Jane Mount/MindShift
Jane Mount/MindShift

Peter Gray has studied how learning happens without any academic requirements at a democratic school. The Boston College research professor also wrote about the long history and benefits of age-mixed, self-directed education in his book Free to Learn. Over the years, as he encountered more and more families who had adopted this approach at home (these so-called “unschoolers” are estimated to represent about 10 percent of the more than two million homeschooled children), he began to wonder about its outcomes in that setting. Finding no academic studies that adequately answered his question, he decided to conduct his own.

In 2011, he and colleague Gina Riley surveyed 232 parents who unschool their children, which they defined as not following any curriculum, instead letting the children take charge of their own education. The respondents were overwhelmingly positive about their unschooling experience, saying it improved their children’s general well-being as well as their learning, and also enhanced family harmony. Their challenges primarily stemmed from feeling a need to defend their practices to family and friends, and overcoming their own deeply ingrained ways of thinking about education. (The results are discussed at length here.)

This led Gray to wonder how unschooled children themselves felt about the experience, and what impact it may have had on their ability to pursue higher education and find gainful and satisfying employment. So last year, he asked readers of his blog to disseminate a survey to their networks, and received 75 responses from adults ranging in age from 18 to 49; almost all of them had had at least three years of unschooling experience. They were split almost evenly among three groups: those who had never attended school; those who had only attended school for some portion of kindergarten through sixth grades; and those with either type of early experience who had also attended school for some portion of seventh through 10th grades, but not afterward. (The results are explained in detail in Gray’s recent four-part blog series, which begins here.)

He was satisfied with the number of responses, but cautions that, as with many social science studies, the necessarily limited collection method may have produced a biased sample that may not represent the entire population of unschoolers. Such studies can nevertheless yield useful insights, he says, especially when considered in concert with other data, such as other surveys, or patterns that emerge from anecdotal accounts.

Gray found that the results did correlate closely with his more thorough studies of alumni from the Sudbury Valley School (a democratic school in Sudbury Valley, Massachusetts), as well as what he’d personally heard from unschoolers, and what he’d read online. Moreover, even taken in isolation, “what the study does unambiguously show,” he says, “is that it is possible to take the unschooling route and then go on to a highly satisfying adult life.”

The Pros and Cons of Unschooling

All but three of the 75 respondents felt the advantages of unschooling clearly outweighed the disadvantages. Almost all said they benefited from having had the time and freedom to discover and pursue their personal interests, giving them a head start on figuring out their career preferences and developing expertise in relevant areas. Seventy percent also said “the experience enabled them to develop as highly self-motivated, self-directed individuals,” Gray notes on his blog. Other commonly cited benefits included having a broader range of learning opportunities; a richer, age-mixed social life; and a relatively seamless transition to adult life. “In many ways I started as an adult, responsible for my own thinking and doing,” said one woman who responded to Gray’s survey.

“Very few had any serious complaints against unschooling,” Gray says, and more than a third of the respondents said they could think of no disadvantages at all. For the remainder, the most significant disadvantages were: dealing with others’ judgments; some degree of social isolation; and the challenges they experienced adjusting to the social styles and values of their schooled peers.

Social isolation (cited by 21 percent of respondents) usually stemmed from a dearth of other nearby unschoolers and the difficulty of socializing with school children with busy schedules and a “different orientation toward life,” Gray says. He cautions that it’s best to consider these results within the broader cultural context: “If I were to ask people who went to school, I would probably find a similar number who felt socially isolated.”

What stood out, he adds, is that “many more said they felt their social experiences were better than they would have had in school.” Sixty-nine percent were “clearly happy with their social lives,” he says, and made friends through such avenues as local homeschooling groups, organized afterschool activities, church, volunteer or youth organizations, jobs, and neighbors. In particular, “they really treasured the fact that they had friends who were older or younger, including adults. They felt this was a more normal kind of socializing experience than just being with other people your age.”

Only 11 percent said they felt behind in one or more academic areas (most commonly math), which they overcame by applying themselves when the need arose. Only two felt their learning gaps hindered them from succeeding in life, and judging by their full responses, “it was almost more like a self-image issue—they grew up feeling ignorant and then made choices based on that feeling,” Gray says. More typical experiences were like that of a woman who earned a B.A. in both computer science and mathematics, despite entering college without any formal math training beyond fifth grade. Another noted that unschooling “follows the premise that if a child has a goal, they’ll learn whatever they need to in order to meet it. For instance, I don’t like math, but I knew I would need to learn it in order to graduate. So that’s what I did.”

Three people were very dissatisfied overall. In all three cases, the respondents said their mothers were in poor mental health and the fathers were uninvolved. Two of the three also happened to be the only ones who mentioned having been raised in a fundamentalist religious home, though the survey didn’t ask this question specifically. It appeared to Gray that the unschooling was not intentional—the parent had aimed to teach a religious curriculum, “but was incompetent and stopped teaching,” he notes. In all of these cases, the children’s contact with other people was also very restricted; moreover, they were not given any choice about their schooling and therefore felt deprived of school.

Can Unschoolers be “College and Career Ready”?

Overall, 83 percent of the respondents had gone on to pursue some form of higher education. Almost half of those had either completed a bachelor’s degree or higher, or were currently enrolled in such a program; they attended (or had graduated from) a wide range of colleges, from Ivy League universities to state universities and smaller liberal-arts colleges.

Several themes emerged: Getting into college was typically a fairly smooth process for this group; they adjusted to the academics fairly easily, quickly picking up skills such as class note-taking or essay composition; and most felt at a distinct advantage due to their high self-motivation and capacity for self-direction. “The most frequent complaints,” Gray notes on his blog, “were about the lack of motivation and intellectual curiosity among their college classmates, the constricted social life of college, and, in a few cases, constraints imposed by the curriculum or grading system.”

Most of those who went on to college did so without either a high school diploma or general education diploma (GED), and without taking the SAT or ACT. Several credited interviews and portfolios for their acceptance to college, but by far the most common route to a four-year college was to start at a community college (typically begun at age 16, but sometimes even younger).

None of the respondents found college academically difficult, but some found the rules and conventions strange and sometimes off-putting. Young people who were used to having to find things out on their own were taken aback, and even in some cases felt insulted, “when professors assumed they had to tell them what they were supposed to learn,” Gray says.

In the words of one woman: “I already had a wealth of experience with self-directed study. I knew how to motivate myself, manage my time, and complete assignments without the structure that most traditional students are accustomed to. … I know how to figure things out for myself and how to get help when I need it.” Added another: “I discovered that people wanted the teacher to tell them what to think. … It had never, ever occurred to me to ask someone else to tell me what to think when I read something.”

All survey respondents were also asked about their employment status and career, and 63 answered a follow-up survey asking about their work in more detail. More than three-quarters of those who answered the follow-up survey said they were financially self-sufficient; the rest were either students, stay-at-home parents, or under the age of 21 and launching businesses while living at home. But a number of those who were self-sufficient noted that this hinged on their ability to maintain a frugal lifestyle (several added that this was a conscious choice, allowing them to do enjoyable and meaningful work).

The range of jobs and careers was very broad—from film production assistant to tall-ship bosun, urban planner, aerial wildlife photographer, and founder of a construction company—but a few generalizations emerged. Compared to the general population, an unusually high percentage of the survey respondents went on to careers in the creative arts—about half overall, rising to nearly four out of five in the always-unschooled group. Similarly, a high number of respondents (half of the men and about 20 percent of the women) went on to science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) careers. (The same held true in another recent survey of unschoolers.) “STEM careers are also kind of creative careers—they involve looking for something, seeking answers, solving problems,” Gray says. “When you’re looking at it that way, it sort of fits.”

The reason for this correlation is something this survey can’t answer. “Maybe unschooling promotes creativity, or maybe dispositionally creative people or families are more likely to choose unschooling,” Gray says. “It’s probably a little bit of both.”

Additionally, just more than half of the respondents were entrepreneurs (this category overlapped considerably with the creative arts category). But what Gray found most striking is the complete absence (in both this and his Sudbury study samples) of “the typical person who gets an MBA and goes on to become an accountant or middle manager in some business. People with these educational backgrounds don’t go on to bureaucratic jobs. They do work in teams, but where there is a more democratic relationship within the team.”

He adds that this trend manifests across white- and blue-collar careers. “In the Sudbury survey, there were people working as carpenters or auto mechanics, etcetera, but in situations where they were occupationally self-directed, set their own schedules, and solved their own problems, rather than shuffled papers, or worked on assembly lines where no original work was being done.” In other words, he says, unschoolers of all types had overwhelmingly chosen careers high in those qualities that sociologists have found lead to the highest levels of work satisfaction.

What Factors Matter Most in Unschooling

Finally, the survey offered some insights about what makes for successful unschooling. Parents’ involvement levels with their children differed a lot, Gray says. Some were more hands-off, whereas others helped with learning, and in some cases even learned things (such as a foreign language) alongside their child, following the child’s lead. “All of those ways seem to work,” he says. “People only complained when they felt their parents were negligent about treating the child as a human being who has needs—including emotional needs—and who helped fill those needs.”

The results also led to another important conclusion: “The need for parents to be aware that children need more than their families,” Gray says. “People are designed to learn not just from their own parents, but from the wider world. If you don’t send your child to school where they’re automatically connected to other kids, other values, etcetera, it’s important to find a way that the family can be sufficiently involved in the larger community, or that the child has ways to be involved. Kids need that both socially and for their learning.” This ties in with the fact that “a major complaint of the three who disliked unschooling was that their parents isolated them and prevented them from exploring outside of the family or outside of the insular group with which the family was tied,” Gray adds on his blog.

In sum: “The findings of our survey suggest that unschooling can work beautifully if the whole family, including the children, buy into it, if the parents are psychologically healthy and happy, and if the parents are socially connected to the broader world and facilitate their children’s involvement with that world. It can even work well when some of these criteria are not fully met.”

How do Unschoolers Turn Out? 2 September,2014Luba Vangelova

  • Akira Bear

    I agree that it is probably possible to be unschooled and then go out as an adult and get a formal education in college – in some cases (way less than half, I would imagine, which would negate this as an educational plan). I do not support home schooling because most parents cannot teach all the subjects that a child needs to learn in order to get a well-rounded education. Just as no teacher teaches all subjects, no parent should teach all subjects in the upper grades. It just doesn’t work.

    • An Unschooler

      Hi Akira,

      As a long time-unschooler (admittedly I did choose, to my parent’s chagrin, to spend some time in a public school… but it was my education so why would their chagrin really matter?) I feel I can speak in an informed manner on this topic.

      One of the primary tenants of unschooling is that the kid directs their own education, usually from an early age, so they aren’t typically put into a situation where they rely on a parent teaching them a subject. As a group we typically figure out early in life how we, as individuals, learn best, and then leverage that basic understanding of how our brains work to overcome this sort of problem.

      In my case, I’d estimate that ~80% of the material I learned was self-taught, through books and experiential education with guidance and support from my parents. When I eventually happened across the 20% I couldn’t self-teach effectively, I had the tools to independently seek out resources in my community — in my case, this took the form of seeking mentorship from others in my community, and eventually early enrollment (at 15) in college courses for more advanced topics. I’ve since attended a prestigious 4-year college, worked (and thrived) in multiple highly competitive jobs, and started businesses — and I’m not yet 30.

      I’m good friends with a number of other unschoolers from across the country, and their experiences mirror mine — even when parents could teach subjects, they used them as guides and support systems, not as their primary educators. To a one, this group is doing admirably well; some are PhD or MD candidates in the top programs for their fields, many are doing research or doing other work in STEM fields, others are running successful companies, and still others are teaching, doing non-profit work, or creating meaningful, successful careers in the arts. The lack of a group of adults who could teach them subjects in a traditional manner didn’t stifle their ability to acquire knowledge, never negatively impacted their advanced education, and most will argue passionately that their successes to date hinge on the fact that they weren’t put through a traditional secondary school.

      • Akira Bear

        You must be a pretty amazing person. Most kids aren’t that self-directed. When virtual school was introduced here, thousands of kids signed on. The following year, most of them returned to school because they failed. Too much independence. They could procrastinate all they wanted until it was too late to make the work up. There are a few who are successful, though – and you obviously fall into that category. Kudos to you for having that drive at such an early age. You must know that you and the other unschoolers you know are not the norm. I have met many parents who advocate home schooling for their children and do not teach certain subjects well or, really, at all.

        • Luba V.

          Virtual school is not the same thing as unschooling; it’s just school in a different format. It’s the presence or lack of a compelled curriculum that makes the difference, not the format or how much independence the students are granted to choose from a set menu of classes, or to choose how they do the lessons that someone else mandated. It’s fundamentally about whether the student is driving his/her education, or whether someone else is trying to drive it for them.

          • Akira Bear

            But you do agree that the learners have to be self-directed, right?

          • Rachel

            It is perhaps a difficult perspective to grasp, but, from the unschooling point of view, children lack motivation only when they are denied freedom of choice. In other words, if a child lacks motivation it will be because of external factors (i.e., strong controls in their environment, and/or expectations from adults about how/what/when they ‘should’ be learning), rather then internal ones. Unschoolers view all children as endlessly motivated, curious, and eager to learn. Given the freedom to choose what they want to do with their time, young people will play, explore, learn, ask questions, and master tasks all day long. Unschoolers have discovered that this state of being does not end in early childhood, but continues through late childhood, adolescence, and adulthood – if given the chance. In my experience, An’s post is typical/normal for an unschooler.

            My husband and I have experienced the contrast of structured school vs. unschooling first hand. Our two children went to public school through the 4th grade. Although high performers in that arena, they were stressed, unhappy and unmotivated at school. We decided to give homeschooling/unschooling a try and embarked on a year-long experiment as a family. Over the course of this time we have seen our kids blossom into excited, alive, and passionate young people. They are now busy with their interests all day long, and It turns out they are fascinated by all kinds of subjects we weren’t aware of before (i.e., history, myths, music/band, Aikido, ancient oriental armor, reading and writing fiction, comedy, psychology, earning and saving money, cooking, etc.) I know that there are children in the world who love school, and therefore thrive in that environment. However, I am starting to realize that it’s not because of school that a child learns. A child learns whenever/wherever he/she feels happy and fulfilled. If a child is happy and fulfilled in a school environment, then he/she will be motivated to learn there. If a child is happy and fulfilled following their own interests, he/she will do their best learning that way. In any event, to be able to choose a less structured path for our children’s education, and then to witness the benefits of that, is liberating, satisfying, and deeply relieving.

          • Natural Learner

            Akira, the problem I see with all type of school structure (school, school at home or virtual school, in one word ‘schooling’) is that there is a certain standard the curriculum aims for and teachers expect students to be self-directed towards someone else’s goals.

            While self-directed learning in the unschooling sense means that the child, student follows their OWN interest, sets their OWN goals, regardless of what others expect of them.

          • Akira Bear

            When these kids grow up and get jobs, won’t they have to be directed towards someone else’s goals?

            Listen, don’t get me wrong. I do not oppose unschooling. I would have loved to have had the opportunity to learn this way. For the majority of kids, though, who live in poverty and face a wealth of socio-economic problems, this will not be the learning opportunity that they get. For those who do have the parental support and are encouraged to learn this way, I think it’s great.

          • Natural Learner

            When they get a job, it’s still going to be their choice and their own goal. I don’t really see what you mean by ‘somebody else’s’.

            Yes, they may work for an employer, but if it’s their own wish to earn money and their choice how to earn that money, it’s still following their own goals.

            But in saying that, a lot of unschoolers attend uni or college to gain employment or skill and knowledge (which is also their own choice), or start their own businesses. Unschooling doesn’t mean refusal to study in a school setting, but only if it’s their own wish.

          • kgelner

            Unschooling without question lifted me out of the lower socio-ecenmic rungs. You are right that parental support is important but it can be just one parent.

            When you get a job you are only “directed towards someone else’s goals” so long as YOU ALSO derive benefit from it. That is the value that an unschoolijng background gives you, it makes you realize that you can extract value from something and then move on. Far too many people in this world move from school to job because they are the same thing, a structure someone else chooses for them. They don’t realize that working for someone is really a two-way street, to think about it in terms of what YOU learn from a job you can use in future employment (or self-employment).

          • Unschooler

            “Self directed” – to an unschooler – means that there isn’t any curriculum imposed on the child. Thus, all the learning occurs as the child is freely living and enjoying their daily, personal pursuits. You can bet that most of those pursuits are NOT tests, worksheets or online academics.

            As normal, busy unschoolers, we see so many children come to our groups after having been schooled for years… who have to “de-school”. Essentially, they have to learn how to learn all over again. They are expecting their parents to tell them what to do, what to learn, etc., and it’s a big process to de-school – for both the kids AND the parents.

          • Akira Bear

            I understand what you are saying. And I think that the push for Common Core right now is a terrible thing that is turning our schools into the Dystopian Mills. Please understand that teachers are not behind this push for increased regimentation. We are fighting it as hard as we can.

          • Keleborn Telperion

            Grace Llewellyn in The Teenage Liberation Handbook referred to this deschooling period as the “detox period” and that previously schooled youngsters can easily spend a year doing what many adults describe as “spacing out” before they are able to find interests of their own that they can actively pursue. It is doubtful that this process can or should be hurried; after all, quite a few novelists describe going through a similar process on the way to arriving at a really compelling plot idea that they then begin to work on with energy and diligence.

          • Luba V.

            I think others have already addressed your question, but I will just add that all children (barring any really serious cognitive disabilities) start out as self-directed learners, when they are infants and toddlers.

          • Akira Bear

            I certainly have to agree with you there.

          • Tasha

            All learners are self directed. I would suggest that real learning only happens when a student is curious, when a student is searching. That is why what goes on in a classroom involves a lot of things that are not learning like rote memorization, performing for rewards like trained seals, and pleasing the teacher.

          • Learners have to be given the opportunity and be encouraged to learn. Its a bit of an art and a science actually. You figure out what the kid is interested in and the way they learn best and eventually they find a topic they want to pursue and its all they do some times. It took my kid until 7th grade before he figured that out. Up until then it felt like what we were doing was crazy. I never imagined him being truly self-directed or driven to learn. Boy was I wrong. That kid is rockin’ his education. But it took several years to get to that. I know he will do great in college and chances are quite good that he will get an advanced degree.

          • Learners can be taught to be self-directing as hey discover their passion in the exercise of the tasks they undertake.
            The “guide-by-the-side” teacher worsd best as a provocateur.

        • Evelyn

          It is generally accepted in the homeschooling world that when a child leaves traditional schooling for *any* form of nontraditional schooling, there is a significant adjustment period. It does not surprise me at all that kids who are programmed to follow someone else’s lead, to ignore their own learning urges (because there is no time when the day is eaten up with school) are going to have a really hard time adjusting to unschooling. I have personally experienced the very different family culture and adjustment periods that come with outschooling, homeschooling with a curriculum, and unschooling. It was tough every time.

          • Akira Bear

            I agree that there needs to be a period of adjustment. However, your post implies that in all traditional school settings children are taught dependency. I do disagree with that. And please understand, I am no apologist for the public school system.

          • Evelyn

            “Dependency” sounds very negative. I believe that in all traditional school settings, they are taught to FOLLOW. To follow rules (which may be arbitrary and/or based on the setting), to follow the other kids, and my main point: to follow a curriculum, to be dependent on somebody else telling them what to be focused on today. When I was a kid in school, I blasted through the curriculum to get to what I really wanted to do, and I was smart enough and fast enough to persist. My younger daughter has so many worksheets that she simply does not have time to get around to doing what actually interests her. My older daughter can articulate that she is losing her sense of drive to explore the world, because she doesn’t have time. It’s all eaten up with curriculum, and she feels discouraged and is giving up. I can only imagine kids who only know years of being told what to study, trying to figure out what it means to be self-directed.

        • aikimoe

          Most homeschooling parents hire tutors or have co-ops for the subjects they don’t know very well.

        • kgelner

          You are so wrong – most kids ARE that self directed. They lack that self direction only after many years of traditional school, because why would they keep self direction they could not use? In traditional school the choice of what to learn is made for them. If you were forced not to walk for six years you wouldn’t be able to walk very well after; is it any wonder after six years of not being able to learn what you want that kids are not very self-directed?

    • Unschooler

      The proof is in the pudding. Grown unschoolers appear to be doing quite well in life, as shown in this survey. Your comment about why you don’t support homeschoolers shows a total lack of understanding about how homeschooling works, let alone unschooling.

      But this is not about “homeschooling” it’s about “unschooling”… which can be very difficult to visualize because you work in a school setting, so you have to really wrap your brain around an entirely different dynamic than you are used to.

    • Unschool->College@14->$250k/yr

      That’s why people do studies like this . . .

      So that uninformed/anecdotally-derived opinions can be corrected based on fact.

    • I find your opinion about that pretty sad. There are some truly wonderful online programs that let the kids learn via internet. I haven’t actually taught a class since he studied Trig – although I feel I could easily teach him anything he wants to learn. I have a degree in engineering. I also studied theater and I still continue to learn and master lessons for my online business. Maybe it doesn’t work for you. But saying it just doesn’t work is a pretty limiting opinion. Community Colleges across the nation let homeschool kids take classes. I know in one state kids can begin attending at age 14. So lots of kids get some of their classes done that way. And some of those classes actually count towards college.

    • kgelner

      I would say 95% of the homeschooling families I knew had kids go onto college. For me it was not only “possible” to go to college but I had a MUCH easier time when I got there than high school kids did because I had already been studying on my own the way you need to in college. I was used to researching topics and using libraries, as you have to do in college. I was used to having an incredibly diverse set of friends of all ages (including much older friends) so I was much less reluctant to talk to professors or older students about how to solve problems.

  • MomThatIsStillUnschooling

    Akira, it seems you have little to no experience with homeschoolers/unschoolers, especially those with older children. One of the most important parts of unschooling, in my opinion, is instilling the skill to find the knowledge you need. A parent, just as any person, does have a limited amount of knowledge, but there is a vast, unlimited amount of knowledge available in our community through local educators, programs, museums, libraries, internet etc. A child only has to have the desire to access that wealth of knowledge and a parent is there to facilitate that. It’s kinda of like telling a kid to look of the definition of a word in the dictionary when they are not sure what it means… only with life.

    • Akira Bear

      Actually, I have quite a bit of experience with them. I teach in a program that serves children who are too ill to go to school. Many private school and home schooling families turn to us when they are dealing with medical issues for their children. I do agree that the idea works, however, when children are encouraged to be self-directed learners. Not all children are. In fact, I would surmise, from my experiences, that very few are.This is not the norm and it isn’t for everybody.

      • Unschooler

        You teach in a program for kids who are “too ill to go to school”? So the kids you see are in families who WANT them in school, but can’t send them there? If that is the case, then you’re not dealing with unschooled kids. You may have some homeschooled kids, but not unschooled.

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  • Truth seeker

    It is interesting to note that this article says it is about unschooling and yet says some of those included had only been unschool 3 years or more. That means the bulk of their education came in the form of lessons. People who responded also talked about lessons, which means they were also schooled!

    • Peter Gray

      Truth seeker, for more details please see my Psychology Today articles on this study, which begin here: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201406/survey-grown-unschoolers-i-overview-findings

      As you will see there, I broke the full group into three nearly equal-sized sub-groups based on amount of schooling they had in their K-12 years. One group had no schooling (including no homeschooling) at all; another had none past 6th grade, and another had some schooling past 6th grade. I show the data separately for the three groups. It’s interesting to note that those with no schooling were MORE likely to go on to a bachelor’s degree or higher than were the other two groups.

      And, yes, it is true that some of them took lessons–for example, music lessons–but this was always self-chosen, never part of an imposed curriculum, and took up only a tiny fraction of the amount of time that school would take,

      -Peter Gray

      • Peter – I love that you did this study. The hardest part about being a homeschool or unschool parent is the look you get when someone asks what grade your child is in or what school they go to. Those who have heard of homeschooling often jump to the conclusion that you are some religious person who is brainwashing your child and not letting them learn about the world, science, etc. We are actually on the opposite of that extreme. I’m an engineer. My son is a very dedicated scientist. He debates about politics, psychology, science, and all sorts of things. He probably has more knowledge about the “real world” (or what its like to really be out there in business and working life) than many publicly educated kids.

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  • Bill Fitzgerald

    Is there any description of race and/or socioeconomic status among the participants?

    It would help to know more demographic information about the population that responded, and how representative they are of the US population.

    • Unschooler

      I’m not sure if there have been studies about unschoolers, specifically, regarding the demographic information. This article is a bit old, but might give you some perspective about the demographics on homeschooling, in general (not unschooling):


      Some quotes:
      “Survey research has revealed a heterogeneous population of home schoolers and higher rates of minority home schooling than expected.”
      “Increasing participation in home schooling among African Americans has drawn media attention in recent years.”
      “Growth in home schooling can be spotted among other ethnic and religious groups as well.”

      I live in a large, metropolitan area so I see quite a wide variety of homeschoolers from all races, religions, and economic situations. I would definitely say that even within the smaller portion of homeschoolers that unschool – it is STILL a heterogeneous population.

    • Aside from the articles I already tweeted to you, which show unschooling principles being applied in very low or mixed-SES school settings (http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2013/11/subverting-the-system-student-and-teacher-as-equals/ and http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2014/07/this-is-what-a-student-designed-school-looks-like/, for the benefit of other readers here), I thought of a couple of studies that relate to unschooling and extremely low SES students in other parts of the world.

      Sugata Mitra’s experiments describe what illiterate children in India were able to learn on their own (https://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_shows_how_kids_teach_themselves). And along similar lines in Ethiopia: http://www.technologyreview.com/news/506466/given-tablets-but-no-teachers-ethiopian-children-teach-themselves/.

      There’s also this story set in a poor community in Mexico, which isn’t about unschooling per se, but is taking things in that general direction: http://www.wired.com/2013/10/free-thinkers/all/.

    • Sutrascave

      http://www.collegeathome.com/homeschool-domination/ regardless of race, gender, and socio-economic class, homeschoolers are doing better than the general population. Where it applies to strictly unschooled Americans, the numbers are more difficult to find, as Unschoolers make up a small population within the Homeschool community. There are also different types of unschooling that range from some child led learning to Radical Unschooling. Most homeschoolers have at least some interest led learning built into their homeschool.

      • Rocinante

        Of course those numbers are exceptionally biased. Here are the numbers Bill: 94% of homeschoolers and unschoolers come from families that are white, only 1.2% come from families that live below the poverty line, and 97% come from families with a marital status of married, and only .7% live with a single parent. When public school, private school, charter school, etc studies are isolated to reflect such a demographic bias, they all pretty much show happy and successful outcomes. I think people should do whatever the system allows them to do when that is what’s best for their kids. However, insulating children into a system with an inherent bias against other children from backgrounds of economic, racial, family, and social diversity is not best for kids, unless perpetuation of existing social inequality is a good. Though not responsible entirely, homeschool/unschool/private/charter contributes to not just school but segregated systems and social structures on a national scale.

        • kaejoy

          I actually was involved with many co-ops as a home schooled child. We were friends with those of different religions as well as different races. I never thought anything about it. It was when I attended public school that I realized the world was separated by race. I’ve also dated outside of my race (my husband is Asian). Nothing about my upbringing was segregated – if anything it was more diversified than any education in a public school where students acted out the stereotypes of their race and refused to associate with people of the opposite race.

          • I completely agree with you and have seen the same for homeschoolers vs public school and the cliques they tend to stay in there.

        • Since many states don’t require any of that information to be included when notifying the state of homeschool status, I’m quite curious how you could possibly come up with statistical numbers like that. I’ve homeschooled in 2 different states. I am a white single parent. I’ve met a staggering number of homeschool families that are at poverty level or close. Both co-ops I’ve participated in had children from many ethnic backgrounds and from varying religious or non-religious backgrounds. Both co-ops (one in VA and the other in NM) also included a gay couple with a child. Your comment about ” insulating children into a system with an inherent bias against other children from backgrounds of economic, racial, family, and social diversity is not best for kids” is not at all what I have experienced as an unschool / homeschool parent. Scroll down this page to read more about our experience: http://www.homeschoolsantafe.com/

          • Rocinante

            The stats come from various agencies and groups that study the phenomenon on both sides. Attempting to use your individual example as reflective of the whole in spite of overwhelming social science you could easily google and find yourself is extremely disingenuous. The ethnic, social, racial, economic and religious makeup of the home/un/non school population is what it is. Its reflective of privilege. Your using your privilege to your advantage, which involves insulation. Isolating yourself and your children is hardly new, and no one said its unsafe. But if you think it develops better and more open minds, your mistaken. It simply engenders a view you prefer to engender within them. Nothing more.

          • kgelner

            “Agencies and Groups” for which you cannot provide a link apparently. How odd.

            The ethnic, social, racial, economic and religious makeup of the home/un/non school population is what it is. Its reflective of privilege.

            It is reflective of the opposite of privilege, it is often people who simply don’t mesh well into the cookie cutter system we’ve set up for kids. I never met a “privileged” kid who was homeschooled – anyone with money uses private schools. Homeschooling is the way to get the quality of a private education when you are poor or schools will not even take you (as was the case with a few of my friends). I do not understand why you fight so strongly to dev such disadvantaged kids a chance at a quality education.

        • ScratchingMyHead

          So your argument would be that we should force all children, regardless of their potential to be more successful and happy in alternative educational environments, to attend integrated schools where standards are set at the lowest attainable level for all to “encourage” equality? That’s some backwards thinking there…

          • Rocinante

            No, my argument is that you should not deceive yourself about the quality of experience and potential of the interactions they have due to the segregated nature of those interactions. If segregation is an element of your happiness, we have different values.

          • Megan

            Wow, so much B.S., so little time to respond. First of all, schools are all about segregation. The only kind of segregation you care about is by race and class, but age segregation is a tragedy for the oldest and youngest members of our society, and schools literally invented it. So admit that you’re fine with age segregation when you defend public schools, or confess that you’re only bothered by some of it. I’m just as bothered by age segregation as I am by any other kind, and you should be too. Trust me, you will be when you’re old. Second, most of the people using public transit in most places are lower income folks; your car promotes inequality and segregation and you should get rid of it and use nothing but public transit from now on, in the interest of equality. What’s that you say? Only children should be made to correct the ills of society; you’re too important and busy? Spare me your selective outrage. Also spare me the insanely popular, and incredibly poorly thought-out accusation of “privileged” constantly being spat out by people like you. This is a horribly abused term, and that it’s being used against a subset of children, who are one of the three most profoundly vulnerable and deeply disenfranchised groups anywhere, is careless, selfish and dangerous. Apply the term to Trump and the Koch brothers all you like–that’s appropriate–but never, ever apply it to children unless you’re ready to admit that you don’t mind putting some large number of kids at even greater risk than they already are. Because it is very dangerous to be someone considered incapable of having problems, and you help make sitting ducks out of the kids you accuse of being “privileged.” You don’t know what their lives are like behind closed doors. If money doesn’t buy happiness for adults, why do people believe it does for kids? Like I said, B.S.

          • Emily Shinn

            “Wow, so much B.S., so little time to respond.”

            I know right?

          • Emily Shinn


          • Emily Shinn

            To say nothing of the fact that while some unschool/homeschool families may be middle-to-upper income, many *many* are lower-middle-to-lower income due to the *sacrifices* they have to make in order to pursue an educational path that they believe in. My husband and I live on about $16,500 a year, and we are planning to unschool our child despite the fact that I will probably be forgoing the chance to work outside the home and bring in a second income in order to do it. We have a good support network (ie: loving family living close by), which is, I am aware, a privilege, but it doesn’t be that we don’t struggle just to get by. That said, we’re hoping that my husband will be able to increase his wages by entering a blue-collar trade this year (which will be an improvement from nearly minimum-wage retail) but I resent the crap out of anyone who wants to conflate what we’re planning on doing educationally with our children with evidence that we are “privileged” (by any reasonable definition of the term). We live in a diverse community and plan on seeking out learning opportunities / social connections with a wide range of people, and I don’t see the public school system as being all that unsegregated… even if the student body is diverse, students often self-segregate within that otherwise-diverse environment, just forcing a bunch of different kids to attend a school building together each day doesn’t guarantee anything. But yeah, /rant. Rocinante can take their anti-alternative ed BS and “privilege” babble and shove it.

        • bananasmoothie

          You are forgetting that many public schools are still not integrated because the have nots live in one school district and the haves live in another in many areas of the country. If you are that worried about integrating your kids, your first step should be moving to a diverse neighborhood. In my experience after living in many with a child, if you live in such a neighborhood, your child will meet and befriend a wide range of kids without going to school. Sacrificing the quality of their education is not necessary or productive for fixing inequality, which has not been fixed by over a century of public education. In fact, it has been getting worse in recent years.

          • Rocinante

            I live in a diverse neighborhood, and grew up on welfare and in very diverse neighborhoods, by any standard. If you structure the realm of your children’s interactions, they are not meeting a wide range, they are interacting with a preset and formulated aggregation of experiences limited to those you find comfortable. Once again, its about your control not about their actual experience of living in the world.

        • kgelner

          My family was below the poverty line and my mom was divorced (single parent) when I was homeschooled. It can be done, as much as you are attempting to fish for excuses as to why it cannot work for everyone. It can, and it can work a lot better than public school where all of the things you list are actually much bigger disadvantages than if you learn at home. When your family is really poor you are teased mercilessly at school for not having popular clothing or electronics, where that doesn’t matter so much when you are at home learning and visit friends after school. If you are in an ethnic minority in many schools you are mocked if you try seriously to learn (heck you don’t have to be an ethnic minority, we all know anyone who tries to learn in a public school is mocked), so there again being homeschooled is a huge boon.

    • kgelner

      My family was fairly poor when I grew up homeschooling using the unschooling approach, and that was before the internet allowed for such a wealth of opportunities for learning – even the poorest families could make heavy use of a local library and computers there to learn just about anything now. I agree with the article that already having had a background in figuring out what interested me, and knowing how to learn new topics was a huge benefit going into college. I was much less lost than almost all of the other people there who came from high schools where learning was very different and you rarely had to think about what you wanted to learn.

      • DidoCarthage

        “…where you rarely *got a chance to* think about what you wanted to know.” Never mind figure out how to go about doing that.

    • Johnathan Swift Jr.

      From the people I have known, I would guess that the majority of people who do this are middle class to upper middle class white people who are either religious or libertarian. People who have a decided independent streak. I have friends in Europe who were rebels there and schooled their own children. The parents both had Ph.Ds and the children are all very accomplished.

      Another friend of mine worked with his boys in California, while his wife worked as a Doctor. They are very interesting and naturally curious kids. One of his complains about conventional school was simply the inefficiency, all the time eaten up by roll taking, transfers from class to class, waiting in line, driving there, driving back, waiting for the kids, all of which eats up hours a day. He found a conventional school day could be compressed into about three or three and a half hours, so that his boys ended up with much more knowledge and knowledge that stuck with them, then children who are being conventionally schooled.

      The other thing of course is that the bright children may only be held back by a conventional school schedule. Being able to tear along at their own pace makes them much more satisfied.

  • sucka free

    This shit is just a symptom of a country that is dealing with tribalism because of so much diversity. We humans have a hard time dealing w/diversity. I’m Af Am, my girlfriend is from Finland. In Finland they don’t have self-segrigation because it’s one race/culture and everyone is united. Here in the U.S. We are divided…..everyone runs away if people around don’t look like them #1 and #2 if they don’t have similar values or thought. We are social creatures but…… And everyone defends their lifestyle, even if they are lonely. Being anti-social makes you a sucka….and suckas get played eventually. Better to learn these lesson as a kid, than to learn the hard way as an adult. Running from people ain’t healthy…….but it’s a free country. Pursuit of happiness, right?

    • Lailah

      Hmmm. Your high level of education shows in the complete lack of sense your comment makes. I’ve never run away from anyone due to race. What scares me is lack of learning. Obviously you’ve never cracked a book in your life.

    • Hey You

      We all have ancestor memories. And typically, that memory says that different people at the city gates typically meant trouble. Yes, it’s an emotional response, but it is often difficult to get past emotional responses.

    • unschooling mom

      lol! I got through5th grade & society & my parents abandon me! if I made myself known I gt lockd up & thrown away for a bit. met my husband at 16 & had our 1stof 5 kids at 18. got my ged whn I was 24 & got right into college level classes at 29. I can assure u that my kids (whom are unchooled) will be hard to “sucka” lol!! my 2 oldest sons are jr firefighterso as soon as they are 18 they will be fire men. my 3oldest kids volunteer at local food pantrys. my 3 oldest kids have part time jobs at family business! pshh! we got this! lol! my kids are street smart! far from suckas and like you said “its a free country” & if my children decide to hang with other races then fine & if they don’t well thatsfine too. whatever their pursuit of happiness is is! just a long as they respect all peoples of colour. and last I read finland has alot of racism!

      • I returned to my comment of months ago and was amazed at the trend it initiated. If you read my book, “Making Peasants into Kings;” that is, making mindless followers into self initiators, you will discover that as a dyslexic who flunked out of high-school after a disastrous public-school education,is the story of what could be true for nearly everyone.
        The fact that I achieved a PhD. and became one of the first “Special Education” teachers of high school students in North America merely demonstrates empirically that “unschooling” wherein we help people take responsibility for their own learning is a preferred developmental approach to NCLB and other such teacher-dominated, government prescribed and information acquisition regulated approaches to learning to live effectively is an inappropriate way to release untapped human potentials.
        Most people are much more capable than we think they are, and the sharing society with people contributing enthusiastically to mutual well-being works far better as a form of governance than Constitutional Democracy.
        Currently technology and the”communications revolution” is far more destructive to our basic humanity than any of the dreadful forms of governance that those we have had enforced upon us historically.
        Compare our war on people of color with the “holocaust” and you will see what I mean. We have lost our humanity in our self-centeredness and we are destroying our planetary home for the same reason. Learning how to learn using accurate observation of the consequences of our actions and creating room for others to flourish makes it possible for everyone to thrive.
        I know, capitalism doesn’t work this way. How could we be so unforgiving or ourselves and each other?
        Is it in any way surprising that our civilization is under quarantine by the Inter-Galactic Council? It is time for us to learn from our mistakes instead of hiding from them or covering them up to make them invisible,as we do when we ignore the meaningfulness of “wrong” answers when we score a high-stakes test.
        Can you imagine anything more cruel than making being put into prison sufficiently profitable for the private owners of prisons that they encourage crime for their personal profit? What has gone sour with us?

  • I’m a grown unschooler, and really find this type of research to be interesting. I also really like seeing unschooling being discussed in such a positive way on a big education blog such as Mind Shift! For anyone who’s interested in learning more, I have a blog all about unschooling and self-directed learning, including resources for and about grown unschoolers: http://yes-i-can-write.blogspot.ca/

    • Marci Wooster

      You have a Pay-pal acc .’Cause you can create an additional 1400
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      for a couple Hrs each day=>Learn more here–> Extra-Profit

  • guest

    Excellent. And I’m not the least bit surprised.

  • The best way to overcome the problem of human diversity is to teach children or adults how to teach themselves and each other.
    There are a few precautions.
    Not all possible tracks to follow are appropriated to all learners. A person with musical talent should probably not become a janitor unless employment in late evening empowers the pursuit of the talent. I personally put myself through undergraduate college by being a janitor and emerged debt free.
    It is helpful to have an observant and compassionate person as a guide by the side, to encourage when the going gets difficult, to redirect when the learner gets stuck and to suggest options when the exploring range becomes too narrow.
    Also, as talents emerge, it is ideal to have a community with whom to share them so that mutuality take precedence over self-aggrandizement.
    Doing it together and working with others in the sharing of skills helps the learning community to thrive.
    Becoming a team player is an important skill, that is diluted when the purpose of one team is to defeat another team instead of participating in a mutually determined larger objective.
    The best and most productive competition is with our own past performance. Our achievements in producing value and providing service to others is what makes the community thrive.

    • sucka free

      That’s good too, Jay Cizzle

    • I totally agree and that is why parents acting as coaches, even when students are self-directed, and getting involved in team sports, homeschool co-ops, clubs, hobby groups, etc. is so important.

  • Akira Bear

    I agree that choice is critical. It empowers, motivates, and allows kids to have control, which is important as a motivator.

  • Jens Peter de Pedro

    For those children who don’t have the luxury of a parent, or grand parent, who can stay home, other self directed alternatives to school need to be envisioned. The idea that interests me the most is Democratic Schools, institutions where the children control 100% of their own learning. Seems like the future to me! It’s quite carefully explained here: http://alternativestoschool.com/articles/democratic-schools/

    • Sarah Thorn

      I wouldn’t say that unschooling is a luxury for the affluent. Actually many unschoolers are working class and make it work anyway. We recently started unschooling our two daughters, and went to the Northeastern Unschooling Conference in Boston to meet likeminded folks. I thought it would be a rather homogenous group of liberal parents with a few libertarians added to the mix, sort of like I had found on forums discussing unschooling on the Internet. Upon seeing the crowd at the conference I immediately realized that this was a very heterogenous group. I met a plumber, a nurse, a priest and working teacher – all unschooling their children!

  • cavefamma

    A very interesting article. A great bit of my children’s education has been unschooling in nature, but as they got older, we started doing more structured school to “fill in the gaps”, in preparation for the GED. I am interested in the kids who are in college, or have graduated from college without a high school credential or GED. My oldest child takes courses at the local community college in his interest areas, but he can’t even declare a major, let alone receive a degree, without having a high school credential or GED beforehand. (yet, he can take as many classes as he wants, and receive credit) So my question is, how do these kids get a college degree without this credential? Another question I have is, does not having that credential affect their prospective employers decision to hire them or not? Self-directed learning has been great for my family, but I want my kids to have all that is necessary for them to take any job they may seek. So in preparing for what the world may (and most likely) will require, we spend time with subjects that my kids wouldn’t normally gravitate to, and just don’t interest them. Did any of the survey responders mention this as their own experience?

    • Peter Gray

      Many people in our survey took community college courses (not for a degree) and then used their transcript from the community college to transfer into a four-year degree program. Given their record in community college, a high school diploma was not required. I’ve never heard of anyone who has a college degree being asked about a high school diploma. Perhaps there is some job out there, somewhere, that has a left-over requirement of a high school diploma even for someone with a college degree, but I’ve never heard of it. -Peter

      • spam slayer

        I had a homeschool mom of a police officer contact me about this. She thought Florida law prevented an employer from discriminating against homeschoolers (no such law). What happened was he was working for the Sheriff and was looking to get a job with the city police. The city required a diploma or GED. he had neither so was either going to have to get it or stay with the sheriff’s dept.

        • spam slayer

          The officer in question did not have a college degree.

      • Sceptic

        I read the survey by the Peter Gray and Gina Riley and I do not see it mentioned that 83 percent of unschooled children go on to pursue post-secondary education. I don’t know where this author got this information and they should provide a direct quote and link to the data. Also, surveys in which people volunteer and put effort in to participate will sample a more enthusiastic group and therefore is not fully representative and
        unscientific. Such a survey would also exclude the people who tried unschooling and then stoped when they decided to try something else.

    • Jim Rietmulder

      Responding to your interest in “kids who are in college […] or graduated […] without a high school credential or GED”… The Circle School is sometimes called an “unschooling school” — a self-directed, democratic school, such as Peter Gray has studied. Although the school is licensed by the Pennsylvania Department of Education to issue high school diplomas through traditional studies, in 30 years no student has ever sought a diploma, even though nearly 90% go on to college. Last year five of our alumni spoke in a panel discussion for the community — ranging in age from early 20s to early 30s. Each was asked if they had a high school diploma or GED, and in what circumstances they had needed it. All five of them said no, they didn’t have a diploma or GED and had never been asked for one, not even in applying for college and employment. One was in her first year of college, one a 4th-year nursing student (who now has her RN), one with a bachelor’s degree, one with a master’s degree, and one who had never attended college. That last one, true to Peter Gray’s observation about creativity, was employed in automotive mechanics and running his own car on vegetable oil recycled from restaurant deep fat fryers. With 30 years of experience, what I see is that self-powered education launches kids to lead fulfilling, productive lives, often including conventional credentials but not requiring a high school diploma or GED.

    • Hey You

      College is valuable for the education that it imparts. A degree is nice, but really a degree is not the benefit of attending college. See my comment (above) on my 5 sons who are equally successful.

      • kgelner

        Is college $50k a year valuable though? I enjoyed my time at college but I would say the non-learning value I obtained from college were nowhere near worth having $100k-$200k of debt when you are done, and that’s even if you are going into a technical field where paying back that kind of money is realistic. These days I am really dubious that nearly so many people need to go to college, they could take that kind of money and obtain an amazing education on their own.

        • Hey You

          Actually, I did not enjoy college. It entailed too much study and academic effort. Maybe if I went to a party school, I could have had fun, but Stanford is not a party school.

  • spam slayer

    “The most frequent complaints,” Gray notes on his blog, “were about the
    lack of motivation and intellectual curiosity among their college

    My son’s feeling as well. He’s still struggling with wrapping his head around it.

    • JDRedhawk001

      My daughter and son have this experience as well, and it’s probably my daughters biggest complaint about most other college students. My kids are also not so much grades driven as they are driven to use their gifts in contribution to their communities and to the world at large.

  • Bill Coffin

    “Overall, 83 percent of the respondents had gone on to pursue some form of higher education. Almost half of those had either completed a bachelor’s degree or higher, or were currently enrolled in such a program; they attended (or had graduated from) a wide range of colleges, from Ivy League universities to state universities and smaller liberal-arts colleges.”

    Those college enrollment numbers do not fill me with confidence. An unspecified portion of not even half of 83% of respondents had completed a bachelor’s degree; that’s what the article trumpets. No thanks.

    • Kelly Berryman

      In the US, typical high school students of recent years, only about 80% graduate on time, and of them that do graduate only about 66% enroll in college. Of them, about 59% graduate college on time. That means that about 31% of typical high school students graduate, enroll and then graduate college on time.

      The 83% of responding unschoolers going on to college, and about half of them (net 41.5%) graduating college sounds pretty good compared to the U.S. average figures.

    • mitchnotes

      Is your point to draw attention to the percentage of unschoolers who attend college or earn a degree compared with traditionally schooled students? A Bureau of Labor Statistics report released April 22, 2014 stated, “In October 2013, 65.9 percent of 2013 high school graduates were enrolled in colleges or universities…”.

      My unschooled older son’s perspective regarding his career is that HE makes decisions. HE is the CEO of his career. HE chose to attend, and graduate, from Georgia Tech. HE chose to work for Facebook for 4 years as an Software Engineer/Manager then resigned to pursue HIS personal goals as an entrepreneur.

      My unschooled younger son attended college but HE chose to accept a position as a CTO for a start-up company rather than complete a degree.

      Higher education may, or may not, be that important to creative unschooled students who have initiative, follow their passion and take responsibility for their own careers, work-life and future.

      We have examples of even traditionally schooled student who have successfully managed their careers without a college degree (i.e. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg).

      • Bill Coffin

        The sentence I quoted, at a quick glance, makes it look like unschooling is a solid way to get into college, if getting into college is a goal of yours. But the numbers suggest a somewhat more modest rate of success there.

        You don’t have to go to college to be successful. And even if you do go to college, the areas where you are successful may have very little to do with your college experience. But the numbers on this don’t lie, either; college graduates, on average, make about $1 million more over the course of their lifetimes than those who don’t graduate from college. However they get there is kind of irrelevant.

        • There has been a lot of discussion lately about the value (or lack thereof) of a college degree in purely financial terms. The general trend seems to be that the wage premium, although it certainly still exists, is declining.

          Employers and clients value general cognitive ability and competence in specific skill areas. A degree has been viewed as a proxy of that, but in reality, most degrees only certify awareness or knowledge of a subject, rather than how well a person can apply that knowledge. The signaling value of a regular degree is losing ground, and there has been a shift toward accreditation schemes that measure competence instead (e.g., http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/opinion/sunday/friedman-how-to-get-a-job-at-google.html?_r=0 and http://www.vox.com/2014/6/18/5818268/why-a-top-ranked-teacher-education-program-doesnt-require-students-to). There’s also an interesting perspective on this topic here: http://www.oftwominds.com/blogapr14/get-a-job4-14.html.

          All that aside, the degree premium debate is about income, and income is a very limiting way of measuring “success.” A more meaningful gauge might be an internal and unquantifiable one: how fulfilled each person feels with his/her life.

          So although it’s impossible to compare college completion rates of unschoolers with those 
of the general population (given the difficulty of doing a random survey of unschoolers), I’m not sure that comparison would offer a lot of value.

          • Hey You

            I have 5 sons. It’s easy to compare them because they range from high-school drop-out to PhD Nuclear Physics.

            Surprize! Each has net worth in the mid 6 figures. That’s also about what I have (even after the cost of raising them). Maybe there’s something about expectations which motivates yet limits success?

          • Keleborn Telperion

            Any conclusions reached about the value of a college degree are based on statistics. In any particular case, statistics are irrelevant.
            When Bill Gates and Steve Jobs dropped out of Harvard and – I believe – Reed College, they didn’t concern themselves with statistics. People refer to them as geniuses now, but in their first year after dropping out, people would have been more likely to refer to them as f-ups.

        • kgelner

          The numbers suggest (and it would be accurate to say) that unschoolers have a better chance of getting into college – if they want to. Colleges value diversity and homeschooling is more interesting on an application than saying you went to some average high-school.

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  • HelenMargaret

    Unschoolers often consider utilizing standardized tests as part of the
    college admissions process. Good test scores have the advantage of
    indicating, to the traditionally minded directors of admissions, that
    unschoolers are capable learners and good candidates for college admissions.

  • egbert

    How does unschooling work with a student who has multiple learning disabilities? Would they ever learn how to read, spell and complete basic math without structured therapies and intervention?

    • aikimoe

      I think it depends on the student. Unschooling isn’t for everyone, but it also isn’t an absolute. You can increase or decrease structure and intervention depending on the needs of the student. I used to teach in special-ed and some of my students absolutely needed every bit of the structure we provided.

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  • Hey You

    I hated formal school because it interrupted my education.

    Should have had the “unschooled” opportunity.

    • GreenHearted

      I remember writing on the board before one of my grade 12 English classes: “Learning is heaven. Being taught is hell.” I begged my English teacher (who I adored and who was one of my best teachers ever) to let us discuss it in class … but my classmates were not interested. So, back to the books it was.

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  • MonkeySpanner

    I wonder about this. The children who are unschooled – it isn’t because their parents can’t afford gas to drive them to school, or because they are illegal and can’t be enrolled in school. It is because they have a parent who CHOOSES to put in the massive effort of arranging to make sure their child has experience that lead to a good educational background. Someone cared so deeply for them that they went to great lengths to make sure they had every opportunity to learn and succeed. I wonder if it is fair to compare educational outcomes of a group like this with – say – the general public – where there is probably less than a 50% chance, on average, that a child has a parent even close to this concerned about the education of a child. Sure, everyone has high hopes, and says the right words – but how many kids really have 1 parent , much less 2 – that is willing to put in this much effort? If a kid has that kind of parent – I am sure they could make traditional schooling work out just as well – maybe better.

    • wenlyn

      As you say too many parents can’t be bothered to educate their children & are more than happy to send them to school. Children with parents that dedicated but who choose school will do well but as there are so many negatives to the school setting you have to put more effort into raising them happy & self motivated than you do to home educate. There is a freedom & understanding of autonomy that comes with unschooling that can’t, by definition, be present when you are jumping through hoops and fulfilling someone else’s schedule

      • spam slayer

        Your last sentence is so eloquent and true. Well said!

  • merylneiman

    As someone who has not experienced unschooling myself, if a parent chooses to do that at home rather through a non-traditional school, does the parent limit or prohibit TV time or other screen time if not being used for educational pursuits or is everything fair game and it is up to the child to self-limit? Just curious how it works from a practical perspective.

    • Gemgirl

      Exactly the question I was waiting to hear an answer to. I wish someone had responded. My 11 year old daughter’s largest interest right now is: learning to make YouTube videos for Animal Jam adventures (National Geographic’s highly addicting social “animal adventure” game.) I am not making fun of this pursuit, mind you. She may become a film editor or game developer some day. This may really be her path. But….that being said, THIS is how she would choose to spend her time right now. Now, most people would say that she is wasting her time…..I would say that, in fact. If she were unschooled, would we let her actively pursue this. How would she learn the math that she needs to actually succeed in this field? She is NOT motivated to learn math on her own. I would be lying to her if I said that she did not need math for this career. So, my question would be: Is some direction provided for kids who are not motivated to learn certain subject matter on their own? How is that direction provided? Tutoring? Self-directed Internet? Parent teaches it?

      • guest

        I know plenty of kids that completed K-12 math in about a year, taking breaks along the way. Each elementary year takes between a week and a month to complete if you actually have number experience and something to relate it to. Even though I am a STEM major myself in a highly technical field I had lots of ‘aha’ moments when working through it with the kids. If you understand WHY something is and why you might need it, it’s a lot easier to learn. Just because your dd isn’t motivated in math now doesn’t mean she’s broken and will never learn it.
        I look at it this way – kids aren’t stupid. There is a huge difference between not knowing something YET and not being capable of learning at all. If you think your daughter isn’t capable of learning math, then that’s a different story. But if she is capable and hasn’t found that she needs it yet, then she just doesn’t know it YET. What is the harm if she waits until she is interested and motivated?

      • Keleborn Telperion

        These people whom you say would claim that your daughter is wasting her time; would you not also say that they were wasting their time? For one thing they seem to failed to do is to learn how to communicate in ways that are specific and actionable; given the importance of being able to do this not only to achieving personal success, but also to being able to say things that are actually helpful to others, it would seem that however they’ve been choosing to spend their time, at least some of it has been a comparative waste.
        You certainly do have a role to play as a parent. You can point out, for, example, that the day is going to come when she is going to want to have some money in her bank account, and the day is going to come when she is going to want to have her own apartment, possibly even a home. You can suggest that as an adult you may just possibly know something about how people go about acquiring those things, which aren’t necessarily limited to following in your particular footsteps. Then you can say “When you think you’d like to hear about it, just let me know.”

    • Peter Gray

      Hi Meryl,

      Great question. For those truly following the unschooling path, there is no requirement that the child be doing things “for educational pursuits.” The idea is that children who are truly trusted to be responsible for their education will find their passions and pursue them in their own ways. Children may, for long periods of time, do things that look like wasted time to others; but the assumption is that if the child wasn’t getting something useful out of it, the child wouldn’t be doing it. It’s important, however, that the child have plenty of options.

      It has happened over and over again that a child shows no interest in math, for example. But then, when the child NEEDS math for some reason–such as to do well on the SAT or ACT to get into a competitive college that he or she desires–learns it amazingly quickly. Very often the best and most efficient time to learn something is when you need it. We all worry to much about our children learning things in advance that the don’t need and may never need to know. How many people who studied quadratic equations in high school, for example, have any idea now what such an equation is?


      • Keleborn Telperion

        As you say, the assumption is that if the child wasn’t getting something out of it, the child wouldn’t be doing it. Or as John Holt put it, “children don’t drink from dry wells”.
        But is there an implicit assumption here that this does not apply to adults?
        A similar contrast arises when say ” children learn by doing; doing *is* learning.” Would we not also not wish to say “Adults … people in general …learn by doing”?
        Perhaps you (and John Holt) use the word “children” in this context simply to draw attention to a contrary assumption that many people have, that children are somehow different in this respect, that they cannot learn unless and until they have been properly programmed.

    • Kristi

      I imagine it varies by the parent; we homeschool and veer towards unschooling (most of our children’s time is self-directed) and we do limit screen time. Our kids like screen time but it’s not that big of a deal for them because enjoy their books, play, art, hobbies, etc. For us, screen time that is “educational” should still be limited; we don’t, though, limit other activities that some might consider a waste of time (such as our 8 yo spending countless hours organizing his thousands of baseball cards).

  • fateme

    I hated formal school because it interrupted my education.
    Should have had the “unschooled” opportunity.
    کرکره برقی
    کرکره برقی
    درب اتوماتیک
    پارتیشن دو جداره
    درب ضد سرقت

    • Katrina Schwartz


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  • Rose

    I was unschooled from the age of 10 years old. I would just like to say thank you to Peter Gray for publishing your research. I find it very interesting myself and can confirm from my own experiences this research is probably a very true reflection of homeschoolers. My only question for everyone who asks about unschooling or has something to say about it, is how do we measure success? So many people consider unschooling only to be a success if the child goes onto earn a hefty wage packet as an adult, or enters into higher education. Surely a sucess story is subjective to the individual. If the individual child is able to self direct in adult life, and persue a lifestyle that continuously satisfies his apetite for learning, then is this not the only thing anybody could wish for their child? Learning is life long, it doesnt just stop once you have got your dream job. There is no point of success as such, the success is and should be only that you still have that desire from within, to learn what you are interested in, to discover, for the learning to continue. Its that inner desire to learn which is see so many times extinguished in school children and schooled adults.

    To me, true success, i suppose, has no beginning and no end and is essentially being able to do what you love and love what you do. Thats a kind of freedom that not many people have these days, but only because they are confined by their own conditioned minds. A mental struggle that most unschooled children simply do not have.

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  • Lela Markham

    Lots of homeschooled and “unschooled” students in Alaska. My experience is that the kids study what they want, not what they need. University of Alaska Fairbanks will let just about anyone in, and they report a big drop out rate for the so-called “unschooled”. Some of them return and take remedial classes and do well after that, but the fact is that self-directed education runs the risk of all self-directed efforts — avoidance of difficult subjects and self-selection of sequestered ideas. Math is avoided because without good math instruction, math is boring and hard. They may read a lot, but they pay no attention to grammar because rules aren’t part of their lifestyle. They read the view of issues that they or their parents favor and ignore the other sides to multi-faceted discussion. Truthfully, this happens in schools too, but it’s more likely to happen in self-directed study. I would like to see more opportunity for self-directed study, but there are basic requirements that every student should master for graduation because these are things you need to be good employees and good citizens.

    • When the kid finds the topic that lights a fire of passionate pursuit in them, they will do whatever it takes to study that topic. My kid decided he wanted to be a physicist. He gets up early and assigns himself work for the day. Together we discovered what is required to get a high school diploma and to get into the college of his choice. He is going after it with a great deal of dedication, tenacity, and focus. You just have to help them discover the thing they love and turn that into an educational adventure. Not everyone is cut out to be in a STEM career. But even if they are choosing art or farming, other topics can be creatively introduced. I have been explaining to my child since he was younger than school age that communication skills, both verbal and written, and the ability to be social and charismatic, will take him further than any piece of paper like a diploma or degree. That made him get serious about English, psychology, communication, etc. Math has always been a passion, even though he wasn’t very good at it at first. You have to find the format that they learn best in. For my kid that means media. He watches educational videos all day long. Interactive online programs are the ticket to engaging his learning. He reads books like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones. But text books just don’t cut it when he really wants to learn something. We had a math tutor for awhile. You just have to keep trying things until something “clicks” and they begin to buzz right along.

  • Miguel Luna

    You can still go to “school” and be socially isolated. Note that I’m not refuting any of the above.

  • bfg

    This is completely unreliable sample. You can’t draw any conclusions from 75 voluntary answers from an unknown population. It’s interesting that your citing a blog rather than a publication.

    • aikimoe

      You can draw the conclusion that unschooling works for some families and students.

      • bfg

        Yes, some percentage of 75 students who volunteered. But we don’t who they are or why it worked for them and we don’t know for what percentage or type of student it didn’t work, if any. The nature of the argument here shows that this research established nothing as we are still arguing from anecdotes.

        • aikimoe

          Did you read the whole article? Unschooling worked for not “some percentage,” but more precisely, 72 of the 75 students who volunteered. I don’t think it matters “who they are,” but they did offer opinions on why it worked. It’s all right there.

          So, it seems rather evident that we have, indeed, established that unschooling works for some students and families. But then, it’s not like we didn’t know that already.

        • linkman

          There will never be a strictly scientific analysis of this (or many other experiences) simply because no format exists to take into account every variable. Learning styles /multiple intelligences are vast and varied, not to mention mutable. How can anything be “definitive” proof when nature/human biology & neurology is constantly evolving? – – Although I wasn’t & didn’t ‘strictly’ unschool my kids, through trial & error this method tends to be more efficient * in customizing an individual AND fulfilling education*. The key no matter what method is the attitude & world view of supporting guides: parents, family, & other interactions.

          • bfg

            . I think the idea that a very bright, motivated kid with appropriate resources and supportive parents could learn a great deal on his/her own is clearly true. The questions for me would be: does this approach leave a child with an adequate foundation for advanced education, and does this work for most kids or only the brightest and best resourced? It wouldn’t be hard to design a study to look at that but it would take a much better sample than this one.

          • aikimoe

            To answer your question, this approach demonstrably provides an adequate foundation for advanced education for some kids who are interested in an advanced education. This approach, like all approaches, absolutely will not work for all kids, even those with the resources and supportive families, because different kids have different personalities. The same way that conventional school absolutely doesn’t work for all kids, even those with resources and supportive families.

            I think the point of looking into unschooling isn’t to suggest that it should be the new norm, but rather that it’s one of many viable alternatives to conventional education.

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  • qqqqtrdr

    As a homeschooling family and working with youth in scouting, I am very leary of unschooling movement for most youth. As homeschooling parents we do take advantage of pushing our kids to give them the base background they need to succeed. We have them take the Iowa state test on a yearly basis to see where they are weak and what areas they need to concentrate. None of my kids are motiviated enough to succeed in an unschooling environment.

    I believe that most that have comments are by active unschoolers. There are grandparents I have talked to that felt that the parents have pulled their kids out of school where the children are not necessarily learning what they need to succeed in the household because of lack of motivation on the student part to succeed in the unschooling environment.

    I do think for a selection of kids that are highly motivated to learn that public school is not for them, and traditional homeschooling curriculum will hold them back on their endeavors, With such a student I believe that unschooling can be very rewarding if they are given by their parents the opportunity to explore everything the student of life wants to explore and learn and enable the exploration. This produces kids that are ultimately think outside the box and contribute more to society….

    I do think many non-active unschoolers put bounds on their kids learning either financially or not giving them options to explore, this can be very discouraging and more harmful. From my experience less than 15% of kids are motiviated enough in the right direction to succeed being unschooled…

    I think it is harmful to pull your kid out of school and say I’m going to homeschool my child with ( unschooling in mind ) without having a backup of traditional homeschooling in case the student is not motivated or loses motivation and does no move in the right direction….

    Each student is different and we must make each one succeed at their own rate…. Most need some pushing and direction. Some more than others…

  • Buddy Zuckerman

    Take away the disruptions of the classroom environment and let kids learn through experience.

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  • freedom-in-education

    Hi, you may find this very short radio interview with my son, now 28, on the subject of home education. With his 2 sisters, he had a mixture of a short morning round-the-table time on whatever subject they wanted to pursue (with his dad and I) and unschooling all the rest of the time. We moved to France over 20 years ago, having done the same thing in the UK, and written 2 books on it – as a family – with the children doing all the hundreds of illustrations…..(not trying to promote the books here, so won’t give them a mention!)
    Anyway, here’s the link to the 5 min interview or transcript: http://www.spotlightonbrittany.fr/podcast/
    His name is Sam Lewis. We all now work on our organic smallholding whilst funding ourselves – just – by running a monthly magazine, for the past 11 years, for English speakers, here in Brittany (of which there are many thousand). I hope you enjoy it.

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  • wellthatsnice

    Unfortunately this was all self reporting which is historically inaccurate in surveys since people drastically over estimate their competencies and knowledge. A much more interesting and accurate survey would be to do college classmate and coworker reviews and see how the unschoolers are rated by their peers in academia and the workforce.

  • Anika JoyinChrist Prather

    I am in the process of starting a Sudbury School within a church setting. It has been such a challenge to get the Christian community to see the blessing of this type of education. We are going to be small at first, because slowly I am finding people who have been looking for such a school. Most of us hide out, because the general Christian community can sometimes feel negative about this type of schooling.Thank you so much for this article. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. http://www.thelivingwaterschool.org

  • Rocinante

    As isolated experiences no, but we are talking about the aggregate impact. Individuals are always innocent. Ignoring the mass impact of privilege, is, well, find your own words, because you won’t listen to any others. And that is environment you choose to educate your children in, which is also your privilege.

  • Leigh Ann

    I haven’t seen anyone ask this (but haven’t read all the comments yet): Why is it OK for an unschooler to GRADUATE high school with a 5th grade math education? There are several states where deciding that you just don’t wanna learn math means you have not met the requirements of graduating. So, does this apply only to states where one can basically get away without requirements? I’m not against unschooling at all, just wondering if it’s typical to skirt the requirements of one’s state for the sake of “freedom”.

    • bob

      I believe the article made mention of a FORMAL 5th grade education…. referring to a student who had received schooling through 5th grade perhaps.

    • kgelner

      What do you think of at a “5th grade math education”? Because I took the GED after I was schooled at home to use in applying for colleges, and the math on that test was far below what I could do or even what I would think of as equivalent to a 5th grade level education – yet it is an official document meant to equal a high-school education. In truth anyone who has trouble with math is going to have a lot more trouble with it at a “real” school where few people care about you individually, than they would at home where a parent can notice trouble in that area and help. What most people need math-wise as a base is more like home economics kind of math than algebra, unless they plan to go into something more scientific – and then the math follows from interest.

  • Proteios

    Like public or private schools, one can find many good, bad or neutral examples. I think very little of the details carry weight. What I think is an indicator of success is a dutiful parent or teacher (or both).
    I would be more interested in looking at the successes and failures on contrasting the common and disparate agents. The school, unschool, homeschool, private tutor school is secondary, I think.
    I married a public school teacher and it seems like the nature of success is not the institutional structure of schools. That is a big negative. Homeschooling CAN be good. Depends on the parent. So many variables that indicate no system claims superiority. So what are successful themes? Id like to read that study.

  • Fire Lord Zuko

    Thank you so much for actually being positive about unschooling. Honestly, I think I know more things than all of the girls in my dance classes, and I owe that to my parents’ tendencies to randomly turn around and start telling me about, say, the War of the Roses, and them being a-okay with me reading entire Wikipedia articles at any given time.

  • nooyawka212

    I was formally schooled all the way from start to PhD, so I have nothing to say about my (non-existent) nonschooling experience. I do have something to say about ideas that were similar and popular which floated around in the 1960s. At that time Summerhill was all the rage among hippie types. Summerhill was the British school which advocated nonstructured childhood education. The premise was children will learn what they need to learn when they are ready to learn it, so stay out of their way and leave them to be self-motivated explorers. I am unaware of any formal studies of the products of Summerhill. But the fact that it appears to be forgotten nowadays speaks volumes.

    The other set of thoughts about structured vs unstructured education we dabbled with yo so long ago was found in the work of Jean Piaget. In most of the middle of the 20th century Jean Piaget was considered the “Giant in the Nursery” (That phrase was part of the title of an interview I did with Piaget which was published in a major magazine in 1972). Piaget did not himself get involved in education as a discipline. But almost all his research pointed towards ideas which unschoolers would be comfortable with; ie, kids will learn what they need to learn when they are ready to learn it. Alas, it appears Piaget suffers the same fate as Summerhill. Very yesterday.

    Nevertheless, maybe its my 1960s soul which tells me unschooling is the real deal. Only time will tell though.

  • Johnathan Swift Jr.

    After a lifetime of learning, I would make the observation that for the most part, the knowledge that we are interested in seems to “stick,” while the things we were taught that we have no interest in seems to go by the wayside. Thus, learning that is self-motivated would seem to be longer lasting. This is what would be beneficial about “unlearning.” Now, whether much of it ends up being arcane and not applicable in terms of an occupation may be a different question.

    The other problem with self-directed learning is that you may read history for example in dribs and drabs without understanding the overall structure, the overview and without an overview, things don’t make sense. Thus, the lack of structure may be an issue. Sort of like taking an elective class on a very narrow subject in French history without a beginning course. This is why the movement to banish “rote learning” like names and dates was so destructive, for without the knowledge who did what and in which order, none of it makes sense. You can read all about Chopin or Brahms, but if you don’t understand the centrality of Bach, it isn’t clear how they developed.

    I do feel that the current educational model is largely broken and perhaps the reason many people are experimenting is because the educational environment has become so fractious, politicized and in some of the places I have lived, so dangerous and chaotic that little education occurs. In some of the American cities, places like Baltimore, Newark and Camden, per capita spending is more than double the national average and triple what is spent in many districts and the results are deplorable. You can just about count the number of high school graduates who go on to a four year college or university from the Camden School District on your hands.

    Then, many of the young people that I have met on my travels to American campuses seem to have no basic historical knowledge, even the ability to place major events in the correct century and to identify the proper participants. Nor do they have any historical perspective, as they judge every figure from the past with a measuring stick based on the most current attitudes, nostrums and norms, all of which of course, be wholly unfamiliar to a person from the 18th or 19th century. Literature is now much more about skin color, ethnic identity, sexual orientation and politics than the depth and quality of the prose. Geographical illiteracy is also widespread and many students and graduates do not even know where the major nations are located, let alone what language people speak there, even in familiar countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Austria. I wonder whether the lack of emphasis on broad, basic knowledge and core subjects in favor of the obscure and the political is dumbing students down, giving them some knowledge in an arcane area, without the basic knowledge to put what they learn into context.

  • Johnathan Swift Jr.

    Winston Churchill was something of an education skeptic. When writing of his upbringing in Dublin, where his grandfather was serving as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, he said that it was in the “Little Lodge” where he lived with his mother, Lady Churchill and occasionally even his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, that he was first “menaced by education.”

    “The most important thing about education is appetite.”
    Winston Spencer-Churchill


Luba Vangelova

Luba Vangelova’s work has appeared in numerous print, online and broadcast media outlets, including The New York Times, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Salon. She is also working on a book about self-directed learning. Her web site is www.LubaVangelova.com. She also posts on Twitter and on her official Facebook page.

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