Updated 2017-10-12

Self-Directed Education — Unschooling and Democratic Schooling

Written for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education, this in-depth article provides a comprehensive overview of SDE, from its evolutionary origins to its modern expressions.
Peter Gray author
Gray, P. (2017). Self-Directed Education—Unschooling and Democratic Schooling. In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190264093.013.80


Education, broadly defined, is cultural transmission. It is the process or set of processes by which each new generation of human beings acquires and builds upon the skills, knowledge, beliefs, values, and lore of the culture into which they are born. Through all but the most recent speck of human history, education was always the responsibility of those being educated. Children come into the world biologically prepared to educate themselves through observing the culture around them and incorporating what they see into their play. Research in hunter-gatherer cultures shows that children in those cultures became educated through their own self-directed exploration and play.

In modern cultures, self-directed education is pursued by children in families that adopt the homeschooling approach commonly called “unschooling” and by children enrolled in democratic schools, where they are in charge of their own education. Follow-up studies of “graduates” of unschooling and democratic schooling reveal that this approach to education can be highly effective, in today’s world, if children are provided with an adequate environment for self-education — an environment in which they can interact freely with others across a broad range of ages, can experience first-hand what is most valued in the culture, and can play with, and thereby experiment with, the primary tools of the culture.

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