Peter Gray has written an absolutely fascinating series of articles about the alternative form of home-based education called "unschooling" and the families who practice it. Gray is a professor of psychology who runs the blag "Freedom to Learn" at Psychology Today, in which he often writes about education from an anti-mainstream, even iconoclastic, viewpoint. (For example, I recall this pair of posts about how ineffective, restrictive, and prison-like grade school is, especially for less docile children.)
In his four articles about unschooling, he introduces what unschooling is, summarizes the responses from his international survey, and provides many quotes from the respondents. The first article, introducing the concept of unschooling and inviting unschooling families to respond, was published back in September 2011 (all bold text is my emphasis):
Unschooling is a movement that turns conventional thinking about education upside down.
Defined most simply, unschooling is not schooling. Unschoolers do not send their children to school and they do not do at home the kinds of things that are done at school. More specifically, they do not establish a curriculum for their children, they do not require their children to do particular assignments for the purpose of education, and they do not test their children to measure progress. Instead, they allow their children freedom to pursue their own interests and to learn, in their own ways, what they need to know to follow those interests. They also, in various ways, provide an environmental context and environmental support for the child's learning. Life and learning do not occur in a vacuum; they occur in the context of a cultural environment, and unschooling parents help define and bring the child into contact with that environment.
All in all, unschoolers have a view of education that is 180 degrees different from that of our standard system of schooling. They believe that education is something that children (and people of all ages) do for themselves, not something done to them, and they believe that education is a normal part of all of life, not something separate from life that occurs at special times in special places.
Nobody knows just how many kids in the United States are currently unschoolers. For official record-keeping purposes, unschoolers are lumped in with homeschoolers. State laws don't allow parents to just take their kids out of school; parents have to somehow prove that their kids are being educated at home, and that puts them into the homeschooling category.
All in all, unschooling is a very significant educational movement, because it involves such a large number of kids and it violates so sharply the standard view that kids must be forced to learn an imposed curriculum if they are going to succeed.
Academic researchers have steered clear of any serious study of unschooling, just as they have steered clear of Sudbury model schools and all other innovations in education that deny the value of an imposed curriculum.
Gray then provides links to several unschooling resources and summarizes what each one offers.
The second post, which was the first of three summarizing the results of the unschooling survey, was about the benefits of unschooling as reported by the respondents.
Essentially all of the respondents emphasized the role of their children in directing their own education and in pointing out that education is not separate from life itself.
By our coding, 100 (43%) of the responses fell into Category 1. These were the responses that most most strongly emphasized the role of the child and did not describe parental activities conducted specifically for the purpose of the child's eduction, other than being responsive to the child's wishes or the child's lead. As illustration, one respondent in this category wrote: "Unschooling equals freedom in learning and in life. We push aside paradigms and established regulations with regards to schooling and trust our children to pave their own way in their own educations. Everything they want to experience has value. We trust them." Another wrote: "Unschooling, for us, means there is absolutely no curriculum, agenda, timetable, or goal setting. The children are responsible for what, how, and when they learn."
By our coding, 96 (42%) of the responses fell into Category 2. These differed from Category 1 only in that they made some mention of deliberate parental roles in guiding or motivating their children's education. As illustration, one in this category wrote: "We define unschooling as creating an enriching environment for our children where natural learning and passions can flourish. We want our life to be about connection—to each other, to our interests and passions, to a joyful life together....As a parent, I am my children's experienced partner and guide and I help them to gain access to materials and people that they might not otherwise have access to. I introduce them to things, places, people that I think might be interesting to them, but I do not push them or feel rejected or discouraged if they do not find it interesting...."
Finally, 35 (15%) of the responses fell into Category 3. These were responses that might be considered as falling at the borderline between unchooling and what is sometimes called "relaxed homeschooling." The parents in these cases seemed to have at least some relatively specific educational goals in mind for their children and seemed to work deliberately toward achieving those goals. As illustration, one in this category wrote: "We believe that, for the most part, our daughter should be encouraged to explore subjects that are of interest to her, and it is our responsibility as parents to make learning opportunities available to her... I usually ask her to learn something or do something new or educational every day (and I explain to her why learning something new every day is such a cool thing to do!)."
The most common categories of benefits were the following:
1. Learning advantages for the child. ... Many in this category said that because their children were in charge of their own learning, their curiosity and eagerness to learn remained intact.
2. Emotional and social advantages for the child. ... They said that their children were happier, less stressed, more self-confident, more agreeable, or more socially outgoing than they would be if they were in school or being schooled at home. Many in this category referred to the social advantages; their children interacted regularly with people of all ages in the community, not just with kids their own age as they would if they were in school.
3. Family closeness. ... They wrote that because of unschooling they could spend more time together as a family, do what they wanted to together, and that the lack of hassle over homework or other schooling issues promoted warm, harmonious family relationships.
4. Family freedom from the schooling schedule. ... They said that freedom from the school's schedule allowed the children and the family as a whole to operate according to more natural rhythms of their own choice and to take trips that would otherwise be impossible. Some also mentioned that because of the free schedule, their kids could get jobs or participate in community projects that would be impossible if they had to be in school during the day.
To avoid an overly long post that would kind of defeat the purpose of linking to and excerpting from Gray's article, I'll just paste a few brief snippets of the survey responses that Gray quotes:
"More time together, less arguing, watching our daughter spend hours absorbed in things that she is pursuing on her own, seeing her getting enough sleep and not coming down with viruses that she used to catch at school, exploring museums and other community resources together...." [I will note that a lower exposure to viruses and bacteria is actually a negative side effect of avoiding schools, because germs are good for you; they make you stronger. What if that child gets chickenpox as an adult instead of as a child? Then it becomes deadly instead of just painful and annoying. —JTP]
"Children who are full of joy, full of love for learning, creative, self-directed, passionate, enthusiastic, playful, thoughtful, questioning, and curious."
"Our kids learn all the time, instead of being trained to learn one subject at a time, in 50-minute increments bookended by bells."
"So we don't have the kind of power struggles that other parents seem to have over bedtimes and homework. ... After all, happy relationships should ideally not be based on power issues."
"The children can delve deeper into subjects that matter to them, spend longer on topics that interest them. . . . The children can participate in the real world, learn real life skills, converse with people of all ages. They do not have to waste time with endless review, boring homework, having to work above or beneath their abilities, or in unpleasant power dynamics with adults with whom they have no connection. They can be themselves, and learn about themselves, and become who they truly want to be."
The second article was about what leads the parents to unschool their children.
...the child's experience in school led them to remove the child from school. In their explanations, 38 of these families referred specifically to the rigidity of the school's rules or the authoritarian nature of the classroom as reason for removing the child; 32 referred to the wasted time, the paltry amount of learning that occurred, and/or to the child's boredom, loss of curiosity, or declining interest in learning; and 32 referred to their child's unhappiness, anxiety, or condition of being bullied.
Here is a selection of quotes from the parents explaining why they and their children chose unschooling:
"The school principle threatened to have [my son] prosecuted for bringing a 'weapon' to school. The 'weapon' was a can of silly string."
"I saw kids punished for being inquisitive and talkative, which is something I thought most young kids were, naturally."
"We were tired of our children being labeled and tired of them coming home exhausted and quite frankly full of nastiness. They weren't the nice people we remembered them to be. Once we brought them all home, they became 'people' again."
"After I put them in public school for a time, it became extremely clear to me that being forced to follow someone else's idea of a curriculum was counterproductive, to the point of making them 'hate' learning...."
"We hated the blue ribbon public school our oldest attended. He had 1 hour of homework (reading comprehension and math worksheets) every night, for a 6 year old!"
"I worked in the classrooms a lot and saw a LOT of wasted time during which my kids were stuck sitting still and doing absolutely nothing."
"Too many hours in school and then working on homework. He said to me, 'Mom, when is my time?' It was breaking my heart."
"We ... found that increasing levels of homework and projects left us slaves to the school's schedule even after school hours and on weekends. Additionally, we found that our oldest child was losing his love of learning, and our 2nd child did not have enough time for her passion and gift - the performing arts."
"The faculty repeatedly ignored situations where other kids attacked my son physically and verbally. and after two years of taking it he pushed one of his bullies back and was suddenly in trouble (the bully was not in trouble even though it was witnessed by several teachers him being a bully toward my son) The school repeatedly set my son up to fail and ignored my requests and demands for change. Then they called a meeting to discuss what to do 'about my son' instead of what they could to FOR HIM... I told them that there would be no such meeting...."
"Eventually she stopped even doing maths and went from top of the class to bottom. This was due to a maths teacher who used to mock her and make her feel small."
"In the beginning of grade 2, my daughter told me one evening of how one of her friends had been verbally threatened (the term used was 'YOU'RE DEAD MEAT') by another classmate, pushed up against a wall, and told that the classmate's older cousins were going to get her. I was appalled that this was happening to 8 year olds and that, upon talking to my daughter's teacher about this incident, this type of interaction was not considered alarming by the teaching staff. I never want my children to accept and numb themselves to think that treating other humans horrendously, unloving, and unkindly is normal!"
"When we first started homeschooling my oldest, at age 11, had been so emotionally damaged from his school experiences that we were shocked to see how quickly his personality rebounded within a month or two."
As a first step in the analysis, we coded the challenges that people described into several relatively distinct categories. The most frequently cited of these categories is the one that we labeled "Social Pressure." It includes negative judgments and criticism from other people, from relatives, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers, and unschoolers’ perceived needs to justify their choice repeatedly to people who don’t approve or don’t understand.
The second most frequently cited category of challenge is the one that we labeled Deschooling the Parent’s Mind." This category has to do with parents’ difficulties in overcoming their own, culturally ingrained “schoolish” ways of thinking about education.
Both of these two most often mentioned categories of challenge have to do with the power of social norms. We are social creatures, and it is very difficult for us to behave in ways that run counter to what others perceive as normal. In the history of cultures, harmful normative practices or rituals may persist for centuries at least partly because of the stigma, or perceived stigma, associated with violating the norms. ... School is the most predominant cultural ritual of our time. It is a practice ingrained as normal, even necessary, in the minds of the great majority of people. To counter it, one must overcome not just others’ negative judgments, but also the judgments that rise up from one’s own school-indoctrinated mind.
Several of the quotations about social stigma reveal how truly indoctrinated, obstinate, dogmatic, and downright religious people are about schooling and education.
“By far the greatest challenge is with other people. It is such a radical concept, I think it feels so easy for people (especially family members) to criticize it. I get tired of feeling like I need to wait until my children are adults so I can finally say, ‘See, it’s all right!’”
“I would say the only real challenge we have is dealing with others’ (mostly strangers') prejudices and misunderstandings. When we say we homeschool (because ‘unschooling’ is met with blank stares most of the time) they assume I have little desks set up in my living room. They assume we have no social life. It just gets really, really tiring hearing those comments all the time (from people we meet out in public). Then a program comes on mainstream TV about unschooling and people think that is our life (these programs are usually sensationalized and edited in such a way as to portray us as neglectful, ignorant parents who don’t care about their kids). I’m sick of answering questions like ‘Well, that’s fine for art and music, but what about math?’ or ‘How will your kids function in the Real World.’" [Ha! As if forced government schooling is more like the real world or prepares them for it! —JTP]
“My daughter’s father and stepmother were so opposed to it that they literally kicked her out of their house because they felt she was setting a bad example for their younger children.”
“My MIL stopped asking about her grandchildren, unwilling to try to understand what we were doing or why…so they essentially lost a grandparent.”
"I learned very quickly that most people can’t (won’t?) understand, and some are downright disapproving."
"Others don’t understand and look down on what we’re doing. Most people are stuck in the school paradigm and feel like it really is necessary for kids to go to school in order to be successful adults. They see things like bullying and doing work that has no meaning for you as necessary rights of passage to the ‘real world,’ which they see as boring, scary, and uninviting in general.”
“My son instinctually knows how to do this [learn at home on his own], but we [my husband and I] have had to unlearn a lot!” [Structured schooling is unnatural to children in a lot of ways, and home-schooling and unschooling simply open their minds and their lives up to what learning should be. —JTP]
“Something in us rebels at the thought of kids ‘getting away’ with not having to do math and spelling drills, homework, or having something forced upon them ‘because they’ll need it.’ It’s hard to see them spending so much time doing unstructured learning and having to fight the feeling that they’re not learning effectively even when we can see that they are.
"Learning to see learning everywhere, and understanding that learning has no connection to teaching.”
“Refraining from pushing and coercing kids into things that I think are good for them. It never works out well and undermines the trust inherent in unschooling. At its root is worry that I’ve made a terrible mistake and they won’t get what they need."
“I have found that the biggest hurdles so far all self inflicted...Sometimes it feels too easy and that there must be a catch. Am I just being lazy? For the love of God, what about the workbooks!"
“For us the main issues are the travel required for socializing –- this can be tiring. We have to travel further to find girls my eldest daughter’s age.”
“Because our son is an only child, and the other children who live in our neighborhood attend school and then after-school care, we have had to make sure to provide plenty of opportunity for him to get together and play with other children, as he really enjoys being with other kids. Until we found a couple local(ish) unschooling/homeschooling networks with which we connected, it was challenging to find him children to play with as often as he wanted to get out and socialize."
I imagine both home-schooling and unschooling are much more daunting to the parents than to the children. The reasons for this are obvious: We have been indoctrinated with the society-wide paradigm of structured schooling and all that comes with it, but this is unnatural to many children, who might instinctively know (or, at least, could figure out soon enough) that schooling does not equal education.
I would love to know how the average unschooled student or the majority of unschooled students turn out socially, in college, and in their careers. Do they have a hard time dealing with the idiot douchebags who populate the Earth, whom they haven't had to deal with frequently as children? Do they have a hard time coping with entry-level jobs they might not like so much but which they need in order to pursue their career interests, because they aren't used to biting the bullet and doing unenjoyable things for a while? Are they more or less well-rounded, given that they weren't "forced" to learn subjects that didn't interest them but, at the same time, were allowed to pursue all of the subjects that did?
All I know is that the government near-monopoly on education across the world has so thoroughly prevented a free market in learning and education for so long that, as that monopoly starts to break and individual people and families free themselves from it and more people start learning how to teach themselves and communities evolve more dynamic, less structured ways of teaching all of their children and entrepreneurs develop new schooling systems for those who want them, we are going to see how truly restrictive compulsory government schooling has been to our children and how devastating it has been to society as a whole. Schooling is not education, and the freedom to grow our intellect and creativity to their fullest potential requires eliminating all government from all education forever.
Do you have any experience with home-schooling or unschooling, or do you wish you did? What is your first-hand or second-hand take on it and on the adults that home-schooled or unschooled children grew into?