Join Child Development expert Dr. Peter Gray, Research Professor at Boston College and a regular contributor to “Psychology Today“, as he discusses evolutionary perspectives on childhood development and education.

We weren’t able to answer all of the questions asked by our audience during the webinar, so Peter has kindly replied to them below. 

Renata asks: Is [your research] based on Heidi Keller’s eco-cultural model? Keller’s ecocultural model assesses children’s learning environments (i.e. socialization goals of their families, ethnotheories and the infant’s social experiences). It considers two very different ecosocial contexts, Western middle-class families and subsistence-based farmer families that produce developmental consequences in terms of different developmental trajectories.

Peter: Hi Renata. I was not aware of this model. Although I have attended to some of the literature on children’s learning in subsistence farming cultures (particularly as represented in David Lancy’s (Ed.) book The Anthropology of Learning in Childhood), I have been more concerned with the learning environment of children in hunter-gatherer cultures, which is very different from that in traditional farming culture.

Tom asks: Directive-domineering parenting (and schooling) seems well suited for producing the mindset necessary for people in the White Working Class jobs (see Joan C Williams’ book White Working Class or J D Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy) — obedience to a boss you hate and do not respect, putting in long hours of hard work, not spilling your guts about how you feel. If we converted all schools to Sudbury Valley types would it cause people to be even more unhappy in working class jobs? This is a terrible situation. Structural Classism is abhorrent. But the implication could be we need to change education AND the nature of work concurrently. HBO documentary Class Divide contrasts this vividly where The Avenues World School ($47k year) is located directly across the street from subsided housing projects whose kids attend underfunded public schools. 

Peter: Hi Tom. My follow-up research of graduates of the Sudbury Valley School and of grown unschoolers suggests that most of them pursue careers in which they have a great deal of control over their own work.  They frequently become entrepreneurs, starting their own businesses. Actually, the economy already is coming around.  Those old “White Working Class Jobs” that Trump supporters thought he was going to bring back, have been pretty much replaced by robots and computers.  You almost need to be an entrepreneur these days.  The economy needs people who can think creatively and critically and who are always eager and able to learn on the job, not people who can put in long hours on routine work or who are good at memorizing and feeding back information.  Self-directed education results in the kinds of skills that our economy now demands.

Concerning funding, the schools I’ve examined that are so effective in supporting self-directed education operate at less cost than do even the poorest public schools. When we set up the conditions that allow children to educate themselves, we don’t need to spend lots of money on education.  That $47K per year is money down the drain.

Karolina asks: Dear Peter, your theory of play as education can be seen as contrasting with David Geary’s idea of acquiring primary and secondary knowledge… Geary writes that “As contemporary culture has accumulated stores of knowledge, there is an ever-widening gap between what children easily learn and what they need to learn to be successful as adults. Formal and now universal schooling is a cultural innovation that was developed in these societies to close this gap through didactic instruction. What do you think about this Geary’s take on this? Can everything be learned through play?

Peter: I have much respect for David Geary, but believe he is completely mistaken in his concept of primary and secondary knowledge.  I have, over and over again, seen children learn to read, write, gain mathematical concepts, and develop sophisticated scientific thinking through their natural play and exploration in an environment that is literate, numerate, and populated by people who think scientifically.  For more on this, see my chapter:  Peter Gray. Children’s natural ways of learning still work—even for the three Rs.  In D. C. Geary & D. B. Berch (eds), Evolutionary perspectives on child development and education (pp 63-93).  Springer. 2016.

I’ve also discussed the natural learning of reading and math in various posts on my Psychology Today “Freedom to Learn” blog.

Olivia asks: What resources (articles, books, etc.) would you suggest for a young scholar hoping to enter into research on evolution and education? In particular, I’m interested in education policy, so is there perhaps an existing literature you can point me toward on the evolutionary development of organizations/social structures?

Peter: I don’t know of any such literature as applied to education policy. I think, more generally, David Sloan Wilson is probably the best authority to look to on the topic of evolutionary development of organizations & social structures.

Páll asks:  In residential work with neglected and abused children and youth, the literature is very much in concert with, that strict boundaries and daily structure are needed for the kids. How does this fit into the “free play” thinking of the kids steering their own learning and development. Also, is there in the research and connection made with the theories of e.g. Jaak Panksepp, Stephen Porges and Bud Craig, or ACE’s in relation the “free play” and the effects for the traumatised kids?

Peter: P´all, I have not made a study of neglected and abused children and youth.  What I can say is that children who are trusted from the beginning and are allowed to make their own decisions in a loving and supportive environment, do very well in life.  This is true regardless of their race and regardless of whether they are rich or poor.  What should be done with young people who weren’t provided with such an environment?  I sure wish we would try the route of love, support, and the scaffolding of trust rather than military style domination of them.