Peter Gray: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

Gray, PeterPeter Gray, research professor of psychology at Boston College, has conducted and published research in a wide range of fields, including neuroendocrinology, animal behavior, developmental psychology, anthropology, and education. He is author of a highly regarded college textbook, Psychology (Worth Publishers), now in its 6th edition. Most of his recent research and writing has to do with the value of free, unsupervised play for children’s healthy social, emotional, and intellectual development. He has expanded on these ideas extensively, for the general public, in his recently-published book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life (Basic Books, 2013)– He also authors a regular blog for Psychology Today magazine.

Peter grew up mostly in small towns in Minnesota and Wisconsin, where he had a rich childhood play life, which, he believes, prepared him well for adulthood. He did his undergraduate study at Columbia University and then earned a Ph.D. in biological sciences at the Rockefeller University, in New York City. His career since then has been centered entirely at Boston College. His play life continues, not only in the joy he derives from research and writing, but also in his enjoyment of long-distance bicycling, kayaking, backwoods skiing, pond skating, and backyard vegetable gardening.

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Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Gray: Yes. I tell the full story in the preface to the book. Briefly, it occurred when my son’s rebellion in public school reached a point at which we had to do something different. He felt that school was prison, that it was depriving him of his basic human rights and preventing him from learning, not helping him learn. He was quite articulate about it. He was 9 years old at the time. In a dramatic confrontation in the principal’s office, where the principal, guidance counselor, school psychologist, classroom teachers, and his mother and I were all telling him in no uncertain terms that he had to go to school and do what his teachers told him to do, he looked squarely at us all and said, “Go to hell.”

That was the turning point. At that instant I knew I had to be on his side, not against him. The result was that we found a remarkable educational setting for him, in our own community (Framingham, Massachusetts), where he could control his own learning. I had been doing research in the area of neuroendocrinology with rats and mice at the time. As I explain in the book, my interest in my son’s new educational setting—the Sudbury Valley School—led me into a whole new line of research that resulted, eventually, in this book.

Morris: When and why did you decide to write Free to Learn?

Gray: Up until 2002 I was working full time at Boston College, teaching, conducting research, writing academic articles, and regularly revising an introductory psychology textbook that I author (Psychology, Worth Publishers, now in its 6th edition). For some time I had wanted to make my ideas about play and learning more available to the general public. In 2002, I exchanged my tenured professor position for an unpaid position as “research professor,” so I could devote full time to research and writing, without any teaching or administrative responsibilities.

After 2002, I continued to revise the textbook and conduct research relevant to children’s development and education, but also found time to write some articles for the general public. In 2008 I was invited to write a regular blog for Psychology Today magazine, which I initially entitled “Freedom to Learn.” This turned out to be an excellent way to make my thoughts and research findings available to a large audience. I continue to post an essay there about once every three to four weeks. In the spring of 2010, Jill Marsal, a literary agent who had been reading my blog, contacted me to see if I was interested in writing a book. That book became Free to Learn.

Morris: In your book, you describe the decline of children’s freedom to play and explore as they wish. Why has children’s freedom declined?

Gray: There are two ways to answer that question, depending on the time course we are talking about. Children were most free during hunter-gatherer days, judging from anthropologists’ studies of people who managed to maintain that mode of life into modern times. Hunter-gatherers believe that children learn through their own self-directed play and exploration, so they grant children, and even teenagers, essentially unlimited time to follow their own wills. In the context of such play, the children practice, on their own initiative, the skills needed to become effective adults in their culture.

To the hunter-gatherer way of thinking, individual autonomy is of great value; willfulness and individual initiative are nurtured. All that began to change with the onset of agriculture, some 10 to 12 thousand years ago. With agriculture came private property, status differences, and, eventually, a distinction between those who were owners and those who were servants to the owners. With the rise of feudalism throughout Europe and Asia came a world in which most people’s livelihoods depended on unquestioned obedience to lords and masters. The goal of parenting then, quite naturally, changed from that of fostering free will to that of fostering obedience. Willfulness, instead of something positive, came to be viewed as more or less synonymous with sinfulness. That, by the way, is the history out of which our modern system of compulsory schooling arose. The church-run schools that were developed during and after the Reformation to impart doctrine and teach children to fear and obey authority figures became the models for later state-run schools.

On a shorter time scale, I write in Chapter 1 about the decline in children’s freedom in the United States over the past five or six decades. Historians have described the first half of the twentieth century as the “golden age” of children’s play in America. By about 1900, the need for child labor had declined sufficiently that children had considerable freedom to do what they most want to do. which is to play freely with other children. This was spurred along by an increasingly sympathetic attitude toward children, which included the view that childhood is and should be a time of freedom and play. However, also around 1900, a countervailing force came into being. It was around then that most states enacted compulsory schooling laws (though Massachusetts had already done so 50 years earlier). Since 1900, the school system, of its own momentum, has grown continuously more powerful and exerted increasing control over children’s and families’ lives.

With time, what I call the “school mentality” about child development began to seep out of the school walls and infect all of society. People began, more and more, to believe that children develop best when they are taught and guided by adults, not when they play and explore freely, so children became ever less free out of school as well as in. Somewhere in the 1950s these two curves—that of declining need for child labor and that of increased adult control of children’s lives outside of the world of labor—crossed, so for the past five or six decades each new generation of children has been less free than the previous one.

Morris: In your book you link the decline of children’s freedom with a rise in children’s psychological disorders. Please explain.

Gray: Psychologists have documented a roughly linear increase in the prevalence of childhood mental disorders in the United States, beginning in the mid 1950s, which runs essentially perpendicular to the decline in children’s freedom. The documentation comes from examining the results of clinical questionnaires—such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory and Janet Taylor’s Manifest Anxiety Scale—which have been given in essentially unchanged form to normative populations of children, adolescents, and young adults over many decades. The rise is gradual, but, over time, dramatic. By these measures, the prevalence of clinically significant levels of depression and anxiety in school-age children is now five to eight times what it was in the 1950s and before. The suicide rate for children under age 15 is now four times what it was in the 1950s. These changes in measures of psychopathology correlate closely with the decline in children’s freedom. They do not correlate with periods of war or with economic cycles, nor do they correlate well with other changes in society such as the rate of divorce (which peaked in 1980 and has declined since then).

To me it was no surprise to discover that, as children’s opportunities for free play decreased, their rates of depression and anxiety increased. Play is how children learn to take charge of their own lives, to solve their own problems, and to deal constructively with intense emotions. I summarize the research evidence for all of this in the book. Over the same period that play has declined, there has also been a well-documented decline in young people’s internal locus of control, that is, in their sense that they have control over their own fate. Psychologists have long known that an internal locus of control helps protect people from anxiety and depression. If you feel that you are a victim of circumstances that you can’t control, then of course you become anxious, and if this feeling becomes too great you succumb to depression. Free play, away from adults who will intervene and solve their problems for them, is how children develop an internal locus of control.

Morris: Please explain your reference to “the value of dangerous play.”

Gray: All young mammals, including young humans, when free, play in ways that look dangerous. Goat kids frolic on steep slopes and leap into the air in deliberately awkward ways, making it difficult for them to land upright. Young monkeys playfully chase one another around from branch to branch in trees, high up enough that they could hurt themselves if they fell. Young rats engage in endless bouts of play fighting, and the preferred position in such play is the vulnerable one, belly up with the other on top, which in a real fight would be the most fear-inducing position. We all know that human children, when free, play in these same ways. They make adults nervous by swinging “too high” on swing sets, climbing high in trees, skate-boarding down banisters, somersaulting on skis, and so on. Why do they do that? According to the now quite well accepted emotion-regulation theory of play, this is nature’s way of insuring that young mammals will learn how to deal with fear and also possibly with anger. Young mammals, including children, often anger one another in their intense and sometimes rough play, but, to continue playing—which they want to do—they have to control their anger as well as their fear. Play is a vehicle for practicing many skills, and among these skills are the abilities to control and get over fear and anger.

One line of evidence for the emotion regulation theory comes from play deprivation experiments. It is possible to raise young monkeys and rats in ways that allow them other social experiences but not play. When this is done, and when the animals are tested in young adulthood, they lack the normal abilities to control fear and anger. When placed in a novel environment, they overreact with fear and do not adapt and explore as normally raised animals do. When placed with an unfamiliar peer, they alternate between being paralyzed by fear and lashing out with inappropriate aggression.

It is reasonable to suggest that we have unwittingly been performing a play deprivation experiment with our children as subjects over recent decades. The results include a decline in emotion regulation and, therefore, a rise in anxiety, depression, and other disorders reflective of an inability to cope well with stressful experiences.

Morris: When discussing “the power of play,” you describe four conclusions. Briefly, what are they?

Gray: These conclusions apply to people of all ages, adults as well as children, and they have been well established in experiments by psychologists. The first is that we learn new skills better and faster when we are in a playful state of mind than when we think we are being evaluated and feel pressure to perform well. The second is that any sort of external pressure to be more creative—such as the offering of a prize for creative work—causes us to be less creative; we are most creative when we are “just playing.” The third conclusion, closely related to the second, is that we are much better at solving problems that require insight—that is, that require us to make unusual associations or see familiar objects in a new light—when we are in a playful state of mind than when we are in a more pressured state of mind. The fourth conclusion, also closely related to the others, is that we are better at abstract reasoning—that is, at reasoning about hypothetical possibilities—in a playful state of mind than in other mental states.

What is it about the playful state that makes such abilities possible? I like to say that the power of play lies in its triviality. In play we are operating in a fantasy world, not the real world, and so we think of things beyond the concrete here and now, and we are not afraid of failure. Also, the playful state of mind is a non-stressed yet highly alert state, which is ideal for learning, creativity, insight, and abstract thought. Isn’t it ironic (and tragic) that, in school, we deprive children of play and then we ask them to learn new skills, be creative, and think abstractly under conditions in which they are constantly being monitored and evaluated? It is almost as if we have deliberately set things up to insure that they will perform badly. Have you ever noticed how brilliant children seem in play and how stupid the same children often seem in school?

Morris: In your opinion, what are the most important lessons to be learned from what you refer to as “informal sports”?

Gray: In the book I ask readers to think about the differences between a pickup game of baseball, run by the players themselves, and a Little League game, run by adult coaches and umpires. I explain how, in the pickup game, the main lessons are: (1) To keep the game going, you have to keep everyone happy (because if you don’t, the others will quit). (2) Rules are player-generated and continuously modifiable to meet the changing conditions of play. (3) Conflicts are settled by argument, negotiation, and compromise, not by an outside authority. (4) There is no real difference between your team and the other team (the teams vary from one game to the next and players may even switch teams within a game). (5) Playing well and having fun really are more important than winning.

In contrast, in Little League children learn none of this, because there is pressure against quitting, pressure to win, the rules are not modifiable, and adult authorities make all the decisions. Little League may be a great place to learn how to throw a curve ball, slide into second base, or lay down a bunt. But which skills are more important for real life, those learned in the pickup game or those learned in Little League? I contend that real life, if lived well, especially in a democracy, is an informal game, not a formal one. We survive and thrive by getting along with others, not by trying to defeat them, and we create and modify rules to fit the conditions as we go along, to make life fair and fun for as many people as possible. Informal play is a constant exercise in adapting to changing conditions, and so is real life.

Formal sports are not fully play. To be fully play, an activity must be done for its own sake, not for a trophy or other reward outside of itself, and it must be directed by the players themselves, not by an outside authority. Over the last five or six decades, informal sports have declined, just as other varieties of true play have declined. Formal sports have increased, just as other adult-directed activities for kids have increased. This is all part and parcel of our depriving children of freedom and placing them ever more under adult supervision and guidance.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read Free to Learn, there is a section of the book (Pages 209-219) where you examine three general styles of parenting. What are the defining characteristics of each, and, what impact does each have on children?

First, trustful parenting

Gray: Trustful parents trust their children’s instincts and judgment. They allow their children to play and explore freely and to learn from their own mistakes. They love their children and are always glad to help when asked, but do not intrude uninvited into their children’s activities. This is the style of parenting that characterized hunter-gatherers. The result, at least within the context of the hunter-gatherer way of life, was happy, independent, highly capable, highly resilient children. My research suggests that it produces the same results today.

Morris: Next, the directive-domineering style of parenting

Gray: Directive-domineering parenting is aimed at quashing children’s wills and making them feel subordinate and subservient. It often involves physical punishment and is characterized by such sayings as “children should be seen and not heard.” Directive-domineering parents forbid their children from “talking back” to them, and if the child has the temerity to ask, “Why should I do this?” the answer is, “Because I told you so.” This was the predominant style of parenting during a long period of history following the advent of agriculture, during which survival for most people depended on unquestioned obedience to superiors.

Morris: Finally, the directive-protective style of parenting

Gray: Directive-protective parents, like directive-domineering parents, exert tight control over their children but for a different reason. Their purpose is not to make the child subservient, but to protect the child from possible injury or failure. Directive-protective parents think they know better than their children what they should do for their own good. Unlike directive-domineering parents they rarely beat their children, but they use all other means that they can to control their children’s behavior. This is the kind of parenting that has been on the rise over the past several decades in the United States and has contributed to the rise in anxiety and depression and the decline in internal locus of control among children today. Directive-protective parents send the continuous message to their children that they are not competent to make their own decisions or solve their own problems.

Morris: Here’s a question I have been eager to ask since first reading your discussion of these types. Are you talking about a pattern of parenting behavior or does the given situation determine which style would be most appropriate? Sometimes trust, other times, control, and still other times protect.

Gray: I am talking about patterns of parenting, but the patterns are not all-or-none. Even hunter-gatherers—the superstars of trustful parenting—engaged in some directive-protective parenting when they put the poison darts they use for hunting high up, out of reach of little children, and warned all children about the dangers of touching them. All loving parents feel responsible for their children’s welfare, and there is always some tradeoff between protection and allowing children to learn about dangers by exploring them. Even the domineering style of parenting is necessary in moments of emergency. If a little child is running out into the street—or, for a hunter-gatherer, is about to reach out and touch a poisonous snake–you use your superior strength to pull him away; that’s not the time to reason with the child or let the child learn through trial and error.

Morris: How do you explain the decline in trustful parenting?

Gray: It declined after the advent of agriculture for the reasons I’ve already given. In the United States and other Western nations trustful parenting began to rise again early in the twentieth century and then began to decline later in that century. I elaborate in the book on the reasons for this second decline. In brief, I think this decline has occurred because (a) the increasing demands of school and the expectation that parents must force their children to meet those demands make trustful parenting difficult; (b) increased media attention to the dangers that can befall children when not supervised has led to irrational levels of fear among parents; (c) the rise of experts, who are continuously warning parents of dangers to children, has also led to irrational levels of fear; (d) as families have become smaller and family and neighborhood ties weaker, many people today have had little experience with children before they have children of their own, so they have lost touch with the common-sense understanding that parents used to have about children’s abilities and resilience and need for freedom; and (f) as women have entered the workforce, and nobody is home during the day, it has become harder for neighbors to get to know one another and one another’s children, and there are often no adults at home looking out of windows, which may in fact make free outdoor play less safe than it was in the past.

Morris: What can a parent do to become more trusting?

Gray: The process can start by examining one’s own values. What do you want for your child? Do you want your child to grow up feeling confident, responsible, and in control, or do you want your child to grow up feeling that the world is dangerous and that he or she is a victim of circumstances? It can also start with serious thought about risks and probabilities. If you let your 8-year-old walk by herself to the grocery store a few blocks away there is a chance that something terrible will happen to her along the way. On the other hand, if you drive her there, there is also a chance that something terrible will happen, in the form of an automobile accident. Both risks are tiny. If you regularly deprive her of the chance to do things by herself, the chance is very high that she will not develop the courage and capacity to handle difficult situations by herself, and in the long run that puts the child in more or less continuous danger.

Every decision that you make for your child, or that your child makes for himself or herself, involves some risk. That’s a fact of life. Thought along these lines can help parents realize that their decisions aimed at protecting their children may, in the long run, be creating more danger than would occur if the children were freer to make their own decisions.

To be a trustful parent it may also be necessary to find a good alternative to standard schooling. Our schools have become places where children are least trusted, where they are constantly monitored and directed and deprived of basic human rights; and, more and more, schools are demanding that parents assist the school in such distrustful behavior, for example by monitoring homework every night. Each year, more and more people are taking their children out of school for some sort of alternative schooling or for a variety of home education where the children have more freedom and can take more responsibility for themselves. Many parents see this as a crucial step toward trustful parenting. I also describe, in the book, ways that parents can create safe opportunities for children to play and explore independently of adults.

Morris: Opinions are divided, sometimes sharply divided, about this next issue: The nature and extent of influence (for better or worse) that peers have on a child’s development. Some people insist that peers have a greater influence than do parents; others argue the opposite. What do you think?

Gray: The answer to this, as you might expect, depends on the kind of influence you are talking about and on the life situation of the child and family. In hunter-gatherer bands, and at the democratic schools that I have studied, children spend their days playing in age-mixed groups. Younger children learn skills and acquire advanced ideas from older ones, and older children learn how to be caring and nurturing through their interactions with younger ones.

From an evolutionary perspective it is natural that children should be more oriented toward their peers than toward their parents or other adults. Their peers are the people of their own generation; they are their future mates and work colleagues. Parents are often disappointed that their children seem to be more interested in conforming to their peers than in following the traditions of the family. For example, in immigrant families, children quickly learn the language of their new peers and, when possible, refrain from speaking the language of their parents. But this is as it should be. To survive and thrive, children must adapt to the culture of now, not to the old ways of their parents. This also explains why children and teenagers are always the first to embrace any new technology. They learn it from their peers, not from their parents. The parents, if they learn it at all, learn it from their children.

On the other hand, there is a great deal of evidence that children tend, on average, to acquire and retain the religious and political views of their parents. This may be because these are often not relevant to the child’s experiences with other children. Where they are relevant, such as in the case of a child of orthodox parents living in a non-orthodox community, children commonly rebel against their parents’ views.

Parents are very important to children for the secure base and love they provide, but they are not and should not be the sole or even the major source for the child’s learning. The child is naturally motivated to learn from everyone and is especially motivated to look outside of the home to find out what others are doing and thinking and talking about.

Morris: You devote a great deal of attention to Sudbury Valley School, characterizing it as in some ways like a hunter-gatherer band. Please explain.

Gray: Sudbury Valley is a day school with about 150 students, who range in age from 4 to about 18, and currently 10 adult staff members. The school is fundamentally a democratic community, run by the students and staff together. All school rules and major school decisions are made by the School Meeting, at which each student and staff member has one vote. Rules are enforced by a Judicial Committee, which operates like a jury in our larger culture to determine guilt or innocence and decide on appropriate sentences. This committee at any given time includes one staff member and at least one representative of each broad age group of students a the school.

The educational philosophy of the school is essentially the same as that of a hunter-gatherer band. The students are free to play and explore, as they wish, all day long, every day, as long as they don’t break any of the democratically made rules. The rules serve to prevent students and staff from interfering with one another’s activities or damaging the school in any way. Students are not segregated by age or assigned to specific places. They are free at any time to go anywhere in the two school buildings and the 10-acre grounds, and, by signing out and following safety guidelines, they can also go into the adjoining forested state park. Sometimes a group of students will ask a staff member to help them organize a class on some topic, but classes are rare and are never required. Equipment is available for a wide variety of activities. There are plenty of computers, lots of books, a fully equipped kitchen, a woodworking shop, sound-proof music practice rooms, an art room, sporting equipment, a room with toys for younger kids, and so on. The students can use any of this equipment as they wish, as long as they demonstrate that they can use it safely and not damage it.

Many people who hear about this school can’t imagine that students would become educated in this setting. They are “just playing” or “just hanging out and talking with one another.” But if you look closely at what they are playing at and listen closely to what they are talking about, you may be amazed. On their own initiatives, they are involved in extraordinarily sophisticated, complex activities. In their play they learn to read, write, and use numbers. They also discover their passions through play and become experts in the activities that most interest them.

The school has been in existence for 45 years and has hundreds of graduates. One of my first studies of the school was a follow-up survey of the graduates, which showed that they have no particular difficulty pursuing higher education, if they wish, and that, as a group, they have gone on to the full range of careers that we value in our society. In many cases the careers they pursue follow quite directly from the interests they had develop in their play at the school.

I think the school works because it is, for our time and place, an educational setting equivalent to a hunter-gatherer band. Like a hunter-gatherer band, the school provides the conditions that optimize young people’s abilities to educate themselves. These include (1) the social expectation (and reality) that education is the students’ responsibility, not the staff’s; (2) unlimited freedom for students to play, explore, and pursue their own interests; (3) opportunity to play with the tools of the culture; (4) access to a variety of caring adults, who are helpers, not judges, (5) free age mixing among children and adolescents, and (6) immersion in a stable, moral, democratic community. In the book I explain how each of these characteristics contributes to children’s abilities to educate themselves. I devote a whole chapter to age mixing, because I think that is especially crucial. Young children learn advanced skills and knowledge through interacting with older ones, and older ones acquire a sense of maturity and an ability to nurture through interacting with younger ones. The school would not work if the students were segregated by age.

It is interesting to note that none of these six conditions are present in our standard schools. In standard schools we deprive students of all of the conditions they need in order to educate themselves effectively, and then we try to make them learn a curriculum that we, not they, have chosen.

Morris: What lessons can be learned from this school?

Gray: There are many lessons, but the most central one is that children’s instincts to educate themselves, which came about by natural selection in hunter-gatherer times, can still function beautifully in our culture today, if we provide appropriate conditions. It is interesting to note that it is much easier and less expensive to provide these conditions than it is to operate our standard prison-like schools. The per-pupil cost at Sudbury Valley—and at the roughly three-dozen schools modeled after Sudbury Valley—is about half that of the local public schools. Another lesson, of course, is that education can be joyful. The students at Sudbury Valley hate vacations and look forward every year to the start of school. Childhood is meant to be a time of joyful learning. In hunter-gatherer bands and at Sudbury Valley it is just that.

Morris: What is the single greatest barrier to applying those lessons effectively elsewhere, where they can be of greatest benefit?

Gray: The greatest barrier by far is public opinion. We have now had compulsory education of the standard type for so long that most people can’t imagine children becoming educated without it. There is also much vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and one lesson that schools are very effective at teaching is that people need schooling—and ever more of it—in order to learn.

Morris: How best to avoid or overcome that barrier?

Gray: I don’t think that the school system can change from within. The change will come as more and more people drop out of it. In recent years there has been an accelerating trend for parents to remove their children from standard schools—for homeschooling, unschooling (self-directed home education), and, to a lesser degree, democratic schools such as Sudbury Valley. At some point everyone will know somebody who has become well educated without standard schooling, and that will be the tipping point, at which masses of people will leave. Then there will be a big voting block to spend public funds to provide educational opportunities for everyone, not compulsory (forced) education.

Morris: I agree with you about the evils of coercive education but I also believe in the importance of order and structure, of having rules and regulations that encourage civility. The best teachers I had in school, college, and graduate school as well as the best bosses I have had since then were very strict but fair, really knew their stuff, and cared deeply about helping others to learn, to grow, to become (albeit it a cliché) the best person they could be.

Don’t freedom and independence require limits? In business, creativity and innovation seem to thrive only when there are constraints.

What do you think about all this?

Gray: I certainly agree with you about the importance of order, structure, and rules that encourage civility. Sudbury Valley has all of this, but the rules are democratically made. Rules are far more effective when the people who must follow them have a voice in making them. And play itself has rules and order. This is one of the points I elaborate on in the book. All play has rules, and it is through play that children learn to create structure, control their impulses, and follow rules.

As for your point about the characteristics of good teachers, I certainly agree about the value of their knowing their stuff and caring deeply about helping others. However, you are talking about standard educational settings where teachers run the show. I’m talking about educational settings where students are in charge of their own learning and seek help, when they need it, from anyone who can help them. In this case a “teacher” can be anyone who is capable of being helpful and is willing to help. The concept of “strictness” doesn’t apply to natural teaching, only to the artificial forms of teaching that we see in our schools. Strictness is a valued trait for teachers in standard schools because teachers there are seen as disciplinarians. When people are learning what they want to learn, the discipline comes from within.

Remember, in my book I point out that one of my greatest teachers was my friend Ruby Lou, when I was five and she was six. She was a great teacher because she was just a little bit ahead of me. She had just recently been through the steps I was going through—in such realms as bicycle riding, tree climbing, and ice-skating–so she knew exactly what the stumbling blocks were and how to avoid them. At Sudbury Valley the staff don’t call themselves teachers, because they realize that the students learn more from one another than from the staff. The staff do teach, but so does everyone else. With self-directed education we don’t need a separate category of people called teachers. Everyone in life is always both a teacher and a learner.

Morris: Let’s say a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Free to Learn and is now determined to establish and then sustain a workplace culture within which both teaching and learning thrive. In your opinion, where to begin?

Gray: I would begin by democratizing the workplace as much as possible, which would have the effect of making the work more like play. We all perform at our best, and learn best, when we make our own decisions about what to do and how to do it. Nobody likes to be micromanaged. The ideal workplace, I think, is one in which each person has a great deal of autonomy in performance of his or her part of the job and where decisions affecting the whole company, or a department within it, are made in such a way that everyone’s voice is heard. A good deal of research shows that workers are happiest and most productive under such conditions. If I can decide how to do my own work, I can’t be cynical about that decision, and I will work hard to achieve the ends that the decision is designed to achieve. If my boss makes such decisions for me, I will feel less motivated and will blame the boss (not necessarily to his or her face) for any failure. In a democratic environment, where each person feels responsible, everyone is motivated to learn what they must in order to do the best job they can. Everyone learns from everyone else. A CEO has at least as much to learn from all the others as they have to learn from him or her, and a CEO who recognizes that will earn the respect of everyone in the company. In a company, as elsewhere, one must be “free to learn.”

* * *

To read Part 2 of my interview of Peter, please click here.

Peter cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His faculty page

Free to Learn Amazon page


His Psychology Today blog, Freedom to Learn






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  1. Mike Sadofsky on April 28, 2013 at 6:30 am

    And for any who may be interested in looking further into Sudbury Valley School, (or other schools with this model) the school’s website is

  2. […] Gray was interviewed by business blogger Bob Morris, who offered this biographical sketch of Gray: “Peter grew up mostly in small towns in Minnesota and Wisconsin, where he had a rich childhood play life, which, he believes, prepared him well for adulthood. He did his undergraduate study at Columbia University and then earned a Ph.D. in biological sciences at the Rockefeller University in New York City. His career since then has been centered entirely at Boston College. His play life continues, not only in the joy he derives from research and writing, but also in his enjoyment of long-distance bicycling, kayaking, backwoods skiing, pond skating and backyard vegetable gardening.” […]

  3. Peter Gray: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris on September 18, 2013 at 7:46 am

    […] To read Part 1, please click here. […]

  4. Peter Gray on “The play deficit” on September 19, 2013 at 4:54 am

    […] To read Part 1 of my interview of Peter, please click here. […]

  5. […] was interviewed by business blogger Bob Morris, who offered this biographical sketch of Gray: “Peter grew up mostly in small towns in […]

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