notes on Free to Learn, by Peter Gray
reviewed by Deb Lewis

The intro is Deb Lewis, writing to me (Sandra Dodd) about the review to follow. Deb has reviewed John Holt's books for modern unschoolers, and there was no one whose review I would rather read than Deb's. For readers here unfamiliar with Deb's writing, I have a collection: Deb Lewis

In an unrelated discussion at Facebook recently, Schuyler Waynforth wrote that she found noble savage stuff irritating. I wondered then if she’d read this book, and what her thoughts were. She’d be a good person to review it, I think, with her fine brains and her anthropology background. But that might be more work than either of you want to put into a book that’s not really about unschooling and that doesn't offer much of anything new to unschoolers.

Before unschoolers spend their time and/or money on this book they should know it's not about unschooling. There are much better books out there for unschoolers. Yours. Pam Laricchia's, Rue's book.

I did like it well enough, and agree with much of it. And I think the first chapter is especially important. As a developmental psychologist Gray is making some important claims about the damage school can do. No one else, outside of unschoolers, seems to be talking about this even though now and then some poor kid shoots up his school to make his misery known, to matter to the adults around him in some way. It's a heartbreaking chapter, really, but the most important one, maybe.

He talks a little bit more about freedom than I'm comfortable with, though he does qualify that occasionally, and he seems to advocate, without spelling it right out, minimal involvement of parents in their children's learning, but I guess that's normal for a psychologist. So, here's a quick review for unschoolers.

Free To Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, by Peter Gray

Peter Gray has occasionally written favorably about unschooling, or at least about some of the ideas behind unschooling, at one point even surveying unschoolers. But Gray's book, Free To Learn, is not a book for or about unschoolers. Gray's book is about school reform and his vision for that looks like open learning centers and democratic schools like Sudbury. This is what John Holt was writing about in the 1960s and 1970s before he gave up on the idea of school reform, so for unschoolers who've read Holt, these won't be new ideas.

This book might be useful to unschoolers who want to offer skeptical in-laws a credible, expert opinion on the problems with school and compulsory attendance. Gray makes a good case for caring about the feelings of children and the importance of happiness to learning and well being.

I like that Gray stresses the importance of play in learning. He also plainly states, and has collected a lot of supporting evidence, that the pressure put on children and the control they live under at school, and at home because of the demands of school, is detrimental to learning, and to health. When other experts talk about school reform it's usually about improving school performance. It's almost never about the misery children endure in school or about the long term consequences of that misery to the individual, to families, or to society. In chapter one Gray builds an impressive case against compulsory schooling with evidence of growing rates of depression, anxiety and mental disorders in school children. He writes, "We are pushing the limits of children's adaptability. We have pushed children into an abnormal environment, where they are expected to spend ever greater portions of their day under adult direction, sitting at desks, listening to and reading about things that don't interest them, and answering questions that are not their own and are not, to them, real questions. We leave them ever less time and freedom to play, explore, and pursue their own interests."

I wasn't crazy about Gray's use of a hunter-gatherer model for his argument in favor of free play. I can't pretend to know anything about hunter-gatherer bands but I suspect most American's will not make an easy connection between the free life of hunter-gatherer children, and what they see as the technologically advanced and competitive future of their own urban, or suburban, children. Gray tries to help readers see that growing up in your own culture prepares you for life in that culture, but he doesn't quite do it. He tries to paint an idyllic picture of hunter-gatherer childhood but the picture I got sometimes looked like parental neglect. If he'd used unschoolers for his model he would have had the example of free play in childhood, in modern society, coupled with enthusiastic parental involvement in a child's interests and well being. And he would have the results in some cases twenty or twenty five (or more) years out. But there's a lovely romance and naturalness to hunter-gatherers, and lots of history and, I guess, some statistics. With unschoolers he would have had to rely on self reporting because there are no statistics.

I was bothered by one idea in particular in chapter six, "The Human Educative Instincts" where Gray writes, "But throughout human history the real onus for education has always laid with children themselves, and it still does today."
In looking for quotes to offer, I found myself irritated at his use of the word "students" when he could have better used "children" or "people" and his use of the words "educate, education" and "teach" when he might better have used "help" or "learn."


"How did we come to the conclusion that the best way to educate students is to force them into a setting where they are bored, unhappy, and anxious." ~ Peter Gray
(He missed a good opportunity here to think of children as people instead of "students" )

"By “true learning” and “deep knowledge,” I mean children’s incorporation of ideas and information into lasting ways of understanding and responding to the world around them. This is very different from superficial knowledge that is acquired solely for the purpose of passing a test and is forgotten shortly after the test is over." ~ Peter Gray

"Much of the early research on video games was motivated by fears that the violent content in some of the games would increase young people’s violent behavior in the real world. For those who have taken the trouble to examine it seriously, that research has quelled the initial fears. There is no evidence that killing animated characters on a screen increases a person’s likelihood of harming people in real life." ~ Peter Gray

"Several experiments have shown that playing fast-paced action video games can quite markedly increase players’ scores on tests of visuospatial ability, including components of standard IQ tests." ~ Peter Gray

"Today anyone who can get their hands on a computer with Internet access— even street kids in India— can access the world’s entire body of knowledge and ideas, all beautifully organized and available through easy-to-use search engines. For almost anything you want to do, you can find instructions and video on the Internet. For almost any idea you want to think about, you can find arguments and counterarguments on the Internet, and even join a discussion about it. This is far more conducive to intellectual development than the one-right-answer approach of the standard school system." ~ Peter Gray

"The idea that you have to go to school to learn anything or to become a critical thinker is patently ridiculous to any kid who knows how to access the Internet, and so it is becoming harder and harder to justify top-down schooling." ~ Peter Gray

I think parents have a responsibility to help their children figure out good ways to be in the world. Especially in the west, where women have control over their reproduction, if you're going to make a baby and plop it out onto a world with seven billion other people you have a very serious duty to be the kind of example and guide your child needs to live a good and responsible life. Yes, the learning happens inside the child. But it can certainly be influenced or stunted by the actions of neglectful or stupid parents. The lives of many millions of children in this world are sad enough without this terrible idea. I suspect some people will insist Gray meant something else. Well then, he should have written something else, because what he wrote there was horrible.

Gray ends his book encouraging parents to be more trustful of their children and to consider alternative forms of education. In chapter ten he has some favorable things to say about unschooling but he also writes this: " I don't think that unschooling is the answer for every family, or even for most, unless societal changes occur to help support it."

This feels like a cop out after his plea in chapter one: "It is time for people who know better to stand up and move against this terrible tide. Children do not need more schooling. They need less schooling and more freedom. They also need safe enough environments in which to play and explore, and they need free access to the tools, ideas, and people (including playmates) that can help them along their own chosen paths."

I don't think unschooling is the answer for every family either, but not because of a lack of support from society. (whatever that means) Society right now doesn't support Grays vision of open learning centers, or democratic schools, either. If you want to make positive changes sometimes you have to be brave enough to do the right thing in spite of what society does or does not support. And since when did a lack of support from society become a good excuse for parents not making as happy and healthy a life as possible for their children?

About unschooling he continues:

"Some kids need to be away from their parents more than is typically possible with unschooling, and some parents need more time away from kids. In our culture of relatively isolated nuclear families, where most adults work outside of the home, it can be hard to spend the day with kids and still have enough adult companionship."

Sigh. Gray doesn't have a good understanding of unschooling at all. What is "typically possible with unschooling" is that parents help their children get what they want. It may take some more thought and creativity than "off you go to your Sudbury model school" but it's "typically possible."

And spending the day with children does not preclude adult companionship. Some children are surprisingly portable. Friends can get to your door even when you have children. He was right when he wrote unschooling is not for everyone. Unschooling works a lot better for people who are willing to do what they need to get what they want.

What Gray essentially says at the end of the book is, choose a democratic school...it's better than public school, your kids will be happier and better off, and you wont have to be very involved. I can't argue with any of that. But for those parents who really enjoy their kids, unschooling is better.

You'll probably like this book if you're interested in school reform. Or if you care about the well being of children. Or if you're keeping a tally of the ways schools harm children and interfere with learning. You might really like it if you want some credentialed support this Thanksgiving for not sending your kids to school. And you'll get some quotes to post on your wall at Facebook.

I took hand written notes while reading this book, and returned the book before I wrote this. If there are misspellings, or punctuation errors in the quotes, those errors are mine, and were not made by Peter Gray. I did try to be careful, but my handwriting's not all that legible.


Here's a post script from Deb:
Maybe it’s not as nice a review as you wanted. I liked the book. But with the exception of the mental health statistics, none of it’s really new. John Holt said almost all of it. And he said it better. And none is really new if you read Peter Gray’s blog. I’m not a regular reader there and even I recognized parts that were adapted from his blog posts. All that’s fine, really. I guess I was hoping to be very impressed and it seemed like I’d read it before.

But anytime credentialed experts write about helping kids have happier lives, it’s good. Sometimes educators can only recognize a good idea if it comes from someone with an impressive resume.

More by Deb Lewis

Other reviews by Deb Lewis: A Life Worth Living; Selected Letters of John Holt Teach Your Own , by John Holt