How did you become interested in children’s natural ways of educating themselves

It began when my own son began—and rebelled against—school at the age of 9. To him, school was a constraint in his ability to learn. We found him an alternative school called Sudbury Valley School unlike anything you can imagine: a place where children from age 4 through to high school age can do whatever they please, as long as they don’t break the school rules. These rules—of littering, bullying, etc.—are enforced and made through a process that mirrors the ideals of our democratic society. Within that context, there are all sorts of opportunities to do interesting things in a mixed-aged environment where younger kids are seeing and learning from older kids naturally. And the older kids are learning how to be mature and helpful through their interactions with the younger kids not because they’re told to do so, but just because that’s human nature.

That experience led me to do a study of the graduates at the school at that time. As a biologically-oriented psychologist, I had to ask: what do we know about the human nature of education? This led to my interest in hunter-gatherer culture. There, kids play all day long with kids of different ages, and in the process of playing and exploring in age-mixed groups they learn what they need to know to be successful in this culture. They’re not told what to do; instead, the children play and explore through various kinds of activities that are crucial to becoming successful people in those cultures, such as dancing, tool-making, hut construction and navigation.

Before starting school, children learn an enormous amount on their own initiative—probing things, learning their native languages, asking questions, exploring the minds of others. Then we send them off to school and shut that off. We no longer allow them explore, their questions are replaced by the questions of the curriculum. When children learn in that setting, education is just a series of hoops you have to go through. All that curiosity, playfulness, tremendous drive, and passion for learning gets quashed in the process of that. And we wonder why it doesn’t work very well.

How would you change education to help students in the next 10-20 years?

I don’t picture a classroom at all. Here are two possibilities:

One would be the expansion of the Sudbury Valley school model. It has a building outfitted like a house, with a kitchen, books, computers. Then there’s another building that has music rooms, an art room, an outdoor campus area with playground equipment on it, a pond, a basketball court and woods nearby. Within a small community of staff and students, the rules are made by democratic procedure by both students and staff. Purchase of equipment is through a similar procedure. Within that setting, the kids are doing what they want: playing with computers, reading and discussing books, climbing trees.

The second possibility would be self-pursuit of education through either online or an in-person apprenticeship, which could occur whether or not one was a student at a school like Sudbury Valley. It’s really quite amazing that you can find people online who are willing to share their knowledge for free with you. As an example of the apprenticeship option, one of the students at Sudbury Valley became a captain of a cruise ship through apprenticing herself to a captain of a ship.

The only requirement for graduation, at Sudbury Valley and other schools modeled after it, is that students have to prepare and defend a thesis that they are ready to assume an adult responsibility in the larger world and society. People have very different ways of doing that,  They might talk about career plans or plans for higher education; how they might see their future unfolding or what they’ve learned from the school.

What about the desire for students to develop a basic foundation in a wide variety of subjects?

I don’t see a need to worry about that. One way to look at it is this: we are a society in which we have an infinite amount of knowledge and nobody could master even a tiny fraction of it, so why should we tell people which fraction they should master? Let people find their way in this complex world, let them discover what they love and then find a way to make a career from that. Let’s not decide that for them because we really can’t in any reasonable way. 

What drew you to psychology and what words of advice would you give to students that are interested in the field?

What drew me to psychology was curiosity about why people do what they do. I grew up with somewhat of a social conscience. I spoke with you earlier about the good things about the 1950s, but there were some bad things too: there was a lot of racial prejudice, for example, I grew up during the civil rights era and my parents were very much involved in that to try and make the world a more just world. So I began to see these things as psychological problems. Why are people prejudiced? Why do people hold these views? Why do people do what other people do, even if they can see that it’s morally wrong to do that? And so I began to ask these questions and psychology is the field that deals with them.

I don’t think the real problems in the world are technical, to be solved through physics or engineering. The real problems are social ones, created by humans. Can psychology play a role in understanding those human-created problems, how they came about, and ultimately, what we can do to change our ways of thinking and behaving?

About the author

Peter Gray

Peter Gray is an evolutionary psychologist and research professor at the Department of Psychology at Boston College. He is the author of the renowned textbook Psychology and book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.