Record: Peter Gray and Gina Riley, “Grown Unschoolers’ Evaluations of Their Unschooling Experiences: Report I on a Survey of 75 Unschooled Adults” in Other Education: The Journal of Educational Alternatives 4, no. 2 (2015): 8-32. [Available here]

Summary: Gray is a professor of psychology at Boston College, and Riley is an educational psychologist who teaches courses at Hunter College and Mercy College. This post will review the first report of their two part series about unschoolers’ evaluations of their unschooling experiences. In Report I they review previous research on unschooling, describe their methodology, and present the unschoolers’ experiences and evaluations of these experiences. In Report II they address the participants’ experiences with higher education and careers. This study is largely a response to their 2013 survey of unschooling parents.

In unschooling families, learning is approached holistically without the use of curriculum, imposed lessons, or testing. It is estimated that about 10% of the homeschooling population in the US identifies with unschooling.

Due to the significant differences between conventional homeschooling and unschooling, the findings of studies on homeschooling outcomes may not be applicable to unschoolers. To date, there have only been a few formal studies of unschooling. These include doctoral dissertations in anthropology by Donna Kirschner [abstract] and Rebecca Grunzke [abstract] as well as Rebecca English’s look at unschooling in Australia [abstract], the previous study by Gray and Riley [review/article], and a small mention in a survey by Sandra Martin-Chang, Odette Gould, and Reanne Meuse [abstract]. All of these studies, with the exception of the last, focused on the beliefs and practices of unschooling parents. The current study seeks to expound on Matin-Chang et al. (2011) which found that structured homeschoolers significantly outperformed unstructured homeschoolers on all academic tests. Instead of testing children that are still in their formative period, in this study Gray and Riley assess what unschoolers are like as young adults.

To participate in the study, respondents had to be 18 years or older, and they had to have been unschooled for at least the time that would have been the 11th and 12th grades. Gray and Riley collected their sample through posting their survey on several blogs, especially Psychology Today. 81 people completed the questionnaire, but 6 were dropped because they did not fully meet the criteria, so they were left with 75 respondents. The authors fully recognize that their is sample is not randomized, but it is necessary because there is no public listing of unschoolers. They speculate that their sample may be among the more successful or satisfied unschoolers because their study only investigates those that stuck with unschooling throughout their final years of high school. Gray and Riley recognize that their study has a lot of limitations, but at the very least, it gives an idea of what is possible for an unschooler to achieve when they enter adulthood without a typical highschool diploma.

The median age of the respondents was 24; 77% of the sample was female, and all except 10 were from the US (there were 6 from Canada, 3 from the UK, and 1 from Germany). For data analysis purposes, Gray and Riley divided the respondents into 3 groups.

  1. Group I were entirely unschooled K-12.
  2. Group II had no schooling or homeschooling beyond 6th grade.
  3. Group III had at least some schooling or homeschooling beyond 6th grade.

Now they start discussing the responses to their questions:

  1. Reasons for unschooling. Mothers were extremely influential in the decision to unschool. The respondents themselves became more influential among Group III, the unschoolers that started later in life. For life-long unschoolers, unschooling was simply what their parents believed in. As children got older, the decision to unschool was based more on observations like the student’s boredom in school.
  2. Parents’ role in unschooling. The majority of unschooling parents help their children to reach their own, self-created educational goals, but about 15-25% of families who identify as unschoolers encourage children to reach learning goals created by the parents.
  3. Socialization. In their previous study, Gray and Riley found that most unschooling parents believe their children had rich social experiences. As for the children, 69% rated their socialization as good, 12% as poor, and 19% as mixed. Homeschooling groups, organized afterschool activities, religious organizations, and work all provided means of socialization for unschoolers. 10% of the respondents also mentioned the Not Back to School Camp which specifically provides socialization opportunities for unschoolers. 68% of the respondents mentioned that a benefit of unschooling was that they were able to interact and make friends with people of all ages.
  4. The advantages of unschooling. The major benefits of unschooling that the respondents mentioned were freedom, independence, and time to pursue interests (95%), improved learning (60%), an improved transition to adulthood (33%), an avoidance of the stressors at school (28%), and time for family bonding (28%). In terms of their preparation for adulthood, the respondents mentioned that unschooling developed their self-direction (75%), their sense of responsibility (48%), a continued interest in learning (44%), and self-confidence (43%). In comparison to the parents’ survey, children were understandably less likely to mention improved learning and family bonding as the major advantages of unschooling. They instead viewed the advantages of unschooling in terms of their freedom, independence, and responsibility.
  5. The disadvantages of unschooling. 37% of the respondents said that there were no disadvantages, and most of the others stressed that the disadvantages were minor in comparison to the advantages. The most commonly mentioned disadvantage was dealing with others’ opinions (28%). Interestingly, dealing with criticisms and misunderstandings of unschooling was even more troubling to the parents of unschoolers (48%). The other disadvantages mentioned by the unschoolers were social isolation (21%), and learning deficits (11%). The three respondents who described learning deficits as a major disadvantage said that their mothers were in poor mental health, their fathers were uninvolved, and that their parents did not offer them the choice of going to school.
  6. Unschooling their own children. 67% of the respondents would unschool their own children unless the circumstances prevented it or the child expressed a clear preference for something else. 25% said they would consider unschooling against a variety of options. 7% of the respondents would not unschool their children, or they would be very unlikely to.

Appraisal: Like their survey of unschooling parents, Gray and Riley’s latest study has a number of flaws that they are forthcoming about. Excepting the few respondents reporting negative experiences, it certainly seems that they pulled from a pool of unschoolers whose parents were believers in the unschool ideology and not from homeschooling families that educationally neglected their children (see an in-depth discussion of that topic here). It is also noteworthy that the respondents were predominantly female and that their sample was limited to those who were unschooled in the 11th and 12th grades (excluding the many who may have been unschooled for only a few years). However, it is still an important piece of research since there is so little out there about unschooling, and especially the perspectives of unschooling graduates. It gives a good basis for understanding the advantages of unschooling from the students’ point of view, the role that the parents play in unschooling, and the varying reasons for unschooling depending on the age that it is begun.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in reviews are not the official views of ICHER or of its members. For more information about ICHER’s Reviews, please see the «About these Reviews» Section.

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