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The Case for Unschooling

By David Friedman, Blog Post, February 7, 2006

Unschooling is currently in the news, our children (12 and 15) are unschooled, and the best defense is a good offense, so …

One of the assumptions built into the conventional version of K-12 schooling, private and public, is that there is some subset of human knowledge, large enough to occupy most of twelve years of school, that everyone needs to know. That assumption is false. There is a very short list of skills–reading, writing or typing, and simple arithmetic are the only ones that occur to me–that almost everyone will find worth learning. Beyond that, education involves learning things, but not any particular things. The standard curriculum is for the most part an arbitrary list of what happens to be in fashion–the subjects everyone is required to pretend to learn.

Consider, as examples, English composition, American history, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Each will prove very useful so some people, occasionally useful to more, and almost entirely useless to quite a lot. And, although practically every high school graduate is supposed to have learned each of those things, many, probably a majority, have not--as anyone who has taught college freshmen can testify.

A second assumption is that the way for children to learn things is to be told "this is what you must learn today," assigned some reading, and sat down to listen to a teacher. One result is that children spend most of their time being told things they have no interest in knowing. Another, given the diversity of interests and abilities, is that a third of the pupils in a classroom are bored because they already know what is being taught, a third are bored because they are completely lost, and only the middle third are, with luck, listening, understanding and learning. A sufficiently good teacher can improve those numbers somewhat–but sufficiently good teachers are scarce.

One observed result is that most children regard education as unpleasant work, to be avoided when possible. Another is that schools spend six years teaching things–arithmetic, say–that the average kid could learn in a year or two. If he wanted to. A third is that we end up with high school graduates many, perhaps a majority, of whom do not actually know many of the things they have spent all those years pretending to learn.

There is at least one more thing wrong with the conventional model. Judging sources of information on internal evidence is a very important intellectual skill. In the classroom, that skill is anti-taught. The pupil is told things by two authorities–the teacher and the textbook–and his job is to believe what they say. Here again, a sufficiently good teacher may be able to overcome the logic of the setting and teach some degree of critical thinking–but here again, sufficiently good teachers are rare.

One of the great advantages of the Internet, considered as an educational tool, is that it is so obviously an unfiltered medium, leaving it up to each reader to figure out for himself how much to trust his sources of information. It isn't perfect, but at least it is teaching the right lesson instead of the wrong one.

The views I have been expressing are not based on any extensive surveys, but they are based on experience. I went to a first rate private school, my wife to a good suburban public school. Both of us had a few good teachers and classes, but what we most remember is being bored most of the time. I learned more about the English language reading Kipling's poetry for fun and going through a book or two a day, largely Agatha Christie and her competitors, during summer vacation, than I did in English class. I learned more about political philosophy arguing politics with my best friend than I did in social science.

There are a number of alternatives to the conventional model. The one we have chosen is unschooling–leaving our children free to control their own time, learn whatever they find of interest. I sometimes describe it as throwing books at them and seeing which ones stick. In our case the sticky ones included The Selfish Gene (my daughter at about 12), How to Lie With Statistics (both kids), How to Take A Chance (a popular book on probability theory, of especial interest to my son, at about ten, because of his interest in role playing games), and lots of fiction, much of it intended for adults.

No doubt they will end up not knowing several of the things on the standard curriculum–as will many of those subject to it. But my son has learned more history and geography from books and computer games than he would have in elementary school history classes–and avoided the fatal lesson that learning things is boring work, to be avoided whenever possible. My daughter has some catching up to do in math before she is ready for college–but both kids regard solving two equations with two unknowns (and integer solutions) as an entertaining puzzle.

In the background, as I write this, my daughter is practicing on her harp. Without anyone telling her to.

No school, no books, no teacher's dirty looks

By Traci Tamura and Thelma Gutierrez CNN, February 3, 2006

It's a child's dream. Wake up whenever you want, with nobody telling you what to do and when to do it. And here's the kicker: No school to rush off to.

Welcome to the world of "unschooling" -- an educational movement where kids, not parents, not teachers, decide what they will learn that day.

"I don't want to sound pompous, but I think I am learning a little bit more, because I can just do everything at my own pace," said Nailah Ellis, a 10-year-old from Marietta, Georgia, who has been unschooled for most of her life.

Nailah's day starts about 11 a.m., her typical wake-up time. She studies Chinese, reading, writing, piano and martial arts. But there's no set schedule. She works on what she wants, when she wants. She'll even watch some TV -- science documentaries are a favorite -- until her day comes to an end about 2 a.m.

An extension of home-schooling, "unschooling" is when parents give their children total freedom to learn and explore whatever they choose.

According to Holt Associates, an "unschooling" advocacy group, in 2005, about 150,000 children were unschooled, about 10 percent of the estimated 1.5 million home-schooled children in the United States.

The term "unschooling" was first coined in 1977 by John Holt, an education reformer, the founder of Holt Associates and author of the book, "Teach Your Own."

Holt felt traditional home-schooling didn't go far enough. He believed parents should not duplicate schools in their homes. He favored an education more freewheeling in nature, one that depends on the child for direction.

The expectation is that along the way they will get an education.

There are no mandatory books, no curriculum, no tests and no grades. Nailah's parents are in touch with the local school district and she takes the district's required tests.

While "unschooling" could be characterized as the ultimate indulgence by a parent, Nailah's stay-at-home mother, Barbara Ellis, doesn't see it that way.

"When you get to travel around, that's education to me. That's learning. You're doing it firsthand. You're not reading it from a book. You are not hearing it from a teacher," Ellis said.

But proponents of the public education system suggest these children may be missing a key part of the educational experience.

"There is nothing like the texture of kids having contact with each other, making friends and relating to different adults in a school setting," said David Tokofsky, a longtime educator and member of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education.

Nailah, who would be in 4th grade if she attended a regular school, seems to enjoy the "unschooled" lifestyle, even if she's a bit confused when asked what exactly she is learning.

"I actually don't know what I'm learning," Nailah said. "I think I'm just having a good time."


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Last modified: February 7, 2006

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