There was an interesting article in the New York Times last week about the unschooling movement, a form of homeschooling. According to the article, it is “…a philosophy that is broadly defined by its rejection of the basic foundations of conventional education, including not only the schoolhouse but also classes, curriculums and textbooks.” The children in these homes, direct their own learning.
Rejecting the traditional elements of education is indeed not new nor is the idea of putting young learners in charge of their learning. I can think of several schools started by visionaries with ideals that seem remarkably similar to those of the unschooling movement. There is Summerhill, started by A. S. Neil, where students still decide whether or not to go to class, the Sudbury Valley School where students, “explore the world freely, at their own pace and in their own unique ways” and the inner city Albany Free School also inspired by Neil. More recently, here in New York City, a group started the Brooklyn Free School with the, “… belief that all students must be free to develop naturally as human beings in a non-coercive educational environment and empowered to make decisions affecting their everyday lives and that of their community.”
A little Internet research on the unschooling movement brought me to John Holt, whose 1967 bestseller How Children Learn sits on my bookshelf next to Ivan Illich‘s Deschooling Society and Jonathan Kozol‘s Free Schools. Evidently Holt eventually gave up on schools completely and is now considered by many to be the grandfather of the current unschooling movement.
There are several aspects of the unschooling movement that trouble me.
First of all, I think one important aspect of school is the idea of community. A group of varied children, different in ability, interests, family background, and more come together in a classroom to learn together. And this learning is not only what they do by themselves, but also what they do as a group. These children learn from each other, they learn how to adjust and deal with those different from themselves, they learn to compromise, to empathize, they begin to consider when and when not the needs of the group take precedent over their own. My biggest reservation with all forms of homeschooling has always been this missing element. It is something that Neil and the founders of the above-mentioned schools felt strongly about. Their schools have vigorous governments in which everyone (children and staff members) participate equally.
The other aspect that concerns me is my impression that unschooled children are even less likely than students like mine (in a highly regarded private school) to deal with problems. That is, children need to deal with disappointment, with things not going right, with (yes even this) occasional boredom, teachers they don’t like, disputes, upsets, and more. Parents, with the best of intentions, want to smooth the way for their children; they do it at my school, they do it to varying degrees outside of school too. But making things always as perfect as possible means that children have no experience dealing with imperfect situations. My school is full of great teachers, but not every child is going to connect with every single one of them. And so they have to cope, how to still learn, how to thrive even when they are not close to a particular teacher. It happens. And children need to have these experiences in order to deal with them as they go through life. And so this shielding against disappointment, against less-than-perfect-educational-experiences worries me. To my mind, dealing with this is an important part of education too, one that homeschooled children are less likely to encounter.
I enjoy teaching a group of children. I love watching them grow, getting to know each individual, helping them become a learning community. And I love bringing to them what I loved as a child. Those projects I did outside of school — making books, toys, costumes, and habitats as well as plays and elaborate fantasy games with my friends and little sister. With the exception of kindergarten (when we did a circus) I can’t recall doing any of this in school. And so I do it now as a teacher. We create books, performances, and more. The sort of things, I suspect, many unschooled children chose to do. But my students are guided by me; I readily admit that. They don’t decide to do an anime of Alice in Wonderland. I do. They don’t decide to do immigrant oral history picture books. I do. And that is, I suppose, the biggest difference between my in-school students and unschooled children. They are indeed in complete charge whereas I am unapologetically in charge in my classroom.
I have known and do know parents who homeschool and understand their reasons completely. When school options are dire, when individual children have experience or learning styles that require special teaching, when children have been isolated, unduly marginalized — there are many many good reasons to homeschool. It is not for me to dismiss any of them. But as a professional and skilled educator I can still comment on my worries about what I think homeschooled children may be missing. And so I do here.