Wednesday, May 19


Hey so speaking of school, I recently heard about a pretty amazing thing called "un-schooling." This is a real thing! Maybe this is something everyone knows about, but it was new to me and I was immediately fascinated. I'm not an expert and it seems to be a contentious topic, so forgive me if I say anything incorrect and/or offensive, but I'm going to share my own thoughts on the unschooling. (I'm obviously not an expert because I call it "the unschooling.")

So if you haven't heard the term before, here's how it was explained to me: I'm sure everyone is familiar with homeschooling, which is basically when parents teach an approved curriculum at home. Unschooling is similar in that you don't go to school and your parents are in charge of your education, but there's no curriculum! The idea is that because children are naturally curious, you should just let them follow their interests and watch them learn whatever they want. OK, you don't just watch them learn, you help. Parents are still very involved in guiding their kids' education, but the kids set the content of the studies. If the kid is interested in dinosaurs, it's all dinosaurs for that month. Then if the kid loves the violin it's all about the violin for a while! Then maybe you combine them and write a song on the violin about dinosaurs! Weird example. But you see the point.

My thoughts about whether or not this is a good thing are immediately conflicted. Because part of me says yes! Children are curious on their own. Everyone is curious on their own. I've learned so much more about things I'm interested in just from reading and caring about them on my own than I ever did in school. I'm the kind of person who, if something is assigned, I instantly rebel and refuse to care. I often was extremely bored in school. But if I come to something on my own I become hugely interested!

Unschooling also addresses one of my main beefs with education -- from kindergarten to college -- which is that there was no context. Ever. You'd jump from learning about triangles to the Civil War to the biology of frogs in the course of a few hours. With no reason! And no context! How can you remember it all? And why should you care? It seemed so random to me. Maybe there is some wisdom at work that creates school curricula, but I could never grasp it. I still can't. My oldest child is only three but I think a lot about what it's going to be like when he goes to school. And because there were so many things I disliked (understatement!) about my own school experience, I'm really interested in other ways of doing things for him.

But on the other hand, isn't letting kids set their own curriculum a bad idea? Won't they just learn about superheroes and videogames? Will they ever choose to learn about something that's difficult yet ultimately good for you to know? If I was unschooled I might lack even the basic math* skills I do possess. I would have a blank look on my face whenever anyone talks about Dickens or Austen or Bronte. Actually that happens now, because even though they were assigned I never read them, but at least I'm basically familiar with what those people wrote. And isn't it a bad thing that our society is becoming so compartmentalized? Wouldn't unschoolers miss out on a big chunk of the life everyone else is living? Isn't it a good thing for a society that we all have things in common, such as hating gym class and school lunch and all the nonsense of public school? School also teaches kids (at least in theory) to work as a group, to get along with all different sorts of kids, and to learn social skills (again, in theory). Those points are probably bigger than the content of what you actually learn and I think some unschooling parents might just want to keep their kids out of school because they distrust society at large and want to shield their kids from that. Is that a good thing?

*Oh, and some of the stuff I've read about homeschooling indicates that "what about math?" is a very common question. I'm not the only one :) The answer given is usually along the lines of "Math is fascinating. Kids only get turned off to it by the boring way school approaches it." (I'm still skeptical. *skeptical face*) But I'm certainly interested. I'm interested in all of it! The website opens with a great quote from Anne Sullivan, of whom I am a particular fan.

I am beginning to suspect all elaborate and special systems of education. They seem to me to be built upon the supposition that every child is a kind of idiot who must be taught to think. Whereas, if the child is left to himself, he will think more and better, if less showily. Let him go and come freely, let him touch real things and combine his impressions for himself, instead of sitting indoors at a little round table, while a sweet-voiced teacher suggests that he build a stone wall with his wooden blocks, or make a rainbow out of strips of coloured paper, or plant straw trees in bead flower-pots. Such teaching fills the mind with artificial associations that must be got rid of, before the child can develop independent ideas out of actual experience.

I find that very hard to argue with! Yet I'm pretty sure I won't "unschool" my kids, and I'm not sure if I would have benefited from it or if I just think I would have. But it certainly is fascinating to me. And if you want to see some kids who are unschooled, here's the piece that was on Good Morning America. It starts with an annoying commercial and I have an irrational dislike of George Stephanopoulos, although I do like how his name reminds me of George Papadapolis from the TV show "Webster." Anyway, it's fascinating stuff! Thoughts? Unschooling is a good idea? Too good to be true? Worst idea ever? Should I pursue the creation of a song about dinosaurs on the violin?


Sara Z. said...

I highly recommend the book Diary of an Autodidact, written by a teen who took on her own education around high school-ish. I think there is something to unschooling for sure. Though when it comes to the kinds of tests that can help you get into colleges, it might cause some problems or setbacks, unless you choose a classical education model/great books college...

Wendy Toliver said...

Along with what Sara said, so much is dependent upon how our kids do on tests. I'm all for alternative types of education but personally, I'm a huge fan of college (and going away from your home for it if at all possible--but that's another entire post) and I would be worried about kids who are "unschooled" if they want to at some point get back into the instated school system.

Alyson Noel said...

I used to serve George Stephanopoulos a bottle of water about 4 or more times a week back when I was working as a NYC flight attendant & he was traveling to & from DC. He always said thanks & kept to himself and that's pretty much all that was required to add someone to "favored passenger status!'

As for school, now that I'm an 'adult' (I use the term loosely) I find myself fascinated with a lot of the subjects I hated in school--science? Bring it! Documentaries? Can't get enough of them! But back then, it all seemed so boring. If they'd told us more about Thomas Jefferson's complicated dating life I might've paid more attention in history, but instead it just seemed like a bunch of old farts who sat around signing documents all day.

Somewhere between school & unschooled is the answer!

Josh Berk said...

I'll check that book out, Sara! Sounds cool. And this is a good point, that it would be very sad if college were not an option due to the way your parents educated you. College ruled! I also recommend it. Although I still don't think I learned anything there, it sure was fun!

And wow, we learned that Alyson served George Stephanopoulos water! I'm so glad I mentioned him! And now I like him more. Or at least dislike him slightly less ;)

Denise Jaden said...

I think in all things, especially when raising children, balance is key. I homeschool my son. I wouldn't call what I do unschooling, exactly, but I don't follow a strict curriculum either. We've found what works for us, and both of us couldn't be happier. I've heard of plenty of homeschooled kids who have gone on to great colleges. Perhaps not "unschooled", but again, I think if unschooling is supplemented with state and national learning outcomes, it shouldn't be too difficult to attain both - feed into what your child desires to learn AND get into a good college.

Jessica Secret said...

All coming from a 14 year-old unschooler:

First of all, we won't just learn about videogames and tv. When we first started unschooling after several years of curriculum that I absolutely hated, we did play a lot of video games and watch too much tv. But, after a while, it became boring. We've had enough. Now I mainly read books, write, and blog as my hobbies.

Of course your child will want to know about literature and authors such as Dickens, Bronte and Austen. You are an author, after all! I haven't read any of those authors books either (I plan to) but I definitely know who they are.

As for what some of the other commenters have said about testing, every year I have to do a test, so I'm well aware of how to take a test. I also take extra activities where tests are required. This also means that I know how to work in a group and socialize and function in society, which seems to be one of your worries as well.

I haven't met many unschoolers, but the ones I have met have been incredibly nice, and driven individuals. True, unschooling may not work for everyone, but it certainly works for my family.

Hope I wasn't too preachy. :)

MeganRebekah said...

Excellent question! I took an Honors course on Ethics in Education in college (almost ten years ago now, yikes!) and the professor used to run a school with a similar type of program. The students set their curriculum and guided the class.

I think it would work great for homeschooling, but ONLY if the parents are very, very involved. I've seen way too many parents who claim to homeschool but the kids aren't doing or learning anything.

Great topic!

Amanda Ashby said...

Being an unnatural mother, I find the idea of having my kids around the house all day pretty revolting!

Plus, while my son would definitely end up with a masters degree in Lego building and my daughter would become the number one authority on how to draw dragons, I'm not sure their social skills would be all that fabulous!

I do agree that kids are definitely drawn to certain things (off the top of my head, I'm going to say the toy stores) but I have no problems fostering their interests and sending them to school at the same time! That way we all stay sane!

jaclyndolamore said...

I was like 80% unschooled!

I am very much for it, because I think the structured part of my education was the absolutely least beneficial part. Math was easy in the basics, and then I struggled with it and despised it. I made it to basic algebra and geometry before she gave up forcing it on me.

But, I will tell you, when I went to work in retail everyone thought I was a math WHIZ. I could figure out percentages for discounts and things like that faster than anyone could dig up a calculator. And when it came time to take the SATs, I spent a few weeks brushing up and scored a quite respectable 620 on the math section.

As for socialization...well, I was lonely as a kid. But homeschooling was very odd back then. There are many more options for homeschooling groups in most places nowadays. (Also, I know plenty of kids who did go to school and were lonely, and worse...alienated or bullied. So it's not like school is necessarily a magical social ticket for everyone.)

And shared experiences? Yeah, I didn't miss those. I thought school kids were a bunch of poor unfortunates who had to get up at the crack of dawn and be told what to do all day. ;D Hey, I had to do it later when I got a job, but at least I was getting paid and I could walk out if I had to.

I do think socialization is important, though. Because some homeschoolers and unschoolers are WEIRD. It's true. But, I just don't think it has to come from school. Join some groups, take some classes... and kids don't need to be run ragged doing something every second of their lives, either. Boredom is good for kids. I'm convinced that's where the most creative moments of childhood come from.

Lauren Baratz-Logsted said...

Great post, Josh! I've lived just long enough that I've learned not to be too judgy about alternatives to the norm. A lot comes down to individuals, and how best a particular individual might thrive. That said, my concern with less conventional forms of education is always that the child may end up with huge gaps where, really, most of us would want the child to have certain basic knowledge. I absolutely am not trashing homeschooling, or unschooling, but I've met at least one homeschooled person with a penchant for saying things along the lines of, "Oh yeah, right, and I suppose you believe dinosaurs once walked the earth too." On the other hand, people with conventional educations can be taught misinformation too, so, bottom line: If it works for you, and you can manage to raise an intelligent and good citizen by alternative means, go for it!

Melissa Walker said...

Josh, I actually wrote an article bout this for ELLEgirl, and I got to go on Fox News LIVE to talk about it. I freaked out a little, but it was interesting.

Here's the story:

Jessica Brody said...

Great posting, Josh! I have an author friend who has unschooled her 6 year old, Benny. I've met him twice and he is by far, the most impressive 6-year old I've ever met. Probably the most impressive child I've ever met, period. He has a natural curiosity about life and thinks about things in a way that I've never seen a child do. It's inspiring. Here's a great article she wrote about her decision to "unschool." She got a lot of criticism for it, but I think it's pretty cool!

Sara Hantz said...

That's so interesting..... though no way I could have done it with my children.... I loved that they went off to school..... it would've driven me mad to have them around all the time (don't tell them I sais that!!!)

Trish said...

I watched my son struggle through middle and grade school. His test scores were at the top of the scale, yet his day-to-day grades stunk because he hated everything about school. I wonder now if he would have benefitted from some sort of unschooling since he is a sponge for knowledge when it is gathered on his own terms.

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