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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

What is Unschooling?

By Peter DeWitt — January 31, 2013 5 min read
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Holt viewed learning as an abundant, natural, human endeavor that gets warped or turned-off by imposing years of unasked-for teaching upon the learner. He envisioned not just families, but entire communities becoming places for life-long learning” (Farenga).

The diversity and debate that happens when children from different socio-economic, racial and religious backgrounds come together in one place can inspire the best educational conversations. Not only does the mix in student population add excitement but so is having parents with so many diverse thoughts on what education means. This diversity in thought should be at the core of public school system.

However, opponents to the public school system say that formalized schooling is so teacher-directed that the diversity never has the opportunity to truly come out. Although that may not be the truth in some cases, there are public schools that seem to put constraints on all types of student diversity.

There is a population of parents who want something different than the brick and mortar system. They believe in increased child autonomy and want a complete student-centered educational environment. Those needs do not always come with access to viable alternatives and do not normally mesh with the public school system. Those parents want a different pathway to educate their child and one such pathway is that of unschooling.

Are you familiar with unschooling?

It is a bit different from homeschooling. Many homeschool parents try to offer the same curriculum as public schools but they often like to homeschool for safety, faith-based reasons or because they can excel their children at a faster rate than the public school system. In addition, homeschool parents do not always like the curriculum their children are exposed to or the social interactions that take place in the public school system.

What is Unschooling?
Former teacher and national speaker John Holt coined the phrase “Unschool” in the 70’s.
Holt believed, “learning (happens) in and outside the home, in places and with people that do not resemble school at all. Holt viewed learning as an abundant, natural, human endeavor that gets warped or turned-off by imposing years of unasked-for teaching upon the learner. He envisioned not just families, but entire communities becoming places for life-long learning” (Farenga).

Each unschooler doesn’t follow the same recipe. They are the radical homeschoolers. Parents who unschool their children believe that their children should find their own path. There is no set curriculum and no timeframe.

Children learn from experiences, which in itself is the philosophy behind unschooling. They believe that every experience is a learning experience. Those learning experiences may involve going out of the country to travel internationally. It may be something as simple as going to museums or being surrounded by a plethora of technology and books in their home. Unschoolers follow their own paths.

Typically, parents who unschool expose their children to diverse learning experiences and guide them as they set out on their own journey. As those children negotiate their way through unchartered territory, they have a parent who is at their side. In the best case scenarios, unschool parents strongly believe in child autonomy and trust the opportunities their children find. Many public school educators probably don’t disagree with this philosophy.

Unschool advocate Pat Farenga wrote,

Indeed many of the arguments Holt made then are continuing to be made by school reformers today. Today's arguments are backed by even more research and data than Holt cited in 1968, yet these voices are still not taken seriously by school authorities. We now have more tests than ever for American school children."

There are many public school parents and teachers who understand the concerns over our test-dominated system and understand that educators do not always have a choice in the matter. Unschool parents and children really have those same concerns about testing and one-size-fits-all mandates. They are taking the opportunity to do something about it, and many have the means to do so.

In the End
In the Huffington Post blog Why So Many Schools Remain Penitentiaries of Boredom, Elizabeth English wrote “It’s harder to change a history course than it is to change history. I think we can all agree that our schools should be among our most dynamic and innovative institutions; but despite the endless talk about school reform, they remain among our most ossified.”

As much as schools may have bad stereotypes, some of it is true and we as public school educators need to listen. Unschooling isn’t for everyone, much like public school isn’t for everyone either. However, the public school system can still strive for a balance between both models. We can ask ourselves important questions. How often do we allow students to engage in their own learning? Have our teachable moments increased or decreased? How many of those teachable moments are inspired by students?

Public schools have mandatory curriculum, teacher and administrator evaluation and increased accountability. These are huge issues and they sometimes prevent students from getting a high quality education. Unschoolers do not have those issues and are more concerned about providing their child with a free, safe and open educational experience. They don’t have any constraints.

We need to find a balance with our constraints. We need to take the opportunity to encourage students to do portfolios or project-based learning, which highlight student autonomy. After all, don’t we all want more autonomy in our lives?

Some Unschooling Principles:
• We are meant to be lifelong learners
• We can learn from our surroundings.
• We can learn from the music we listen to, the conversations we have, and the people we spend time with
• We learn from our experiences
• Learning is always at our fingertips
• We need to take ownership over our own learning. That happens best when we are in the driver’s seat.

For More information on Unschooling visit Pat Farenga.com.

Rowntree, Suzannah (2012). Homeschooling: Education Outside the Box. Quadrant. Universidad Libre Internacional de las Amèricas.

Many thanks to reader Cooper Zale for his insight into unschooling.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.