School Choice & Charters

‘Unschooling’ Stresses Curiosity More Than Traditional Academics

By Michelle R. Davis — December 19, 2006 8 min read
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As yellow school buses rumble through Nicole Puckett’s Spokane, Wash., neighborhood, her eight children are often asleep in bed. When they wake up, instead of heading to school, they go downstairs to begin another day of “unschooling,” an educational approach that is the subject of much debate among home-schoolers and traditional school advocates.

Ms. Puckett keeps her children at home for their education, but she doesn’t have a textbook in the house. Instead, she follows the philosophy of letting the child decide each day what activities to pursue—or avoid.

On a typical day, Ms. Puckett’s children—who range in age from 4 to 17 and have never gone to a traditional school—might watch a few hours of television, read the Bible, amuse themselves with video games, play with their siblings, practice the violin, or learn Russian. On many days, they’re out of the house visiting museums, going to concerts, or attending theatrical plays.

“I believe that each child is gifted, but each has different gifts,” said Ms. Puckett, who sees it as her job to help facilitate the learning that her children choose. “When I see them veering toward something, I guide them toward it. If they’re showing no interest, then we don’t do it.”

This child-led method of home schooling means that what children do during a typical school day is entirely up to them. In an era of increased standardized testing, top-down curricula, and the mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, unschooling is attractive to some parents, who say learning should be a more organic, curiosity-inspired exercise. Advocates say it allows children to become passionate about, and invested in, their own learning.

Risks Involved

But critics, including some of those who opt for more-structured home schooling and proponents of “child centered” classrooms in regular schools, say that there are risks involved, and that learning deficits can result from letting children basically learn whatever they want. Nel Noddings, an education professor emeritus at Stanford University, describes herself as an advocate of child-centered education when it is done right. But she said unschooling raises many questions of concern.

For instance, she said, an unschooling parent who never liked science might de-emphasize the subject because of those feelings or a lack of knowledge about it. And she worries that religious fundamentalist parents, for example, might use unschooling “to keep their kids away from the breadth of ideas they might be exposed to.”

The term “unschooling” was coined by the late John Holt, one of the godfathers of the home-schooling movement, who wrote a stack of books about alternative ways of educating children. Mr. Holt first used the word in 1977 and equated it with home schooling.

The term resonated with many home-schooling parents who didn’t want to use traditional methods, such as textbooks and organized subjects, to educate their children, said Patrick Farenga, the president of Holt Associates, based in Wakefield, Mass. Mr. Farenga took over leadership of the company, a home schooling publishing and advocacy organization, when Mr. Holt died in 1985.

Unschooling should not mean “schooling without a plan,” Mr. Farenga said in an interview. “It’s self-directed learning. I define unschooling as allowing children as much freedom to explore the world as you can comfortably bear.”

Brian D. Ray, the president of the Salem, Ore.-based Home Schooling Institute, estimates that 10 to 15 percent of the 1.9 to 2.4 million K-12 children being home-schooled in the United States also fall into the unschooling category, also sometimes called “relaxed home schooling.”

“We’re talking about people who purposely, intentionally, philosophically make learning an integral and organic part of everyday life,” he said.

State laws on home schooling also pertain to unschooling and vary considerably around the country, Mr. Ray said. Some states require home-schooled children to take several standardized tests during their K-12 years. Other states have few or no requirements of home-schoolers, he said.

For instance, in Washington state, where Ms. Puckett’s family lives, the law requires that home-schooled students take an annual achievement test, though they’re not required to meet a particular educational achievement target, according to a listing of each state’s requirements compiled by Home Education Magazine, a bi-monthly magazine about home schooling that has been around since 1983. Connecticut asks that parents who engage in home schooling file an annual plan for their child’s education and meet once a year with local education officials to review the plan. Pennsylvania requires that home-schooling parents provide at least 180 days of instruction and maps out what subjects must be taught. Pennsylvania also requires annual testing and detailed documentation from parents to prove instruction is occurring.

Sandra Dodd, a longtime advocate of unschooling who lives in Albuquerque, N.M., and whose two children never attended a traditional school, said when her oldest child was of school age she believed he was already soaking up more on his own than he would in kindergarten.

“If you don’t separate the world into educational and noneducational, your child wants to learn everything, so everything around them is what he’s learning from,” she said. “They’re learning in natural, real world ways, the way you learn to drive or cook or sew.”

‘Less Structured Place’

Unschoolers argue that if a child is intrigued by a book, for example, they don’t have to quit reading it to make way for a science lesson; or if they love dinosaurs, they can study them for weeks at a time, and visit museums to bolster the experience.

Jane Powell, a Bowie, Md., mother of four children who practices unschooling, said she never taught her oldest son, now 9, to read. He learned how to read by playing video games, she said.

“As he was playing his games, he was asking me to read, so I was reading what he needed. Then he was asking me less and less frequently, and then it stopped. … He learned to read,” she said. “I didn’t teach him. I didn’t prod him. I didn’t give him any helpful shoves in the appropriate direction. He learned to read when he was ready.”

Likewise, Ms. Dodd said she never taught her children mathematics by using worksheets or word problems. Her children learned math by figuring out how many weeks of allowance it would take to save up for a certain toy, by calculating percentage discounts on items at stores, and by estimating tips at restaurants, she said.

Ms. Dodd said her son, at his own request, took his first formal math class at age 18 at a local community college. When he took the initial placement test, she had to explain to him that multiplication could be represented by an X or by a dot or by a parenthesis. He scored well on the initial test, she said and by the end of the class he had pushed his scores even higher, she said.

With unschooling, “how you learn something is because you want to learn it,” Ms. Dodd said, adding that her children have been able to follow their own interests—rather than a list of subjects determined by others. “My kids have had a glorious full life of absence of school,” she said.

Of course, those from more traditional education circles worry that such free-form education could make it difficult for a child to adjust as an adult to the more structured world of college or work.

But Ms. Noddings of Stanford, despite her reservations about unschooling, believes just the opposite.

“Perhaps these kids may help the world be a less miserable and less structured place,” she said. “Perhaps they’ll have something to say against the overly bureaucratic system we have now.”

Different Approaches

To those who have chosen unschooling, Mr. Farenga of Holt Associates said, the method can take a variety of forms.

He doesn’t espouse any particular way of unschooling, but “some parents take a very laissez-faire approach,” while others choose more structure, he said.

Ms. Puckett, for example, limits her children to two hours a day of television time, a practice that makes some of the more extreme unschoolers wince.

“Unschooling is not unparenting,” Ms. Puckett said. “My choice is that too much TV is not good for their brains, and it inhibits their natural curiosity.”

Ms Dodd, on the other hand, said her family has TVs and video games in many rooms, and her children’s time using them is not limited. More often than not, though, the TVs will be off because her children find more creative and interesting things to do, she said.

But some educators, even within the home-schooling world, argue that unschooling can leave children with a lopsided education.

Manfred Smith, the president of the Maryland Home Education Association, based in Columbia, Md., said members of his organization once considered themselves unschoolers. “It meant we were not going to replicate a traditional school-like focus on curriculum and text,” he said. “We wanted to focus on the needs and interests of our children.”

But Mr. Smith said his group stopped using the term unschooling when it concluded the word had become tainted. “You have people claiming to be unschoolers, providing minimal or no supervision,” he said. “Unschooling can be this great rationalization or outright excuse not to make an effort.”

Alfie Kohn, a well-known education author who is an expert on progressive and child-centered education, said there’s wide variation in the definition of unschooling.

“There are those levels of extreme unschooling where parents will say, our children can figure out life on their own and we’ll let them do it themselves,” he said. “Other levels are not as structured [as typical homeschooling], but parents make sure children are on par or even excel over where they should be.”

Mr. Kohn said “there’s no question that unschooling leaves behind most of the bad stuff in a lot of schools. The question is whether some good stuff or potential good stuff is missing.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 20, 2006 edition of Education Week as ‘Unschooling’ Stresses Curiosity More Than Traditional Academics


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