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Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life Hardcover – March 5, 2013
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David Sloan Wilson, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology, Binghamton University, and author of Evolution for Everyone
The modern educational system is like a wish made in a folk tale gone horribly wrong. Peter Gray's Free to Learn leads us out of the maze of unforeseen consequences to a more natural way of letting children educate themselves. Gray's message might seem too good to be true, but it rests upon a strong scientific foundation. Free to Learn can have an immediate impact on the children in your life.”
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, author of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards and A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool
A compelling and most enjoyable read. Gray illustrates how removing play from childhood, in combination with increasing the pressures of modern-day schooling, paradoxically reduces the very skills we want our children to learn. The decline of play is serious business.”
[A] well written, well organized and beautifully stated piece of work .I emphatically recommend this book for any parent as well as any educator or anyone interested in improving education for our society.”
[Free to Learn is] a powerful agent of transformation. I'd like to put a copy in the hands of every parent, teacher, and policy maker.”
[E]nergetic Gray powerfully argues that schools inhibit learning . [Gray's] vivid illustrations of the power of play' to shape an individual are bound to provoke a renewed conversation about turning the tide in an educational system that fosters conformity and inhibits creative thinking.”
Frank Forencich, author of Exuberant Animal and Change Your Body, Change the World
Free to Learn is a courageous and profoundly important book. Peter Gray joins the likes of Richard Louv and Alfie Kohn in speaking out for a more humane, compassionate and effective approach to education.”
Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of How the Mind Works
Peter Gray is one of the world's experts on the evolution of childhood play, and applies his encyclopedic knowledge of psychology, and his humane voice, to the pressing issue of educational reform. Though I am not sure I agree with all of his recommendations, he forces us all to rethink our convictions on how schools should be designed to accommodate the ways that children learn.”
Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids
All kids love learning. Most don't love school. That's a disconnect we've avoided discussinguntil this lightning bolt of a book. If you've ever wondered why your curious kid is turning into a sullen slug at school, Peter Gray's Free to Learn has the answer. He also has the antidote.”
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Although equally well-argued, I was less convinced by the second part of his book, his proposal for a solution. Although I am now thoroughly convinced that the student needs to be significantly involved in setting the direction of his learning (I would add, to the extent possible from his age and level of maturity), the specific implementation of this practice I believe needs some further refinement. Essentially, Dr Gray argues for the widespread introduction of “unschooling” environments and specifically schools like the Sudbury Valley schools that encourage each student from a very early age to choose on their own what to study, and how. I had been unaware of the unschooling movement and the Sudbury Valley schools prior to reading this book, and so began my own investigation on these topics. Among other things, I learned that we live near one of these schools, and so I went to check it out. After observing the school and after further reading and reflection, I came to the conclusion that there are at least two issues with Dr’s Gray’s “unschooling” approach as a solution for some of the problems with traditional schooling.
The first problem is that this type of schools (deliberately?) appears to lack sufficient resources, both human and otherwise. If children are in an environment that includes a kitchen and a shop but not a PhD in mathematics, it seems highly unlikely that they will discover a natural bent for quantum physics and calculus. I remember seeing an extraordinary video clip years ago where Jesse Jackson led a tour of two cross town public high schools, one white and one black, showing the dramatic differences in facilities available. (The white high school included computers, sophisticated science equipment, a beautiful track and an Olympic size pool, while the black high school had outdated textbooks, less rigorous academics and a dramatically lower graduation rate.) Perhaps the local Sudbury Valley-type school I saw was unique, but I think that unless we are simultaneously offering them the best possible resources, our children will never rise to their full potential via unschooling.
The second issue I have with unschooling as advocated by Dr Gray is his excessive adulation for learning from one’s childhood peers. It is certainly true that kids can and do learn things from their peers, but many of those things (the pressure to conform, bullying, and drug use, to name a few) are challenges that I believe are better handled with the support of caring adults. It would be interesting to put Dr Gray in the same room with Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate, the authors of another excellent book, Hold On to Your Kids. This book is an excellent complement to the many positive/attachment parenting books now available (Peaceful Parents Happy Kids, Playful Parenting, and Two Thousand Kisses a Day are among my favorites). Neufeld and Mate’s book, also well worth the time, focuses on the external pressure from peers that have been affecting the last few generations of children, and not in a good way. Although both books have their share of unsubstantiated assertions, I found myself agreeing much more often with Drs Neufeld and Mate than with Dr Gray regarding peer relationships. Interestingly, both books are highly critical of our current traditional method of schooling, but they come to very different conclusions about what to do about it. It would certainly be interesting to read these two books together.
Since presumably many readers of this review will not be visiting a Sudbury Valley type school in person, I thought it might be worth closing with some further reflections on my visits there. I was able to visit the local Sudbury Valley type school three times, and twice was able to spend a few hours interacting with students of various ages and reviewing the artifacts of various processes including the judicial committee. The children I spoke with seemed generally satisfied with attending this school and many were reasonably articulate as to its value to them, but to me many of them appeared as if they were drifting. Few seemed to have identified areas of learning about which they were passionate, or even especially interested in. The minutes from the judicial committee also made it clear that although the authority of the school may rest with the student-faculty committee, rules and constraints on behavior are as prevalent as in a traditional school. In looking at educational options for my son, I have now visited a fairly large number of schools. For whatever it is worth, my most important litmus test for a school has become to see whether the students and staff are going about their day with enthusiasm and joy. Sadly, it is not something I typically see, and it was not apparent at this school either.
Back to Dr Gray’s book. In spite of my disagreement with some of Dr Gray’s conclusions, I have decided I must give it a 5-star rating because of his cogent presentation of his ideas and because those ideas have forever altered my views on traditional schooling. (As I learned, many of those ideas were initially presented in his Psychology Today column, but I did find that the book presentation of those ideas really strengthened and solidified his views in a way that reading the columns alone did not.) I am glad that he wrote it, and would recommend it to anyone trying to understand how we learn best.
Gray answers these three questions – and many more on the subject of education – in a way that is all but impossible to argue. However, I dock him one star because there's a bit of faulty logic. Other reviewers have come down hard on him RE the whole hunter-gatherer thing, but they ignore the success of the Sudbury schools and that experiment that was done with a computer and poor Indian children. They also have no idea that families with a LOT fewer than 48 children in them, lol, have unschooled, and are successfully unschooling, their children.
So, maybe it's not a great idea to emphasize hunter-gatherer societies so much. That aside, I will still recommend reading this book if your child is struggling in a traditional school setting, and discover the best alternative. If you’re teetering on the edge of deciding to unschool your children, but aren’t quite sure because of the negativity you’ve read about it on the Internet, read this book to help you reach a decision with confidence.
This is one of two books I’ve read about education lately that have, as an extra bonus, helped me to understand more fully why I despised my years as an elementary school teacher.