EducationPeople SystemsVillage Development

Do We Really Need Compulsory Schooling? An Interview with Peter Gray

Marcin Gerwin: It seems almost natural that when children reach the age of six or seven they go to school. The idea of compulsory schools seems obvious and it is rarely questioned. However, one may start to wonder if forcing children to learn is an effective way to provide education at all. We learn easier when we want to do it rather than when we are told to. Is it really necessary to make going to school obligatory by law?

Peter Gray: Compulsory schooling is not a good idea for education. It’s been a norm in most countries for more than a century (in some countries for more than two centuries), so everybody has been doing it for at least two or three generations. And when that happens you begin to think – well, that must be absolutely essential for development. We hardly know people who have developed without compulsory schooling and those people that we do know may be homeless for example and are unable to support themselves. Therefore we develop a cultural view that it must be essential for healthy development, for getting a job. But I think that’s mistaken and I have a lot of reasons for thinking that.

MG: What many people may think is that if school was not compulsory then children would simply not go at all and they wouldn’t learn anything.

PG: Children come into this world biologically designed to educate themselves. We can’t stop them from becoming educated as long as they have access to the tools and resources that they need to educate themselves. Think of what children learn without anybody forcing them to, before they even start school. They learn their entire native language — of course you could argue that there is a biological propensity for them to do that, so that might be a little bit different from other situations — but it still takes a great effort. Children spend an enormous amount of time and energy on learning this and they do it totally naturally. They learn how to walk, they learn how to climb, they learn how to explore. And once they’ve got the language they begin to use it to find out all kinds of other information. By the time a child is ready to start a compulsory education that child has already learned a good portion of what he or she will ever know — without compulsion. And think of how rapidly the child learns it.

When we send children to compulsory education we tend to put a stop to all of that — to the child’s natural drive and ability to learn. The child is driven by playfulness, by curiosity, by the child’s own self-will. When we put a child in school, especially when a child has a sense of “I have to be there, I don’t have any choice about it”, this is like prison. That puts an end to curiosity and to playfulness. No longer do the child’s own questions count, no longer do the child’s own activities count. Rather the child has to do what other people are telling them to do and that is the worst possible situation for education to occur in a way that it has been biologically designed to occur.

Children are designed to educate themselves through their own self-initiated activities and when we take that away from them then they may grudgingly do what we ask them to do and some of them may adapt to it better than others, but it’s still a kind of begrudging work. It’s entirely different from when children are learning on their own. On those grounds it seems to me that we are interfering with children’s natural ways of learning. And we’ve been doing it for a couple of centuries in many countries.

MG: Has the model of a more natural kind of education been tried in modern times?

PG: I have experience with looking at how children learn at the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, which, although it’s a school, it’s a place where children are completely free to play and explore all day long in a mixed-age environment. The school has been around for almost fifty years. It was founded in 1968, and has hundreds of graduates who come from various backgrounds. What I found in a study of graduates of Sudbury Valley many years ago is that about the same percentage went on to university as from the middle class public schools in the same neighborhood. Most of them went on to higher education. Those who didn’t choose to go to higher education had a good reason for not doing so — they were going into careers in which they didn’t need it. These were people who were starting their own businesses or were continuing in the arts or crafts or in computer programming. But those who felt they wanted to go to college didn’t seem to have any difficulty getting in.

I’ve recently done a study of 75 young adults who were home-schooled with the philosophy that, at least in this country, is called deschooling, where the parents take the view that they allow their children to just continue learning in their natural ways; they provide them with opportunities to learn, they open up the community for them, but they don’t give them any curriculum, and there are no requirements and no tests. And these people are doing well in the world as far as I can tell, and they also didn’t appear to have any disadvantage in going on to higher education.

So the evidence suggests that for those people who find the way to opt out of what we think of as education and are allowed to pursue their own ways of educating themselves, those people seem to do very well. And if we would take that evidence into account — if we would just think about what we are doing to children when, in a sense, we lock them away into rooms and expect them to learn — I think we would really give serious thoughts to doing away with compulsory education as we know it.

MG: But if there were no compulsory education, wouldn’t it be a disadvantage to children from poorer families whose parents just can’t provide them any kind of education?

PG: First of all, children from poor families come into the world with an equally strong desire to educate themselves as children from middle class or wealthier families. The difference is not a biological one. It may be that they are coming into a world that is lacking some of the opportunities for learning at home and in the neighborhood that occurs in middle class homes. They are learning just as much, but they are not necessarily learning particular things that will lead them to enter into middle class life as they are growing up. Our schools have not solved this problem, at least not in the United States. The education gap between the rich and poor is enormous and it gets bigger with every passing year in school. It’s even more true today than in the past. We are often spending as much money where there is a large number of kids from poor families as we are on other schools and it has not even slightly reduced that education gap.

So let’s start off by admitting that our present compulsory school system has totally failed to reduce the education gap between rich and poor, at least in United States. The high school dropout rate is enormous for kids in poor areas. There’s really no evidence that starting kids with compulsory schooling at a younger age would solve the problem – that’s the approach that many people want to take in USA. But the truth of the matter is that they are not that much behind when they are little kids. They become further behind by the standard measures with every passing year once they are in school. So why do we think that starting school earlier is going to solve that problem? The reason why they aren’t developing the skills that we think are important for advancement in our culture is because those skills are not represented in their home life and in their real world.

MG: What can be done to solve the problem of the education gap then?

PG: The way I see it is by developing opportunities that allow children in their real life to enter an environment that’s more literate, more numerate, where they are meeting people who have higher education — where they are experiencing all that — but in such a way that this opportunity is completely voluntary to them, where they are in charge of their activities. If a child from a so-called deprived environment comes to a school like the Sudbury Valley, the child is in a setting where he or she is playing with other children who read and write, who do numbers and play games that involve all this. They will pick up those skills in the same natural way that the kids from wealthier neighborhoods are picking it up.

Another solution is to develop community centers where there are adults or older kids that have these skills. The children are interacting with these people in real ways. One of the things we saw in Sudbury Valley School is that the teenagers love to read to little kids. There is probably nothing more valuable in terms of developing appreciation of the written word than being read to as a young child. So whether or not their own parents read to them, they are being read to regularly. People who care about them are reading books to them. That is just a lovely experience. And that is far more powerful and important for learning to read than the kind of drill in reading that occurs in schools. We can develop settings that allow that to happen.

For example I happen to know a woman in South Africa who is trying to solve the illiteracy problem for native South Africans and what she’s finding is even though they are all compelled to go to school they are not learning to read. So what she has established are reading clubs in which on Saturdays there are kindly grandmother-like adults who read to young children. And children flock around and enjoy hearing the reading and they want to act out the stories and then they begin to read. That’s all completely voluntary. But kids love it. And parents are supportive of it. So that’s the kind of thing we should be thinking about for solving the education gap — not by forcing people, that just doesn’t work.

MG: Why do you then think that governments all over the world insist so much on compulsory education?

PG: Some people, who have a more cynical view of governments than I do, argue that governments really want to keep people stupid. That they are more concerned with obedience than with free thinking. I don’t quite believe that. I think that most people who are in favor of compulsory education truly believe that it is essential for children’s normal development. But they are mistaken. I think they are misguided – they haven’t really looked deep into the question, but have looked into it only in a very shallow way. I do think we have a public responsibility — we could call that a government responsibility — to make sure that all children have an opportunity to learn, that they have access to books, to computers and experts. The opportunity to learn is very different from the compulsion to learn. Children will take advantage of the opportunity when they have it.

I also think that we are completely misled by the view that education is a kind of international competition measured by scores on international tests. People look at the scores and see that East Asian countries score highest, or maybe Finland is doing well, and then everybody thinks – well, we’ve got to get our children to score as high as them or our country is going to fall hopelessly behind. But the truth of the matter is those scores don’t correlate with anything meaningful. The United States’ score is low on those tests and we produce more Nobel Prize winners per capita than any other country. In fact the East Asian countries are starting to realize that they have to ease up on their schooling. There was an article in the Wall Street Journal by one Chinese educator who said that they’ll know when their schools have improved when their international test scores go down. That’s because they’ll know that they no longer have kids who just drill for tests and that they are allowing them to be more creative, to take their own initiative, to learn the skills that are important in the real world rather than just doing well on tests.

I think that people are beginning to rebel. I think it’s just beginning. We’ve gone too far. I think that people are realizing that what we have created for our children is a completely unnatural environment. Children are not meant to be spending their days sitting in classrooms. They are meant to explore and play and socialize. That’s how they are biologically designed to learn.


Peter Gray is an author of the recently published book “Free to Learn” and a college textbook “Psychology”. He has taught at Boston College as a research professor. His scholarly interests include children’s play, self-directed learning, evolutionary psychology, developmental psychology, educational psychology and general psychology.

This interview first appeared in Dziennik Opinii in Poland.


  1. When people ask what curriculum we use. We say, “the library”. We let our children pick out educational books their interested in, and it’s worked wonders. My eldest has taught himself about the Titanic, the civil war, the pilgrims etc… He’s into maps now. Today, on our rest day, he drew a map of the world! If we stuck him in a geography or history class, he’d be bored. Plus we live on a farm. Yesterday we slaughtered chickens and my kids hands were all up in those chicken guts! And what better education than to teach a kid how to grow his own food!

  2. Compulsory schooling exists to provide the opportunity for children who would not otherwise be allowed the time to learn, and would have to work – as in many developing nations. Literacy, especially female literacy and education, have been shown to be hugely significant in improving the standard of living of entire communities and cultures. I agree that our existing compulsory schooling system in the West is not ideal, and I personally hated school, but compulsory education as an idea is not broken. We should just be doing it better, helping children learn instead of destroying their curiosity and playfulness. Also, assuming that children will be able to self-educate assumes that their parents are literate and educated and able/willing to teach or to help them learn – which is unfortunately a deeply flawed assumption. I think we should overhaul the entire education system, pay teachers highly so that it becomes a desirable and respected role and attracts the best and brightest, and modify both our teaching style and our curricula to suit modern needs and children’s inherent tendencies.

    1. Agreed. The most important thing I’ve learned from living in my current neighborhood is the parent’s opinion on the importance of education. My neighbors come from a poor background and encourage their children to get a good education to open up a brighter future, while another family of tradespeople removed their own child from school to have him work as a labourer because, and I quote “He’s an idiot anyway, it’d just be a waste of time sending him to school”. Parental and societal values play a big role.

      Despite that, a factory education is definitely a case of the cure being as bad as the disease.

    2. Hi, I agree that there are many countries where kids not in school have to work, and that this seems to be the default, but I don’t think not being in school, or not being in traditional school, is necessarily the reason why. Those places tend to be very poor and not to have good child labor laws. I think compulsory education is not the only, or best, way to solve the problem of child labor. The other problem you mention, where parents are not educated enough themselves to guide their children, has an easy fix. Students could go to a learning center, like the one mentioned in the article, where they would be free to explore. Also, doesn’t it seem like a failure of the education system that there are parents who aren’t literate enough to help their children?

  3. Another big factor in the industrialised west is that children have lost an enormous amount of personal freedom during the last two generations. They went from having many hours of unsupervised, self directed play outside of school (as well as a fair amount of productive and valued work) to being glorified pets that have every moment of their lives supervised by adults or immersed in technology.

  4. A number of years ago I read about a school in Russia where the students built the school to their own design and at the same time educated both themselves in all aspects of learning . This was not an exploitive situation as the older students interacted with the younger students all helped when needed by two or three teachers and parents . This school situated in Russia and is known as the Shchetinins schoolTekos Russia and they have a waiting list a mile long

  5. To a great extent I feel student apathy is caused by children being forced into a system that they intuitively know is counter to their natures. Additionally, the evidence is all around them that what and how they are being taught is in part responsible for the deteriorating state of the planet. Their response is not so different from indigenous people being stripped of their culture and put on the res. The only possible response besides conformity available is apathy.

  6. I am writing an essay on this topic, and this article is going to be so helpful. I just have one note: in the article, you refer to “deschooling.” I think your using the wrong word. I could be wrong, as it says “in my country,” and I don’t know what country is being referred to, but in the US the thing you’re talking about is called unschooling. Deschooling is the period when someone who has been traditionally schooled transitions to homeschooling, usually by doing whatever they want for some time, like a week or month. I actually am homeschooled, in an unschooling sort of way (I still do some stuff off curricula and I take college classes, but most of what I do is much less defined).

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