφοβισμός: Υπάρχουν τόσα πολλά παιδιά (κυρίως σε μικτές κοινότητες διαφόρων εθνικοτήτων, φυλών κ.λπ.) που εκφοβίζονται σε κάθε σχολείο.
– Συμμόρφωση με τον κανόνα του μέσου όρου: ενώ σε μεγάλες τάξεις περισσότερων από 20 μαθητών, ένα παιδί με πιο αργή σκέψη ή πολύ έντονο μυαλό θα είναι γενικά εκτός του μέσου όρου (είναι δύσκολο να προσαρμοστεί), σε κοινότητες μικρότερων αριθμών αυτό το πρόβλημα ήδη προεπιλεγμένα έχει επιλυθεί.
– Δημιουργικότητα: τα μυαλά ορισμένων παιδιών είναι τόσο κοφτερά και θεωρούνται ασυμβατικά, επομένως χρειάζονται ένα διαφορετικό περιβάλλον για να εκφραστούν και να αναπτυχθούν. Δεν υπάρχει τίποτα τόσο καλό όσο ένα εναλλακτικό εκπαιδευτικό σύστημα.
Ως εκπαιδευμένη, έμπειρη ειδικός στον τομέα της εκπαιδευτικής ψυχολογίας, θα υποστήριζα και θα συνιστούσα τη δημιουργία νομικού περιβάλλοντος και εγκαταστάσεων για την εφαρμογή της εναλλακτικής εκπαίδευσης ως πρακτική, ενεργή επιλογή στο κλασικό εκπαιδευτικό σχολικό σύστημα.
Belina Louvrou Registered Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist, Cyprus
My name is Belina Louvrou and I am a Registered Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist specializing in Play Therapy and Parenting Support.
I have my private practice in Limassol, where I see children, adolescents and families offering therapy services. I am writing this letter to support the cause of helping to legalize alternatives in education in Cyprus. Working with children and adolescents, I have experienced how the current educational system is affecting them emotionally and mentally.
I have worked with adolescents who are so stressed about the workload of the school and the exams that they cannot function during the day, they have sleep difficulties, they lose their appetite and they feel that if they don’t succeed it’s the end of the world. They feel so overwhelmed that they cannot handle all this stress and every little failure in their mind gets intensified. They feel that the educational system is not fair, that they can’t find anything interesting that will make them want to go to school simply because they feel that what they are learning will be on no use to them or they can’t see the value of what they are learning. In addition younger children often feel bored inside the classroom, it’s difficult for them to concentrate and stay focused, and at the end of the day they feel drained.
I have worked with children that they refuse to go to school not because they don’t want to but because they feel that no one understands them. I have also worked with children that they need additional help within the class because of their difficulties and they can’t get that help because the funds are not available and it’s such a shame because they can’t reach their potentials.
I feel that at least we need to give to those children, young people and their families the choice to be able to choose what is best for them. They need to have choices, so in the case where the current educational system is not working for a child or a young person to have an alternative. Instead of forcing those children and young people to go to school and become more stressed, overwhelmed and unhappy we need to help them and offer them the right to choose what is best for their education.
I feel that it is finally the time for changes and that we need to take a closer look in our educational system and how we can improve it for our children and young people.
Your Sincerely, Belina Louvrou Registered Child & Adolescent Psychotherapist MBACP (Reg.Num: 238718) The Healing Stars Play Therapy and Parenting Support
Delia Aldescu Ciobancan, Psychologist, Romania.
I am a psychologist specialising in family and couple psychotherapy for more than 10 years.
In all these years of therapeutic practice, I have rarely had a child in the office studying at an alternative school. It may be a coincidence but it is worth doing statistical research!
I believe that in addition to the right to education with which every child has been born since 1959, the freedom of parents to choose the form of education for their child should not be a luxury; it is a basic component of the right to education, the rationale for freedom of parental choice aimed at preventing the state’s monopoly on education and protecting pluralism.
The freedom of persons to choose the type of education, respectively the right of parents to choose the type of education for their children and to ensure the school, moral and religious education of children according to their conscience, respecting the individuality requirements of each child, followed by the freedom given to children by parents to decide with them taking into account the wishes and uniqueness of each child, appealing if necessary to psychological assessment to know what is best for them, ensures a harmonious development of personality.
Also, the international documents enshrine the right of persons and organisations to establish private educational institutions and schools, provided that the minimum education standards established by the law of each state are observed.
The right to vocational guidance and training is not a complete right if it is not in accordance with the skills and will of each person, ensuring different teaching conditions so that each person can assert his own potential depending on the learning pattern, special needs and desire. to assert the individual.
With the passage of time, man has continuously enriched himself through accumulated experiences, acquiring an increasingly complex structure and requiring variability and diversity in all planes of his life. He can choose the country in which he lives, how many children he has, where he works, what doctor he is treated for, what religious orientation he follows. Is the possibility of choosing a fundamental right – education – a desideratum?
“Modern society is fast living the pressure to perform and to have success is increasing and so does the number of individuals who suffer from anxiety disorders, psychological traumas, and depression…
I do support the legalisation of homeschooling because, in my opinion, every individual (child) should have the freedom to be raised by catering to their individual needs.
The pressure of being pushed into a system which is against the needs of individuals with predispositions may increase the vulnerability and risk of suffering from psychological and psychosomatic symptoms.”
Catherine Kyriakou-Rettig is born and has been raised in Switzerland, Zurich. In the year 2006, she did her Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology, Neuropsychology at the Univerity of Zurich. She went for further education to London (UK) where she specialized in Eating Disorders and Obesity at the National Center for Eating Disorders (NCFED). Additionally, she did further education (Mental Health for Children) in Germany, Wupperthal. In 2009-2013 Catherine Kyriakou-Rettig specialized in Somatic Psychotherapy (Biosynthesis) in Switzerland, Heiden. Catherine Kyriakou-Rettig has work experience in Cyprus, Switzerland, and Germany and is currently working in her own office in Pafos, Cyprus. Apart from her psychotherapeutic work, she has work experience teaching psychology at the Private Institute TLC (Peya). She has been living in Cyprus for the past 15 years. She is married to a Cypriot husband and is a mother of two children (age 4/ 10y.).
Eve Kelleher. Teacher and Home Educator. UK.
BA English and Linguistics Durham MA Liverpool PGCE Newcastle Upon Tyne
As educators, my husband (Simon Kelleher Bsc Chemistry Durham, PGCE Bangor) and I, felt very strongly about seeking out the best provision for our own children. We embarked on our home education journey officially 11 years ago; though in truth it begins at birth.
Our daughters flourished in the home education community and have grown to be strong, individual, free thinking characters, whose early years of exploration and play have ensured they are adaptable and critical thinkers.
Having chosen to opt into high school; their transition was no doubt eased by the independence and grounding they had nurtured as home educated children.
They are now excelling in their mainstream studies – significantly ahead of their peers in many ways.
It is absolutely essential that parents, regardless of professions, education, background or belief are able to choose the right educational pathway for their children.
Society will always benefit from diversity and freedom. I support this movement wholeheartedly and wish every child in Cyprus the freedom of choice which is the absolute cornerstone of civilisation.
Eleni Fila, Educator, Cyprus
Στηρίζω την εναλλακτική εκπαίδευση, εννοώντας τα ελευθεριακά σχολεία και την
κατ΄οίκον εκπαίδευση. Ο λόγος είναι γιατί μέσα από προσωπική εμπειρία στο
συμβατικό σύστημα εκπαίδευσης, τόσο σαν μαθήτρια όσο και σαν εκπαιδευτικός,
εντόπισα σημεία που υστερεί, όπως η καλλιέργεια της δημιουργικότητας, της
διαφορετικότητας και της ελευθερίας έκφρασης. Κάθε παιδί είναι ξεχωριστό και με
διαφορετικές ανάγκες, συνεπώς δεν θα μπορούσε μια λύση να τις καλύπτει όλες.
Είναι δικαίωμα του κάθε συνειδητού κηδεμόνα να επιλέξει τη βέλτιστη επιλογή για
το παιδί του.
Προσωπική έμπνευση αποτελεί το Σχολείο του δάσους, ένας θεσμός που έχει ήδη
εδραιωθεί στο εξωτερικό. Όπως επίσης η τριβή και το πάθος μου με τη φύση, όπου
η διαμονή/φιλοξενία μου σε αυτή, είναι το μεγαλύτερο σχολείο που έχω φοιτήσει.
Σκοπός μου είναι να δώσω, ότι θα ήθελα να μου είχε δώσει το σύστημα
εκπαίδευσης – φύση, αγάπη και συναισθήματα.
Η Ελένη Φύλα, γ.1988, είναι ιδρύτρια του ‘Δάσος και αγάπη΄ https://agapi682782560.wordpress.com
έχει εργαστεί σε ιδιωτικά και δημόσια σχολεία στην Ελλάδα και στην Κύπρο ως εκπαιδευτικός
εικαστικών. Όπως επίσης έχει συμμετάσχει σε εικαστικές εκθέσεις στην Κύπρο και στο εξωτερικό.
Είναι άριστη απόφοιτος της Ανώτατης Καλών Τεχνών Αθήνας με κατεύθυνση στα παιδαγωγικά.
Επίσης φοίτησε στην σχολή Εφαρμοσμένων και Καλών Τεχνών της Θεσσαλονίκης και στην Ανώτατη
Σχολή Καλών Τεχνών στο Παρίσι. Παρακολουθεί σεμινάρια Θεραπείας μέσω της Τέχνης και
περφόρμανς. Όπως επίσης ολοκλήρωσε με επιτυχία σεμινάριο περμακουλτούρας.
Dr Peter Gray. Research professor of psychology at Boston College, USA. Author of ‘Free to Learn’
Self-Directed Education—Unschooling and Democratic Schooling
Summary and Keywords
Education, broadly defined, is cultural transmission. It is the process or set of processes by
which each new generation of human beings acquires and builds upon the skills,
knowledge, beliefs, values, and lore of the culture into which they are born. Through all but
the most recent speck of human history, education was always the responsibility of those
being educated. Children come into the world biologically prepared to educate themselves
through observing the culture around them and incorporating what they see into their play.
Research in hunter-gatherer cultures shows that children in those cultures became
educated through their own self-directed exploration and play. In modern cultures, selfdirected education is pursued by children in families that adopt the homeschooling
approach commonly called “unschooling” and by children enrolled in democratic schools,
where they are in charge of their own education. Follow-up studies of “graduates” of
unschooling and democratic schooling reveal that this approach to education can be highly
effective, in today’s word, if children are provided with an adequate environment for selfeducation—an environment in which they can interact freely with others across a broad
range of ages, can experience first-hand what is most valued in the culture, and can play
with, and thereby experiment with, the primary tools of the culture.
Keywords: self-directed education, self-directed learning, unschooling, free schools, democratic schools, Summerhill, Sudbury Valley School, curiosity, play, Self-Directed Education—Unschooling and
It is essential to distinguish between education and schooling. Schooling, as generally
understood and as the term is used here, refers to a set of procedures employed by
specialists, called teachers, to induce children to acquire a certain set of skills, knowledge,
values, and ideas, referred to as a curriculum, chosen by the teacher or by a schooling
hierarchy above the teacher.
Education, in contrast, refers to a much broader concept. It can be defined as cultural transmission, that is, as the entire set of processes by which each new human being acquires some portion of the skills, knowledge, values, and ideas of the culture in which he or she develops (Gray, 2011A).
With this definition, schooling is a relatively small part of education. That portion of education that does not occur as a result of schooling is largely self-directed education, education directed and controlled by the person becoming educated. It should be noted at the outset that self-directed education, as used here, refers to all education that derives from a person’s self-chosen activities,whether or not those activities are consciously directed toward education.
If you Google self-directed education, you will be directed to the more common term, self directed learning. Most of the research and writing on self-directed learning has to do with
specialized learning by adults of career-related information or skills, or with self-directed
learning within the context of formal schooling.
Research of this type, for example, fills most of the pages of the International Journal of Self-Directed Learning, where the most frequently cited publication is Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner’s book Learning in Adulthood (Holt, Smeltzer, Brockett, Shih, & Kirk, 2013).
One of the earliest published studies of self-directed learning within a traditional school
context was one in which a group of delinquent boys, age eight to 16, were assigned to a
special space in the school where there was no teacher, only a supervisor who was more
interested in their comportment than their academic education (Williams, 1930).
The room contained a number of textbooks and other educational materials, which the boys were
free to use or not, as they wished. Remarkably, over the course of the four-month
experiment, the boys showed an average academic gain of 15 months in language, 14
months in arithmetic, 11 months in reading, 11 months in science, and 12 months in
overall educational age, as indexed by achievement tests given at the beginning and end
of this period.
Despite their frequent past truancy and reputation for trouble making, these
boys were, on average, at grade level in academic achievement at the beginning of the
experiment and above grade level at the end. A possible explanation is that they were
bright boys, who were perfectly capable of learning on their own, and who had rebelled
against being told by teachers what, when, and how to learn.
The focus of this review is not on adult learning, nor on self-direction in the context of
traditional schooling. Rather, it is on self-directed education as a substitute for typical K–12
schooling. I have chosen to use the term self-directed education, rather than the more
common self-directed learning, because the former term more clearly refers to the self directed acquisition of a broad set of skills, knowledge, values, and ideas that help the
person adapt to and thrive in the culture, rather than to any single, specific instance of
There are two primary means of self-directed education for children of school age in our
culture today. One is through what is commonly called unschooling. Unschoolers are
officially registered with their local school districts as homeschoolers, but they are allowed
by their parents to take full charge of their own education.
The term unschooling was coined in the United States, in the 1970s, by the educational critic John Holt (see Farenga& Ricci, 2013), but is now in general use throughout the world by families that pursue this
The other means of self-directed education is to enrol in a school designed for self directed education. Although these institutions are called “schools,” and are legally classed as schools, they do not engage in schooling, as the term was defined at the beginning of this section. They are generally referred to as democratic schools or free schools, but the terminology is not used consistently. Both of these terms are sometimes used for a school that would not satisfy the definition used here as a setting for self-directed education. For example, in England the term free schools refers to independent, state-funded schools that
have some freedom from government control in curriculum development and are free for
students to attend, but are not designed for self-directed education, similar to charter
schools in the United States (United Kingdom Government, 2016).
This review begins with a discussion of the biological foundation of self-directed education
and then proceeds to sections devoted to unschooling, the free-school movement of the
1960s and 1970s, and democratic schooling today. It ends with a discussion of directions
for further research.
Biological Foundations for Self-Directed Education
From a biological perspective, schooling is new but education is not. Schooling has been a
common and significant part of childhood experience for only about two centuries, even in
the most developed Western cultures (Mulhern, 1959). In contrast, education has been
crucial to our species’ survival for as long as we have been human beings.
Beginning at least two million years ago, our hominin ancestors started down an
evolutionary path that made survival increasingly dependent on cultural transmission
(Konner, 2002, pp. 29–53). They developed ways of surviving that depended increasingly on
an accumulated body of knowledge and skills that were passed along from generation to
generation and adapted by each generation to meet new needs.
They also came to depend on increasingly high levels of cooperation and sharing, well beyond that of any
other primates, which required the transmission, from generation to generation, of social
mores, rules, rituals, stories, and shared cultural beliefs and values, all serving to bind
individuals together and promote cooperation. Throughout this long period, natural
selection would operate to endow children with strong instinctive drives to attend to and
learn from the cultural activities around them, as those who failed to do so would have a
much reduced chance of surviving or of attracting mates for reproduction.
Self-Directed Education in Hunter-Gatherer Bands
Through all but the most recent 11,000 years or so of our evolutionary history, we were all
hunter-gatherers. We can’t go back in time to examine the behavior of our pre-agricultural
ancestors, but we can examine the behavior of those groups of people who managed to
survive as hunter-gatherers, in geographically isolated parts of the world, into modern
times. Although hunter-gatherer cultures vary in many ways from one to another,
anthropologists who have studied such cultures consistently report that children’s
education, in all of the groups that have been studied to date, is essentially entirely self directed (Gray, 2009).
Children and young adolescents in hunter-gatherer bands are free to play and explore in
their own chosen ways essentially all day every day. Very little if any serious work is
expected of them, partly because the adults recognize that self-directed exploration and
play are the means by which children acquire and practice the skills needed for successful
adulthood and partly because hunter-gathers place high value on free will and believe it is
wrong to interfere with another person’s autonomy, including that of a child, except in
cases of serious danger (Draper, 1976; Gosso, Otta, de Lima, Ribeiro, & Bussab, 2005; Gray,
2009). The children learn by observing their elders and incorporating the activities they
observe into their play.
They play at hunting, tracking, digging up roots, identifying plants and animals, defending against pretend predators, and building huts and other artefacts, and also at the music, dances, and art of their culture, and in the process they become skilled at all these activities. Gradually, as they become adults, their playful activities become productive activities that help to sustain the band (for full documentation, see Gray, 2009).
Here, for example, are the words of one group of researchers concerning children’s
learning in hunter-gatherer bands (Hewlett, Fouts, Boyette, & Hewlett, 2011, p. 1173):
“Foragers value autonomy and egalitarianism, so parents, older children, or other adults
are not likely to think and feel that they know what is best or better for the child and are
generally unlikely to initiate, direct, or intervene in a child’s social learning. This is
consistent with our finding that forager social learning is self-motivated and directed, but it
also suggests [consistent with observations] that teaching and explicit instruction should
be rare or absent.”
These researchers go on to point out that, while hunter-gatherer adults rarely initiate
teaching, they are nearly always willing to help children who seek help, and they allow
children to join them in their activities, even when the children are more hindrance than
help, because they understand that this is how children learn. Hewlett et al. write (2011, p.
1173): “Sharing and giving are also forager core values, so what an individual knows is
open and available to everyone; if a child wants to learn something, others are obliged to
share the knowledge or skill. . . . Since learning is self-motivated and directed, and takes
place in intimate and trusting contexts, hunter-gatherer children are generally very
confident and self-assured learners.”
Curiosity, Playfulness, and Sociability as Natural Motivators of Education
From a biological perspective, the human drives to explore, play, and interact socially with
other people are the primary motivators of education. These drives exist to some degree in
all mammals, but they have been expanded upon and shaped in humans, by natural
selection, to serve the function of education, and they are especially strong during
childhood and youth (Gray, 2013).
Aristotle (trans. 1963) began his famous treatise on metaphysics with the words, “Human
beings are naturally curious about things.” Despite its obviously powerful role in human
experience and education, human curiosity has attracted relatively little research. Most of
what has been conducted has been with infants, toddlers, and preschool-aged children.
Such research has shown that even newborns gaze longer at unfamiliar objects than at
those they have already seen and, by four or five months, infants eagerly explore
manually, as well as visually, any new objects that are within reach to learn about their
properties (e.g., Renner, 1988). By age four years, if not sooner, children experiment on new
toys and other objects in quite systematic ways to find out what they can do with those
objects (e.g., Bonawitz, Shafto, Gweon, Goodman, Spelke, & Schulz, 2011; Schulz &
Observations of unschooled and democratically schooled children in our society (discussed
below), and of children in traditional societies without schools, suggest that curiosity does
not diminish as children grow older, but continues to motivate ever more sophisticated modes of exploration. In his co-authored book on the anthropology of learning in childhood,
Lancy, Bock, and Gaskins (2010, p. 5) wrote, “The single most important form of learning is
observation.” Children are especially curious about the activities of other human beings,
especially those who are older than themselves, and they learn by watching them
intensely and then incorporating what they observe into their play.
Playfulness serves self-educative purposes complementary to those of curiosity. While
curiosity motivates children to seek new knowledge and understanding, playfulness
motivates them to practice new skills and use those skills creatively. The first person to
develop this practice theory of play, from an evolutionary perspective, was the German
philosopher and naturalist Karl Groos. In The Play of Animals (Groos, 1898), Groos argued
that play came about by natural selection as a means to insure that animals will practice
the skills that they must in order to survive in their natural environment.
This theory is quite well accepted by researchers today who study animal play. It explains why young
animals play more than older ones (they have more to learn) and why those animal
species that depend most on learning and least on rigid instincts for survival play the
most. Moreover, as Groos pointed out, one can predict quite well what animals will play at
by knowing the chief constraints on their survival. For example, predatory animals play at
chasing, or creeping and pouncing, while prey animals play at fleeing, dodging, and
In a second book, The Play of Man (Groos, 1901), Groos extended his insights about animal
play to humans. He pointed out that humans, having much more to learn than do other
animal species, play much more than do other species. He also pointed out that young
humans, unlike other animals, must learn different skills depending on the unique culture
in which they develop. Therefore, he argued, natural selection led to a strong drive, in
human children, to observe the culture-specific activities of their elders and incorporate
those activities into their play. Groos referred to his theory as a theory of play, but it could
equally well be viewed as a theory of self-directed education, or at least as one major
foundation for such a theory.
Children educate themselves by observing the skills exhibited by those around them and then playing at those skills to become good at them. Although research on hunter-gatherer education came after Groos’s time, the findings from such research fit very well with Groos’s theory, and so do observations of play in modern democratic schools (discussed below).
Our species is not only the most curious and playful of mammals, but also the most
sociable. Instinctively, we understand that our own survival depends on our ability to
connect with, cooperate with, and learn from other people. We are irresistibly drawn to
others, especially when we are young. We want to do what those around us do, know what
they know, and share our own knowledge and thoughts with them. Thus, our natural
sociability provides a major foundation for self-directed education.
Our most unique adaptation for social life, and also our most unique adaptation for
education, is language. Language allows us to share all sorts of information with one
another, well beyond what is possible for other species. It allows us to tell one another not
just about the here and now, but also about the past, future, and hypothetical. As the
philosopher Dennett (1994) put it, “Comparing our brains with bird brains or dolphin brains
is almost beside the point, because our brains are in effect joined together into a single
cognitive system that dwarfs all others. They are joined by an innovation that has invaded
our brain and no others: language.”
A series of experiments directed by Sugata Mitra and his colleagues in India in the late
1990s and early 2000s, nicely illustrates the roles of curiosity, playfulness, and sociability
in self-directed education. These researchers installed a total of 100 computers outdoors,
mostly in very poor neighborhoods, including places where most of the children were
unschooled and illiterate. In each case they told the children who gathered around that
they could play with the installation, but told them nothing about what it could do or how
to use it (Mitra, 2003, 2005; Mitra & Rana, 2001). Wherever the computers were installed, the
same general results occurred. Children who had never previously seen a computer
approached and explored the strange device. Apparently by accident, they discovered that
they could move a pointer on the screen by moving their finger across a touch pad.
This inevitably led to a series of further discoveries about what they could do with the
computer, and each new discovery, made by one child or a group, was share with others.
Mitra estimates that for every computer he and his colleagues set up, roughly 300 children
became computer literate within three months of the computer’s becoming available.
In many cases the children learned much more than how to use the computer. Some who
could not read began to learn to read through their interactions with the computer, and
those who could read sometimes found and downloaded articles that interested them, in
the language in which they were literate (typically Hindi or Marathi).
Children who were at an early stage of learning English learned many English words through their interactions with the computer and their talk with others about it. In one remote village, children who
previously knew nothing about microorganisms learned about bacteria and viruses through
their interactions with the computer and began to use this new knowledge appropriately in
their conversations (Mitra & Dangwal, 2010). Mitra referred to the education he observed as
minimally invasive education, education with the least possible adult intrusion into the
children’s natural, self-chosen ways of living.
Mitra’s observations illustrate nicely how children’s curiosity, playfulness, and sociability
combine to provide a powerful foundation for education. Curiosity drew the children to the
computer and motivated them to manipulate it in various ways to learn about its
properties. Playfulness motivated them to become skilled at using certain functions of the
computer. For example, those who had already explored the Paint program and knew how
to use it were motivated to play with that program, to paint many pictures, with the result
that they became skilled at computer painting. Such play, in turn, often led to new
discoveries, which renewed curiosity and led to new bouts of exploration. Sociability
motivated children to explore and play together and to share their discoveries with one
another. When one child made a discovery, such as that clicking on an icon would cause
the screen to change, he or she would announce it excitedly to the others, and they, in
turn, would try it out.
Because of their sociability, each child’s discovery spread quickly through the whole group of children nearby; and then some child in that group, who had a friend in another group, might carry the new knowledge to that other group, where it again spread quickly, and so on, and so on. Each child’s discovery became the knowledge of many.
Unschooling: Home-Based Self-Directed Learning
Definition of Unschooling
The most common route to self-directed education today, as replacement for standard K–
12 schooling, is that generally referred to as unschooling. For legal purposes, unschooling
is a variety of homeschooling, but it differs from conventional homeschooling in that there
is no imposed curriculum. Here is how unschooling was defined for purposes of a survey
study of unschooling families in the United States (Gray & Riley, 2013):
Unschoolers do not send their children to school, and they do not do at home the
kinds of things that are done at school. More specifically, they do not establish a
curriculum for their children, they do not require their children to do particular
assignments for the purpose of education, and they do not test their children to
measure progress. Instead, they allow their children freedom to pursue their own
interests and to learn, in their own ways, what they need to know to follow those
interests. They also, in various ways, provide an environmental context and
environmental support for the child’s learning.
Life and learning do not occur in a vacuum; they occur in the context of a cultural environment, and unschooling parents help define and bring the child into contact with that environment.
As noted earlier, the term unschooling was coined, in the 1970s, by educational critic and
author John Holt, whose writings are still cited by many unschooling families as playing a
key role in their decision to take this educational route (Gray & Riley, 2013). Holt provided
guidance and encouragement for early unschooling families through his magazine Growing
without Schooling. After his death in 1985, the magazine was continued, until 2001, with
Patrick Farenga as editor. Today, a number of online magazines and newsletters are
dedicated to unschooling, one of the most prominent being Life Learning Magazine, edited
by Wendy Priesnitz.
Some in the unschooling movement, including Priesnitz (2016), prefer the term life learning
to unschooling, because it emphasizes what learners do rather than what they don’t do.
Generally, people who take this educational path don’t see education as separate from the
rest of life. All of life involves learning, and the net, lasting, cumulative effect of such
learning is education. Although it is not uncommon for unschoolers to take courses as part
of their education—such as online courses or courses at a local library, community center,
or community college—they do so only of their own free will, and they do not consider
courses to be their primary route to education.
As there is no official registry of unschoolers, there is no way to know just how many there
are. A common, semi-educated guess, made by people who organize homeschooling
conferences in the United States, is that approximately 10% of children registered as
homeschoolers are actually unschoolers (Gray & Riley, 2013). If this estimate is correct, then
the number of unschooling children in the United States today is approximately 180,000,
or about 0.34% of all U.S. school-aged children, as the most recent government statistics
report the total number of homeschooled children to be about 1,800,000, or 3.4% of
school-aged children (U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, 2015).
If the definition of unschoolers were expanded to include relaxed homeschoolers, who are provided a loose curriculum at home with great flexibility for choice and little enforcement, the number
would be much larger. Although the unschooling movement began in the United States,
unschooling families can now be found throughout much of the world, although in many
countries the practice must be carried on underground, because it is not a legal substitute
for curriculum-based schooling. Unschooling advocate and author Sandra Dodd lists, on
her website, unschooling networks in 19 nations (Dodd, 2016).
Unschooling Families and “Graduates” of Unschooling
Little formal research has been conducted of unschooling families and “graduates” of
unschooling. What follows is a brief summary of all such research found in a recent
Kirschner (2008) conducted an ethnographic study in which she visited 22 unschooling
families near a city in the northeastern United States and repeatedly visited a subset of
those families over a five-year period. Through qualitative analyses of her interviews and
home observations, she described unschooling not just as an educational choice, but as a
life choice. Unschooolers, as she saw them, were trying “to achieve an alternative way of
being human, an alternative moral and social order of sorts.” As a group, they strove to
live in nondominating harmony with one another and with nature. In addition to
unschooling, their lifestyle commonly included attachment parenting, concern for the
environment, natural foods, preference for homemade materials, and unhurried lives.
Using a method now known as netnography (Kozinets, 2015), Grunzke (2010) analyzed the
content of online mothering chat groups and bulletin boards, supplemented by an online
survey, to compare the viewpoints and lifestyles of unschooling mothers with those of
conventional homeschooling and schooling mothers. She concluded that unschoolers in
her sample were a cultural subgroup quite different from conventional homeschoolers. The
unschooling mothers, on average, engaged in far more “alternative parenting tasks”—such
as natural childbirth, no circumcising, having a family bed (co-sleeping with infants and
young children), extended breast-feeding, babywearing, and preparing whole or organic
foods—than did the conventional homeschooling mothers.
In contrast, she found no statistically significant difference between the homeschooling and public schooling mothers in their frequency of performing such tasks. She concluded that, at least in terms
of parenting practices, conventionally homeschooling mothers are more like public
schooling mothers than like unschooling mothers.
In a smaller study, English (2014) interviewed 30 unschooling families in Australia, with
findings quite consistent with those of Kirschner and Grunzke in the United States. Many of
her unschooling families chose that route for education because it matched their
attachment parenting philosophy.
Gray and Riley (2013) conducted a survey of 232 unschooling parents, mostly mothers and
mostly in the United States, to learn about their paths to unschooling and their perceptions
of its benefits and challenges. The participants were recruited through an announcement
on websites frequented by unschoolers. The survey revealed that only 28% of these
families started with unschooling, with their first child. The others all started with either
conventional schooling or curriculum-based homeschooling, or both (in sequence), before
switching to unschooling.
Those who unschooled from the beginning seemed to be most like the unschoolers described by Kirschner, Grunzke, and English; for them, unschooling typically followed naturally from a lifestyle that included natural living and attachment parenting. This was less true for the other groups, who were more likely to choose unschooling because of their perceptions that their children were unhappy or failing to thrive in school or in curriculum-based homeschooling, and/or because of their perceptions
of how much and how eagerly their children were learning on their own initiative, outside
of schooling or homeschooling. Why, they asked, should they fight with their children to
make them follow a curriculum when they were learning so well without one?
The most frequent benefits of unschooling reported by the whole sample in the survey
included improved learning, better attitudes about learning, and improved psychological
and social well-being for the children; and increased closeness, harmony, and freedom for
the whole family, which derived from not having to follow a school-imposed schedule. The
most frequent challenge expressed, by far, was that of overcoming feelings of criticism or
social pressure—from neighbors, relatives, society in general, and their own school ingrained ways thinking—that resulted from taking an educational path so different from
the societal norm. They found it useful to communicate with other unschooling families,
online and at conferences, in order to establish and maintain a new set of norms.
In a second study, Gray and Riley (2015), Riley and Gray (2015) surveyed 75 adults, over age
18, who had been unschoolers during at least what would otherwise have been their last
two years of high school. These participants, too, were recruited through an online
announcement on sites frequented by unschoolers. Twenty-four of the participants had
been unschooled for all of what elsewhere would have been their K–12 years; another 27
had some schooling or curriculum-based homeschooling, but none after grade 6; and the
remaining 24 had some schooling or curriculum-based homeschooling after 6th grade, but
none in what would have been grades 11 and 12. Their age range was 18 through 49
years, with median age 24. They responded, in writing, to open-ended questions about
their unschooling experiences, any formal higher education they had experienced following
their unschooling (including how they gained admission and how they adapted to it), their
current employment, their social life in childhood and in adulthood, the advantages and
disadvantages they experienced from their unschooling, and their judgement as to whether
or not they would unschool their own children.
Qualitative analyses of the responses led to the following conclusions: The great majority
reported that they were very happy with their unschooling and would most likely unschool
any children they might have, or were already unschooling their school-aged children.
Nearly all valued the freedom unschooling gave them to pursue their own interest in their
own ways, and many credited this childhood freedom as being a cause of their high levels
self-motivation, self-direction, personal responsibility, and interest in learning. Most said
they had satisfying social lives as unschoolers, and many commented on the special value
of having friends of a wide range of ages, which they believed would not have occurred if
they had been enrolled in school. Only three reported that they were, overall, unhappy
with their unschooling, and those three all indicated that they had been socially isolated, in
dysfunctional families, and that unschooling was not their own choice.
Sixty-two of the 75 respondents had gone on to some form of higher education, and 33 of
these had either completed or were currently enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program.
Overall, they reported little difficulty getting into colleges and universities of their choice
and adapting to the academic requirements there, despite not having the usual admissions
credentials. One unexpected finding was that those who had been unschooled throughout
their school-age years were more likely to go on to a bachelor’s program than were those
who had some schooling or curriculum-based homeschooling during those years. One
common route to a bachelor’s program was to take one or more community college
courses, often while still of high-school age, and then use the community college transcript
as part of their application. Many also reported that portfolios and interviews helped them
Concerning careers, despite their young median age and the economic recession at the
time, most reported that they were gainfully employed and financially independent. A high
proportion of them (compared to the general population) had chosen careers in the
creative arts (including writing and performing arts as well as visual arts); a high
proportion were self-employed entrepreneurs; and a relatively high proportion, especially
of the men, were in STEM careers. Most felt that their unschooling benefited them for
higher education and careers by promoting their capacity to take charge of their own lives
and learning. Many also described a natural transition from childhood play to adult
employment; they found employment that made direct use of the passions and skills they
had developed in play.
This study helps us understand how unschooling works when it works well, but, because
the sample was self-selected, we cannot know how representative it is of unschoolers in
general. At present it isn’t possible to identify and study a random or normative sample of
grown unschoolers, as there is no comprehensive registry or listing of them in the United
States or elsewhere from which to draw. At minimum, however, the study shows that, at
least for some, unschooling is quite compatible with a successful adult life in today’s
Schools for Self-Directed Education
The Free School Movement of the 1960s and Early ’70s
Many of the concepts that underlie unschooling today had their origins in the free school
movement of the 1960s and early ’70s, a period in which many dozens of radically
alternative schools called free schools were started, in which students were free to choose
their own activities and take charge of their own education. The history of this movement
is well documented in a book by Miller (2002) and in an exceptionally well-researched
undergraduate thesis by Hausman (1998). As Hausman points out, the free school
movement was intimately tied to and part of the larger, anti-establishment Movement
(with a capital M) of this time period. Concern about such issues as racial discrimination,
poverty, and the escalating Vietnam War prompted high levels of political activism among
young Americans and led many to question the morality of established institutions,
including the school system.
Two books published in 1960—both of which became bestsellers—helped set the stage for
the free school movement. One was Paul Goodman’s Growing up Absurd and the other was
A. S. Neill’s Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing. Goodman is credited with
providing much of the intellectual foundation for the movement (Miller, 2002). In this book,
and in his later book, Compulsory Miseducation (Goodman, 1964), Goodman contended that
schools and the mass media were dehumanizing people. The focus on material wealth,
superficial indices of achievement, and climbing the societal hierarchy or fitting cog-like
into the economic machine were causing people to lose touch with their emotional, wilful,
creative, spontaneous, and authentically social human nature. Neill’s book provided
readers with a model of a school with very different goals and means from conventional
schools, very much in keeping with the non -authoritarian ways of life envisioned by
Neill had founded a boarding school, called Summerhill, in the 1920s, where he was
principal until his death in 1973. It still exists today, in Suffolk, England, now with Neill’s
daughter Zoe Readhead as principal. The book, Summerhill, was a collection of some of
Neill’s previous writings, published in the United States along with a strongly supportive
forward by the well-known psychoanalyst and social critic Eric Fromm. At Summerhill,
children were largely free to do what they wanted, study or not study, and they were
involved in the school’s governance through school-wide meetings. Neill was far more
concerned with children’s happiness and healthy emotional development than with their
academic achievement. The book sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the 1960s, and
by 1970 it reportedly was assigned reading in approximately 600 university courses (Miller,
Soon after the publication of Neill’s book, the Summerhill Society was formed in the United
States, which published a bulletin that disseminated ideas and information supportive of
freedom in education. New, little private schools, referred to generally as free schools, began to sprout up throughout the US. The schools in many ways emulated Summerhill,
though they were day schools, not boarding schools. They were places for children to play,
explore, roughhouse if they chose, and take courses if they wanted to.
It’s impossible to know just how many of these schools were created, because they didn’t
all register with a central network. However, a count of schools that were listed in the New
Schools Exchange Directory, compiled by Hausman (1998), reveals a remarkably rapid rise
and fall of the number of such schools: from zero prior to 1964, to 50 in 1968, to about 320
in 1971; and then falling to about 240 in 1972, about 140 in 1975, about 55 in 1978. Most
of the schools were small, typically between 15 and 60 students; and their average
lifespan was about three years. The total enrollment in such schools, at the peak of the
movement in 1971, is estimated to be only about 10,000 students (Miller, 2002). So, in
terms of students served, the free school movement was always small, much smaller than
the number of children in unschooling families today.
On the basis of interviews of 17 people who had been intimately involved in the free school
movement, Hausman (1998) described a number of interrelated reasons for the movement’s
rapid decline in the 1970s. A major cause was the decline in the larger anti-establishment
Movement, as American society shifted toward more conservative values. Another was
lack of money. Public funding was not available for such radically different schools; and the
schools charged very low tuitions, partly because of the egalitarian desire to include
students from poor families and partly because people who could afford high tuitions were
rarely interested in sending their children to such anti-establishment (or at least
nonestablishment) schools. The idealists who had founded the schools and operated them
for little or no pay discovered, as time went on, that they needed to make a living, so they
left for other jobs and the schools collapsed. Personality differences and disagreements
among and between the staff members and parents also led to the demise of many
schools. Most of the schools had established no clear means to make decisions when
consensus couldn’t be reached, which led to partings of ways and the collapse of schools.
Some schools survived but were compromised in such a way that they could no longer be
classed as free schools, when new parents and staff members pushed for and instituted
changes that reduced children’s freedom and made the schools more like conventional
Today, as far as can be known, only two of the schools that were founded in the heyday of
the free school movement in the United States still exist with their philosophy intact. One
is the Albany Free School, founded in 1969, and the other is the Sudbury Valley School,
founded in 1968. Summerhill, too, still exists, now only a few years from a centennial
celebration (it has approximately 70 students). All three of these schools have survived
because of committed founders, who stuck with the school through difficult times, and
because they found ways to bring in enough money to pay staff members and developed
clear decision-making procedures that involve students and staff but not parents. Parents
at these successful schools have the power to enroll or remove their child, but do not have
power to alter the way the school operates.
Although the free school movement died out, its legacies remain. One legacy is the rise in
unschooling. It is interesting to note that John Holt’s earliest writings supported school
reforms and free schools, but by the early 1970s he was advocating homeschooling and
unschooling. His writings both reflected and helped to cause the shift from free schooling
to unschooling. Much of the pedagogical philosophy and language of the free school
movement can be found today in the writings and speeches of unschooling advocates.
Another legacy is the rise of democratic schools, of which Sudbury Valley and Summerhill
are leading exemplars.
Sudbury Valley and Other Democratic Schools
The founders of the Sudbury Valley School never embraced the term free school, because
to them the term connoted anarchy and lack of a formal governing system. They were less
inspired by Goodman and other radicals who believed that problems and disagreements
could be worked out organically and spontaneously in a free environment, and more
inspired by basic ideals of American democracy (Greenberg, 1970). They believed that
institutions work best when governed by the people they are supposed to serve, and so
they designed a school governed by its students. Sudbury Valley is, essentially, a
democratic community, in which students, who range in age from four through high-school
age, are accorded the full rights and responsibilities of democratic citizenry. The leading
philosopher among the group of founders was and is Daniel Greenberg, who to this day
remains as one of the school’s most active staff members and the most prolific exponent
of its philosophy.
Sudbury Valley is housed in a large Victorian farmhouse and remodeled barn on ten acres
of land in a semirural area in Framingham, Massachusetts. It admits students without
regard to any measures of academic performance and operates at a per-pupil cost about
half that of the surrounding public schools, but high enough to pay its staff members a
salary comparable to that of other private schools. The school currently has approximately
170 students and seven adult staff members. It is governed by the School Meeting, which
includes all students and staff members, at which each person, regardless of age, has a
vote. This body, led by an elected student chairperson, meets once a week and, following
Roberts Rules of Order, legislates all rules of behavior and establishes committees to
oversee the school’s day-to-day operations.
The rules are enforced by a Judicial Committee—modeled after the jury system of our larger society—which, at any given time, includes one staff member and several students who typically span the age range of students at the school. Most remarkably, the School Meeting also hires and fires the staff. All staff members are on one-year contracts, which must be renewed each year by a process that
includes a secret-ballot election. Greenberg and two other founding members have
survived this process, year after year, for what is now almost half a century; but many
others have come and gone over the years, some of whom were voted out. (For a
discussion of how all this works from a parent’s perspective, see Traxler, 2015.)
The educational philosophy of the school is essentially the same as that of a huntergatherer band. The assumption is that if young people have ample opportunity to play, explore, and follow their own interests, in an environment rich in educational opportunities, they will learn what they must for adult success.
The school gives no tests and does not in any way evaluate students’ progress. There is no curriculum and no attempt by staff members to motivate learning. Courses occur only when a group of students takes the initiative to organize one, and then the course lasts only as long as the students want it to
last. Many students never join a course. The staff members do not consider themselves to
be “teachers.” They are, instead, the adult members of the community. They are the more
mature and often more persuasive voices at school meetings, the people that students go
to with problems that other students can’t help them with, the ones most often designated
by the school meeting to carry out administrative tasks, and the interface between the
school and the larger community. Most of their “teaching” is of the same variety as can be
found in any human setting and similar to the ways in which students teach one another at
the school, through naturally occurring conversations and by responding naturally to
questions and requests for help.
Gray (2016) has contended that the Sudbury Valley School works well as a setting for self directed education because it provides, for our time and place, educational conditions that
are similar to those of a hunter-gatherer band. These include (1) the social expectation
that education is children’s responsibility (which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy); (2)
unlimited freedom to play, explore, contemplate, and pursue one’s own interests; (3)
access to the tools of the culture and opportunity to play with those tools (use them in
creative, self-directed ways); (4) access to a variety of adults, who are helpers, not judges
(people are more ready to seek help from someone who does not judge them than from
someone who does); (5) free age mixing among children and adolescents (younger
students acquire advanced skills and knowledge by observing and interacting with older
ones, and older students develop leadership and nurturing abilities by interacting with
younger one); and (6) immersion in a stable, moral, democratic community (which helps
students acquire a sense of responsibility for the community as a whole, not just for
Greenberg (1992) has long claimed that free age mixing is the key to learning at Sudbury
Valley, and research tends to bear that out. A quantitative study that took place over
several days revealed that more than half of the naturally occurring interactions among
students at the school involved students who were more than 28 months apart in age, and
a full 25% of them involved students who were more than 48 months apart (Gray &
Feldman, 1997). In a subsequent, long-term observational study, Gray and Feldman (2004)
identified many ways by which older children boosted younger ones into higher realms of
physical and intellectual activity, and taught them new skills and concepts, in their
naturally occurring age-mixed interactions, and also identified ways in which older children
practiced nurturing, leading, and natural teaching in interactions with younger ones. (For a
general review of research on the educational value of mixed-age groupings, see Gray,
Many schools have emerged, since the founding of Sudbury Valley, that are explicitly
modeled after that school and are informally referred to as “Sudbury schools.” Although
there is no official definition or list of such schools, and Sudbury Valley itself rejects the
idea of such a definition and list, Wikipedia (2016) currently identifies 34 such schools in the
United States and 13 in other countries, and names another nine such schools as “in
development.” Many of these schools are very small, struggling to attract enough students
to be financially viable, but others are well established and some rival Sudbury Valley in
number of students.
Sudbury Valley and the schools closely modeled after it are the most pristine exemplars of
democratic schooling. These are the schools that most fully involve students in school
governance and where staff members most fully leave students to choose and direct their
own activities. Many other schools that call themselves democratic schools bear
similarities to Sudbury schools in these respects, but do not go as far. Summerhill, for
example, seems to offer as much freedom as it legally can, but UK educational policy
requires the school to offer a standard set of courses and give state-required exams. The
school doesn’t require students to attend classes, but the mere presence of classes and
tests, which the students didn’t request, would seem to establish implicit if not explicit
educational expectations. The Alternative Education Resources Organization (2016) lists
approximately 250 democratic schools worldwide, broadly defined, although it is not clear
that all of them are currently operating. These schools vary widely in their degree of
democratic governance and degree of educational free choice. Many of these schools are
age-graded, like standard schools, so they lack the advantage of free age-mixing.
Israel, in addition to having three Sudbury model schools, has approximately 25 other
schools that are officially labeled by the government as “democratic schools” and that
receive at least some public funding. The largest is Hadera, with over 400 students. In
these schools, students have a significant voice in creating school rules and more control
over what and how they learn than do students in standard schools, but they nevertheless
must follow the outlines of a state-imposed curriculum and take courses where teachers
are ultimately in charge. Some evidence for the value of the greater choice and sense of
freedom in Israel’s democratic schools, compared with their standard public schools, is
found in a study that assessed students’ level of interest in science, in grades five through
eight, in the two types of schools (Vedder-Weiss & Fortus, 2011). The researchers found that
interest declined from grade to grade in the standard schools, which is consistent with
results of other studies, conducted elsewhere, showing that interest in academic subjects
generally, but especially in science, declines with years in school (e.g., Eccles, Wigfield,
Midgley, Reuman, MacIver, & Feldlaufer, 1993; Lepper, Corpus, & Iyengar, 2005; Osborne,
Simon, & Collins, 2003). In the democratic schools, however, interest in science did not
decline, but tended to increase. By eighth grade, students’ interest was substantially and
significantly greater in the democratic schools than in the standard ones. The result is
consistent with the claims of advocates of self-directed education that standard schooling
dampens curiosity while self-directed education does not.
Evidence of growing worldwide interest in democratic schooling is documented on the
website of the International Democratic Education Network (IDEN, 2016). The first
International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC) was held in Israel, in 1963, with
representatives from a small number of schools. Since then, IDEC has been held annually,
in a different country each year, with, in recent years, hundreds of attendees from 30 or
more different countries. There are also now annual conferences held by the European
Democratic Education Community (EUDEC) and the Australian Democratic Education
Community (ADEC). In 2016, the first ever conference of the Asia Pacific Democratic
Education Community (APDEC) was held, in Taiwan, with representatives from Taiwan,
Japan, Malaysia, Korea, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and India. For more about these
organizations and conferences, see websites at eudec.org, adec.edu.au, and apdec.org.
Follow-up Studies of Summerhill and Sudbury Valley Students
In the mid-1960s, Emmanual Bernstein located 50 former students of Summerhill who
were living in and around London and interviewed them in their homes. In an informal,
discursive report on these interviews, he concluded (Bernstein, 1968, pp. 131–134):
The majority of Summerhillians had only one major complaint against the school:
the lack of academic opportunity and inspiration along with the lack of inspired
teachers. . . . Throughout my visits I was to find Summerhill homes filled with
warmth and responsive understanding; they were happy, communicative
families. . . . My feelings were mainly positive. Almost all of its former students
were working; raising responsive children; enjoying life. And the group who
returned to the regular state schools were so enthusiastic about learning that they
caught up with the others within a year.
These former students occupied a wide range of careers and some had jobs that obviously
required a good deal of advanced education after leaving Summerhill (there were two
physicians, two lawyers, a zoologist, and a university professor in the group).
More recently, Lucas (2011) published a book based on extensive interviews of 15 former
Summerhill students, who had been at the school at different periods over its then 90-year
history. The book is more a history of the school and set of selected autobiographies than a
systematic study of former students, but the pictures of the interviewees that emerge are
quite consistent with Bernstein’s earlier conclusions. What these former students valued
most was the independence and adaptability the school fostered in them, and their life
stories showed how these characteristics had served them well.
In 1983, when Sudbury Valley was smaller than it now is and had been in existence for 15
years, Gray and Chanoff (1986) conducted a follow-up study of the school’s graduates. The
school’s directory listed 82 former students who met the researchers’ definition of
graduates—people who had been students at the school for at least two years and had left
at age 16 or older with no plans for further secondary education. They located 76 of those
graduates and 69 of them completed and returned the rather extensive survey
questionnaire (a response rate of 91% of those who could be located, or 84% of the total).
The questionnaire asked about their activities when they were students at the school, their
subsequent education and employment after leaving Sudbury Valley, and how their
attendance at such an unusual school may have handicapped or benefited them in their
Overall, those who had pursued higher education (about 75 per cent of the total) reported
no particular difficulties getting into the school of their choice or adapting to the academic
requirements. This was true for those who had been at Sudbury Valley for most or all of
what would elsewhere have been their K–12 years, as well as for those who had been there
for shorter periods. They were pursuing a wide variety of occupations, including business,
arts, science, medicine, other service professions, and skilled trades. Many of the
graduates were pursuing careers that were direct extensions of activities they had played
at as children. For example, one graduate, who had devoted much time to creating dolls’
clothes and then her own clothes when she was at the school, had become a pattern
maker in the high-fashion industry. Another, who had played extensively with boats as a
young girl, was now a ship captain. Another, who had devoted countless hours to creating
miniature clay models and tinkering with mechanical devices, had become a machinist and
inventor. Those who had become professional musicians, artists, or computer specialists all
had developed the relevant passions and skills in their freely chosen activities at the
Most of the graduates said that a major benefit of their Sudbury Valley education was the
high sense of personal responsibility and self-control, and continued motivation to learn,
that the school fostered. A few said they had felt somewhat handicapped, academically,
when they started college, but were able to make up their perceived deficiencies quickly. In
response to a final question, none said they regretted having gone to Sudbury Valley
rather than a more traditional school.
Subsequent to Gray and Chanoff’s study, the school itself conducted two more studies of
former students and published them as books (Greenberg & Sadofsky, 1992; Greenberg,
Sadofsky, & Lempka, 2005). The second of these is most relevant for understanding the
effectiveness of a Sudbury Valley education, as it focused exclusively on those who had
been students at the school for at least what would elsewhere have been their last three
years of high school and who had been out of the school for at least four years. The school
records indicated that a total of 199 former students met these criteria, and the
researchers managed to locate and interview 119 (60%) of them. The interviewer was a
person who was not associated with the school and was previously unknown to the
graduates, and the questions focused on a wide range of their experiences since leaving
the school. Among the findings were the following:
Eighty-one (68%) of these graduates had enrolled in four-year colleges at some point after
graduation, and an additional 11 had pursued some other form of education. Most who
went on to college reported no unusual difficulty getting into the school of their choice.
Most who went to college reported that they were very satisfied with their college
experiences. Some, however, said they had difficulty adapting, at first, to the deadlines
and requirements, and some complained that the rigid requirements, hierarchical
structure, and immature classmates at college made their educational experience less
than it could have been.
This study, like the earlier one by Chanoff and Gray, revealed that the graduates had gone
on to a wide variety of jobs and careers. Relative to the general population, particularly
high proportions of them had gone on in the fields of arts and design, community and
social services, and computers and math. In response to the question of why they had
chosen the line of work they were in, 65% talked about their passion for and enjoyment of
the work, and 42% talked about the value of serving others. Other questions revealed that
the graduates generally saw their primary personal strengths as responsibility, selfconfidence, commitment, ability to relate well to others, and self-control over their own
lives. Consistent with the democratic nature of Sudbury Valley, an analysis of their
discussions about personal values indicated highest ranking for what the researchers
referred to as “American values,” but what might better be called “democratic values,”
including egalitarianism, freedom, respect/tolerance, responsibility, and the rights of
Directions for Further Research
This final section presents three broad interrelated questions, or sets of questions, that
could guide further research: (1) Would self-directed education succeed for the majority of
people, if it were available to them? (2) How does self-directed education work, and what
are the environmental conditions that optimize its effectiveness? Most especially, how do
self-directed learners acquire the literary and numeracy skills that are seen as “basics” in
our standard school system? (3) What are the long-term psychological consequences of
greater freedom in childhood? Put differently, how does the experience of having
responsibility and freedom to direct one’s own education affect a person’s character and
outlook on life? None of these questions will have simple answers. The answers will
necessarily be nuanced and contingent, and an aim of research should be to understand
some of the nuances and contingencies.
The first question is most directly relevant to educational policy. At present, in many
countries, Sudbury model schools and unschooling are illegal, because they do not satisfy
government criteria for adequate education. That is technically true even in many states in
the United States, though people with sufficient resources and determination have
managed to find ways to get past the legal roadblocks. The underlying societal assumption
is that, without curriculum-based schooling, many people would grow up lacking the skills
required to support themselves and contribute meaningfully to the society as a whole, so
all children must be compelled to go through such schooling.
Unschooling and democratic schooling present special challenges to policy makers,
because there is no short-term way to assess their effectiveness. With standard schooling,
assessment is generally conducted with standardized test. If tests reveal that students
have learned what they are supposed to learn at their age and grade level, as dictated by
the curriculum, then the schooling is deemed successful. But when there is no imposed
curriculum, this method is senseless. A fundamental premise of self-directed education is
that different people will learn different things, and to the degree that they learn the same
things they will learn them at different times, so there can be no standardized testing.
A research study by Martin-Chang, Gould, and Meuse (2011), in Canada, illustrates this
problem. These researchers set out to compare homeschooling children with a
demographically similar group of public school children, ages five to ten, on standardized
academic tests. As part of the study, they interviewed mothers of the homeschoolers
about their homeschooling methods and found that 12 of them described their methods as
very relaxed and unstructured and nine in that group used the term unschooling in
describing their method. As something of an afterthought, they decided to separate these
12 from the other homeschoolers and treat them as a separate group. They found that the
“structured homeschoolers” significantly outperformed the traditionally schooled group on
all of the academic tests, but the “unstructured homeschoolers” scored significantly lower
than structured homeschoolers, and also lower than the traditionally schooled group (but
this difference not statistically significant). This study was interpreted by some, in the
popular press, as evidence for structured homeschooling and against unschooling, but that
is certainly a misinterpretation. It should be no surprise to anyone that children, age five to
ten, who have been studying a standard school curriculum would perform better on tests
of that curriculum than those who have not been studying it. The unschoolers may well
have been learning other lessons, equally or even more important to the long run of their
lives, but these were not on the test. The largest gap between the unstructured group and
the structured group was in reading. Informal surveys have revealed that unschooled
children often don’t learn to read until several years later than the standard school age for
reading, but then become highly proficient readers, quite quickly, once they develop an
interest (Gray, 2010A). It seems quite likely that at least some of the “unstructured” children
in the Martin-Chang et al. (2011) study would not yet have begun to read.
Any real assessment of the effectiveness of self-directed learning would have to take a
longer and broader view. How do people educated in this way adapt to the realities of life?
Are they able to support themselves as adults? If they wish to go to college, are they able
to gain admission into college and benefit from the education there? Are they happy? Do
they contribute in valuable ways to the larger society? Perhaps even more a propos, how
do they define success in life and what steps are they taking to achieve that? The follow-up
studies of Sudbury Valley and Summerhill students, and of unschoolers, are a start in
answering such questions, but it would be useful to conduct such studies with broader
samples and to compare results for people from various backgrounds. Some of the newer
Sudbury model schools (e.g., the Philly Free School) are providing scholarships for inner
city children whose families can’t afford tuition, and it would be valuable, as time goes on,
to follow that population into adulthood.
The second question, about how self-directed education works, could be addressed
through systematic observational and interview studies of self-directed learners. Gray and
Feldman’s (2004) study of the learning opportunities occurring in age-mixed interactions at
Sudbury Valley is one step in that direction. Many parents contemplating self-directed
education for their children worry that they may not learn to read, write, or calculate with
numbers. Informal surveys indicate that essentially all self-directed learners acquire these
skills, but do so at a wide range of ages and in a wide range of ways (Gray, 2010A, 2010B).
Sometimes they ask for and receive direct instruction (usually only a little of it), but more
often they seem to pick up these skills in the course of everyday experience in a literate
and numerate social environment. Systematic studies could lead to greater understanding
of how self-directed learners acquire the three Rs and the conditions that facilitate such
The third question begs researchers to think of education as something much broader than
acquisition of the kinds of skills and knowledge that constitute a typical school curriculum.
How do young people learn to take responsibility for themselves? How do they learn to
control their emotions, to think critically or creatively, to get along well with other people?
How do they acquire values and learn to guide their lives in accordance with those values?
These are the kinds of qualities that grown unschoolers and Sudbury schoolers wrote or
talked about most often in response to questions about what they gained from their
unschooling experience. These qualities cannot be taught; they can only be acquired in
self-directed ways. It may well be that the freedom, including the opportunities for
reflection and self-examination, that is part and parcel of self-directed education tends to
optimize these aspects of development.
A considerable body of research, not generally thought of as having do to with self-directed
education, has shown positive developmental correlates of autonomy. A number of studies
have shown that increased autonomy in childhood is predictive of heightened creativity,
satisfying interpersonal relationships, and increased psychological well-being and
resilience (reviewed by Ryan, Deci, Grolnick, & La Guardia, 2006). In a classic longitudinal
study, children whose parents allowed them more freedom at home were subsequently
judged by teachers, in grades 6 and 9, to be more creative, resourceful, curious,
independent, and confident than children who had experienced less freedom at home
(Harrington, Block, & Block, 1987). More recently, a correlational study revealed that young
children who were permitted more time by their parents to do as they chose rather than
engage in adult-structured activities, performed better on a test of self-directed executive
functioning—a test that had previously been shown to predict future real-life problemsolving ability—than those who had less free time (Barker, Semenov, Michaelson, Provan,
Snyder, & Munakata, 2014). Ideas about development that derive from research of this sort
could be expanded in studies of children taking paths of self-directed education.
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