Unschooling: Legitimate pedagogy or foolish fad?
Why some scholars are adopting an educational philosophy that eschews formal lessons and any form of structure – and why others think it could be dangerous.
|Illustrations by Brian Cairns.
Carlo Ricci’s oldest daughter Annabel is excelling in school, achieving top marks on her report cards, and he’s not happy about it at all.
“Even though she receives straight A’s, I think the fact that there are grades, and that she’s made to focus on them, is extremely damaging,” says Dr. Ricci, a father of two and professor of education at the Schulich School of Education at Nipissing University.
Dr. Ricci is a strong proponent of an educational path known as “unschooling,” which spurns structure and formal curriculum and takes an extremely learner-directed approach to education. When Annabel, now 8, reached school age, he gave her a choice: to attend, or not to attend. She chose the former.
“My children have the freedom to make these decisions for themselves. I may disagree, but as a loving father, I definitely support her decision,” says Dr. Ricci, who also serves as editor of the Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning.
At home, both Annabel and her younger sister Karina, 6, lead an unschooled lifestyle, which means that in the Ricci household, everything is negotiable – from schedule to dress to bedtimes to the menu for each evening’s menu. It has always been this way, even when the girls were much younger.
“They have control over what they do, and how they do it,” he says. When conflicts arise, neither parent has final say; instead, the family arrives at a solution together, with both sides making concessions. And Annabel – who, says Dr. Ricci, made the decision to go to school because her best friend was going – is free to opt out of formal schooling any time she chooses. In fact, “I would jump for joy,” he says. “I would definitely support it.”
It appears, anecdotally, that a growing number of Canadian parents are choosing the unschooling approach for their children. The trend is attracting media attention and leading to increased debate among academics about its merits as an educational philosophy. Although it looks similar to traditional home schooling in that both approaches take place mostly outside the classroom, unschooling – unlike home schooling – doesn’t try to replicate the formal curriculum of the school system in the home. Instead, it encourages kids to do pretty much whatever they want with their time. Math lessons can be learned if children simply pay attention to the prices on a trip to the grocery store, biology can be learned out in the backyard. The basic idea is that people have a natural tendency to follow their passions, and that all students, young children included, learn more effectively when studying something that inspires passion in them.
The roots of the movement are in the anti-establishment theories of the 1960s, “free” schools like England’s Summerhill School and the educational philosophies of several thinkers, most prominent among them American author John Holt. He wrote a number of influential books, including How Children Fail, Escape from Childhood and How Children Learn.
Consequently, many unschooling advocates take a rather severe view of the modern Canadian school system. Schools, they say, are products of the industrial revolution, created to control people. Marks are tools of manipulation. Children should be empowered to choose their own path, and stripping them of this power is a form of oppression. “Canadian schools are a very undemocratic space and place,” says Dr. Ricci. “Young people are the last acceptably oppressed group.”
Jeffrey Wood, an assistant professor of education at Laurentian University, says the rationale for unschooling in his household is simple. “We’re doing this because we think it’s best for our kids,” he explains, “and the academic debate doesn’t really bother us.”
Dr. Wood and his wife Christine have been unschooling their children – Emily, 18, Tristan, 15, and Simon, 12 – since Emily was in Grade 3. Every year, the kids are given the choice of entering the school system, and each year they continue to opt out. Dr. Wood, a constructivist, studied his own kids’ progress in literacy for his doctoral dissertation. He rejects the strict, proscribed approach to reading, writing and other skills – the so-called “building blocks” of education that many educators embrace.
“I think that there’s a fair bit that we do in literacy because it’s more efficient for teaching,” he says. “I believe that if kids are given the opportunity to read materials that they are interested in, and you expect that they will read, then they will become readers.”
Dr. Wood allows his children to take an organic approach, one that follows their interests. There are no formal lessons of any sort. Simon loves hockey, so he faithfully reads the Hockey News and web content at NHL.com. He learns about geography through looking at team franchise locations on a map, math by considering the distances that each team travels, and the science of the sport through a book Dr. Wood bought him on the physics of hockey. “Their curricula is all tied up in their interests, and it’s all naturally connected,” he explains, adding that all his kids love reading and enthusiastically embrace self-directed studies.
Sometimes unschooled kids don’t read or hit other major literacy and numeracy benchmarks until much later than the norm for their age, if they hit them at all. That doesn’t worry Kellie Rolstad and her husband Jeff MacSwann, both professors in the faculty of education at Arizona State University who are unschooling their three kids. Their son Skye, 11, didn’t learn to tie his shoes until just this year, has never written using a cursive style and recently asked for a refresher on writing a basic numeral. “This morning, he was writing a date and said to me, ‘Now, which way does a 2 go?’” says Dr. Rolstad, who has been a visiting professor at Harvard University.
“Some people would find that frightening – he’s 11 years old and doesn’t know how to make a 2. But I’m not frightened.” Echoing other unschooling parents, she says that’s because all of her kids are well-adjusted and flourish in whatever challenge, academic or otherwise, they choose to take on.
But some experts worry about the long-term impacts of this approach, especially given the relative lack of empirical data on the issue. Most studies involving unschooling are anecdotal; there are no large-scale longitudinal studies that prove its efficacy. One recent study by researchers at Concordia University and Mount Allison University, published in the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, did find that unschooled children scored lower for academic ability in areas such as reading, writing and arithmetic compared with home-schooled children who followed a structured curriculum. However, the sample included only 12 unschooled children.
This lack of hard data concerns Peter Trifonas, an associate professor in the department of curriculum, teaching and learning at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. He says, “I’m really uncomfortable with leaving anything open to a blind ignorance and faith that things will go right.”
Dr. Trifonas believes that unschoolers also run the risk of limiting the range of options available to their kids. Schools, he notes, present students with a wide variety of subjects and topics for study, including a number that a child would not simply stumble upon during the natural course of things.
Myron Dembo, professor emeritus of educational psychology at the University of Southern California and author of Motivation and Learning Strategies for College Success, says that higher-level learning requires more than experiential education. Experiences must be prefaced and followed up with readings, lessons and other learning tools, and anything less will leave glaring gaps in students’ knowledge base, he says.
Critics also worry that kids who weren’t exposed to a classroom environment and schedule won’t have the skills to cope in a social world, a world with deadlines attached to paychecks. The typical a priori fear for unschooled kids is that they will grow up unable to manage their time, interact with others or understand commonly shared values.
On this point, though, many disagree. Bruce Arai, a sociologist and dean of Wilfrid Laurier University’s Brantford campus, has studied the socialization of home-schooled students – about one-third of them were unschooled – and he observes that these students, unschooled and home-schooled alike, acquire citizenship skills at about the same rate as those in school. “They may not, say, have had the knowledge of Canadian history that you would expect from a 14-year-old, because that wasn’t their interest,” he reports, “but they were well-behaved and could certainly hold a conversation with an adult.”
Dr. Arai points out that socialization and imparting expectations for behaviour takes place within families and is reinforced by the community, in sports and arts groups that home-schooled and unschooled kids routinely take part in.
These community activities also can help unschoolers get into university. This path is less straightforward for students who reach the postsecondary stage without formal grades or transcripts. But, says Dr. Ricci, the university door remains open to them – although it’s not always the front door. At least 10 different ways exist for students to get into a postsecondary institution without a transcript or a diploma, such as enrolling in an online university program like those offered at Thompson Rivers University or Athabasca University, or waiting until the age of 19 to apply as mature students. Other common routes are to attend the final two years of high school for the transcript or to take individual courses that some universities offer, to demonstrate that the student can handle the material.
Dr. Wood, for one, is convinced that his children’s community involvement will help them get into university, starting with his daughter Emily, who has devoted many hours to working with a dance troupe. She has served as its executive producer, fundraised, liaised with the media, organized shows and garnered sponsorships.
“If the university looks at life experience, which Ivy League schools always do, she will far exceed what her peers have been capable of accomplishing because she’s had the time and opportunity,” he asserts. Moreover, her unschooling background has bred a sense of direction and self-reliance. “She’s very focused and knows exactly what she wants, why she wants it, and can easily articulate that – which, quite frankly, most first-year university students aren’t able to do.”
While the debate about its merits and potential pitfalls will only heighten if unschooling becomes more prevalent across Canada, the truest test will ultimately lie with the kids themselves. Whether they succeed (or fail) as they enter postsecondary school and then the workforce will be a very real study on whether this educational philosophy will thrive in the future, or fall onto the philosophical ash heap as a discredited relic of the past.
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