Are we nearing a tipping point for a new model of education? A talk with Peter Gray

Peter Gray is a true pioneer in exploring alternative education models, a serious researcher in the field of education and play, and an inspiring parent and activist. He speaks and writes eloquently without academic jargon about the needs of children. He’s currently on the faculty of Boston College in the Psychology Department, with dozens of books, articles, and blog posts to his name. His most recent book is Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. And that title says it all! We also recommend a recent article that clearly explains the differences between progressive education models—which we know a lot about here at Alt Ed Austin—and self-directed learning. You’ll also find a whole universe of helpful resources on the Alliance for Self-Directed Education website.

Peter will be speaking at several locations in Austin at the end of April (listed at the end of this post), so we decided to take this opportunity to let the Alt Ed Austin community know a little bit more about his philosophy and predictions for the future. Peter is a passionate advocate for play as the most natural and powerful way children learn. And he is leading a national movement for self-directed education through the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, as he discusses in the interview below.

Tell our readers who might not be familiar with your work how you got started in the field of education research and alternative schooling in particular.

As a researcher, I was originally doing brain research, looking at hormones in the brain and how hormones affect behavior. But when my own son was nine years old, he reached a crisis point in school, in the fourth grade. He hated school, and they didn’t know what to do with him. We decided we needed to find something very different from traditional schools for him as he had always been rebelling against it. And so we found the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts.

Since then, Sudbury has become a model for self-directed education. The Clearview Sudbury School in Austin follows this model. Sudbury and schools like it are places where children are free to play and explore and do what they want to do. There are children of all ages, and the rules are all made by children themselves—the opposite of typical schools.

When we enrolled my son, he was immediately happy and thought this was just what school should be. But I was concerned that he might be living in my basement for the rest of his life. Fathers tend to need more convincing than mothers about this type of education. I see that all the time. I needed some evidence that it worked. I tried to convince some graduate students in the field of education to do a research study, but no one was interested, so I decided to do the study myself. The results impressed me. Graduates of Sudbury who wanted to go to college did go to college. Others went on to various careers and they were all happy. None of them regretted going to Sudbury, which comforted me as a father and intrigued me as an academician.

All of this launched my interest in play, and I began to study why children all over the world have this drive to play and play in certain predictable ways, which we now believe are part of natural selection and designed to make them ready for adulthood.

I’ve been pursuing these ideas for many years, and I’m now concerned about what our coercive schooling system is doing to our children in terms of time taken away from play and creating anxiety. Now I’m not just a researcher; I’m also an advocate for what we call self-directed education. We have an organization called the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, and we educate people and promote these ideas, whether through schools or through homeschooling and what is sometimes called “unschooling.”


Are you hopeful about the future direction of self-directed education in the United States? Where do you see our education moving in the next few decades?

The biggest barrier to self-directed education that has to be overcome—and I’m hopeful about it—is that the great majority of people just don’t know anything about it, don’t understand it, and don’t see how it will work! Most Americans are third-, fourth-, or fifth-generation traditionally schooled. School has a certain meaning for us, and there’s a lot of social propaganda about how important it is, so it’s not surprising that most people in our culture believe that school as traditionally defined is essential in order to be successful or not become homeless. We hear that all the time. But I think that the barriers can be overcome.

In the most recent statistics available from a few years ago, we saw that about 3.4 percent of American children were homeschooled, and the trend is increasing. In the past homeschooling was done primarily for religious reasons, not to add freedom to children’s lives. But now the reasons for homeschooling tend to be more about improving the learning environment, making children happier and less constrained. I think that as homeschooling becomes more common and not so weird, we’ll see the numbers increase rapidly.

We also think somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of homeschoolers are pursuing “unschooling,” but I prefer the more positive term of “self-directed education.” Both homeschooling and self-directed education allow children much more time in the day to find hobbies, discover their own interests, make friends, get involved in community activities, and all the things that are important to learning. And now there are more centers being opened to create communities and support for families who are doing this.

I see it all as a grassroots movement, and we’re heading toward a tipping point. The next stage is that there will be enough people doing this that they have some political clout. I’m not sure, but that will come when somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of families are embracing self-directed education. So what leads me to be optimistic is that we always see social change occurring slowly, gradually, as courageous people do non-normative things, but over time we reach a tipping point at which everyone knows someone who is doing it, and it no longer seems weird. It no longer seems like it’s something you’re going to be blamed for doing. That’s when real change happens. The most recent analogy is the acceptance of gay Americans and same-sex marriage. For education, I don’t know if it will take 10 years or 40 years, but we’re on a trend, and I think it will happen.

The other thing that makes me optimistic is that self-directed education is easier than ever before. The Internet has made it easy. When schools were started, there were only certain people who had knowledge and you had to go to institutions where knowledge was sequestered in order to learn. Really and truly, the Internet has now made schools obsolete. We haven’t as a society come to terms with that, but all children know that any information they need is available to them at home or anywhere by Googling it.

But what we still need is community. So i have hope that libraries will become the replacements for schools. I’d like to see libraries become community centers for activities—places for learning, recreation, and friendship. We are suffering from being isolated from each other, and there’s real value in connecting with others, especially for kids. Schools aren’t solving this problem right now.

What we’re trying to do at the Alliance for Self-Directed Education is to change from individual people trying to solve a problem to an organized movement tackling the problem. We want people to see themselves as part of the same movement, whether they’re doing unschooling at home or sending their children to a Sudbury-style school. We’re trying to create local groups to support each other.

Are there places in the country that are pushing forward faster than others in this movement?

I’m not sure we know exactly—we don’t have all the information. But it’s interesting that in Austin you have a Sudbury model school and Abrome and many unschoolers. Austin may be one of the places where there’s a real concentration of people who are interested in self-directed learning.

What new projects are you working on right now besides the Alliance?

I have a new book in mind but am not far enough along on it to talk about it. It will be about the obsolescence of schools and how their functions have been taken over by other, more efficient means.

I’d also like to mention another organization I’m involved in, which is called the Let Grow Foundation. This is run by Lenore Skenazy, who wrote the book Free Range Kids. She is concerned that we’ve really excluded kids from public spaces, and we’ve developed irrational fears about letting children be free to play and explore the world. Utah just recently passed the a “free range children” law, so the idea is gaining momentum. Lenore is the main force behind this, but I’m conducting some research and supporting it.

Thank you to Peter for taking time to talk with us! He will be speaking at four events in Austin at the end of April, so if you’re interested in his thoughts about where education is heading, you have some terrific opportunities to listen and ask questions:

What Is Self-Directed Education, and How Do We Know It Works?
Wednesday, April 25, 7pm at Abrome

Smart Schooling Book Group Discussion with Author Peter Gray
(on his book Free to Learn)
Thursday, April 26, 6pm, at Laura Bush Community Library in Westlake

Play Deficit Disorder: A National Crisis and How to Solve It Locally
Thursday, April 26, 7pm, at Laura Bush Community Library

The Biology of Education: How Children's Natural Curiosity, Playfulness, and Sociability Serve Their Education
Friday, April 27, 7pm, Clearview Sudbury School

Shelley Sperry
Sperry Editorial

Media Monday: Arts + sciences = an explosion of creativity

The greatest scientists are artists as well.
—Albert Einstein

In many schools and colleges right now, educators are busily doing demolition work— breaking down old walls between the arts and sciences. Students and teachers are recognizing more and more that the creative process is not that different, no matter what your official academic discipline. Australian educator David Roy calls it a “quiet revolution” happening in classrooms across his continent.

A great example of this art-plus-science trend is happening Wednesday at Arizona State University, where scientists and artists are collaborating on a project called “Science Exposed,” in which scientists and students create diverse projects examining problems in the life sciences through sculpture, dance, and music. For example, in “Sal’s Genetic Tweekery,” dancers explore how salmonella reacts and survives in different environments. The project is led in part by choreographer and MacArthur Fellow Liz Lerman.

Interested in hearing from other educators who are merging arts and sciences education? Take a look at a few recent fun examples here:

Why Teachers Love Using Those OK Go Videos in Class. The massively popular music group is catering to its teacher and student fan base by creating special materials for the classroom in its OK Go Sandbox.

Nashville math teacher Joel Bezaire helps kids understand new concepts by reading aloud from the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, explaining that “The literary hook for this lesson is strong, and kids are really into learning more about primes thanks to the context of the story. The lessons don't always line up this nicely, but so much of what Christopher [the protagonist] writes about regarding mathematics is about flexibility with numbers that it's a really nice match.”

David Roy talks about how teachers across Australia are Integrating Arts and Science in the Classroom, saying, “If we truly want to encourage students in Science, STEAM and not STEM should potentially be the way forward. Only then might we have creative scientific solutions to the challenges our societies face.”

In a Popular Science article last fall, we get a look at Kari Byron, whose work explores How Art Could Help Kids Study Science. Byron says that “Science is a creative field, it’s just more organized. . . . When you take your creativity and you throw your energy into it, it almost works like a drop in a pond, it radiates outward, and creativity begets other creativity.”

Shelley Sperry
Sperry Editorial


Media Monday: The TiLT podcast—talking about kids whose differences are not deficits


I recently discovered the TiLT podcast , which is geared specifically toward parents raising “differently wired” or atypical kids, and I think it would be a terrific resource for many families in the Alt Ed community. I was impressed by the sharp, energetic host, Debbie Reber, who has created a wealth of resources and written a book on the topic of “raising an extraordinary child in a conventional world.”

Recent podcast episodes included a chat with Tom Ropelewski, the filmmaker behind “2e: Twice Exceptional,” a documentary we at Alt Ed Austin love; an interview with an ADHD and autism parent coach; and a deep dive into navigating the high-school–to–college transition.

Reber is a homeschooler who involves her son Asher in the production and development of the podcast, so you can hear a parent’s and a kid’s view on some subjects. Debbie says she created TiLT “so parents stuck in this place of not-knowing and frustration can feel connected and grounded as they move forward in figuring out what their child needs in a way that feels positive and hopeful for the whole family.”

I encourage you to check out the main TiLT website, and here’s the site for Debbie’s book: Differently Wired, which comes out in June.

Shelley Sperry
Sperry Editorial

Enjoy screens. Not too much. Mostly together.

You will be more effective as a parent, and have more fun as a family,
if you drop the guilt and embrace the good that screens have to offer,
while balancing media with other priorities.
When in doubt, try to use media as a means of connecting.

—Anya Kamenetz
The Art of Screen Time


Anya Kamenetz is a journalist who has been writing about schools, students, and families in the United States for more than a decade and is currently on the education team at National Public Radio. She’s particularly good at distilling vast amounts of cutting-edge academic research, evaluating it, and presenting the fine points in ways parents can use it to make everyday decisions for their families. Her new book, The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life, is both an extremely practical guide for deciding the when, why, and how much of screen time for kids and a deep dive into the current state of research on the generation raised with tablets, smartphones, and 24/7 access to information and entertainment at their fingertips.

Kamenetz is a parent herself, with two young girls. One of the things that distinguishes Screen Time is that she frequently includes examples of her own family’s challenges and strategies for dealing with the digital world. And, no doubt as a result of her experience trying to juggle piles of information, she’s included a terrific little section at the end that boils down the takeaways of the book to a few pages of essentials. A few quick examples, which she elaborates on throughout the book:

  • Media can have measurable positive effects on reading, school readiness, concentration, and learning.
  • Habits are often set in the preschool years, which is when parents have the most control. But it’s never too late to have a positive influence.
  • Different ages require different approaches.
  • Parental rules and attitudes about technology make a measurable, positive difference through the teenage years and beyond.
  • Screens and sleep don’t mix.

One of the clear conclusions is that much more research is needed and that absolutely critical questions related to the effects of screen time on anxiety and depression, learning difficulties, and violence are still hotly contested by scholars.

I highly recommend an interview Kamenetz did on the Tilt podcast in which many of the questions focused on digital media and kids with various learning challenges. Kamenetz spends significant time looking at how differently wired kids respond to digital media and how it affects social interaction, but it’s clear there are no certainties at this stage. “Even if the affinity some autistic people have for media doesn’t prove to be a smoking gun,” she says, “it is a prompt to consider how both our own and our kids’ screens might serve as either a barrier or a bridge to other human encounters.”

One of the ideas that made the most impact on me in reading Kamenetz’s research is the importance of separating screens and sleep. I’m not a good role model for my teen daughter on this count since I don’t currently follow the sensible rule of shutting down all screens an hour before bedtime. Her book is prompting me to look for ways of changing our family habits around bedtime as well as ways we can do more watching and discussing together, with the ultimate goal—as Kamenetz suggests—of raising kids who understand responsible media use in an atmosphere of trust, not surveillance.

I’m going to try to put into practice some other tips from The Art of Screen Time as well, and I really wish I’d had access to a book like this when my daughter was younger.

Throughout the book, Kamenetz uses the analogy of a healthy diet, with a nod to Michael Pollan’s famous adage, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” It’s practically impossible and probably undesirable to raise kids who are entirely media-free in our culture, so the goal has to be raising them to make good choices. Her own adage is: Enjoy screens. Not too much. Mostly together.

 My own advice: Get Kamenetz’s book from the library or bookstore and dip into it a chapter at a time, and you’ll learn a lot and find some seriously helpful advice plus a lot of new questions you might want to explore on your own. And at the very least, check out her final five-minute summary at the end, which includes some of most practical parenting tips I’ve read in months.

For her take on other critical issues in education, follow Kamenetz’s reporting at NPR and on Twitter or Facebook, and check out her other books on her website, which is all about the future of education. In other words: our future.

Here’s a long interview that delves into many of the book’s major themes and insights:

Shelley Sperry
Sperry Editorial

Media Monday: Intimate discussions with “Remarkable Educators”

 Ba Luvmour, host of the  Meetings with Remarkable Educators  podcast

Ba Luvmour, host of the Meetings with Remarkable Educators podcast

For anyone interested in exploring the great variety and depth of alternative education projects happening in the United States and Canada today, there’s a new podcast that brings terrific interviews with educators of many stripes to your earbuds. The show is called Meetings with Remarkable Educators and is hosted by Ba Luvmour, a long-time educator and trainer of educators based in Portland, Oregon.

The podcast started only a couple of months ago. Co-produced by author and educator Josette Luvmour, it features interviews and accompanying transcripts—which are really a nice little bonus—plus a fable or “teaching story” told by the host that is designed to spark thought and discussion.

The most recent guest was Phil Gang, a Montessori educator who is passionate about developing kids’ love of nature. Phil runs the Institute for Educational Studies at Endicott College and sees interaction with nature as a path to spiritual development for children: “There’s a certain kind of quietness and inner reflection that happens when they’ve been gardening. It just happens. . . . There’s excitement about it, but there’s also inner understanding.”

I especially enjoyed the interview with Paul Freedman, the founder of Salmonberry School in Washington state and the international Holistic Education Initiative. An advocate of “deep education,” Paul talked about his transition from public schools to a more holistic model sparked by the needs of his own son, who was “not a square peg kind of kid.” He explains his philosophy this way:                               

My holistic ideals include: Kids should be guided to author their own lives and learning. We should be striving to provide the space, the relationships, the environments and inspiration, the content that ignites kids' learning so that they can soar. Kids should be able to do that at their own pace. They should be able to follow their hearts in terms of passions and gosh, that should be fun. . . . We're all natural learning beings and given the time and space and support to let kids learn what they want to learn, when they want to learn with their friends and with a guiding teacher.

If you’re curious about where progressive, innovative schools are heading in the 21st century, the Meetings with Remarkable Educators podcast is a great opportunity to learn, and on Ba’s website he usually links to other information about his guests in case you want to know even more.

If you’d like to keep up with the latest topics and guests, you can also follow Remarkable Educators on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Shelley Sperry
Sperry Editorial

It’s not too late to have a great spring break!

Yes, the moment is drawing near when our fair city goes crazy and kids are in need of some serious recreation, enrichment, and camaraderie for Spring Break 2018. Most camps are filling up right now, so don’t hesitate if you’re interested in that precious week of March 12–16.  

Below we’ve made a list of our favorite spring break camp options that have some openings as of early this week, but no guarantees!