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Unschooling: the Future of Education?

Ben Hewitt doesn’t send his boys to school—he doesn’t even own a curriculum. He’s an “unschooling” parent. Though the method has grown in popularity [1] since educator John Holt introduced it in his books and theory, many Americans are still largely unaware of the term’s meaning or methodology. Hewitt explains and introduces the concept [2] at Outside magazine:

It is already obvious that unschooling is radically different from institutionalized classroom learning, but how does it differ from more common homeschooling? Perhaps the best way to explain it is that all unschooling is homeschooling, but not all homeschooling is unschooling. While most homeschooled children follow a structured curriculum, unschoolers like Fin and Rye have almost total autonomy over their days. At ages that would likely see them in seventh and fourth grades, I generously estimate that my boys spend no more than two hours per month sitting and studying the subjects, such as science and math, that are universal to mainstream education. Not two hours per day or even per week. Two hours per month.

But perhaps to abate the shock and alarm of thousands of parents, Hewitt adds,

Our sons are not entirely self-taught; we understand the limits of the young mind and its still-developing capacity for judgment. … I can report that Fin and Rye both learned to read and write with essentially zero instruction, albeit when they were about eight years old, a year or so later than is expected. They can add and subtract and multiply and divide. I can report that they do indeed have friends, some who attend school and some who don’t, and their social skills are on par with their peers. In fact, Penny and I often hear from other adults that our sons seem better socialized than like-aged schoolchildren.

Hewitt believes that unschooling makes his boys happier, healthier, and more exuberant learners. He’s part of a growing group of parents who thinking homeschooling—whether applied via a more structured format, or via the more self-directed unschooling methodology—presents a better environment for children to grow and learn.

The greatest contrast to unschooling, perhaps, is the helicopter parenting method, in which children adhere to a very strict curricular and extra-curricular regimen. This sort of learning can take place in public or private school, or even occasionally in homeschooling households. Such families usually have at least the outline of a college plan in mind for their children, and their academic, athletic, and artistic pursuits will align with this overarching trajectory. Many parents encourage this “track” in hopes that their children will be successful in their future adult lives. However, these “guaranteed” methods for career success have fallen into disarray as of late. With crippling student loans and shaky job prospects confronting college graduates at every turn, many are reconsidering their demanding trajectories, wondering whether the work is truly worth it.

On the opposite end of the educative spectrum, we have more libertarian, loose methods, in which children are given a vast array of freedom over their education. This can either be intentionally or passively developed: some children in public school may receive little to no adult supervision. The system is very flexible, giving parents the opportunity to lean in or opt out of their children’s education.

But then there’s unschooling: a very intentional sort of negligence (though the word “negligence” is perhaps a bit too dysphemistic). Parents choose to let their children choose, sculpt, direct, and orchestrate their own education (or lack thereof). This method seems to have two common motivations that separate it from the more popular method of “homeschooling”: first, there are unschooling parents who acknowledge that children will learn what they truly want to learn, and that forcing them down a given path can have deleterious consequences. They see that their children are highly motivated when they are free to pursue their own aspirations, ambitions, and projects, and want to foster this sort of driven passion in their children’s learning. Thus, the reasoning goes, what better than to give them control of their own education?

But some parents are likely to adopt unschooling because they think children know what they need better than adults do. It’s a sort of “noble savage” approach to the world of education and child-rearing. As unschooling parent Joyce Fetterol put it on her blog, Joyfully Rejoycing [3],

[If] they are happy and free and are making these choices because it brings them joy, then we should trust that it really is what they want or need right now. … We need to trust that when it is enough for them, then they will stop. Their ‘enough’ may be different from where ours is.

While parents like Fetterol have excellent intentions, the results of their approach are often mixed. Children, despite their innocence, are also ignorant—and often foolish. If a child wants to spend their days reading comic books and playing video games, because they think it’s best for them, should a parent intervene? At what point does one draw the line, and decide more supervision is necessary? Hewitt’s success relies at least in part on the fact that his sons live on a farm: thus, they have very structured and supervised days. Though their educational pursuits may not be mandatory, their daily chores are. This gives an important structure and framework to their day, in the way school would.

But the dilemma of unschooling remains: how much freedom is too much freedom? If we let children direct their own education, should we also let them direct their leisure time, social activities, spiritual, or emotional development? At what point do parents say “no” to a given pursuit or inclination? During past interviews on this subject, a few different unschooling parents told me they make sure unschooling does not because “unparenting”: children still receive daily supervision, chores, parental direction, etc. It seems Hewitt may take a similar approach with his boys.

And it seems that the unschooling method, when developed along these parameters, may indeed lead to healthier, happier kids: kids who have time to play, get exercise, develop their reasoning and problem-solving capacities, to discover and develop their pursuits with alacrity and passion. They can learn at their own pace, without the pressure and competition of a classroom. Some more extroverted or competitive children may find this method less palatable, but for highly self-motivated or introverted learners, something like the unschooling method may help them flourish and grow intellectually.

It’s also worth noting that, in today’s challenging job market, students may need a method such as this to thrive. Many of the grownup unschoolers I’ve met have become truly excellent at their given pursuit, whether science, veterinary work, farming, engineering, or what-have-you. These young adults were given the freedom and tools to build their own career out of passion and excitement, rather than squeezing such pursuits in between mandatory English and Chemistry classes.

But this seeming strength of unschooling could also be its greatest weakness: it pursues specificity to the detriment of balance and intellectual sagacity. Children’s pursuits could become too single-minded, too narrow, thus leading them to future career disappointments, or even into intellectual prejudice and ignorance. The liberal arts education customary amongst the ancient Greeks and Romans was thought to foster freedom, by nature of its scope and depth. It covered a swath of topics, from mathematics to music, that were thought to foster a healthy mind and virtuous character. The topics it presented transcended the professional, vocational, or technical, and sought to craft superior intellects and souls.

This is the sort of education that falls most into disrepute in modern America: we look at the classical liberal arts, and ask what they’re good for—yet if we dispose of this solid educational core, we estrange children from the deeper tenets by which they can organize and sort their lives. The liberal arts helps young adults and children develop intellectual discernment, which then enables them to navigate the more practical, technical facets of human existence.

Perhaps the best sort of unschooling method would be one in which students are encouraged to learn this core of important subjects—but are also given the freedom to pursue such subjects at a pace, and in a venue, they are most comfortable with. They may be told that they must read three classic works of fiction, and three of non-fiction, per semester—but they can read in the evening before bed, in the mornings before breakfast, or in the afternoon under a tree in the backyard. They must study basic math and geometry—but they can find innovative and practical ways in which to do so. They must learn a language, but they can pick the language and the method. On the list goes: giving students freedom, yet still directing them toward the principles of liberal education.

These questions of methodology are vitally important, as the next generation faces a daunting educational and career hurdle. Parents and children may need to bend, or even break, the customary ideals and stereotypes associated with a “good” education in order to succeed. But we must continually endeavor to align our schooling system—be it public, private, home, or “un”—with the higher principles of education, and what it’s for. Those principles never go out of style.

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#1 Comment By libertarian jerry On August 19, 2014 @ 6:49 am

The problem with today’s educational establishment is that it’s first goal is not to educate but to indoctrinate. It’s goals are to “socialize” children to “fit in.” As comedian George Carlin once stated,and I paraphrase, “the object of modern education is to give students just enough knowledge to run the machines and to do the paperwork. Modern education is not there to teach people how to think critically and reason things out on their own.” This situation is the direct result of decades of Cultural Marxists taking over not only the public schools but Academia in general. If one looks at history the 10th plank of the Communist Manifesto calls for free public education for all the citizens of a nation. Is it any wonder that the modern education system is so screwed up?

#2 Comment By Dakarian On August 19, 2014 @ 10:10 am

The term is shocking but this idea was already present in some formal schooling programs. It’s almost the homeschool version of the Montessori program. At the most extreme, you simply (and note I’m simplifying) provide a set of tools and let your children explore them, with you helping to facilitate. In the formal schooling world, it’s an effective program, though it’s hard to implement due to everyone expecting a more standardized practice.

Thus I can see it being easier to do in a homeschooling system, though I wish they used a term better than ‘unschooling’ due to the picture of a child purposely being left uneducated as a way to fight intelligence.

In the end, it’s a program, like any other. It works as well, though not better, than formal home schooling, formal institutions, private institutions, formal’unschooling’ institutions, so on so on. What works best depends on the child’s learning style and disposition, and a parent’s resources and personality.

Thus the more options of education, along with the end of trying to FORCE one style over the other for all kids, would be great for learning as a whole.

#3 Comment By david peterson On August 19, 2014 @ 10:44 am

An excellent article! It voices a crucial aspect of modern post-Christian thought known as liberalism/libertarianism. As the saying goes, “those whom the God’s would destroy, they first make mad.”

#4 Comment By Hassan Dibadj On August 19, 2014 @ 12:03 pm

Avoid radical ideas. Children are not lab rats. In this case, too much freedom for children is like having unattended garden, it won’t bear much fruit. The best and the brightest people in the world usually come from disciplined families and education (not necessarily bureaucratic education).

#5 Comment By Andrew On August 19, 2014 @ 5:05 pm

Hewitt believes that unschooling makes his boys happier, healthier, and more exuberant learners.

Sure, teach the boys Integration by Parts or Free Body Diagrams (with basic trigonometry course as prerequisite) and observe where their “exuberance” will go. Yeah, as anything in life worth getting–it is a hard work and that what makes a man (or a woman).

#6 Comment By bones On August 19, 2014 @ 6:49 pm

Unschooling? Hewitt has his sons in a homesteading apprenticeship program that he designed and directs.

That seems to be the most obvious problem with the approach: The parent ends up being the primary teacher, even unwittingly. Which of course means that if the parents are lazy, have poor habits, or watch a lot of tv, or live in suburbia, or a dilapidated town, unschooling seems like a particularly awful education choice.

#7 Comment By Marie On August 19, 2014 @ 7:03 pm

I’m not familiar with this subject series, have a lot of unschooled families been visited by the author?

One hazard in the entire range of home school reporting is that the reality is usually very, very far from the picture painted by the people willing to talk. For example, I often see mistruths perpetuated in news reports where the reporters talk to public school teachers about what home schooling is. Obviously that’s not the case here, but I’m seeing a bunch of instances in this article that make me think the writer may have fallen a bit into the trap of believing unschooling is what folks who first hear the term assume it to be.

For example, what makes the author believe there are not a large number of classically educated unschoolers? The two ideas are in no way contradictory. An unschooler can learn Latin, or read the classics. He just probably won’t learn Latin sitting at a desk in a classroom reciting declensions with a group. He won’t read classics from a required reading list, but follow one loved classic to another. That sort of thing.

There are definitely problems with how some unschoolers approach education, but in my experience the folks who are goofy about it usually don’t last. It’s a fad, they unschool for the year they eat gluten free, but then go back to toast and the private academy soon enough. But for those families that really need to eat no gluten, the approach and the results are different, and they’re in it for the long haul. Same for home school styles. A student who is seriously unschooled by a parent who knows what he is talking about and really thinks it is the best for his kid, he will be just fine. Certainly more fine than the average public schooled kid out of, say, Detroit. And I’d guess there are a ton more public school kids in Detroit than unschooled kids in America.

#8 Comment By Jake Lukas On August 20, 2014 @ 1:00 am

Hassan Dibadj says: […] Avoid radical ideas. Children are not lab rats.

Every once in a while one has the pleasure of running into a sentiment pure, distilled, and unadulterated libertarianism, socialism, liberalism, or what have you. It’s a rarer thing to see among conservatives, for conservatives, if we are to believe Kirk and his followers, are suspicious of ideology. Indeed, if you happen upon a self-professed conservative bumper sticker, like as not peeling it away would reveal some classical liberal slogan underneath.

Yet this gnomic gem, my dear sir, is as pure a conservative sentiment as I have seen in some time.

On that note, for some reason or another the new version of the website loaded briefly today and I caught the new branding slogan: “The American Conservative: Realism and Reform.” I now propose, to any editor or author at AmConMag who might catch this, the following alternative: “The American Conservative: Avoid Radical Ideas; Children Are Not Lab Rats.” To the degree that it is more concrete, this is also more conservative.

#9 Comment By RB On August 20, 2014 @ 10:14 am

One popular homeschooling method that is, basically, classically-infused unschooling is called TJEd, after Oliver DeMille’s book The Thomas Jefferson Education.

The DeMilles advise parents to structure time, not content, and structure the home to provide the most educationally nutritious food. Not unlike the Montessori method.

Speaking just from my personal experience with homeschooling my 7 kids using various methods, children really are brilliant little learning machines. I taught my oldest to read in the traditional way, at age five, laboriously.

The next four taught themselves. Each of them reached an internal readiness point where they decided to read, and they each achieved full fluency (reading silently to themselves) within a few weeks to a few months. I intervene only when they ask for instruction. Our reading primers are Calvin & Hobbes collections and other comic strip collections 🙂 After which my children move on to reading more challenging material.

It helps that we own lots of books and I read aloud to my children for over an hour a day. Children, all children, are brilliant at learning and adapting to their environment. They desire to fit in safely to their surrounding culture, and use their individual strengths to do so. This is basically what career counseling tries to teach to adults who’ve had to unlearn a natural reliance on individual strengths.

Any discussion on unschooling and culture would be incomplete without a reference to Ken Robinson’s famous TED talk on education and creativity.

Not to mention this WIRED magazine article: [4]

Student-led education, with some teacher support, may not only help students reach more potential individually, it is also so much cheaper than traditional educrat-heavy schooling that it makes better education more available to poor children, in places like Mexican barrios and Indian slums.

#10 Comment By Marie On August 20, 2014 @ 4:33 pm

RB, brilliant, good endorsements, particularly with TJ.

Very interesting final point.

#11 Comment By Winston On August 21, 2014 @ 11:41 pm

Montessori education is better. But not offered to those who need it most:low income students.

#12 Comment By Jaylib On August 30, 2014 @ 2:11 am

In grade school I spent much of my summers, and much of my after-school day, unschooling myself. Come to think of it, i spent much of my time in the classroom unschooling myself: daydreaming, doodling (teaching myself art), writing, or reading books beyond grade level from the classroom library, since I had typically finished the assignment early.

Later, in high school, I couldn’t stay ahead in this fashion yet still I stubbornly insisted on carving out my own space of freedom, even if I incurred the penalty of lowered grades. I wasn’t into the assignment du jour; I was wanting to read about esoteric subjects or read real history, rather than, say, read The Chosen or study some sanitized “U.S. History” text.
I wanted to write song lyrics and compose tunes in my head (attempting crude notation). I wanted to perfect my drawing technique and my stable of wacky characters.
I was never so quick to self-educate in math, since that’s just not the way I’m bent. Yet I’ve found I have a knack for learning things when i need to learn them.

#13 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 1, 2014 @ 11:02 am

When I was in school my education was for me and what I (me) would contribute to community.

I have been reading essays by John Henry Newman, Albert Jay Nock and George Orwell on education and language to respond to this article.

Buy this morning Charles Murray said what I believe the problem is – especially truefor elite education.

The baby boomers have done a very effective job of making the system work for them while essentially blocking the same for everyone else.