How do Unschoolers Turn Out?

| September 2, 2014 | 69 Comments
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Jane Mount/MindShift

Jane Mount/MindShift

Peter Gray has studied how learning happens without any academic requirements at a democratic school. The Boston College research professor also wrote about the long history and benefits of age-mixed, self-directed education in his book Free to Learn. Over the years, as he encountered more and more families who had adopted this approach at home (these so-called “unschoolers” are estimated to represent about 10 percent of the more than two million homeschooled children), he began to wonder about its outcomes in that setting. Finding no academic studies that adequately answered his question, he decided to conduct his own.

In 2011, he and colleague Gina Riley surveyed 232 parents who unschool their children, which they defined as not following any curriculum, instead letting the children take charge of their own education. The respondents were overwhelmingly positive about their unschooling experience, saying it improved their children’s general well-being as well as their learning, and also enhanced family harmony. Their challenges primarily stemmed from feeling a need to defend their practices to family and friends, and overcoming their own deeply ingrained ways of thinking about education. (The results are discussed at length here.)

This led Gray to wonder how unschooled children themselves felt about the experience, and what impact it may have had on their ability to pursue higher education and find gainful and satisfying employment. So last year, he asked readers of his blog to disseminate a survey to their networks, and received 75 responses from adults ranging in age from 18 to 49; almost all of them had had at least three years of unschooling experience. They were split almost evenly among three groups: those who had never attended school; those who had only attended school for some portion of kindergarten through sixth grades; and those with either type of early experience who had also attended school for some portion of seventh through 10th grades, but not afterward. (The results are explained in detail in Gray’s recent four-part blog series, which begins here.)

He was satisfied with the number of responses, but cautions that, as with many social science studies, the necessarily limited collection method may have produced a biased sample that may not represent the entire population of unschoolers. Such studies can nevertheless yield useful insights, he says, especially when considered in concert with other data, such as other surveys, or patterns that emerge from anecdotal accounts.

Gray found that the results did correlate closely with his more thorough studies of alumni from the Sudbury Valley School (a democratic school in Sudbury Valley, Massachusetts), as well as what he’d personally heard from unschoolers, and what he’d read online. Moreover, even taken in isolation, “what the study does unambiguously show,” he says, “is that it is possible to take the unschooling route and then go on to a highly satisfying adult life.”

The Pros and Cons of Unschooling

All but three of the 75 respondents felt the advantages of unschooling clearly outweighed the disadvantages. Almost all said they benefited from having had the time and freedom to discover and pursue their personal interests, giving them a head start on figuring out their career preferences and developing expertise in relevant areas. Seventy percent also said “the experience enabled them to develop as highly self-motivated, self-directed individuals,” Gray notes on his blog. Other commonly cited benefits included having a broader range of learning opportunities; a richer, age-mixed social life; and a relatively seamless transition to adult life. “In many ways I started as an adult, responsible for my own thinking and doing,” said one woman who responded to Gray’s survey.

“Very few had any serious complaints against unschooling,” Gray says, and more than a third of the respondents said they could think of no disadvantages at all. For the remainder, the most significant disadvantages were: dealing with others’ judgments; some degree of social isolation; and the challenges they experienced adjusting to the social styles and values of their schooled peers.

Social isolation (cited by 21 percent of respondents) usually stemmed from a dearth of other nearby unschoolers and the difficulty of socializing with school children with busy schedules and a “different orientation toward life,” Gray says. He cautions that it’s best to consider these results within the broader cultural context: “If I were to ask people who went to school, I would probably find a similar number who felt socially isolated.”

What stood out, he adds, is that “many more said they felt their social experiences were better than they would have had in school.” Sixty-nine percent were “clearly happy with their social lives,” he says, and made friends through such avenues as local homeschooling groups, organized afterschool activities, church, volunteer or youth organizations, jobs, and neighbors. In particular, “they really treasured the fact that they had friends who were older or younger, including adults. They felt this was a more normal kind of socializing experience than just being with other people your age.”

Only 11 percent said they felt behind in one or more academic areas (most commonly math), which they overcame by applying themselves when the need arose. Only two felt their learning gaps hindered them from succeeding in life, and judging by their full responses, “it was almost more like a self-image issue—they grew up feeling ignorant and then made choices based on that feeling,” Gray says. More typical experiences were like that of a woman who earned a B.A. in both computer science and mathematics, despite entering college without any formal math training beyond fifth grade. Another noted that unschooling “follows the premise that if a child has a goal, they’ll learn whatever they need to in order to meet it. For instance, I don’t like math, but I knew I would need to learn it in order to graduate. So that’s what I did.”

Three people were very dissatisfied overall. In all three cases, the respondents said their mothers were in poor mental health and the fathers were uninvolved. Two of the three also happened to be the only ones who mentioned having been raised in a fundamentalist religious home, though the survey didn’t ask this question specifically. It appeared to Gray that the unschooling was not intentional—the parent had aimed to teach a religious curriculum, “but was incompetent and stopped teaching,” he notes. In all of these cases, the children’s contact with other people was also very restricted; moreover, they were not given any choice about their schooling and therefore felt deprived of school.

Can Unschoolers be “College and Career Ready”?

Overall, 83 percent of the respondents had gone on to pursue some form of higher education. Almost half of those had either completed a bachelor’s degree or higher, or were currently enrolled in such a program; they attended (or had graduated from) a wide range of colleges, from Ivy League universities to state universities and smaller liberal-arts colleges.

Several themes emerged: Getting into college was typically a fairly smooth process for this group; they adjusted to the academics fairly easily, quickly picking up skills such as class note-taking or essay composition; and most felt at a distinct advantage due to their high self-motivation and capacity for self-direction. “The most frequent complaints,” Gray notes on his blog, “were about the lack of motivation and intellectual curiosity among their college classmates, the constricted social life of college, and, in a few cases, constraints imposed by the curriculum or grading system.”

Most of those who went on to college did so without either a high school diploma or general education diploma (GED), and without taking the SAT or ACT. Several credited interviews and portfolios for their acceptance to college, but by far the most common route to a four-year college was to start at a community college (typically begun at age 16, but sometimes even younger).

None of the respondents found college academically difficult, but some found the rules and conventions strange and sometimes off-putting. Young people who were used to having to find things out on their own were taken aback, and even in some cases felt insulted, “when professors assumed they had to tell them what they were supposed to learn,” Gray says.

In the words of one woman: “I already had a wealth of experience with self-directed study. I knew how to motivate myself, manage my time, and complete assignments without the structure that most traditional students are accustomed to. … I know how to figure things out for myself and how to get help when I need it.” Added another: “I discovered that people wanted the teacher to tell them what to think. … It had never, ever occurred to me to ask someone else to tell me what to think when I read something.”

All survey respondents were also asked about their employment status and career, and 63 answered a follow-up survey asking about their work in more detail. More than three-quarters of those who answered the follow-up survey said they were financially self-sufficient; the rest were either students, stay-at-home parents, or under the age of 21 and launching businesses while living at home. But a number of those who were self-sufficient noted that this hinged on their ability to maintain a frugal lifestyle (several added that this was a conscious choice, allowing them to do enjoyable and meaningful work).

The range of jobs and careers was very broad—from film production assistant to tall-ship bosun, urban planner, aerial wildlife photographer, and founder of a construction company—but a few generalizations emerged. Compared to the general population, an unusually high percentage of the survey respondents went on to careers in the creative arts—about half overall, rising to nearly four out of five in the always-unschooled group. Similarly, a high number of respondents (half of the men and about 20 percent of the women) went on to science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) careers. (The same held true in another recent survey of unschoolers.) “STEM careers are also kind of creative careers—they involve looking for something, seeking answers, solving problems,” Gray says. “When you’re looking at it that way, it sort of fits.”

The reason for this correlation is something this survey can’t answer. “Maybe unschooling promotes creativity, or maybe dispositionally creative people or families are more likely to choose unschooling,” Gray says. “It’s probably a little bit of both.”

Additionally, just more than half of the respondents were entrepreneurs (this category overlapped considerably with the creative arts category). But what Gray found most striking is the complete absence (in both this and his Sudbury study samples) of “the typical person who gets an MBA and goes on to become an accountant or middle manager in some business. People with these educational backgrounds don’t go on to bureaucratic jobs. They do work in teams, but where there is a more democratic relationship within the team.”

He adds that this trend manifests across white- and blue-collar careers. “In the Sudbury survey, there were people working as carpenters or auto mechanics, etcetera, but in situations where they were occupationally self-directed, set their own schedules, and solved their own problems, rather than shuffled papers, or worked on assembly lines where no original work was being done.” In other words, he says, unschoolers of all types had overwhelmingly chosen careers high in those qualities that sociologists have found lead to the highest levels of work satisfaction.

What Factors Matter Most in Unschooling

Finally, the survey offered some insights about what makes for successful unschooling. Parents’ involvement levels with their children differed a lot, Gray says. Some were more hands-off, whereas others helped with learning, and in some cases even learned things (such as a foreign language) alongside their child, following the child’s lead. “All of those ways seem to work,” he says. “People only complained when they felt their parents were negligent about treating the child as a human being who has needs—including emotional needs—and who helped fill those needs.”

The results also led to another important conclusion: “The need for parents to be aware that children need more than their families,” Gray says. “People are designed to learn not just from their own parents, but from the wider world. If you don’t send your child to school where they’re automatically connected to other kids, other values, etcetera, it’s important to find a way that the family can be sufficiently involved in the larger community, or that the child has ways to be involved. Kids need that both socially and for their learning.” This ties in with the fact that “a major complaint of the three who disliked unschooling was that their parents isolated them and prevented them from exploring outside of the family or outside of the insular group with which the family was tied,” Gray adds on his blog.

In sum: “The findings of our survey suggest that unschooling can work beautifully if the whole family, including the children, buy into it, if the parents are psychologically healthy and happy, and if the parents are socially connected to the broader world and facilitate their children’s involvement with that world. It can even work well when some of these criteria are not fully met.”

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  • Akira Bear

    I agree that it is probably possible to be unschooled and then go out as an adult and get a formal education in college – in some cases (way less than half, I would imagine, which would negate this as an educational plan). I do not support home schooling because most parents cannot teach all the subjects that a child needs to learn in order to get a well-rounded education. Just as no teacher teaches all subjects, no parent should teach all subjects in the upper grades. It just doesn’t work.

    • An Unschooler

      Hi Akira,

      As a long time-unschooler (admittedly I did choose, to my parent’s chagrin, to spend some time in a public school… but it was my education so why would their chagrin really matter?) I feel I can speak in an informed manner on this topic.

      One of the primary tenants of unschooling is that the kid directs their own education, usually from an early age, so they aren’t typically put into a situation where they rely on a parent teaching them a subject. As a group we typically figure out early in life how we, as individuals, learn best, and then leverage that basic understanding of how our brains work to overcome this sort of problem.

      In my case, I’d estimate that ~80% of the material I learned was self-taught, through books and experiential education with guidance and support from my parents. When I eventually happened across the 20% I couldn’t self-teach effectively, I had the tools to independently seek out resources in my community — in my case, this took the form of seeking mentorship from others in my community, and eventually early enrollment (at 15) in college courses for more advanced topics. I’ve since attended a prestigious 4-year college, worked (and thrived) in multiple highly competitive jobs, and started businesses — and I’m not yet 30.

      I’m good friends with a number of other unschoolers from across the country, and their experiences mirror mine — even when parents could teach subjects, they used them as guides and support systems, not as their primary educators. To a one, this group is doing admirably well; some are PhD or MD candidates in the top programs for their fields, many are doing research or doing other work in STEM fields, others are running successful companies, and still others are teaching, doing non-profit work, or creating meaningful, successful careers in the arts. The lack of a group of adults who could teach them subjects in a traditional manner didn’t stifle their ability to acquire knowledge, never negatively impacted their advanced education, and most will argue passionately that their successes to date hinge on the fact that they weren’t put through a traditional secondary school.

      • Akira Bear

        You must be a pretty amazing person. Most kids aren’t that self-directed. When virtual school was introduced here, thousands of kids signed on. The following year, most of them returned to school because they failed. Too much independence. They could procrastinate all they wanted until it was too late to make the work up. There are a few who are successful, though – and you obviously fall into that category. Kudos to you for having that drive at such an early age. You must know that you and the other unschoolers you know are not the norm. I have met many parents who advocate home schooling for their children and do not teach certain subjects well or, really, at all.

        • Luba V.

          Virtual school is not the same thing as unschooling; it’s just school in a different format. It’s the presence or lack of a compelled curriculum that makes the difference, not the format or how much independence the students are granted to choose from a set menu of classes, or to choose how they do the lessons that someone else mandated. It’s fundamentally about whether the student is driving his/her education, or whether someone else is trying to drive it for them.

          • Akira Bear

            But you do agree that the learners have to be self-directed, right?

          • Natural Learner

            Akira, the problem I see with all type of school structure (school, school at home or virtual school, in one word ‘schooling’) is that there is a certain standard the curriculum aims for and teachers expect students to be self-directed towards someone else’s goals.

            While self-directed learning in the unschooling sense means that the child, student follows their OWN interest, sets their OWN goals, regardless of what others expect of them.

          • Akira Bear

            When these kids grow up and get jobs, won’t they have to be directed towards someone else’s goals?

            Listen, don’t get me wrong. I do not oppose unschooling. I would have loved to have had the opportunity to learn this way. For the majority of kids, though, who live in poverty and face a wealth of socio-economic problems, this will not be the learning opportunity that they get. For those who do have the parental support and are encouraged to learn this way, I think it’s great.

          • Natural Learner

            When they get a job, it’s still going to be their choice and their own goal. I don’t really see what you mean by ‘somebody else’s’.

            Yes, they may work for an employer, but if it’s their own wish to earn money and their choice how to earn that money, it’s still following their own goals.

            But in saying that, a lot of unschoolers attend uni or college to gain employment or skill and knowledge (which is also their own choice), or start their own businesses. Unschooling doesn’t mean refusal to study in a school setting, but only if it’s their own wish.

          • Unschooler

            “Self directed” – to an unschooler – means that there isn’t any curriculum imposed on the child. Thus, all the learning occurs as the child is freely living and enjoying their daily, personal pursuits. You can bet that most of those pursuits are NOT tests, worksheets or online academics.

            As normal, busy unschoolers, we see so many children come to our groups after having been schooled for years… who have to “de-school”. Essentially, they have to learn how to learn all over again. They are expecting their parents to tell them what to do, what to learn, etc., and it’s a big process to de-school – for both the kids AND the parents.

          • Akira Bear

            I understand what you are saying. And I think that the push for Common Core right now is a terrible thing that is turning our schools into the Dystopian Mills. Please understand that teachers are not behind this push for increased regimentation. We are fighting it as hard as we can.

          • Luba V.

            I think others have already addressed your question, but I will just add that all children (barring any really serious cognitive disabilities) start out as self-directed learners, when they are infants and toddlers.

          • Akira Bear

            I certainly have to agree with you there.

          • Tasha

            All learners are self directed. I would suggest that real learning only happens when a student is curious, when a student is searching. That is why what goes on in a classroom involves a lot of things that are not learning like rote memorization, performing for rewards like trained seals, and pleasing the teacher.

        • Evelyn

          It is generally accepted in the homeschooling world that when a child leaves traditional schooling for *any* form of nontraditional schooling, there is a significant adjustment period. It does not surprise me at all that kids who are programmed to follow someone else’s lead, to ignore their own learning urges (because there is no time when the day is eaten up with school) are going to have a really hard time adjusting to unschooling. I have personally experienced the very different family culture and adjustment periods that come with outschooling, homeschooling with a curriculum, and unschooling. It was tough every time.

          • Akira Bear

            I agree that there needs to be a period of adjustment. However, your post implies that in all traditional school settings children are taught dependency. I do disagree with that. And please understand, I am no apologist for the public school system.

          • Evelyn

            “Dependency” sounds very negative. I believe that in all traditional school settings, they are taught to FOLLOW. To follow rules (which may be arbitrary and/or based on the setting), to follow the other kids, and my main point: to follow a curriculum, to be dependent on somebody else telling them what to be focused on today. When I was a kid in school, I blasted through the curriculum to get to what I really wanted to do, and I was smart enough and fast enough to persist. My younger daughter has so many worksheets that she simply does not have time to get around to doing what actually interests her. My older daughter can articulate that she is losing her sense of drive to explore the world, because she doesn’t have time. It’s all eaten up with curriculum, and she feels discouraged and is giving up. I can only imagine kids who only know years of being told what to study, trying to figure out what it means to be self-directed.

        • aikimoe

          Most homeschooling parents hire tutors or have co-ops for the subjects they don’t know very well.

    • Unschooler

      The proof is in the pudding. Grown unschoolers appear to be doing quite well in life, as shown in this survey. Your comment about why you don’t support homeschoolers shows a total lack of understanding about how homeschooling works, let alone unschooling.

      But this is not about “homeschooling” it’s about “unschooling”… which can be very difficult to visualize because you work in a school setting, so you have to really wrap your brain around an entirely different dynamic than you are used to.

    • Unschool->College@14->$250k/yr

      That’s why people do studies like this . . .

      So that uninformed/anecdotally-derived opinions can be corrected based on fact.

  • MomThatIsStillUnschooling

    Akira, it seems you have little to no experience with homeschoolers/unschoolers, especially those with older children. One of the most important parts of unschooling, in my opinion, is instilling the skill to find the knowledge you need. A parent, just as any person, does have a limited amount of knowledge, but there is a vast, unlimited amount of knowledge available in our community through local educators, programs, museums, libraries, internet etc. A child only has to have the desire to access that wealth of knowledge and a parent is there to facilitate that. It’s kinda of like telling a kid to look of the definition of a word in the dictionary when they are not sure what it means… only with life.

    • Akira Bear

      Actually, I have quite a bit of experience with them. I teach in a program that serves children who are too ill to go to school. Many private school and home schooling families turn to us when they are dealing with medical issues for their children. I do agree that the idea works, however, when children are encouraged to be self-directed learners. Not all children are. In fact, I would surmise, from my experiences, that very few are.This is not the norm and it isn’t for everybody.

      • Unschooler

        You teach in a program for kids who are “too ill to go to school”? So the kids you see are in families who WANT them in school, but can’t send them there? If that is the case, then you’re not dealing with unschooled kids. You may have some homeschooled kids, but not unschooled.

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  • Truth seeker

    It is interesting to note that this article says it is about unschooling and yet says some of those included had only been unschool 3 years or more. That means the bulk of their education came in the form of lessons. People who responded also talked about lessons, which means they were also schooled!

    • Peter Gray

      Truth seeker, for more details please see my Psychology Today articles on this study, which begin here: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201406/survey-grown-unschoolers-i-overview-findings

      As you will see there, I broke the full group into three nearly equal-sized sub-groups based on amount of schooling they had in their K-12 years. One group had no schooling (including no homeschooling) at all; another had none past 6th grade, and another had some schooling past 6th grade. I show the data separately for the three groups. It’s interesting to note that those with no schooling were MORE likely to go on to a bachelor’s degree or higher than were the other two groups.

      And, yes, it is true that some of them took lessons–for example, music lessons–but this was always self-chosen, never part of an imposed curriculum, and took up only a tiny fraction of the amount of time that school would take,

      -Peter Gray

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  • Bill Fitzgerald

    Is there any description of race and/or socioeconomic status among the participants?

    It would help to know more demographic information about the population that responded, and how representative they are of the US population.

  • sucka free

    This shit is just a symptom of a country that is dealing with tribalism because of so much diversity. We humans have a hard time dealing w/diversity. I’m Af Am, my girlfriend is from Finland. In Finland they don’t have self-segrigation because it’s one race/culture and everyone is united. Here in the U.S. We are divided…..everyone runs away if people around don’t look like them #1 and #2 if they don’t have similar values or thought. We are social creatures but…… And everyone defends their lifestyle, even if they are lonely. Being anti-social makes you a sucka….and suckas get played eventually. Better to learn these lesson as a kid, than to learn the hard way as an adult. Running from people ain’t healthy…….but it’s a free country. Pursuit of happiness, right?

    • Lailah

      Hmmm. Your high level of education shows in the complete lack of sense your comment makes. I’ve never run away from anyone due to race. What scares me is lack of learning. Obviously you’ve never cracked a book in your life.

    • Hey You

      We all have ancestor memories. And typically, that memory says that different people at the city gates typically meant trouble. Yes, it’s an emotional response, but it is often difficult to get past emotional responses.

  • http://idziedesmarais.com Idzie Desmarais

    I’m a grown unschooler, and really find this type of research to be interesting. I also really like seeing unschooling being discussed in such a positive way on a big education blog such as Mind Shift! For anyone who’s interested in learning more, I have a blog all about unschooling and self-directed learning, including resources for and about grown unschoolers: http://yes-i-can-write.blogspot.ca/

  • guest

    Excellent. And I’m not the least bit surprised.

  • http://www.better-schooling-systems.org/ Jay C. Powell

    The best way to overcome the problem of human diversity is to teach children or adults how to teach themselves and each other.
    There are a few precautions.
    Not all possible tracks to follow are appropriated to all learners. A person with musical talent should probably not become a janitor unless employment in late evening empowers the pursuit of the talent. I personally put myself through undergraduate college by being a janitor and emerged debt free.
    It is helpful to have an observant and compassionate person as a guide by the side, to encourage when the going gets difficult, to redirect when the learner gets stuck and to suggest options when the exploring range becomes too narrow.
    Also, as talents emerge, it is ideal to have a community with whom to share them so that mutuality take precedence over self-aggrandizement.
    Doing it together and working with others in the sharing of skills helps the learning community to thrive.
    Becoming a team player is an important skill, that is diluted when the purpose of one team is to defeat another team instead of participating in a mutually determined larger objective.
    The best and most productive competition is with our own past performance. Our achievements in producing value and providing service to others is what makes the community thrive.

    • sucka free

      That’s good too, Jay Cizzle

  • Akira Bear

    I agree that choice is critical. It empowers, motivates, and allows kids to have control, which is important as a motivator.

  • Jens Peter de Pedro

    For those children who don’t have the luxury of a parent, or grand parent, who can stay home, other self directed alternatives to school need to be envisioned. The idea that interests me the most is Democratic Schools, institutions where the children control 100% of their own learning. Seems like the future to me! It’s quite carefully explained here: http://alternativestoschool.com/articles/democratic-schools/

    • Sarah Thorn

      I wouldn’t say that unschooling is a luxury for the affluent. Actually many unschoolers are working class and make it work anyway. We recently started unschooling our two daughters, and went to the Northeastern Unschooling Conference in Boston to meet likeminded folks. I thought it would be a rather homogenous group of liberal parents with a few libertarians added to the mix, sort of like I had found on forums discussing unschooling on the Internet. Upon seeing the crowd at the conference I immediately realized that this was a very heterogenous group. I met a plumber, a nurse, a priest and working teacher – all unschooling their children!

  • cavefamma

    A very interesting article. A great bit of my children’s education has been unschooling in nature, but as they got older, we started doing more structured school to “fill in the gaps”, in preparation for the GED. I am interested in the kids who are in college, or have graduated from college without a high school credential or GED. My oldest child takes courses at the local community college in his interest areas, but he can’t even declare a major, let alone receive a degree, without having a high school credential or GED beforehand. (yet, he can take as many classes as he wants, and receive credit) So my question is, how do these kids get a college degree without this credential? Another question I have is, does not having that credential affect their prospective employers decision to hire them or not? Self-directed learning has been great for my family, but I want my kids to have all that is necessary for them to take any job they may seek. So in preparing for what the world may (and most likely) will require, we spend time with subjects that my kids wouldn’t normally gravitate to, and just don’t interest them. Did any of the survey responders mention this as their own experience?

    • Peter Gray

      Many people in our survey took community college courses (not for a degree) and then used their transcript from the community college to transfer into a four-year degree program. Given their record in community college, a high school diploma was not required. I’ve never heard of anyone who has a college degree being asked about a high school diploma. Perhaps there is some job out there, somewhere, that has a left-over requirement of a high school diploma even for someone with a college degree, but I’ve never heard of it. -Peter

      • spam slayer

        I had a homeschool mom of a police officer contact me about this. She thought Florida law prevented an employer from discriminating against homeschoolers (no such law). What happened was he was working for the Sheriff and was looking to get a job with the city police. The city required a diploma or GED. he had neither so was either going to have to get it or stay with the sheriff’s dept.

        • spam slayer

          The officer in question did not have a college degree.

    • Jim Rietmulder

      Responding to your interest in “kids who are in college [...] or graduated [...] without a high school credential or GED”… The Circle School is sometimes called an “unschooling school” — a self-directed, democratic school, such as Peter Gray has studied. Although the school is licensed by the Pennsylvania Department of Education to issue high school diplomas through traditional studies, in 30 years no student has ever sought a diploma, even though nearly 90% go on to college. Last year five of our alumni spoke in a panel discussion for the community — ranging in age from early 20s to early 30s. Each was asked if they had a high school diploma or GED, and in what circumstances they had needed it. All five of them said no, they didn’t have a diploma or GED and had never been asked for one, not even in applying for college and employment. One was in her first year of college, one a 4th-year nursing student (who now has her RN), one with a bachelor’s degree, one with a master’s degree, and one who had never attended college. That last one, true to Peter Gray’s observation about creativity, was employed in automotive mechanics and running his own car on vegetable oil recycled from restaurant deep fat fryers. With 30 years of experience, what I see is that self-powered education launches kids to lead fulfilling, productive lives, often including conventional credentials but not requiring a high school diploma or GED.

    • Hey You

      College is valuable for the education that it imparts. A degree is nice, but really a degree is not the benefit of attending college. See my comment (above) on my 5 sons who are equally successful.

  • spam slayer

    “The most frequent complaints,” Gray notes on his blog, “were about the
    lack of motivation and intellectual curiosity among their college
    classmates”

    My son’s feeling as well. He’s still struggling with wrapping his head around it.

  • Bill Coffin

    “Overall, 83 percent of the respondents had gone on to pursue some form of higher education. Almost half of those had either completed a bachelor’s degree or higher, or were currently enrolled in such a program; they attended (or had graduated from) a wide range of colleges, from Ivy League universities to state universities and smaller liberal-arts colleges.”

    Those college enrollment numbers do not fill me with confidence. An unspecified portion of not even half of 83% of respondents had completed a bachelor’s degree; that’s what the article trumpets. No thanks.

    • Kelly Berryman

      In the US, typical high school students of recent years, only about 80% graduate on time, and of them that do graduate only about 66% enroll in college. Of them, about 59% graduate college on time. That means that about 31% of typical high school students graduate, enroll and then graduate college on time.

      The 83% of responding unschoolers going on to college, and about half of them (net 41.5%) graduating college sounds pretty good compared to the U.S. average figures.

    • mitchnotes

      Is your point to draw attention to the percentage of unschoolers who attend college or earn a degree compared with traditionally schooled students? A Bureau of Labor Statistics report released April 22, 2014 stated, “In October 2013, 65.9 percent of 2013 high school graduates were enrolled in colleges or universities…”.

      My unschooled older son’s perspective regarding his career is that HE makes decisions. HE is the CEO of his career. HE chose to attend, and graduate, from Georgia Tech. HE chose to work for Facebook for 4 years as an Software Engineer/Manager then resigned to pursue HIS personal goals as an entrepreneur.

      My unschooled younger son attended college but HE chose to accept a position as a CTO for a start-up company rather than complete a degree.

      Higher education may, or may not, be that important to creative unschooled students who have initiative, follow their passion and take responsibility for their own careers, work-life and future.

      We have examples of even traditionally schooled student who have successfully managed their careers without a college degree (i.e. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg).

      • Bill Coffin

        The sentence I quoted, at a quick glance, makes it look like unschooling is a solid way to get into college, if getting into college is a goal of yours. But the numbers suggest a somewhat more modest rate of success there.

        You don’t have to go to college to be successful. And even if you do go to college, the areas where you are successful may have very little to do with your college experience. But the numbers on this don’t lie, either; college graduates, on average, make about $1 million more over the course of their lifetimes than those who don’t graduate from college. However they get there is kind of irrelevant.

        • http://www.LubaVangelova.com/ Luba Vangelova

          There has been a lot of discussion lately about the value (or lack thereof) of a college degree in purely financial terms. The general trend seems to be that the wage premium, although it certainly still exists, is declining.

          Employers and clients value general cognitive ability and competence in specific skill areas. A degree has been viewed as a proxy of that, but in reality, most degrees only certify awareness or knowledge of a subject, rather than how well a person can apply that knowledge. The signaling value of a regular degree is losing ground, and there has been a shift toward accreditation schemes that measure competence instead (e.g., http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/opinion/sunday/friedman-how-to-get-a-job-at-google.html?_r=0 and http://www.vox.com/2014/6/18/5818268/why-a-top-ranked-teacher-education-program-doesnt-require-students-to). There’s also an interesting perspective on this topic here: http://www.oftwominds.com/blogapr14/get-a-job4-14.html.

          All that aside, the degree premium debate is about income, and income is a very limiting way of measuring “success.” A more meaningful gauge might be an internal and unquantifiable one: how fulfilled each person feels with his/her life.

          So although it’s impossible to compare college completion rates of unschoolers with those 
of the general population (given the difficulty of doing a random survey of unschoolers), I’m not sure that comparison would offer a lot of value.

          • Hey You

            I have 5 sons. It’s easy to compare them because they range from high-school drop-out to PhD Nuclear Physics.

            Surprize! Each has net worth in the mid 6 figures. That’s also about what I have (even after the cost of raising them). Maybe there’s something about expectations which motivates yet limits success?

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  • egbert

    How does unschooling work with a student who has multiple learning disabilities? Would they ever learn how to read, spell and complete basic math without structured therapies and intervention?

    • aikimoe

      I think it depends on the student. Unschooling isn’t for everyone, but it also isn’t an absolute. You can increase or decrease structure and intervention depending on the needs of the student. I used to teach in special-ed and some of my students absolutely needed every bit of the structure we provided.

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  • Hey You

    I hated formal school because it interrupted my education.

    Should have had the “unschooled” opportunity.

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