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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.

by Tim Johnson

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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.

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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.

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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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Comments on this Article

How about both- legitimate and foolish too?

Posted by SC, Jun 1, 2012 8:41 PM

To kron3007, who commented on the fact that the unschooling families showcased in this article have at least one parent who is a professor: I didn't go to school from 3rd grade to 8th grade. I prefer not to use "unschooled" or "homeschooled" to label myself because of the connotations surrounding those terms and because my family didn't really follow any specific educational philosophy, we just did what worked. My mother, who does not have a high school diploma, and my father, who is a carpenter, raised me to appreciate Plato by the age of twelve. I was doing in depth studies of Shakespeare's Hamlet by 7th grade. I still don't know my times tables, but I seem to function just fine. I am bilingual, currently doing research for a nationally recognized Shakespeare program for youth, I know more about primitive weaving techniques than most people you'll meet, oh, and I score in the top tenth percentile in standardized tests. All through primarily self motivated learning guided by parents who are not university professors. And I'm not socially awkward nor am I a religious extremist.

Posted by Sophia, Jun 1, 2012 5:49 AM

The main reason unschoolers don't worry about benchmarks and other standardized measurements is that we see the phenomenal growth and abilities of unschooled kids on a daily basis, and they blow most schooled kids out of the water. Skye doesn't do much writing by hand because his keyboarding skills rival those of the most skilled adults, and his spelling and performance in math calculations are college level as well. I've seen more mistakes in college student work than in what Skye writes in his blog.

The article doesn't mention this, but Skye's older siblings have gone through similar phases where they seemed "behind" in some trivial aspect of development while being light years ahead in other areas. His older brother took his first college class at 13, thoroughly enjoying it and earning an A, with no interference from his professor parents. Because we see this sort of academic success all the time among the other unschooled kids we know, we can just smile when people who haven't seen unschoolers in action express their unfounded fears for these kids' academic or social lives.

Within our unschooling community, there is a huge range of parental educational level, as well as family income level. One unschooling family, headed by a single mom with a high school education, was homeless for several months. This family is now flourishing, and the oldest, age 15, is in community college part time. Of course no single child-rearing or educational approach is guaranteed to work for every family, and regions differ in what is required in terms of documentation, but there is no reason to fear that unschooling is only appropriate for families of high economic or educational status.

Unschooling does not depend on parents as instructors, so parent educational level is irrelevant. There's a whole world of information out there that every family can easily access, with no reason to wait for a teacher to deliver it. Good teachers are out there too, and children and families who unschool can seek them out, without having to turn children's learning over to "professional management" by a teacher or school. There's nothing 'rediculous' [sic] about unschooling; it's the most joyful and academically successful approach to learning I've ever come across, and, having earned my PhD in Education at UCLA and conducted research on learning for many years, I've probably seen them all.

Posted by Kellie Rolstad, Nov 13, 2011 11:44 AM

What this article completely misses, is the underpinning of unschooling; That humans are designed to learn from the moment they are born and they never stop learning. Kids will continue their natural inclination to learn about the world around them until they are stopped or blocked. Once inside a classroom, learning becomes teaching, teaching becomes something forced upon the student, whether the student is interested or not. It ceases to be that free flowing natural learning. What unschooling does, is continue that flow of learning.

I wish this article hadn't been so alarmist in their examples of unschoolers, like the kid who couldn't remember which way a 2 faced. Unschooled kids do find their way around these kinds of obstacles. There are plenty of 11 yr old boys that are confused about which way letters and numbers face because their brains are wired to see things differently. In school, those kids are labeled dyslexic and put in special classes and made to feel stupid. Out of school, a kid who is unschooling will have a parent who simply tells him which way the letter faces, no shame, no problem. Eventually he'll remember, he'll find a solution to the problem. My own child, at age 11, had the same problem. At the age of 17, she remembers just fine which way things face.

This article focuses a great deal on the outcome of an unschooling student. That outcome seems to be, based on this article, whether or not they will do great in college. It would do our world well, if people could grow into whole and happy people whether college was a part of that or not. Some people don't want college and there is NOTHING wrong with that. There are infinite amounts of things that a person could do with their life and sometimes college can help, but sometimes college is exactly the wrong thing to do.

I don't know what the Canadian statistics are, but in the US, the college drop out rate is pretty huge. Unschooling kids who go on to college do so for a reason and they do it with a goal in mind. They know what they want from life and go out and do it. There are few high school kids that do that. My experience, is that unschooled kids know themselves and what they want and find creative ways to get there. It's hard to explain in writing, but there is a marked difference when compared to the average schooled kid.

Given the dismal outcome of public schooling, it seems that ANY alternative should be looked at and given some thought. One need only to talk to and hang out with a few unschooled teenagers and young adults to be completely convinced of its merits. Even if you don't at all agree with unschooling philosophy, you will find those young people amazing, and "yes", they will talk to you like a real human being.

Posted by Jenny, Nov 12, 2011 3:29 PM

I like how the examples of "unschooled" children in this article are in families where at least one parent works as a professor. I could see this approach working, at least to some degree, in this type of environment with highly educated and involved parent. However, I dont think this approach would be very successful for the majority of the population and to promote it as a widespread approach is just rediculous IMO.

It is dangerous to leave this type of decision in the hands of a child. I dont know how many times things that I thought were useless ended up being important years down the road. It is not always easy to predict what your future interests will be, nor do many children have the foresight to know what background knowledge is required to get where they want to go.

I would be pretty concerned if my 11 year old didnt know which way a 2 goes, just saying.

Posted by kron3007, Nov 9, 2011 12:44 PM

I home-schooled my four children through middle school, mixing our charter school's suggested curricula with periods of unschooling. It takes A LOT of faith to persist when the kids don't hit the mark and trust that they'll adjust to high school or college when the time comes. That said, both of my older children transitioned into public high school - one in 11th grade to earn an IB diploma and the other in 9th grade so that she could play sports - without missing a beat. In fact, I think they far outdo their peers in terms of self-directed study and the ability to maintain balance with respect to high school academic and extracurricular commitments.

Posted by Juliann Allison, Nov 8, 2011 12:32 AM

[comment continuation]

Also, as a parent you and your homeschooled kids will run into (over and over again) school officials, sports officials, University/College officials, and job application processes that immediately assume your kids will lack the ability to perform under pressure, responsibility, or in a "social" environment. Of course, this is totally bogus, and reflects an unfair assumption about your kids. Our kids are involved in many organizations , different sports and music, and learn to deal with the many people they constantly meet who have prejudices again them as homeshoolers. That makes your child learn to be very mature dealing with persons of every age, very quickly. Every University and College should have, and many do, administration staff that know how to properly handle and recruit homeschooled kids. They know how to evaluate the working attitude of your child. Some will actually have a homeschooled section in their admission's section of their website. That is a good first clue to guide parents that the college already considers your children potential future students.

In the USA, where our kids have to write SAT and ACT exams for most colleges and universities, your good SAT/ACT score makes an admission's offer more likely. Many Canadian universities do not use these exams however, there is no reason to not have your homeschooled children write an ACT exam. Some colleges use them in Canada, and there are testing centers available. If they do well, you may start getting mail from some US based colleges. They also are some proof of your child's readiness for college education, to show to any admission's officer.

Finally, no matter what way you decide to homeschool, MAKE A TRANSCRIPT. KEEP RECORDS. It is rather easy to make a transcript, listing courses and credit hours, as a simple record of work effort. No one certifies transcripts, they are just documents that record time and effort with some grades from a school or a homeschooling parent. No one blesses them. But, they do make it easier for an admission's office to evaluate your Child's work over the years leading up to college.

Posted by Ken Mitton, Nov 7, 2011 1:31 PM

It sounds like the author is doing the most important thing, no matter how you choose to school: you have to make sure you kids learn to schedule plan and take responsibility for their actions or lack of actions. So in that regard, unschooling is really self directed schooling. There is however a curriculum.

As a family where my spouse and I are well educated (postgraduate Canadian systems), and now home school our children in Michigan, I must say that we see hundreds of different family schooling situations. Some are families that do the unschooling thing. In reality most of the unschoolers we meet are not doing that well. Unschooling is an unfortunate terminology, because even if you are permitting your children to "design" much of their own curriculum, they really must get down to working just as hard as their public school counterparts. That is, if they actually stay on track and do their homeschool work, put in the total hours of effort per week. Often homeschoolers in the "unschool" track tend to let their kids play more than practice, substituting lots of travel and museum visits for a proper science education, and they fail to teach their kids about real deadlines and real schedules.

I would suggest that what Dr Arai refers to as "unschoolers" are really just kids who have self directed their own curriculum choices, but they basically getting down and do their reading, writing and "rithmetic" like everyone else.

In the USA (we have lived and worked now in three states), both regular high school and homeschooled children often study to "CLEP" out of subjects. That is they write the college board advanced placement tests in math and chemistry and other subjects, to get college credit for first year level courses. This method seems to be a great idea, and it is rather easy to study for a CLEP exam using CLEP classes and study guides. These kids then hit first year University and cannot really keep up when they find that CLEP'in out means CLEP'in out of good old practice. Sometimes, practice over TIME, brings insight and efficiency to chemistry and mathematics, just as practicing guitar makes one a better guitar player...eventually. College can become a real eye opening experience for regular schooled or "unschooled" children, when they immediately fall behind in several second year subjects.


Another thing we find common (as a homeschooling family), is that once you leave the regular school system, you are going to be penalized should you try to interact with the public school system again. So for example, you may be able to have your child start senior high at grade 9, but if they are grade 11 and they want to try regular high school, they school will only offer to make let them start back in grade 9 (even if they can pass the SAT). If you came from another country, your child would be tested and placed in the appropriate grade. So parents should be very clear about homeschooling or unschooling. YOU become fully responsible for your child's education. We highly recommend, that while still in "high school" age, have your child take a math or science or writing course at a community college. Completing one college course, does tend to give a stamp of approval that makes University admission officers relax a bit. Many community colleges have quietly recruited homeschooled students for decades, and they work out just fine.

Posted by Ken Mitton, Nov 7, 2011 1:30 PM


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