Unschooling

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.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Unschooling

  1. Hi Monica. I found your blog through your posts on Child’s Lit and since I homeschool, I thought that I would jump in here.

    Your concerns are very common ones. And ones that I am very conscious of as we homeschool. Community is very important to me and something that I work on fostering. School is not the only place to find community however.

    Community is all around us. We belong to several different homeschool groups with which we do classes, park days, field trips. We have a regular group of kids that we do things with…and these kids do vary in backgrounds and in ages as well. My boys are 9 and 6 and they play with kids older and younger themselves on a regular basis. And they do get a lot of experience with adults (other homeschool parents, teachers coaches) other then myself.

    As far as unschoolers dealing with disappointment or boredom…this worry always amuses me. Please tell me how I can set up an environment where my children never have to deal with disappointment or boredom. They live in a family with more then one child! My kids have to learn to deal with people and situations all the time because it is part of life. It is unavoidable. These types of things do not only happen school. ;)

    Yes, I do try to help my kids, but I am not looking to make life perfect for them. Unschooling is not about sheltering kids and it is something that is really difficult to explain. When I say that I do not make my 9 yo do spelling…that does not mean that I don’t want him to learn to spell. His spelling is not at “grade level” right now. But he was a “late” reader and had fine motor issues so I did not push the issue. This year, we talked about it and he agreed that he did want to be able to spell better. He knows that other kids his age can spell better and he wants to learn. So I found a program that works with his learning style and he is learning to spell. His choice (with my guidance and encouragement). Kids want to learn…they just may want to do it on a different schedule. (Jason is also “ahead” in some areas as well).

    I have a couple of blog posts over at Life Without School that specifically touch on these concerns:

    The Isolated Homeschooler
    http://lifewithoutschool.typepad.com/lifewithoutschool/2006/06/the_isolated_ho.html

    Knowing When to Push
    http://lifewithoutschool.typepad.com/lifewithoutschool/2006/09/knowing_when_to.html

    I also have a lot of posts on homeschooling at my personal blog:

    http://throwingmarshmallows.homeschooljournal.net

    Check out the categories on the side…

    I hope that this helps…I think that there is a lot of misunderstanding of what happens in a homeschooling/unschooling family (that we sit and do “school” around the kitchen table without seeing a soul except each other all day).

    I personally believe that there are pros and cons to both homeschooling and traditional schooling. Neither is the right choice for every family. Each family has to choose what is right for their kids.

    I choose homeschooling not because we have “bad” schools or because my kids have “different” needs. But because I love learning and love learning with my kids. I love the freedom that we have…to move at a pace that makes sense to us, to focus on what we feel is important (and no, I am not an evangelical christian homeschooler…I am acutually a UU!), to follow my kids interests and where they takes us.

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  2. This was a really interesting post (and comment)! I homeschooled (was homeschooled?) myself and have long believed firmly that it was the right choice for me, and now I volunteer at a very non-traditional private school, where it feels a lot like homeschooling in a slightly larger group. And I’ve seen a lot of the good and bad points of such non-traditional education. I appreciated your prespective on it as an educator yourself. Thanks!

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  3. Debra

    Unschooling does not mean that the kids never experience
    dissapointment and that they never work together and
    learn to work things out they do. We get together with
    other homeschoolers or unschoolers and in that group
    there is need for this. They experience dissapointment
    need to work things out., The difference is that it is
    exciting to see them pursue things that they like and learn
    working alongside someone and learning what they love.

    If they are told what to learn all the time they think that is
    all of life. This way they think outside the box

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  4. Debra

    I also know as unschoolers we seek out the
    best options for out kids to work out things. I never
    want to smooth the way for the kids to handle dissapointment
    meaning butting in when I dont need to. I encourage my children
    to think through a situation and look at it to handle it the
    best way they can. That means dissapointment, bordeom
    and what comes their way. If we are at a playground and
    the kids experience something I only encourage my son’s
    to use their best thinking to handle this. I dont handle it for them.

    I think that there is alot of misunderstanding about homeschooling and unschooling and I have seen the results
    in the adults. The kids learn, they learn alot, they learn what
    they like to learn and they love learning and I learn right
    along with them.

    How does an adult learn something? We are interested
    we begin to find the information and then we learn about that
    subject. Yes there are times adults need to learn what they
    dont like, we realize and then learn it accordingly. That is
    what I teach my children. How to love learning and where
    to go to do it on their own.

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  5. elle

    Your concerns aren’t about unschooling, they’re about homeschooling. All the issues you mentioned relate to homeschool children, regardless of whether their home environment is unschooled or standardised and monitored. That unschooling mostly in a homeschool environment does not affect it as a schooling philosophy, as with your example, Sudbury Valley.

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