If I had to summarize the first part of Peter Gray’s book in a few words, it would be something like the following: “Traditional schools are too authoritarian. Traditional education stifles children’s curiosity and desire to learn by telling them what to study and by teaching them to do as they are told.” This part of the book, where he presents his understanding of the historical and psychological causes and human impact of traditional schooling (whether public or private), is extraordinarily compelling, and has forever changed my perspective on traditional education. Having read Dr Gray’s book, I will no longer take for granted that the use of a standard curriculum for everyone is a good idea, and I am thoroughly convinced that extinguishing a person’s natural desire to learn is at the root of many if not every unmotivated student. Whatever else we do, we must keep our children – and ourselves – wanting to learn, which is easy, Dr Gray argues, if we allow everyone to learn what about what interests them.
Although equally well-argued, I was less convinced by the second part of his book, his proposal for a solution. Although I am now thoroughly convinced that the student needs to be significantly involved in setting the direction of his learning (I would add, to the extent possible from his age and level of maturity), the specific implementation of this practice I believe needs some further refinement. Essentially, Dr Gray argues for the widespread introduction of “unschooling” environments and specifically schools like the Sudbury Valley schools that encourage each student from a very early age to choose on their own what to study, and how. I had been unaware of the unschooling movement and the Sudbury Valley schools prior to reading this book, and so began my own investigation on these topics. Among other things, I learned that we live near one of these schools, and so I went to check it out. After observing the school and after further reading and reflection, I came to the conclusion that there are at least two issues with Dr’s Gray’s “unschooling” approach as a solution for some of the problems with traditional schooling.
The first problem is that this type of schools (deliberately?) appears to lack sufficient resources, both human and otherwise. If children are in an environment that includes a kitchen and a shop but not a PhD in mathematics, it seems highly unlikely that they will discover a natural bent for quantum physics and calculus. I remember seeing an extraordinary video clip years ago where Jesse Jackson led a tour of two cross town public high schools, one white and one black, showing the dramatic differences in facilities available. (The white high school included computers, sophisticated science equipment, a beautiful track and an Olympic size pool, while the black high school had outdated textbooks, less rigorous academics and a dramatically lower graduation rate.) Perhaps the local Sudbury Valley-type school I saw was unique, but I think that unless we are simultaneously offering them the best possible resources, our children will never rise to their full potential via unschooling.
The second issue I have with unschooling as advocated by Dr Gray is his excessive adulation for learning from one’s childhood peers. It is certainly true that kids can and do learn things from their peers, but many of those things (the pressure to conform, bullying, and drug use, to name a few) are challenges that I believe are better handled with the support of caring adults. It would be interesting to put Dr Gray in the same room with Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate, the authors of another excellent book, Hold On to Your Kids. This book is an excellent complement to the many positive/attachment parenting books now available (Peaceful Parents Happy Kids, Playful Parenting, and Two Thousand Kisses a Day are among my favorites). Neufeld and Mate’s book, also well worth the time, focuses on the external pressure from peers that have been affecting the last few generations of children, and not in a good way. Although both books have their share of unsubstantiated assertions, I found myself agreeing much more often with Drs Neufeld and Mate than with Dr Gray regarding peer relationships. Interestingly, both books are highly critical of our current traditional method of schooling, but they come to very different conclusions about what to do about it. It would certainly be interesting to read these two books together.
Since presumably many readers of this review will not be visiting a Sudbury Valley type school in person, I thought it might be worth closing with some further reflections on my visits there. I was able to visit the local Sudbury Valley type school three times, and twice was able to spend a few hours interacting with students of various ages and reviewing the artifacts of various processes including the judicial committee. The children I spoke with seemed generally satisfied with attending this school and many were reasonably articulate as to its value to them, but to me many of them appeared as if they were drifting. Few seemed to have identified areas of learning about which they were passionate, or even especially interested in. The minutes from the judicial committee also made it clear that although the authority of the school may rest with the student-faculty committee, rules and constraints on behavior are as prevalent as in a traditional school. In looking at educational options for my son, I have now visited a fairly large number of schools. For whatever it is worth, my most important litmus test for a school has become to see whether the students and staff are going about their day with enthusiasm and joy. Sadly, it is not something I typically see, and it was not apparent at this school either.
Back to Dr Gray’s book. In spite of my disagreement with some of Dr Gray’s conclusions, I have decided I must give it a 5-star rating because of his cogent presentation of his ideas and because those ideas have forever altered my views on traditional schooling. (As I learned, many of those ideas were initially presented in his Psychology Today column, but I did find that the book presentation of those ideas really strengthened and solidified his views in a way that reading the columns alone did not.) I am glad that he wrote it, and would recommend it to anyone trying to understand how we learn best.
- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: Basic Books; Reprint edition (10 February 2015)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0465084990
- ISBN-13: 978-0465084999
- Product Dimensions:: 14.1 x 2.4 x 21 cm
- Shipping Weight: 118 g
- Customer reviews: 161 customer ratings
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: 61,979 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)