Why the Unschooling Movement is Growing

For a long time, I’ve been fascinated by the growing “unschooling” movement. Unschooling is a subset of homeschooling, but it differs in ideology: children who are homeschooled usually follow some sort of prescribed curriculum, whereas parents who unschool their children follow their children’s own interests and explore the world around them (although adults guide the children’s activities from time to time). A term coined in the 1970s by educator John Holt, unschooling has become increasingly popular in the past few years. In an article in Outside magazine this month, author Ben Hewitt explains his family’s decision to unschool their two boys and describes their experiences. Basically, the nine- and twelve-year-old boys’ days seem like something out of Little House on the Prairie: they fish and hunt, explore the woods around their home, and build forts and tools to help them accomplish their goals. Not all unschoolers live on a farm, though; some spend their days in museums and libraries, or with their families traveling the world. It really depends on each child’s interests and learning goals.

According to the National Home Education Research Institute, about 2.2 million children in the United States are educated at home, a number that is growing by approximately 2 – 8 % per year. Data on these children is overwhelmingly positive: homeschooled students score above average on achievement tests (regardless of their parents’ level of income or educational background), and they outperform their public school peers on standardized tests. In June, Psychology Today published the findings of a survey of 75 adult unschoolers: 83% of them attended some form of higher education, 44% held a bachelor’s degree or graduate degree, and the large majority were gainfully employed (exceptions included mothers home with their young children). Interestingly, a high percentage of the former unschoolers were working in creative fields or entrepreneurial roles. Most of them reported that unschooling allowed them to become self-directed and self-motivated individuals.

The question that intrigues me is why a growing number of parents are so disillusioned with our system of education that they would choose a path so different from the one that most of us took ourselves. In my past columns, I’ve tackled some of the issues that concern parents about our schools: a growing reliance on standardized testing as a measure of achievement, a strong emphasis on paper-pencil tasks and homework, a sedentary lifestyle with few opportunities for play and exploration, a schedule that hasn’t changed in over 150 years, and an expectation that all children will meet the same milestones at the same times. Some parents are driven to try unschooling because their children are not engaged at school; Ellen Jenkins decided to unschool her son, Nyle, even though his sister thrived in a traditional school environment.

If our schools were less restrictive, would more parents be satisfied with our public education system? Suppose parents (and students) had a range of options when choosing schools to attend. Some children need a routine, and perform best academically when they have an adult directing their activities. Some children chafe at authority and learn best when they have choices. Some children are intrinsically motivated, and they want to learn because they are naturally curious about everything. Some children need extrinsic rewards: the desire to bake a cake or build a simple machine provides the motivation to learn measurement skills, for example. Some children are early risers, and some prefer to sleep in.

We already have a variety of schools choices today: traditional public schools, Montessori and Waldorf programs, religious schools that emphasize moral and character development, charter schools, language-immersion programs, private schools that run the gamut from college prep schools to free-range schools like Sudbury Valley School. The thing is, most of these options are not available to every parent or child. Low-income students, those least likely to achieve in traditional public schools, rarely have an option other than their local public school. Their parents may not have the wherewithal to complete the application process for charter schools; they may not have transportation to other schools; they often don’t have the tuition to pay for parochial or private school (or the ability to complete the often-lengthy application process); and their parents may be unable to homeschool or unschool them.

Ben Hewitt, in his article in Outside, states that unschooling gives his children freedom: “Not just physical freedom, but intellectual and emotional freedom from the formulaic learning that prevails in our schools…. I want for them the freedom to develop at whatever pace is etched into their DNA, not the pace dictated by an institution looking to meet the benchmarks that will in part determine its funding.” Our public schools cannot be everything to everyone; there will always be outliers for whom the system doesn’t work. But I believe that school districts could and should offer multiple options for families. Schools should exist to serve our citizens and to help them become lifelong learners with the skills to achieve their goals, whatever those goals may be. Until they do, I expect that more parents will continue to choose unschooling as a viable option.

This post originally appeared at GoLocalProv.

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