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Grown Unschoolers' Experiences with Higher Education and Employment: Report II on a Survey of 75 Unschooled Adults



A sample of 75 adults, who had been unschooled for at least the years that would have been their last two years of high school, answered questions about their subsequent pursuits of higher education and careers. Eighty-three percent of them had gone on to some form of formal higher education and 44 percent had either completed or were currently in a bachelor's degree program. Overall, they reported little difficulty getting into colleges and universities of their choice and adapting to the academic requirements there, despite not having the usual admissions credentials. Those who had been unschooled throughout what would have been their K-12 years were more likely to go on to a bachelor's program than were those who had some schooling or curriculum-based homeschooling during those years. Concerning careers, despite their young median age, most were gainfully employed and financially independent. A high proportion of them— especially of those in the always-unschooled group—had chosen careers in the creative arts; a high proportion were self-employed entrepreneurs; and a relatively high proportion, especially of the men, were in STEM careers. Most felt that their unschooling benefited them for higher education and careers by promoting their sense of personal responsibility, self-motivation, and desire to learn.
Other Education: The Journal of Educational Alternatives
ISSN 2049-2162
Volume 4 (2015), Issue 2 · pp. 33-53
Grown Unschoolers’ Experiences with Higher Education and
Employment: Report II on a Survey of 75 Unschooled Adults
Gina Riley & Peter Gray
Hunter College and Boston College, US
Abstract A sample of 75 adults, who had been unschooled for at least the years that
would have been their last two years of high school, answered questions about their
subsequent pursuits of higher education and careers. Eighty-three percent of them
had gone on to some form of formal higher education and 44 percent had either
completed or were currently in a bachelor’s degree program. Overall, they
reported little difficulty getting into colleges and universities of their choice and
adapting to the academic requirements there, despite not having the usual
admissions credentials. Those who had been unschooled throughout what would
have been their K-12 years were more likely to go on to a bachelor’s program than
were those who had some schooling or curriculum-based homeschooling during
those years. Concerning careers, despite their young median age, most were
gainfully employed and financially independent. A high proportion of them
especially of those in the always-unschooled grouphad chosen careers in the
creative arts; a high proportion were self-employed entrepreneurs; and a relatively
high proportion, especially of the men, were in STEM careers. Most felt that their
unschooling benefited them for higher education and careers by promoting their
sense of personal responsibility, self-motivation, and desire to learn.
Keywords unschooling, homeschooling, grown unschoolers, educational freedom,
self-determination, self-directed education, creativity
This is the second of a pair of articles reporting on a survey of adults who had been
“unschooled” during all or part of (at least the last two years of) what would
otherwise have been their K-12 education. Unschooling refers to the educational
practice of not sending children to school or requiring them to do school-like
activities at home, but, instead, allowing them to take charge of their own
education. Unschoolers generally believe that most learning occurs naturally, in
everyday life, and that activities undertaken specifically for learning should be
chosen by the learners, not imposed on them. Parents in unschooling families
Gina Riley & Peter Gray
facilitate their children’s education in many wayssuch as by providing materials,
answering questions, engaging in discussions, serving as models, and connecting
them with resources outside the homebut do not impose a curriculum or pressure
their children to study particular subjects or submit to academic tests. For legal
purposes, unschooling is a variety of homeschooling, but in this pair of articles we
distinguish between the two by using the term homeschooling to refer only to
parent-directed, curriculum-based schooling at home.
In the first article of this pair (Gray & Riley, 2015), we reviewed previous
research on unschooling. We then described the methods of our survey and those
results pertaining to the respondents’ memories of their unschooling experiences,
their social lives as unschoolers, their evaluations of their unschooled education,
and their plans concerning the education of their own children. Our concern in this
article is with questions about higher education and employment. Do unschoolers
go on to college? If so, how do they get in without standard admissions credentials
and how do they adapt to the academic requirements there? With or without college,
what sorts of careers do unschoolers go on to? How do they describe their
occupational choices and goals?
A considerable body of research has shown that conventional homeschoolers
typically perform well in higher education (Bagwell, 2010; Cogan, 2010; Gloeckner
& Jones, 2013; Lattibeudiere, 2000; Ray, 2013). Indeed, many colleges and
universities, including some of the most elite schools, actively recruit homeschooled
students (Cooper & Sureau, 2007). However, there is little a priori reason to assume
that this observation would generalize to unschoolers. One researcher (Grunzke,
2012), on the basis of reports from homeschooling and unschooling mothers,
concluded that the family lives and educational experiences of curriculum-based
homeschoolers appears to be more like that of students in traditional schools than
like that of unschoolers. To our knowledge, there has been no previous research into
unschoolers’ higher education or careers, though a number of case reports can be
found in which individual grown unschoolers describe their own experiences with
these (for a collection of such reports, see Desmarais, 2015).
Potentially relevant to these questions about unschoolers are the results of a
follow-up study, conducted many years ago, of the graduates of the Sudbury Valley
School, a radically alternative school in Massachusetts, where students from age 4
through high-school age are entirely in charge of their own education (Gray &
Chanoff, 1987). The students at that school are free, all day, every school day, to
play, explore, socialize, and in other ways follow their own interests, as long as they
don’t violate school rules, which are made democratically and have to do with
maintaining peace and order, not with learning. In the follow-up study the graduates
who had chosen to go on to higher education reported that they had no particular
difficulty getting admitted to the schools of their choice and adapting to the
academic requirements. Collectively, they were pursuing the whole range of careers
Grown Unschoolers: Report II
that are valued by our society, but especially careers that require high levels of
creativity and self-initiative. They believed that their self-determined education had
led to a number of lasting benefits, including a continued passion for learning, a
high sense of personal responsibility, and a continued drive to live in self-
determined ways. Subsequent follow-up studies, conducted by the school itself,
resulted in similar findings (Greenberg & Sadofsky, 1992; Greenberg, Sadofsky &
Lempka, 2005).
Also potentially relevant is a relatively large body of research concerned with
the developmental effects of (or at least correlates of) increased autonomy in
childhood. For example, in one classic longitudinal study, children whose parents
allowed them more freedom at home were subsequently judged by teachers, in
grades 6 and 9, to be more creative, resourceful, curious, independent, and confident
than children who had experienced less freedom at home (Harrington, Block, &
Block, 1987). Other research has related increased autonomy to better performance
on tasks involving creativity or mental flexibility, to more satisfying interpersonal
relationships, and to measures of psychological well-being, resilience, and life
satisfaction (reviewed by Ryan, Deci, Grolnick, & LaGuardia (2006). More
recently, a correlational study revealed that young children who were permitted
more time by their parents to do as they chose rather than engage in adult-structured
activities, performed better on a standard test of self-directed executive
functioninga test that had previously been shown to predict future real-life
problem-solving abilitythan those who had less free time (Barker et al., 2014).
All such findings might suggest that unschoolers, who as children have almost
unlimited freedom to structure their own activies (Gray & Riley, 2013; 2015),
would grow up to be unusually creative, innovative, resourceful, and self-
determined adults. However, any attempt to equate unschooling with the conditions
of the studies just noted, or to make predictions about the consequences of
unschooling from those studies, must be treated cautiously. Traditionally educated
students who experience more-than-average autonomy at home nevertheless
experience a highly adult-structured environment at school. Students at Sudbury
Valley may be like unschoolers in being in charge of their own education, but
unlike unschoolers, they are immersed in the democratic structure of the school and
surrounded regularly by other students and a variety of staff members from whom
they can learn and gain inspiration.
Brief review of methodology of the present study
For details of our methodology, we refer readers to the first article of this pair (Gray
& Riley, 2015). Briefly, our method was to recruit survey participants via the
Internet, send each of them a questionnaire, and analyze their responses to open-
ended questions using a grounded-theory qualitative approach. The questionnaire
began with factual questions about their age, gender, and history of schooling,
Gina Riley & Peter Gray
homeschooling, and unschooling, and then continued with open-ended questions
about their experiences as unschoolers and subsequent experiences with higher
education and employment (the whole questionnaire is included as an appendix in
the first article of this pair, Gray & Riley, 2015). To qualify for the study,
respondents had to be at least 18 years old and had to have been unschooled for at
least what would have been their last two years of high school.
Seventy-five people who qualified for the study filled out the questionnaire
65 from the US, six from Canada, three from the UK, and one from Germany. Fifty-
eight of the respondents were women, 16 were men, and one self-identified as
genderqueer. For purposes of comparison, we divided the respondents into three
groups according to the last grade they had completed of schooling or
homeschooling. Group I were entirely unschooledno K-12 schooling at all and no
homeschooling. Group II had some schooling or homeschooling, but none beyond
sixth grade; and Group III had at least some schooling or homeschooling beyond
sixth grade. Respondents were placed into Group II even if they had only one year
of schooling or homeschooling prior to sixth grade, and into Group III even if they
had only one year of schooling or homeschooling sometime after sixth grade and
before eleventh grade. As shown in the top rows of Table 1, the three groups were
quite similar in number of participants, median age, and percentage female, but, of
course, differed in median number of years of schooling plus homeschooling.
Findings concerning higher education
Question 5 of the survey read, “Please describe briefly any formal higher education
you have experienced, such as community college/college/graduate school. How did
you get into college without having a high school diploma? How did you adjust
from being unschooled to being enrolled in a more formal type of educational
experience? Please list any degrees you have obtained or degrees you are currently
working toward.”
Overall, 33 (44%) of the 75 participants had completed a bachelor’s degree or
were fulltime students in a bachelor’s program at the time of the survey. Although
we did not ask for the names of the colleges attended, some volunteered that
information. The named colleges included several state universities (e.g. UCLA,
University of South Carolina, University of New Mexico), an Ivy League college
(Cornell), and a number of small private liberal arts colleges (e.g. Bennington,
Earlham, Marlboro, Mt. Holyoke, Prescott). Of those who had completed a
bachelor’s degree, 13 were enrolled in or had completed a post-graduate degree
Of those who had not enrolled in a bachelor’s program, 29 had pursued some
other form of higher education, either for vocational training (in such realms as the
culinary arts, business administration, massage, EMT, practical nursing, and sign
language interpretation) or to gain specific other useful or desired skills. Thus, in
Grown Unschoolers: Report II
all, 62 (83%) of the respondents had pursued some sort of higher education. As
shown in the fifth data row of Table 1, this percentage was similar across the three
groups of participants.
Table 1 Differences Among the Three Groups of Participants
I. No
II. No
past 6th grade
III. Some
schoolinga past
6th grade
Number of participants
Age: Median (range)
24 (18-35)
25 (19-37)
24.5 (18-49)
Years of schoolinga:
Median (range)
0 (0-0)
5 (1-7)
8 (1-11)
Gender: Percent female
19/23 = 83%b
20/27 = 74%
19/24 = 79%
Some formal higher
18/24 = 75%
23/27 = 85%
21/24 = 88%
Has or is working on BA
or higher
14/24 = 58%
12/27 = 44%
7/24 = 29%
Work matches childhood
21/24 = 88%
19/27 = 70%
18/24 = 75%
Career in creative artsc
19/24 = 79%
9/27 = 33%
8/24 = 33%
15/24 = 63%
14/27 = 52%
11/24 = 46%
STEM career
3/24 = 13%
9/27 = 33%
10/24 = 42%
aThe term schooling in this table includes homeschooling as well as attendance at a school.
bOne participant in Group I self-identified as genderqueer and was not classed as either male or
cThe difference across groups in percentage in creative arts is statistically highly significant (p <
.001, by a chi square test). No other differences across groups, concerning higher education or
careers, were statistically significant (p > .05 in each case).
Interestingly, however, as shown in the sixth data row of the table, the likelihood of
pursuing a bachelor’s degree or higher was inversely related to the amount of
previous schooling. Those in the always-unschooled group were the most likely to
go on to a bachelor’s program, and those in the group that had some school ing past
6th grade were least likely to. This difference, though substantial, did not reach the
conventional level of statistical significance (chi square test, p = .126).
Most of the respondents who had not pursued any formal higher education at
the time of the survey indicated that they felt no need for it. Their career choices did
not demand it, and they were confident that they could continue to learn what they
needed or wanted to know without formal schooling. For example, one wrote, “I’ve
continued to unschool into adulthood and will continue throughout my life. I think
internships and apprenticeships would be the natural extension of unschooling into
Gina Riley & Peter Gray
the traditional workplace.” Another wrote, “As an adult, I realize that unschooling
helped me see that college wasn’t necessary to have a successful, fulfilling life.”
Some others, however, mentioned plans to enter a degree program later. As many of
the respondents were still in their late teens or early twenties, it seems likely that a
higher percentage will eventually pursue higher education.
Getting into college
How did the 33 respondents who went on to a bachelor’s degree program get
admitted without a standard high-school education or curriculum-based homeschool
education? Seven of them reported that they had received a general education
diploma (GED) by taking the appropriate test, and three reported that they had
gained a high-school equivalency diploma through an online procedure. The rest
apparently gained admission with no official diploma at all. Only seven reported
taking the SAT or ACT (standard college admissions tests) as part of their route to
college admission. By far the most common stepping-stone to a four-year college
was community college.
Twenty-one of the 33 reported that they took one or more community college
courses before applying to a four-year college and used their community college
transcript as a basis for admission. Most found that their local community college
would allow them to take courses without a high-school diploma or any sort of
equivalent to a diploma. Some began to take such courses at a relatively young age
(age 13 in one case, age 16 more typically) and in that way gained a head start on
their college career. By transferring their credits, some reduced the number of
semesters and the tuition cost required to complete a bachelor’s degree.
Several of the respondents mentioned interviews and/or portfolios as playing a
major role in their college admissions. Admissions officials, looking for diversity
and for indices of creativity and self-determination, may have paid special attention
to them precisely because of their unconventional educational backgrounds. As
illustration, here are quotations concerning college admissions from four different
respondents, all of whom were in Group I (unschooled throughout K-12) and were
admitted to highly selective colleges:
I set an appointment to talk with someone in the admissions department,
to find out what I would need to do to apply as an unschooler. After I
talked briefly about myself, my achievements, and my style of education,
and after he read a sample of my writing, he said, “I can't see any reason
why you shouldn't be here,” and proceeded to hand me the forms to
become a student.
I applied to eight colleges and was accepted at all of them... I interviewed
at all eight colleges; for most of them I was their first ‘unschooled’
Grown Unschoolers: Report II
applicant. Several colleges told me I was accepted at the conclusion of the
interviews, right after they informed me that I was “surprisingly” well
spoken and bright. I did take (and did very well on) both the SATs and
the ACTs, which probably offset the lack of transcripts.
I went to ___ College. At the time they were interested in driven
alternative students and I was looking for a place where I could study
multiple art forms in a connected way. I talked my way in. They saw in
me someone who would thrive there and took the time to make sure I
provided all the extra things they needed.
I asked the admissions office what they wanted and they weren't sure.
They suggested sending in my “curriculum” (which I didn't have). ... My
mom and I wrote up a “curriculum,” which was mostly a booklist and
talking about how I learned math from cooking, doing my parents’ taxes
and stacking bales of hay in a loft. ... I also included all the volunteer
work I had done, clubs I had started or joined, and awards I had received.
… On top of accepting me, they offered me a half-tuition scholarship and
put me into their freshman honors class.
Adjusting to college
Overall the participants reported remarkably little difficulty adjusting to the
academic requirements in college and reported that the benefits of their self-directed
education greatly outweighed any handicaps relevant to that adjustment.
We coded the responses concerning adjustment to college as Advantaged or
Disadvantaged, depending on whether their responses indicated that unschooling
was, overall, more of a benefit or more of a handicap in that adjustment. Of the 33
who had gone on to a four-year college, 23 were coded as Advantaged, three as
Disadvantaged, and the remaining seven as Neither (either because they did not
describe advantages or disadvantages or did so in a way that did not allow us to
judge which was greater).
By far the most common advantages expressed had to do with motivation and
self-regulation. The respondents generally said that they were at an advantage
compared with their schooled classmates because it was their own choice to go to
college (in contrast to classmates who felt compelled to be there), they had not been
“burned out” by previous schooling, they had chosen courses of study that they
loved, and they were used to taking responsibility for their own lives and learning.
A few did mention some initial difficulty adapting to the formalities of courses, but
indicated that such problems were quickly overcome and did not hold them back.
Three respondents also mentioned that they felt frustrated and constrained in
college, by requirements that made it difficult for them to pursue their own
Gina Riley & Peter Gray
questions in their own ways.
Seven of those who had pursued bachelor’s degrees wrote that they were
surprised and/or disappointed to find that most of their classmates had little interest
in the subject matter of the courses or in critical or original thinking. These
respondents had gone to college hoping to be immersed in an intellectually
stimulating environment and, instead, found their fellow students to be more
interested in parties and drinking. Several wrote that although they had no difficulty
adapting academically, they were unhappy with the social life of college, where
everyone was roughly the same age and more or less cut off from the world beyond
the college campus. Some wrote about taking part-time jobs not only to help earn
their way through college, but also to maintain contact with the larger world. For
example, one young woman joined the local Unitarian Universalist church and
served as religious educator there, while still in college, as a way of achieving a
more normal social life.
The best way to convey the college experiences of the respondents is through
their own words. What follows are quotations from eight participants, all different
from the ones quoted previously, selected because they express themes that
emerged for the sample as a whole and because, collectively, they express
disappointment as well as satisfaction with the college experience. The first five
participants quoted here were in the always-unschooled group, the next two were
unschooled after 2nd grade, and the final one was unschooled after 7th grade.
I found that because I had not been in school before attending college, I
was much less burnt out than my peers and had a very fresh perspective. I
learned basic academic skills (essay composition, research, etc.) very
quickly… I struggled some with time management, but eventually
developed a means of staying organized.
In contrast to [my classmates], I found great inspiration from my teachers.
At ___ College the teachers must also be practitioners in their fields of
study, so I was working with people who were actively interested and
participating in their areas of expertise as a teacher and as an actor, writer,
director, translator, and so on. Having someone with such a wealth of
knowledge looking over my shoulder at the work I was doing was
revolutionary. It was not something I wish I had earlier, not something I
felt had been lacking my whole life, but it was something that inspired me
for my four years at school.
I definitely felt strange going into a formal school, especially being in an
honors program. I spent long hours studying and doing my homework
way more work than my classmates were doing. After I got straight A's
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for the first half of my first semester I started to relax a little more, and I
realized I was working way too hard. So I learned how to learn like my
fellow classmates wereby memorizing everything just before a test. I
still kept getting straight A's but was doing hardly any work at all.
Eventually I learned how to balance itactually delving into material I
enjoyed and memorizing the stuff I wasn't interested in. It wasn't hard; it
mostly just made me really appreciate the fact that I hadn't been in school
my whole life.
I loved collegeit stands out as one of the most focused and fulfilling
periods of my young life! When I began community college, I was
younger than other students, and I was concerned that I would fall behind,
but I didn’t. I didn't like taking tests, and I still feel a lot of anxiety about
tests to this day, but I excelled in most ways and graduated [from the
four-year college] with a high GPA.”
I remember being very restless for the first one to two years of college. I
didn't feel very challenged by the core classes I was enrolled in and was
itching to move on to my major and minor classes. College was fun,
but I was stunned to realize that the majority of the other students didn't
work or pursue any other areas of their lives apart from their studies and
partying. I supported myself throughout my four-year degree typically
working at least two jobs while taking well above the minimum class-load
requirements so that I could graduate in time. Two years into my degree I
took a full time job in the creative department of the local newspaper,
where I continued to work after graduation.
I enrolled at ___ College, where I have just completed my freshman year.
I maintained a 3.9 GPA through the whole year, and I am returning there
in the fall. I think that unschooling actually prepared me better for
college than most of my peers, because 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. While most of my peers were
floundering and unable to meet deadlines, I remained on top of my work
because I have always been an independent learner. I know how to figure
things out for myself and how to get help when I need it.
The transition was a difficult one for me, not for the academics, but for
the feeling of being trapped within a system. The college bubble felt tiny
to me and I was in a constant state of simmering frustration at being told
Gina Riley & Peter Gray
even simple things like which classes to take and when. As someone who
had made those choices myself for years, I felt disrespected that it was
assumed that I didn't know what level of study I was ready for. It took
most of the first year for me to come to a place of acceptance,
remembering that this, too, was a choice that I made that I could change if
I wanted to. I never loved college like many people do and never felt as
free as I had before college or in the time after I graduated.
I think unschooling helped me adjust to college; I was so used to being
able to study whatever I wanted that it seemed natural to take classes that
interested me. And unschooling also 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.
As noted above, only three of the respondents who pursued bachelors’ degrees
indicated more disadvantage than advantage in college adjustment as a result of
unschooling. Two of these were among the only three respondents, in the entire
sample, who wrote negatively about their unschooling experience as a whole. They
wrote of growing up isolated, with negligent parents, and of learning gaps that
hindered their ability to pursue a higher education. More is said about them in the
first paper of this pair (Gray & Riley, 2015). The third coded as Disadvantaged
received that code only because she described an adjustment problem that may have
resulted from unschooling and did not explicitly say anything about unschooling
being an advantage. She wrote:
My first year at college was rough, though it was partly because of the
brutality of the foundation (first-year) program, which has a high
workload. All of a sudden I had to worry about my grades and GPA, and I
wasn't a fan of making art for grades. I was also a huge procrastinator,
and all of a sudden I had deadlines that I had to meetI'd be docked
marks every week a project was late. The second semester was easier,
and ever since then I've enjoyed learning in a formal setting.
Findings concerning employment and careers
Question 4 of the survey read, “Are you currently employed? If so, what do you do?
Does your current employment match any interests/activities you had as an
unschooled child/teen? If so, please explain.” Our analyses of responses to this
question led us to generate a brief follow-up questionnaire, which we sent to all of
the participants, in which we asked them to list and describe the paying jobs they
had held, to indicate whether or not they earned enough to support themselves, and
Grown Unschoolers: Report II
to describe any career aspirations they currently had in mind. Sixty-three (84%) of
the original 75 participants responded to this follow-up questionnaire. The findings
described in the remainder of this paper derive mainly from our analyses of the
responses to Question 4, supplemented where useful with information gained from
the follow-up questionnaire.
With the exception of some of the full-time students and some mothers of
young children, nearly all the respondents said they were gainfully employed at the
time of the survey. Of those who responded to the follow-up questionnaire, 78%
said they were earning enough to be financially self-sufficient, though a number of
these added that their income was modest and they were financially independent
largely because of their frugal lifestyle.
Our analyses of these unschoolers’ career paths revealed that many had
pursued careers that were extensions of interests they had developed in childhood;
that they tended to choose careers that were enjoyable and meaningful over
potentially more lucrative careers; that many had gone on in the creative arts; that
many were entrepreneurs; and that a substantial number of them, especially of the
men, had gone into STEM careers (careers in science, technology, engineering, or
math). Here we describe these generalizations one by one.
Careers as extensions of childhood interests
In response to the question about the relationship of their adult employment to their
childhood interests and activities, 58 (77%) of the participants described a clear
relationship. As shown in data row 7 of Table 1, the percentage exhibiting a close
match between childhood interests and adult employment was highest for those in
the always-unschooled group, though this difference did not approach statistical
significance. In many cases the relationship was quite direct, as illustrated by the
following examples:
• A 26-year-old woman who had always been unschooled wrote that she
became enamored with circuses at age three, enrolled in an after-school
circus program at age five, and then performed in circuses continuously
until age 17 and more sporadically after that. From age 19 to 24 she and a
friend ran their own contemporary circus company. In order to work as a
trapeze artist she had overcome her fear of heights. As her circus career
waned, she became interested in tall ships, and at the time of the survey
was employed as a tall-ship rigger/bosun, where her job included
maintaining the rigging and sails as well as assisting in piloting the ship.
She wrote: “Working on the ocean is a very captivating experience and it
employs the skills that I learned in the circus nearly every single day
skills like balance, hand-eye coordination, and even getting along with
people in cramped living arrangements.
Gina Riley & Peter Gray
• A 20-year-old man, always unschooled except for kindergarten and
ninth grade, had developed an early passion for film. By age 11 he was
making YouTube videos with friends. Beginning at age 16 he took some
community college courses in mass communication. At age 18 he was
invited to be a local production assistant for a major film that was being
produced in the city where he lived. His bosses liked him so much that,
when the work in his city was done, they invited him to Los Angeles to
continue working with them. One thing led to another, and at the time of
the survey he had a higher-level job helping to produce another major
film. In response to our question about whether he earned enough to be
financially independent, he wrote, “very much so.”
• A 21-year-old man, who left school after first grade, had started a
business of taking artistic photos of wilderness scenes from the air. He
wrote: “Growing up with so much freedom was awesome! I did lots of
outdoor activities including skiing in the winter and hiking/camping in the
summer. If I hadn't done it this way, I'm not sure I would have been able
to combine the three things I really enjoyoutdoors, flying, and
photographyinto a business.” He wrote, further, that he started his own
photography business, and also started paragliding, when he was 15 years
old. The paragliding led to an interest in flying fixed-wing aircraft, and
then he combined all three of his passions into a single business.
A 29-year-old woman, who was unschooled for all of K-12 and had
gone on to a bachelor’s degree in theatre arts, was, at the time of the
survey, the production manager of a large theater company in New York
City. She wrote: “The tools I learned as a child—to pursue new
ideas/interests/knowledge, to creatively solve problems, to actively
participate in my community, and morehave helped me greatly. It's
actually pretty much what I still do, just in the context of a grown-up life.
The organizing, lighting design, dancing, making things is exactly what I
was doing as a child and teen.”
Choice of meaningful and enjoyable careers
The generalization that these unschoolers tended to choose careers they found to be
meaningful and enjoyable over potentially more lucrative careers is illustrated by
the examples, just given, of people turning childhood passions into careers. It is also
illustrated by cases in which the career choices reflect not so much the specific
activities of childhood as a set of ideals, or social concerns, that began to take root
in childhood.
Grown Unschoolers: Report II
For example, a 28-year-old woman, who had refused to go to school after age
13, and so was unschooled after that, was a Greenpeace activist and community
organizer. As a child she had immersed herself in art, but was also interested in
“revolutions and wildlife.” Another woman, at age 30, had founded a construction
company, which put into practice ideals and skills that she had developed as an
unschooled youth, including, in her words, “democracy in the workplace,
environmental stewardship, construction and building, facilitation, and project
The survey responses also revealed a general willingness, even eagerness, to
change employment as interests changed. Many said that they were still exploring,
playing, and learning, and that as their lives evolved their jobs would change too. A
23-year-old, always-unschooled womanwho was currently earning her living by
teaching drama, running an education program for school groups at a museum, and
helping to run an after-school care programput it this way: “I am already doing
the things I love and plan on continuing to live my dreams for the rest of my life. I
hope to do many more exciting things in my life, but I do not think of them as
‘careers’. They are natural parts of my life—as natural and inseparable as learning.”
The extreme of employment mobility in our sample was represented in a 39-
year-old man who described himself as a self-employed polymath. He had
experienced a mix of schooling and unschooling until he had left school
permanently after tenth grade. He wrote, “As a polymath, what I do now is very
much what I have always done; I do anything and everything that catches my
attention. Life is about learning, growing, and sharing your discoveries with others
who want to learn and grow too.” His list of jobs held over the years includes (but is
not limited to) research and development consultant for a medical manufacturing
company, clinical hypnotherapist, neurolinguistic programmer, director of tutoring
services for a community college, wilderness survival and bushcraft trainer, PADI
(scuba diving) instructor, martial arts instructor, and author of two published
children’s books (with more on the way).
Careers in the creative arts
Thirty-six (48%) of the 75 respondents were, by our coding, pursuing careers in the
Creative Artsa category that includes fine arts, music, crafts, photography,
theater, and writing. Remarkably, 19 (79%) of the 24 participants in the always-
unschooled group were pursuing such careers (see Table 1, data row 8). The
observation that the always-unschooled participants were more likely to pursue
careers in this category than were the other participants is highly significant
statistically (chi square test, p < .001).
Respondents were coded as Entrepreneurs if they had started their own business and
Gina Riley & Peter Gray
were making a living at it or clearly working toward that. This category overlapped
considerably with the creative arts category, as many were in the business of selling
their own creative products or services. Overall, by our coding, 40 (53%) of the 75
respondents were entrepreneurs. As can be seen in data row 9 of Table 1, this
percentage, too, was greatest for those in the always-unschooled group (63%), but
in this case the differences across groups did not approach statistical significance.
Many of the case examples presented above are also examples of entrepreneurship.
Here are two more, which illustrate the combination of artistic and entrepreneurial
A 28-year-old woman, who was homeschooled to age ten and
unschooled after that, had two jobs at the time of the survey. One was that
of self-employed web designer, a business she had maintained for about
ten years. The other was that of self-employed piano and violin instructor,
which she had been doing for about seven years. Concerning the latter,
she wrote: “This is my career path, and I have built it all myself…. I
currently have 31 students. I teach one-on-one private lessons, teaching
pieces/songs, theory, ear training, music history, composition, technique,
performance, and share my passion for music.” She wrote, further: “I love
my current career as a music teacher, but I am also aspiring to perform
with my band as a second career path. I play bass and sing in this band,
and next week we are heading in to the studio to record a full-length
album that we raised the money for through a Kickstarter campaign.
We are continuing to work toward our goals with this record, making
touring plans and looking over an offer from a record label.”
• A 21-year-old woman, who was unschooled through all of K-12 and had
pursued no higher education, wrote: “I’m a self employed artist/crafter, I
sell online and locally. I've always been making things, I love what I
do.” In response to our question about financial independence, she wrote:
“Yes, I became financially independent at age 19. It is very important to
me to make a good living and I feel very proud watching my income rise
little by little each year.”
STEM careers
The high percentage choosing artistic careers led us to wonder if unschoolers tend
to avoid STEM careers. To code for this category, we used the definition of STEM
published by the National Science Foundation (Gonzalez & Kuenzi, 2012), which
includes social sciences as well as natural sciences, technology, engineering, and
math. However, we only included people in the social sciences if they were
conducting research in that realm and/or were doing applied work that made use of
Grown Unschoolers: Report II
technical aspects of a social science.
Overall, by this coding, 22 (29%) of the 75 participants were pursuing STEM
careers. When we broke the data down by gender (leaving out the one person who
did not wish to be classified as male or female), we found that 13 (22%) of the 58
women and 8 (50%) of the 16 men in the sample were coded as having STEM
careers. Despite the relatively small number of men in the sample, this difference in
ratio is statistically significant (chi square test, p = .030). Apparently, the tendency
for men to go into such careers at a higher rate than women, which has been well
established for the general population (US Dept. of Commerce, 2014), occurs
among unschoolers as well.
The majority of those in STEM in our sample were in some aspect of
engineering or computer technology, but the sample also included an archaeologist,
field biologist, math and science teacher, intelligence analyst, and four involved in
various aspects of medical technology.
Concluding thoughts
Because of the self-selected nature of our sample, we cannot draw strong
conclusions about the success in higher education and careers of the whole
population of unschoolers. However, the study does show clearly that unschooling
is not incompatible with such success. The majority went on to higher education
and to careers that they found satisfying. They claimed that their experiences as
unschoolers prepared them well for further education and employment by
promoting a high degree of self-motivation, continued enjoyment of learning,
capacity for self-direction, and sense of personal responsibility (for more on this,
see the first article of this pair, Gray & Riley, 2015).
Concerning higher education, it is noteworthy that those who were in the most
unschooled group, who had skipped all of K-12, were also the most likely to pursue
a bachelor’s degree or higher. Some of them had rarely or never been previously in
a classroom, or read a textbook, or been required to study a topic that they wouldn’t
have chosen to study, or taken an academic examination, yet found themselves
getting A’s and earning honors, both in community college courses and in
bachelor’s programs. Apparently, the lack of an imposed curriculum had not
deprived them of the background knowledge and skills needed for college success.
Consistently, they reported that the attitudinal and motivational benefits they had
acquired in unschooling more than outweighed any handicap that might have
resulted from their not having taken the standard high-school courses that are
supposed to prepare people for college.
The study also indicates that college admissions officers, at least in the United
States, are more flexible in the criteria they employ in selecting applicants for
admission than may be generally believed. None of the participants in this study had
a conventional high-school diploma or conventional high-school education, but they
Gina Riley & Peter Gray
were admitted into bachelor’s programs on the basis of such criteria as portfolios
they had developed, interviews, and, quite often, community college courses they
had already taken.
Concerning employment and career choices, the high percentage in the
creative arts and the high percentage who were entrepreneurs may well be
generalizable to the larger population of unschoolers and to others who experienced
a high degree of autonomy in childhood. These findings are similar to those of a
previous follow-up study of young people who had charge of their education at a
democratic school (Gray & Chanoff, 1986), discussed in the introduction to this
article. They are also consistent with other research (discussed in the introduction)
indicating that increased autonomy in childhood predicts increased creativity and
self-direction later on in life.
It seems likely that the freedom entailed in unschooling would promote
creativity. Essentially all of learning and life, for unschoolers, is in a sense creative,
as unschoolers must choose or create their own pathways. The especially high
proportion of creative careers for the group that were unschooled from the
beginning may reflect the reality that, for them, the creative drives present in all
young children were never interrupted by a period of adult-directed schooling.
However, because of the correlational nature of this research, there is no way to
know to what degree creativity resulted from unschooling or unschooling resulted
from creativity. It may well be that parents are more likely to unschool a child who
shows high creative initiative from the beginning than one who does not. It might
also be that highly creative parents are particularly prone to unschool their children,
and the children are creative because their parents are. All of these factors may
contribute to the observed correlation, both in this study and in previous studies
relating autonomy in childhood to subsequent creativity.
Sociologists who have studied work satisfaction have found that the kinds of
jobs and careers that are most satisfying to people are those that involve a great deal
of occupational self-direction (Galinsky, Bond, & Friedman, 1993; Kohn, 1980).
One thing that is eminently clear from the survey responses is that these grown
unschoolers had, overwhelmingly, chosen careers very high in this quality. Many of
them were self-employed, and even those not self-employed were largely in
occupations that permitted or required much self-direction. Self-direction is the
essence of unschooling, so it is perhaps no surprise that grown unschoolers would
go on to such careers. Related to this, it may likewise be no surprise that the grown
unschoolers seemed to value meaningful and enjoyable careers over potentially
more lucrative ones. A central tenet of the unschooling philosophy is that learning is
intrinsically rewarding, not something one does for extrinsic rewards such as
grades, and this may generalize to all of life. Moreover, as noted in the first article
of this pair (Gray & Riley, 2015), previous studies of unschooling families suggest
that unschooling parents are less concerned with high income, and more concerned
Grown Unschoolers: Report II
with a living in ways that are meaningful to them, than are homechooling or
traditionally schooling parents.
With all its limitations, this is the first research study to explore, in any
systematic way, the adult lives of people who had chosen, or whose families had
chosen, unschooling as their deliberate mode of education during all or part of their
K-12 years. Because the participants were not a random or normative selection of
all unschoolers, the findings described in this article and the previous one (Gray &
Riley, 2015) might be regarded as hypotheses rather than conclusions concerning
the unschooling population in general. We hope these hypotheses will help to
stimulate further research aimed at understanding more fully, and more generally,
the developmental consequences of the unschooling choice and the conditions in
which unschooling is most or least conducive to subsequent life satisfaction.
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Grown Unschoolers: Report II
Author Details
Gina Riley is Clinical Professor of Special Education at Hunter College. Contact
address is Department of Special Education, 695 Park Avenue, New York, New
York 10065, US. Email
Peter Gray is Research Professor of Psychology at Boston College. Contact address
is 9 King Philip Trail, Norfolk, MA 02056, US. Email
This work by Gina Riley and Peter Gray is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported
... Alternative junior high school as transformational attempt & counterfactual against the "problematic" conventional schooling/tracking system "Problematic" scenario • Schooling & tracking reproduces class structure (e.g., Bourdieu & Passeron, 1970) • Competitive schooling & admission test system kill creativity, passion, autonomy… etc. bring health issues (e.g., Robinson, 2017;Gray & Riley, 2015) • … ...
... School as counterfactual:• Ideology, Pedagogy, Parental expectations: Members generally disagree with values and practices of the mainstream "problematic" scenario (=reason they came), instead embrace learner-centered, progressive, and democratic values and practices • Choice: Students generally know alternative options to high school entrance exam & conventional high schools Control variables • Students still voluntarily "asked for" test-preparation and go through the tedious and painful test-taking process, and voluntarily decided to take the exam • With only up to half year of preparation, the overall exam performances of the alt. school students are above the district's average • Graduates become different types of leading figures in the conventional high schools they enter • Support:(e.g., Akin, 1942; Shankland et al., 2009;Gray & Riley, 2015) → intrinsically motivated learning cultivates responsibility → diverse, project-based & self-directed learning brings better academic outcomes & cultivates better life-long skills ...
Conference Paper
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Given that wicked problems emerge from the complex patterns of agents' relationships/interactions with the world, and education serves as a process of alternating or reproducing such patterns, I reason that the failure of education to alternate/reproduce wicked patterns as intended can be used to retroduce generative mechanisms that work against it. This research took a critical (auto)ethnographic approach for seven years to explore what patterns are alternated/reproduced before, during, and after my schoolmates and I at a learner-centered alternative school in Taiwan faced the hyper-competitive standardized high school entrance exam. Despite the anti-exam-driven learning culture of the parents and the school, and the lack of requisite/pressure to take the exam by neither parties, my classmates and I still compelled ourselves to narrowed and unhealthy study behaviors (commonly attributed to parenting or schooling) we did not agree with, at the cost of our talents, passions, and other important aspects of holistic growth. Through a comparative study of school admission policies (including the reforms thereof), I reroduce that while students exhibit different behaviors, they are still driven by a mechanism I call Allocation Dependence: As long as agents' survival is dependent on the resources allocated by institutions, agents inevitably assimilate their qualities or trim off their unfit qualities to fit in the measures (criteria, rules, etc.) for such allocation, to secure the exchange for the allocated resources of greater quality/quantity. My analysis shows the gap between agents' qualities and the allocation measure, and the drive to assimilate and trim off to fit into it entails characteristics/effects including but not limited to deformity, alienation, waste, pollution, disparity, exhaustion, and fragility. Using abduction, I find manifestations of Allocation Dependence in other fields such as international relations and domestication of animals, and will continue to study its explanatory power of other wicked problems.
... In other words, leaving them free from educational coercion allows students to use their capabilities to learn what they need when they need, or discover an interest in, the learning. Literature on this approach is growing, confirming its viability as a way to prepare children into adulthood (Greenberg & Sadofsky, 1992;Llewellyn, 2005;Riley & Gray, 2015;Thomas & Pattison, 2008). ...
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In this response to Matusov's "Right for Freedom in Education," I will offer two "yes, but…" concerns about crucial complexities of this freedom that I think Matusov leaves unaddressed, and a "yes, and…" alternative pragmatic justification of this freedom that differs from, but I think is more compelling than, Matusov's.
This chapter focuses on the academic and social outcomes of those who have been homeschooled. What happens to homeschoolers when they grow up? Are they able to attend college? Are they employable? Are they socially, emotionally, and psychologically healthy? Are they happy and well adjusted? Numerous researchers have studied the outcomes of those who are home educated, with very positive results. This chapter focuses on the conclusions of these studies and ends with an analysis of how research on adult homeschooled graduates must grow and change to represent the shifting data on homeschooling itself.
The global and growing phenomenon of home education is regulated differently in different countries and different states. Where is it legal the regulatory burden on home educators ranges from low to moderate to high. A range of commentators, including home educators, work to shape the frames through which home education is understood and subsequently regulated. Using an illustrative case study, this chapter shows that regulation impacts on child wellbeing and that home educators take different motivational postures based on a range of factors, of which their relationship with the regulator is one. The degree to which regulators cultivate a cooperative relationship is proposed as a critical factor in developing a positive regulatory environment. Co-production of home education regulations, as was previously undertaken in Tasmania, Australia, is presented as an effective and more acceptable approach to regulation. This is recommended as a model of practice to be undertaken in other settings.
One of the most common questions asked of unschooling families is “How do children learn if there is no set curriculum?” In this chapter, subject-based learning in unschooling is reviewed. A large portion of the chapter is dedicated to how unschoolers learn to read and do math. Additional parts of the chapter concentrate on how unschoolers learn science, history, and second languages. One of the major benefits of unschooling is that unschoolers tend to know how to learn what they need to know. Gaps in learning within both unschoolers and traditionally schooled students is also discussed.
This chapter provides an answer to the question “What happens to unschoolers when they grow up?” Research focused on unschooled adults’ feelings about the unschooling experience is considered. Unschooled adult outcomes regarding higher education, careers, financial independence, and future plans are reviewed. The chapter concludes with an in-depth profile of a grown unschooler.
This chapter provides an in-depth description of the history of the unschooling movement, including elements of Rousseau, Dewey, and Neill’s work. A large part of the chapter is dedicated to exploring the work of Ivan Illich and John Holt. Holt defined unschooling and the unschooling movement through his books How Children Learn and How Children Fail. He also supported the growth of the movement through his magazine, Growing Without Schooling, which was the first periodical focused on homeschooling, unschooling, and learning outside the school environment. The work and influence of John Taylor Gatto and Peter Gray on the unschooling movement is also reviewed. It is important for current unschoolers to understand the history of the movement, so that they can forge forward in a way that promotes unification and acceptance within their own community and beyond.
Homeschooling has grown exponentially in the past decade. Researchers estimate that almost two million students in the United States are home educated, accounting for over 3% of the school-aged population. Around 10–20% of those who homeschool define their philosophy of homeschooling as unschooling, and that number seems to be growing every day. This chapter provides a summary of the demographics of the homeschooling and unschooling movements, and discusses the tremendous growth seen in the number of diverse families choosing to unschool in the United States.
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Unschooling is a form of homeschooling where learning occurs not through the following of a set curricula, but instead through real life experiences. Unschooling parents do not try to replicate school or school-like activities at home. Instead, children are in charge of their own education, and that education usually naturally fits with their own intrinsic motivations, preferences, and learning styles. This is quite different from what we may see or experience in the public school classroom, where curriculum is strictly adhered to, and testing is the way a student's learning is assessed. In this study, how and when unschoolers learn to read without a set curriculum will be explored. Twenty eight unschooled adults (age 18 and older) were interviewed and asked to recall their experiences with reading and learning to read. Through these interviews, the author sought to explore how reading can be learned naturally, without adult intervention; and how this may effect later motivation for reading, writing, and other academic endeavors.
For this chapter we must distinguish between schooling and education. Schooling is the deliberate use of special procedures to teach preselected skills, concepts and beliefs (a curriculum) to students. Education is a much broader concept. It is the entire set of processes by which each new generation of human beings acquires the skills, knowledge, rituals, beliefs, lore and values—in short, the culture—of the previous generation. Education is cultural transmission. From a biological perspective, schooling is new, arising in the most recent eye-blink of our evolution. It became common for large segments of the population only a century or two ago. Education, in contrast, is as old as our genus and is an integral part of our biological makeup.
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Unschooling families (families that don't send their children to school and don't school them at home) were invited to participate in a survey about their unschooling practices. Two hundred and thirty two self-identified unschooling families, with at least one child over five years old, completed and returned the questionnaire. Qualitative analyses revealed considerable variability in the routes to unschooling and in the ways in which the parents saw themselves as involved in their children's education. The biggest challenge expressed was that of overcoming feelings of criticism, or social pressure, that came from others who disapproved and from their own culturally-ingrained, habitual ways of thinking about education. The reported benefits of unschooling were numerous; they included improved learning, better attitudes about learning, and improved psychological and social wellbeing for the children; and increased closeness, harmony, and freedom for the whole family.
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Seventy-five adults, who had been unschooled for at least the years that would have been their last two years of high school, responded to a survey about their experiences. Their responses indicated that their parents generally played supportive, not directive roles in their education and played bigger supportive roles for those who started their unschooling early than for those who started later. The great majority of respondents reported that they were very happy with their unschooling. Nearly all of them valued the freedom it gave them to pursue their own interests in their own ways, and many reported that unschooling promoted their capacities for self-motivation, self-direction, personal responsibility and continued learning. A minority said they experienced a learning deficit as a result of unschooling, and most of those said they easily made up that deficit when they needed to. Most said they had satisfying social lives as unschoolers, and many commented on the special value of having friends of a wide range of ages. Only three respondents said they were unhappy with their unschooling, and those three all said that they were socially isolated, in dysfunctional families with mothers who were psychologically depressed and fathers who were uninvolved.
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Executive functions (EFs) in childhood predict important life outcomes. Thus, there is great interest in attempts to improve EFs early in life. Many interventions are led by trained adults, including structured training activities in the lab, and less-structured activities implemented in schools. Such programs have yielded gains in children's externally-driven executive functioning, where they are instructed on what goal-directed actions to carry out and when. However, it is less clear how children's experiences relate to their development of self-directed executive functioning, where they must determine on their own what goal-directed actions to carry out and when. We hypothesized that time spent in less-structured activities would give children opportunities to practice self-directed executive functioning, and lead to benefits. To investigate this possibility, we collected information from parents about their 6-7 year-old children's daily, annual, and typical schedules. We categorized children's activities as "structured" or "less-structured" based on categorization schemes from prior studies on child leisure time use. We assessed children's self-directed executive functioning using a well-established verbal fluency task, in which children generate members of a category and can decide on their own when to switch from one subcategory to another. The more time that children spent in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning. The opposite was true of structured activities, which predicted poorer self-directed executive functioning. These relationships were robust (holding across increasingly strict classifications of structured and less-structured time) and specific (time use did not predict externally-driven executive functioning). We discuss implications, caveats, and ways in which potential interpretations can be distinguished in future work, to advance an understanding of this fundamental aspect of growing up.
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A follow-up study was conducted of the graduates of the Sudbury Valley School (SVS), a democratically administered primary and secondary school that has no learning requirements but rather supports students' self-directed activities. Although these individuals educated themselves in ways that are enormously different from what occurs at traditional schools, they have had no apparent difficulty being admitted to or adjusting to the demands of traditional higher education and have been successful in a wide variety of careers. Graduates reported that for higher education and careers, the school benefited them by allowing them to develop their own interests and by fostering such traits as personal responsibility, initiative, curiosity, ability to communicate well with people regardless of status, and continued appreciation and practice of democratic values.
This article reviews research on homeschool learner outcomes and evaluates opposition to homeschooling. It synthesizes research on learner outcomes related to homeschooling in areas of students' academic achievement and children's social, emotional, and psychological development and the success of adults who were home educated and finds generally positive outcomes on a variety of variables are associated with homeschooling. The author identifies four classes of negativity expressed toward home-based education by the education profession, such as the claims homeschooling is bad for the collective good and that without much state regulation significant numbers of homeschooling (home schooling) parents will harm their children. The evaluation reveals that proactive opposition to homeschooling and calls for significant state control over homeschooling do not offer any empirical research evidence that homeschooling is bad for individual children, families, neighborhoods, or the collective good. The alleged harms of homeschooling or arguments for more control of it are fundamentally philosophical and push for the state, rather than parents, to be in primary and ultimate control over the education and upbringing of children so they will come to hold worldviews more aligned with the state and opponents of state-free homeschooling than with the children's parents and freely chosen relationships.
This article reviews selected research on successes of homeschooled students over the past decade. The article raises several methods issues, especially related to sampling issues and recent changes in some state laws. In addition the article reviews research collected from college admission's officers’ on their perceptions and attitudes relate to homeschooled students. The comparative results of the studies reported in this review, combined with the data collected from college admission officers provides evidence that homeschooling is an effective alternative path to college for the children of many families.
Homeschooling has developed from a small, isolated, parent-led effort to a vibrant national movement to lobby for and legalize K-12 education at home in all 50 states. Although a majority of homeschool families are Evangelical Christians, the others come from a variety of religious and nonreligious backgrounds, giving homeschooling a broad national political and social base. Homeschool families have organized regional and national associations, gained children’s access to after-school and even during-school classes and activities in local public schools, and increasingly gained entry to college. About 1.35 million children in the country are being officially home-schooled, making it a vital and expanding form of private education and political force in U.S. society.