In his cool dude way, Phenix’s introduction of each speaker is very brief which is ideal because people can always read the bio on the program and dispense with the formality. A graduate of the Holistic School, Phenix confessed to the audience point blank, “I never attended classes. If you were given the choice to attend class or this . . . . ,” he said gesturing with sweeping arms towards the lush forest surrounding us, “what would you do?” Like introducing the next set in a rock concert, Phenix intones into the mic, “Let’s give it up for Peter Gray!”
The audience cheer like groupies. Peter speaks about “The Biology of Education: How Children Learn through Free Play and Exploration,” linking Karl Groo’s Practice Theory of Play with his own study of children in hunter-gatherer cultures. Peter did his study by contacting the anthropologists who closely studied hunter-gatherer communities around the world and asking them about their observations of children.
Peter then went to connect this research with his survey of students who attended the Sudbury Valley, a democratic school in Massachusetts where his son chose to go and wouldn’t have it any other way after his bad experience with regular school. Peter then enumerates what he believes is the “optimal context for self-education” through this study of Sudbury echoing certain points in hunter-gatherer societies:
- The social expectation (and reality) that education is children’s responsibility
- Unlimited freedom to play, explore and pursue own interests
- Opportunity to play with the tools of the culture
- Access to a variety of caring adults, who are helpers, not judges
- Free age mixing among children and adolescents
- Immersion in a stable, moral, democratic community
Parents may unknowingly take away from children the drive to be self-directed by exerting too much control. “The world has become worse for young people,” Peter said. The degree to which you feel you are in control of your life plays is important. “People who lack this internal locus of control are prone to depression and anxiety. How can children learn how to take control of their life if they can’t be allowed to play without adults?”
Historical evidence and social science research shows that the decline of play over the last sixty years in America is correlated with the rise of social and emotional disorders. Peter points out, 1) five to eight-fold rise in major depression and anxiety disorders in children, 2) four-fold rise in suicide rate for children under age 15; decline in internal locus of control, 3) increased narcissism, decreased empathy.
Regarding unschoolers, Peter commented that majority who responded to his survey became responsible and self-directed adults. It’s important that parents allow opportunities for children to play and interact with others and be immersed in community life. “Peers play a protective psychological role from parents. If you have good friends, you’ll be okay.”
Since I was interested in exploring Project Based Learning, I asked Peter Gray about it and he expressed some doubts as to whether some of the projects are truly undertaken out of passion or merely out of duty since they may be required by the teacher or chosen by group mates. The problem with academia sometimes is that even people pursuing PhD’s do so out of a calculated move for career advancement rather than a pure interest in the subject or a sincere desire to solve a problem.
When he started his research work on Sudbury Valley School and on unschoolers, Peter came in skeptical but the results show the favorable potential of unschooling and that parents in democratic schools like Sudbury don’t have to worry too much. In a similar way, my quest to visit alternative schools while driving around the world is a search for answers. Short visits can’t take the place of in-depth studies such as those conducted by Peter Gray but talking to practitioners could still offer some degree of enlightenment.
And who knows one day, what the Gray groupie can grow up to be.
Certified fan! I ended up in this conference because of Peter Gray. I emailed him about my thesis proposal linking nature, creativity and play and he responded by telling me about APDEC in Taiwan.
Peter Gray’s study on unschoolers is available in PDF file from Other Education: The Journal of Educational Alternatives: