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.