The Fundamentals of Self-Directed Education to Inspire a Love of Learning (With Peter Gray)
“In this day and age, nobody can learn more than a sliver of all there is to know. Why force everyone to learn the same sliver?”
- Peter Gray
Are you a parent feeling the pressure of your choice to embark on a self-directed learning journey with your child?
Is your heart convinced it is the right path for your family, but your head causing you to doubt yourself and your child?
If so, take heart. You are not alone!
Peter Gray, the esteemed research psychologist, chatted to us at another inspirEd event and left us all feeling confident, inspired, and excited for the future of alternative education.
You can’t think about self-directed education without Peter Gray coming to mind.
Filled with wisdom and encouragement for families wanting to explore self-directed education, his book “Free to Learn” looks at children’s natural ability for learning.
When asked, Peter describes his work as being “interested in how children are naturally designed by natural selection to educate themselves through exploration and play and pursuing their own interests.”
Peter has the unique ability to quietly and clearly explain why self-directed education is the best option for our kids. He condenses years of research into bite-size bits that make a conversation with him a treasure trove of wisdom, humor, knowledge, and experience.
Listening to him speak, you realize that his belief in self-directed education comes from his science background.
“So I come to my interest in children’s development and education from a biological perspective, from an evolutionary biological perspective.”
Although he says, “my research has led me to be converted to being a supporter of this approach to education,” his passion comes from seeing the success of a self-directed education with his son.
Experiencing fear and uncertainty in the face of self-directed education
Peter had a son who felt constricted by the rigidity of school and expressed his feelings strongly enough that Peter and his wife looked at other options. Luckily for them, the Sudbury Valley school was in their area.
After a trial week, Peter enrolled his son, never imagining that it would change the course of his career.
Sudbury Valley was a completely different model to a traditional school, allowing kids freedom to design their education.
“But for the most part, kids are not doing anything that looks like school. They’re doing what you would expect kids to do when they’re free. They’re playing, they’re exploring, they’re hanging out, or they’re doing all kinds of things that you would expect children to do”.
Peter was happy that his son was doing well, but like most parents embarking on an alternative education path, the long-term consequences concerned him.
Peter said he worried because his son wasn’t “doing the things that our culture believes are so critical for children to make it in this world. He’s not taking tests. He’s not doing any courses, and he’s not getting grades”.
And isn’t this the same fear we all have as parents?
Peter conducted a survey with Gina Riley and 232 unschooling families about the challenges and benefits of unschooling.
“One of the questions we asked the parents was, ‘what is the hardest thing about unschooling for you?’ And far and away, the largest response was overcoming the criticism that comes from other people and my own self”.
So this is not a unique feeling for parents, and you are not alone in feeling uncertain or doubtful.
Daniel Prince experienced these same feelings when worldschooling with his family. He said, “we have that immediate fear and worry because we are doing something very different to the social construct. We’re doing something very different to the way we’ve been brought up as well”.
Coming from a research background, Peter studied a group of Sudbury Valley graduates to see what life looked like for adults after growing up with self-directed education.
“And that study ultimately changed my career. I was, in some sense, blown away by what I found. Here are children, young people, young adults, growing up in a way that defies what we as a culture believe children have to do to develop well. They were not doing school. They were doing what they wanted to do. And as adults, they were doing just fine”.
Below is an excerpt from the study of the Sudbury Valley graduates where they respond to whether their self-directed education had been beneficial or not.
As a researcher and a parent, Peter discovered that a self-directed education wasn’t a limiting factor when it came to success in adulthood. It seemed to allow the graduates to thrive not just in their chosen career path but in life.
Self-directed study and the real meaning of education
After realizing that the Sudbury graduates were thriving in adulthood, Peter told us, “this, of course, calmed my anxiety as a parent, but more than that, it also triggered my curiosity as an academician.”
And what a twist of fate that Peter discovered Sudbury Valley. Through his pursuit of knowledge into self-managed learning, he found that unschooled adults were leading successful lives. Peter says it “was a revolutionary finding, and I thought the whole world would be interested in it. But as it turns out, the whole world wants to ignore this except for a very few people.”
And why is that?
Why is anything other than the traditional school model frowned upon and relegated to the fringes of ‘normal’ society?
The answer is school itself!
In stifling creativity, free-thinking, and independence, traditional school is why so many people are scared to consider an alternative education.
Peter says, “If there is one thing that school is good at teaching, it’s that school is necessary. So we all went to school, we all came away from school believing that we learned to read because of school, we learned to use numbers because of school, we developed some interests because of school. We’ve never tested the assumption... would have learned these things if we didn’t go to school? Would we have learned them better? Would we have learned more interesting things?”.
What should self-directed education look like in practice?
“My definition of education now is whatever it is that you learn that helps you to live a satisfying, meaningful, and moral life.”
- Peter Gray
And isn’t that all we want for our kids, for ourselves?
To live a life filled with passion and purpose?
Too often, we forget that education is about so much more than facts and presentations. It is about discovering who we are and how we fit into the world.
It is about finding what sparks joy and exploring our interests.
Most importantly, though, education should be about people, relationships, connections, and kindness.
Can you consider yourself well-educated if you know nothing about life and caring for those around you?
Peter outlined some of the characteristics that he believes make the ideal setting for self-directed education.
Freedom is critical for self-managed learning
“These are, in my mind, the important ingredients of the ideal setting for self-directed education. First of all, there must be lots of free time and time and opportunity available for exploration and trying things out. Freedom is critical.”
In an article he wrote for Psychology Today, he explains that this is part of his 3 phase educational system that he believes should be the schools of the future.
“Phase one is the phase of discovery, the phase of learning who you are, learning something about human beings and the world and figuring out how you fit into this world.”
Children need time to explore the world and discover what they find interesting. The world is full of possibilities, but we have to allow them the space to experience life and the time to delve into what makes them happy.
Peter aptly says, “I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s very little that everybody needs to know. The most important thing is that everybody discovers what they want to know and has the opportunity to know.”
And that is what self-directed education gives our kids. It allows them to know themselves and step into adulthood confident that they can learn anything they need to know.
Learning is such a fluid concept. Yet, schools make it a rigid set of criteria and ticked boxes, expecting everyone to reach the same learning outcomes.
But as Peter says, “Why would that even be the goal? Why do we care? Isn’t it better that we have people with diverse interests than people all knowing the same stuff?”
Self-directed education and the opportunity for exploring life
Next, Peter says it’s essential that there’s “plenty of opportunity for trying different things and the setting should have the important tools of the culture.”
In today’s world, those tools are books, computers, and access to a kitchen.
Reading is necessary for life, as is computer literacy. Without these abilities, our kids can’t hope to engage in our digital world fully.
Access to a kitchen also gives them freedom, independence, and autonomy. Learning to cook is a vital life skill, and kids love being in the kitchen.
Self-directed education means giving our kids the freedom to craft their learning journey. Some parents are concerned with how much space they should have for computers, social media, and video games. And if there will be adverse side effects.
Peter had an interesting answer to the question of technology for our kids.
“Unlike so many people, I don’t think the internet and social media are harmful. I think it’s an amazing development and extremely helpful for self-directed education.”
There is so much research available about the effects of social media and video games on children. Still, our culture tends to demonize them and misrepresent the findings in the media.
According to Peter, “there’s actually been a lot of research on the effects of social media and the effects of video games and so on, and the majority of the research shows positive effects.”
Interestingly, Peter said children were spending so much time on their devices because they wanted to interact with their friends but weren’t allowed to go outside and play unsupervised.
“So I think that the problem is not with the computer itself. If there is a problem of people being on the computer more than they want to be and not outside, it’s because of the way we are largely preventing children from going outside to play.”
Examples of self-directed learning being successful usually involve kids of different ages learning together
At Sudbury Valley, there are no classrooms or class divides by age group. The kids are all free to mingle and learn together.
Peter said, “another characteristic which I think is a real key to how education works at these settings for self-directed education, is that there are kids over a wide range of ages.”
Learning wouldn’t happen in the same way if the kids were segregated by age. The younger kids can learn, often inadvertently, from the older kids and the older kids to take on the role of mentor that helps facilitate learning.
Being around older children and adults who are kind, caring and interactive, allows kids to learn so much more than just information. They learn to engage with each other on a human level and develop empathy, compassion, patience, and resilience.
Galileo has used this idea and created the local dojos. They are global micro-schools offering hybrid (both in-person and online) learning opportunities. They will allow kids to get together, play together, and learn together in a self-directed way.
Self-directed education should take place in a moral environment
“And then the final characteristic, which I think in some sense follows from the other things, is that it needs to be a fundamentally moral environment.”
With access to technology and resources, our kids can learn what they want to know when they need to know it.
But learning to be a good person can’t be taught. By exposing our kids to a wide range of people and situations, they will begin to understand that they are part of a wider community.
Empathy and interpersonal skills are vital tools for success but also important aspects of being a good person.
Peter says it is vital that “children are growing up in a world, in an environment where its made clear that it’s important to care not just for yourself, but for the other people here.”
Can self-directed education have a negative impact?
And this is the big question.
Even listening as Peter speaks, reading about alternative education is all good and well, but the niggling doubt is often there.
Peter experienced the same doubts and now has research to credit the fact that self-directed education is the way of the future.
Along with Gina Riley, Peter surveyed 75 adults who had grown up unschooling, and he said, “frankly, a lot of people said there no problems, and they had no regrets.”
As you can see from their findings, most of the participants had no problems getting into college, finding a job, or supporting themselves.
Many of them also had a job directly related to their interests and passions.
Three participants were unhappy with their unschooled upbringing. Peter mentioned, “they were unschoolers not by choice, but because their parents wouldn’t send them to school and their parents wouldn’t school them.”
However, what was extremely interesting was that one of the participants had gone on to have a very academic career at a prestigious college.
As Peter said, “even growing up in that environment, even with her believing she had not learned anything in her first 17 years of life, she somehow recovered from that. Doesn’t that tell you something about human ability, human resilience, and the propensity for self-directed education if you want to do it?”
Self-directed education could be the right choice for your family
Through his research, Peter has discovered that children learn naturally.
“What our conventional schools do is try to churn everybody out the same.”
But we aren’t the same!
Allowing our kids to delve into their interests, play, explore, and dream is such a gift.
The traditional school model of prescriptive curriculums and rigid conformity should be a thing of the past.
Like Peter says, “what they learn when they’re in charge of their education is way more important than any specific kind of information or body of knowledge or subject. What they learn is how to control their own life. What they learn is how to be responsible for themselves and make their own decisions. They learn how to learn.”
And isn’t that powerful?
We can offer our kids freedom, not just in what they learn and how they learn it. But freedom in how they choose to live.
Through self-directed education, we can allow our kids to grow into exactly who they are meant to be.
As Peter Gray, in all his wisdom, says, “We don’t have to worry about what our children are learning. What we do have to worry about is, are our children happy? Are our children growing up with a sense of control over their own lives? Are they learning to be responsible for their lives? Are they living moral lives? Do they have examples of morality in their lives? These are the things we should worry about. Let’s not worry about what specific things they are learning.”
Do you know anyone struggling with the idea of self-directed education? A family with big dreams, but unsure of how to start?
At inspirEd we aim to inspire families to take the leap! With the right resources, community, and a bit of trust, anyone can reap the benefits of a self-directed approach to learning.
Join the education revolution and share your self-directed journey today.
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