Unschooling has its appeal. But can it work? - Macleans.ca

Unschooling has its appeal. But can it work?

There isn’t a company in Canada that encourages “unworking”


Self-directed learning sounds like a great time. I would have loved to experience education as guided by my own curiosity, taught at my own pace, and marked by my own individual achievements. Want to learn about frogs? Sure!  How to count change? Yes! The Harper government? Er—why not!? In theory, this type of ‘unchooling’ seems like the best model for education. Students typically absorb information more effectively if they are genuinely interested in the subject matter, rather than forced to follow a curriculum. And when compared to the structure of the conventional school system, whereby grades are often prioritized over actual learning, it’s not hard to see why some parents have opted for this model of education for their children.

But the unschooling movement, which recently garnered mainstream attention when two unschooling-advocate parents were featured in a story about their genderless baby, is not without its limitations. Unlike typical homeschooling, whereby parents often follow the provincial curriculum, or else set their own guidelines for instruction, unschooled children call the shots entirely. It sounds like a good idea in theory, but are unschooled children headed for a rough ride when someone else inevitably takes the reign?

The trouble with unschooling is that it eventually must come to an end. A child may decide to enter the mainstream education system to get the necessary prerequisites for university, or else choose to enter the workforce when he or she deems appropriate. The difficulty, then, is that the individual will be hard-pressed to find an ‘Unschooling U,’ and, as far as I know, there isn’t a company in Canada offering strong support for an unworking movement. There’s no such thing as unpaying your taxes, unreporting for jury duty, or unfollowing the speed limit on a busy road. Self-determination is a freedom we enjoy in a democratic society, but it is not an absolute. And for children who are given complete control over their education during their formative years, this hard reality may come as a bit of a shock later in life.

There are other potential problems with an unschooling education, including the limitations of parental instruction and possible gaps in knowledge. But I’d say the greater drawback of allowing a child total control over his or her education, absent any schedules, testing, or other forms of accountability, is that it sets an unrealistic and transitory precedent about autonomy and responsibility in everyday life. Like it or not, most people are going to have to show up for work at 9 a.m, pay their taxes on time, and figure out how to register their new vehicles. Gaps in physics knowledge can be easily remedied, but a skewed worldview cannot be.

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Unschooling has its appeal. But can it work?

  1. There is no question of “can it work?” Unschooling is by no means new, and there are tons of grown unschoolers PROVING that it “works”! I’m one of those grown unschoolers, and on my blog I’ve collected some interviews with other grown unschoolers, in case anyone is interested in checking those out.
    Seriously, it would make me very happy if people would stop acting as if unschooling were some new experiment being tested on poor innocent children, with no idea of the likely outcome. It’s not. Unschooling is both well established in more recent times (the term, for instance, was created by John Holt in the 70’s), and unschooling, or life learning, was how everyone learned for the the vast majority of our existence as a species. Modern day schooling, however, has only been around for a couple hundred years. Now that, as far as I’m concerned, is the true “experiment.”

    • Links are apparently cut out of comments, so if you’d like to see that list of grown unschooler interviews, you’ll have to go to my site (I’m Unschooled. Yes, I Can Write.) by clicking on my name, then go to the page “grown unschoolers” listed in the left sidebar.

  2. Your misperceptions about unschooling are predicated on specific examples that don’t represent the main. It’s called steretyping.

    I have two adult unschooled sons (and one young teen) who are currently attending college and working full time. Their boss recently told them he did not know how in the world they got such work ethic. It’s unschooling. When kids are responsible for their achievement, they figure out what it takes and get it done. Many unschoolers receive significant guidance from their parents and other accomplished adults in their lives. Unschooling can look just like school if a kid or kid/parent combo thinks that’s the way it should look. Many unschooled kids are quite dedicated to work, study, and hobbies that require quite demanding training and knowledge acquisition. They work on this in the same ways adults to – they read, they take classes, they practice.

    You’ve taken the most outrageous (to you) part of unschooling and made it the sum of the experience for all unschoolers. The truth is, many unschoolers go “undetected”. Those with college aspirations typically decide to undertake studying things that will help them gain admission and get thru college, which then gives them the requisite skills needed to get along in traditional classrooms. With the high school dropout rate and the college dropout rate being what they are, I hardly think the narrow population of unschoolers can be seen as at any special risk, and in my experience, they tend to do quite well. As a college instructor, one of my frustrations is that my just-out-of-high-school students struggle with creative thinking, “permission” to be original, and an over-emphasis on following a pre-prescribed formula that will earn them THE grade – although this often backfires on them since college level work requires so much more synthesis and problem solving.

    So, I think you probably need to know more about unschoolers and unschooling before presuming that having the ability to self-direct is equated with inability to get to work on time or take care of paperwork. I actually think that it’s a little scary that this may be your takeaway as to an advantage to school over unschooling.

    My experience has been that if you empower people to learn what they want and need to know, they’ll be able to do what they want and need to do. It’s such a foreign concept in our society that we can only think it is somehow a set-up for dysfunction – when really it can be the way to authenticity, self-reliance, and personal responsibility.

  3. It’s a shame this reporter has so little to share in the way of how unschooling works. Do you really think that people who undertake unschooling for their children are so careless and thoughtless as to endanger their children’s future? My friends, to unschool takes commitment, an ability to network and seek out opportunities as well as to have a ton of curiosity and ingenuity to match your child’s. It takes WORK to unschool. Most people wouldn’t want to.

    Why don’t you try interviewing grown unschoolers as I have on my blog and radio show? You will find that they are gainfully employed, generally well adjusted and contributing to the community. The love of learning is still there and so is the willingness to challenge the status quo-which is after all what makes culture and society.

  4. The term “unschooling” can be a bit misleading. It was originally adopted by educator John Holt to describe a style of learning that was different than what happens in a typical school classroom–like 7-up is the “uncola”. It’s not that it’s less or not as good or anything. It’s simply different and “not like the other”. Unschooling is not “school at home”, a style some home educators adopt. Nor is it “unlearning”. Unschooling is more like the theories of whole language learning and child-centered learning and self-determination all wrapped up in one practical package (with a sprinkle of Piaget, Vygotsky, and Rogers on top). Add in new findings from research about how the brain learns best, and we’ve got something that actually works to support a child’s optimal learning.

    Child-centered learning does the following (according to all-knowing wikipedia):

    Strengthens student motivation
    Promotes peer communication
    Reduces disruptive behaviour
    Builds student-teacher relationships
    Promotes discovery/active learning
    Responsibility for one’s own learning

    Sounds like unschooling to me, minus the classroom (and, you know, teacher… who is replaced by the parent/facilitator).

    Comparing school-attending kids with unschoolers really is like comparing apples to oranges. It’s a totally different way of learning, but it is still learning. Also, I have seen what Jeanne has seen. The most common comment about homeschoolers in general, including unschoolers, is “they sure know how to learn”. And they know all about working on projects and accomplishing goals and so on because that’s what they’ve always done. Also, they grow up within the structure of family and community. It’s not a free-for-all. These kids usually have very highly developed social skills… with people of all ages (not just their peer group).

    And I’ve never heard of an unschooler, ever, who had trouble transitioning to higher education or handling a work situation. In fact, these kids come with a whole lot of confidence in their ability to tackle and learn new skills.

    And you’ve likely never heard of 21st Century Learning. It’s based on John Abbott’s work in England and is becoming the new learning buzzword in several Canadian provinces at the government level. If you google 21learn.org, you’ll find the site. The Canadian equivalent is at changlearning.ca.

    It’s about individualized learning and goals that are the student’s, not the government’s/teacher’s/school’s. Why are they promoting this? Because the current system of schooling is failing kids. Kids are coming out of school with a skewed world view because they don’t know who they are or what they are good at or what they care about.

    Anyone can figure out how to get up for 9:00 AM and how to pay car insurance. But knowing what you want to do in life, what your “spark” is, and finding your element? Now that’s a shock.

    And this is what folks in the “system” are finally getting. Thus, 21st Century Learning. Buzz buzz.

    I’m a bit skeptical that they’ll actually be able to pull this off in institutionalized settings, but I’m watching with interest. What I do appreciate is the acknowledgement of the limitations of the classroom by people who have power to do something about it.

    Limitations, by the way, that unschoolers don’t have to live with.

  5. My unschooled daughters learn more than about the civil war, geometry or famous artists (which by the way, their neighboring children have no idea about) in our unschooled enviroment because they have sparked an interest. I am the teacher and therefore use their interest to form their curriculum. We have a schedule every day, including household chores and volunteering that very much make them understand work first, play second and create a firm foundation in responsibility.
    Unschooling, like many things, looks different in each household. In ours, all it takes is a question of, “why wasn’t Jackie Robinson allowed to do what the other baseball players could?” to lead us down another path (after completion of what we already decided to read and learn about).
    My kids are by no means in charge, nor are any of the other homeschoolers we know. That would be utter chaos and no fun for anyone.

  6. Of course it works, as is demonstrated by the literally millions of children who have been “unschooled” recently and over the centuries that led up to organized schooling. In fact, innovation happens not when children are force fed information, but when they are allowed to discover their interests and desire to take those interests to the highest level of “learning”. Sure, I can point out that my 4 children were unschooled and successful in college, and I can point to many others – the difference in my children and the others I know is that we parents, the facilitators of those educations, had and have a vested interest in our children’s success. This is different than “not schooling”. Before my children were allowed to “unschool”, their “preschool” as it was, I made sure to give them a background in successful decision making, and then provided them the tools to make good decisions (about learning). I provided a home environment that focused on discovery and learning – books, enrichment tools, computers, field trips – a farm to grow up on. My kids made the decisions about what they wanted to learn, but the expectation was always there that they would spend their time learning something, not simply vegetating and existing. Parenting is still required.

  7. Since when did Maclean’s start allowing people so completely uninformed on their topic to write? I don’t think there was a single fact or supported opinion in this piece.

    Actually, there is a very successful company that encourages “unworking”: Google.

    Google’s “70/20/10 Rule” is well documented:

    “Google allows employees to spend 70 percent of their time on the core business, 20 percent on related projects, and 10 percent on unrelated new businesses. The engineering and design staff make use of the “free time” to pursue new products and technologies, but even the top-level managers adhere to the rule. ”

    “The rule has a good return on investment since about half of Google’s new product launches occur as a result of that “free” time, according to Vice President of Search Products & User Experience, Marissa Mayer (Eckoff, 2009).”

    (From BenMorrow dot com, “Leadership & Culture at Google Inc.”)