A Study of Unschoolers

Idzie Desmarais, an unschooled speaker/blogger. (Image from her Youtube channel)

Idzie Desmarais, an unschooled speaker/blogger.
(Image from her Youtube channel)

I worked with homeschoolers for several years before I heard the term “unschooling.” It took me a while to learn that it refers to several different kinds of homeschooling, but they all involve shying away from learning schedules, curricula, and specific learning goals. Rather than focusing on textbooks and lesson plans, unschoolers learn through everyday experiences, and while traditional homeschooling is directed primarily by the parents, unschooling is directed primarily by the children. According to most unschooling philosophies, children are naturally curious. If you let them experience life, they will come up with their own questions, and at that point, parents can either teach them or help them find answers on their own.

Having spent most of my early career as a university professor, I was skeptical of unschooling. Over time, I have met several adults who were unschooled, and I am not nearly as skeptical as I once was. However, the scientist in me wants more than just a few anecdotes about unschooling. I want to see studies, and there haven’t been very many. One small study in Canada showed that while traditionally-homeschooled students were academically superior to their publicly-schooled peers, unschooled students (the study calls them “unstructured” homeschoolers) were academically inferior. The authors point out that their unschooling group was too small to make that conclusion statistically significant.

Of course, it’s not clear what “academically inferior” means when it is applied to unschoolers, because the goals of unschooling are rather different from the goals of public schools, private schoools, and traditional homeschools. Thus, I want to see a lot more studies of unschoolers. I would like to know more about the parents’ goals, the outcomes (academic and non-academic), and the adults that it produces. Fortunately, I recently stumbled across a study that was published four years ago, and it sheds some light on unschooling and those who practice it.

To my surprise, I learned that it was published in the The Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning. I did not know about this journal, so I will probably spend some time looking through its other articles. That might lead to more posts about unschooling. For right now, however, I would like to discuss this particular study, which is entitled “The Challenges and Benefits of Unschooling, According to 232 Families Who Have Chosen that Route.” As the title implies, this study focused on the experiences of families that identify themselves as unschoolers. It didn’t compare them to other families. It simply probed the thoughts of a reasonably-sized group of unschoolers.

Not surprisingly, one of the overall conclusions is that unschoolers are diverse. Indeed, the group couldn’t even agree on a definition of unschooling. In the end, the authors of the study split the group into three different categories, based on the level of student direction. 43.5% of the parents said that they were completely directed by the children. When the children asked about things, the parents eagerly taught them or helped them learn. Otherwise, the children were free to play and explore the world. 41.4% of them said that they offered a small amount of guidance, attempting to motivate the students to learn in specific situations. 15.1% were categorized as “relaxed homeschoolers.” In these families, the parents had some specific educational goals in mind, but they still mostly allowed the children to direct their own learning. I happen to know a promoter of relaxed homeschooling, Dr. Mary Hood, and I have appreciated her outlook and advice to homeschoolers.

Nearly 91% of the families had tried something else before unschooling. 43.5% had sent at least one of their children to school but became frustrated with certain aspects of that kind of education. 47.4% tried a more traditional approach to homeschooling first, but eventually developed a preference for unschooling. Most of the unschoolers studied were influenced by an author who promoted unschooling. The most popular authors were John Holt (a longtime proponent of unschooling), John Taylor Gatto (an award-winnning public school teacher who despises the American educational system), and Sandra Dodd (author of The Big Book of Unschooling). There were several authors mentioned, and I got two surprises from the list. First, Dr. Mary Hood (the “relaxed homeschooler” I know) was not on the list, and Dr. Susan Wise Bauer was. I also am acquainted with Dr. Bauer, and I get the distinct impression that she is not a fan of unschooling!

Of course, based on the title, you would expect some discussion of the challenges and benefits of unschooling. Not surprisingly, 43.5% said that overcoming the negative attitudes of extended family members, friends, and strangers was a big challenge. More surprisingly, 41.4% said that restraining their own culturally-ingrained desire to strongly direct their children’s education was an issue. They wanted to stay “true” to the unschooling method, even though at times they rebelled against it themselves! There were other challenges mentioned by study participants, including having difficulty finding like-minded individuals with whom they could share ideas and make friends.

What about the benefits? More than half thought that unschooling fit their children better than other methods, and more than half also said there were lots of emotional and social benefits. According to the authors:

They said that their children were happier, less stressed, more self-confident, more agreeable, and/or more socially outgoing than they would be if they were in school or being schooled at home.

The authors mentioned that most thought unschooling promoted better learning, but there wasn’t any specific mention about whether or not the parents thought their children were better off academically than other students. Of course, that’s probably not something the parents worry about. One of the more interesting bits in the study was a quote from a Master’s thesis that was written about ten years ago. The quote says:

If the criterion is happy children who grow into self motivated people with a love of learning – well then, yes, unschooling does work.

I haven’t read that thesis, so I am not sure how the author supports her statement. However, I do think it encapsulates the overall goal of many unschoolers.

Another thing I learned is that while there aren’t many studies on unschooled graduates, there are some who have taken it upon themselves to write about their experiences after being unschooled. Idzie Desmarais (pictured at the top of this post), for example, has a blog entitled “I’m Unschooled. Yes, I Can Write.” Kate Fridkis has a blog that hasn’t been updated in a while. Peter Kowalke has made a documentary entitled Grown Without Schooling, and he writes for Life Learning Magazine. I plan to spend time with these resources in an attempt to better understand unschooling.

So do I think unschooling is a good thing? I suspect it is good for some people. There are probably children who would thrive in an unschooling format, and there are probably others who would never learn much of anything. As always, I think that the parents are the best qualified people to make such a decision – not the government, not the “educational establishment,” and certainly not me! Most parents (not all!) are motivated by love for their children, and most of the time, I think that they will make the best choices when it comes to their children’s future. I am discussing this study and these resources specifically so that parents can be better informed when making those choices.

10 Comments

  1. Cynthia Youngblood says:

    I have heard of unschooling, but I really don’t know much about it. I look forward to hearing more about it in future blog posts.

    I notice you will be speaking at a conference in Manchester, MO from July 13 -15. I will be traveling to Missouri on the 16th but will move my trip up a couple of days. Do you have a schedule for when you will be speaking on the 14th and 15th?

    1. Jay Wile says:

      Please come to my publisher’s booth and see me while you are there, Cynthia. Here is the complete schedule. My talks will be as follows:

      Thursday 7 PM: Why Homeschool Through High School
      Friday 11 AM: Homeschooling: The Environment for Genius
      Friday 2 PM: Reasonable Faith: The Scientific Case for Christianity
      Friday 5 PM: Teaching Elementary Science Using History as a Guide
      Saturday 11 AM: Teaching the Junior High and High School Sciences at Home
      Saturday 2 PM: Teaching Critical Thinking

      1. Cynthia Youngblood says:

        Thank you for the information. I hope I can work it out to be there, at least for Saturday.

  2. Jake says:

    I too look forward to hearing what you discover about unschooling, as I believe you’ll actually present a fair picture. I could probably try to do so were I researching it, but I am very biased (indeed, I read some of Desmarais’s blog and was not impressed): Unschooling tastes philosophically problematic to me, as does most resistance to structure qua structure. We don’t pop out inherently good at asking questions, or at realizing what it’s important to ask questions about. Nor is just doing whatever – having no rules – very possible in society. Seems too Rousseauian and whimsical, and the opposite of what someone who understands human fallenness would come up with. And so I wonder: how much of this sounds like what you thought about unschooling in the past, and is any of it part of what you now consider yourself “not nearly as skeptical” about?

    1. Jay Wile says:

      My initial skepticism was based on my own experience with students. I think children are naturally curious, but only about a few things. Thus, I don’t see how student-directed education could be broad enough to be truly effective. However, the adults I have met who were unschooled do seem to have attained a reasonable education. As a result, my skepticism is reduced, but it is far from eliminated.

  3. Jen says:

    I would also recommend that you research Thomas Jefferson Education if you are not familiar with it. It has several phases. Basically “Unschooling” at beginning, then love of learning, then the scholar phase where kids want to work hard because the aren’t burned out and love learning!

    P.S. It was great to see you at ICHE last weekend. While we read your Biology book this week, we could put a face with the voice speaking to us!

  4. John D. says:

    I’m skeptical. Sounds like something B.F. Skinner hatched up . I hate saying that… The idea of unschooling, along with so many other “utopian” rubrics, does tug at my heart strings. However, in looking back at my schooling, I realize that I simply wouldn’t have learned math if it weren’t for painstaking and agonizing failure after failure accompanied with the pressure put on by academia. I hated it. But I persevered. And I got pretty good at my least favorite subject.

    My former liberal (atheistic) self was intent on believing that we could make life a well oiled, perfectly formed, and easy going operation here on earth – Essentially Walden Two. God just didn’t intend that – yet. For now I believe that in all matters we are promised endless toil.

  5. This is unschooling to me: a person has their entire life to pick up a math book, but only one childhood; it shouldn’t be wasted behind a school desk.

  6. Victor Da Silva says:

    Surfing in Internet, I came across a interesting articule. Perhaps the result of proteins found in dinosaurs is a contamination of new(recent) proteins. Check it out: http://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/collagen-from-a-tyrannosaurus-rex-bone-proves-jurassic-park-will-never-exist/

    1. Jay Wile says:

      Not surprisingly, the article you reference has little in common with the paper upon which it is based. Whenever a source says that something is “proven” in science, you should immediately be skeptical, since science cannot prove anything. That is something in the realm of mathematics and logic, not science.

      The actual paper simply points out that contamination cannot be ruled out, especially when trying to determine the sequence of the collagen. Here is their actual conclusion:

      Our results suggest that cross-contamination should not be so readily dismissed as the likely source of collagen matched in earlier studies, thereby yielding the false-positive results for supposed dinosaur-derived collagen. The most recent 2017 study does not find their unique dinosaur peptide (which we show as producing a good match for the homologous ostrich peptide) and entirely matches alligator. Yet in both studies, the levels of deamidation were suspiciously low, which can be used to detect recent contamination. Hence, we urge that appropriate measures to test for endogeneity should remain an important part of the scientific process. The axiom that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence still stands and the case for dinosaur proteins is clearly no exception.

      I note their finding that the “levels of deamidation were suspiciously low.” They are low if you believe the fossils are millions of years old. They are not low if you believe (as I do) that the fossils are thousands of years old. Of course, as the authors suggest, they may be the result of contamination. More tests that the materials actually belonged to the dinosaurs, such as what was done in Armitage’s study, should be performed.