The 'Unschooling' Movement: Letting Children Lead Their Learning
With Meghna Chakrabarti
Is a child who spends the day watching videos or playing in the backyard actually learning? Yes, say advocates of the “unschooling” movement.
Peter Gray, psychology professor at Boston College. Co-founder and president of the nonprofit Alliance for Self-Directed Education. Author of “ Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.”
Michael Apple, professor of curriculum and instruction, and educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
On a typical day for children being unschooled
Maleka Diggs: “Every day has a different tune, and for our family, unschooling or self-directed learning is something that we’ve embraced over the years. It allows them the freedom to be able to explore ideas, thoughts, whether it be read a book or maybe start off and kick off the day watching television. Either way, it’s their decision and my focus becomes to guide them through whatever decisions that they make to ensure that their experience is as fruitful as they’d like it to be.
“It totally begins with freedom. They are morning folks, I am not. At 11 and 13, they are able to prepare their own food. So I don’t have to have that stick of — ‘Oh, let me get up and cook breakfast for my daughters this morning.’ That’s not our case. The beginning starts off with a meal. … And it just progresses from there, whether they have workbooks that they’re interested in. And I think there’s a misnomer when it comes to unschooling that young people don’t use books if it is their choice, most definitely. And that’s what one of my daughters does, she enjoys reading and engaging in workbooks and learning about different topics of her choosing, where my other daughter is very much focused on the humanities. And she loves music and dance and drumming.”
On the decision to unschool
MD: “I was going to take the typical route and do formal education for my daughters. Like many parents, I moved to a neighborhood where the catchment would kind of secure providing quality access to education for my daughters. What that means, in many areas, is that if you are a person of color, as our family is, you, many times, have to move to a predominately white area, and that’s what we did. I went because I wanted to ensure this quality education and I did that. When we got up to the school to enroll my oldest daughter, it was a very difficult moment because the principal there did not believe that I lived in that area, and she asked me for proof of my identification, and several things that were dehumanizing and oppressive, and just marginalizing as a whole. And that was the beginning for me.”
On the unschooling movement
Peter Gray: “I have to say, ‘unschooling’ is not my favorite term. Because it’s kind of a negative term. It says what you’re not doing, and it terms to put other people on the defensive — ‘Oh, you’re not doing school? You’re not doing what we’re doing?’ — instead of saying what you are doing. So I prefer the term ‘self-directed education.’ … It’s not that we don’t believe in education. We believe in education, we just think it works best when children take charge of their education. And the other reason that I don’t use the term ‘unschooling’ in my own writing is because self-directed education can occur in a school-like setting. There are schools for self-directed education. They are not schools that give tests or have a curriculum. There are schools where there’s all kind of opportunity for learning, for interacting with other kids, there are adults to help you if you want to ask the adults to help you, but they’re not going to come to you and say it’s time for you to do this or that. You have to go to them. Much of my research has been in that kind of setting.”
On kids who don’t have self-direction for this type of learning
PG: “This issue of self-directed — what does it mean to be self-directed? I’m an evolutionary psychologist, so I’m interested in human nature and the nature of children. Look at little kids: Have you ever seen a little kid who hasn’t yet gone to school who’s not self-directed? Who’s not just curious and playful and eagerly doing things? They’re exploring the world almost from the moment they’re born. They’re looking around — ‘What’s out there? What’s new? What can I learn about?’ Think of all of the things that children learn before they ever go to school. And this is not just some children that learn it, this is essentially all of the children. They learn their native language from scratch, they learn an enormous amount about the physical world around them and the social world around them. So unschooling is this: What if we just let them continue to do that? Instead of, put them away where their own questions don’t count anymore; where their own play is considered, at best, recess, which is increasingly being taken away, rather than a way of learning; where socialization is almost cut off because they’re not really allowed to talk to one another or to cooperate. … We send them to school and then we wonder why they’re no longer self-motivated, because we’ve taken away the basic motives for learning: curiosity, playfulness, sociability.”
On how unschooling could contribute to challenges for the public school system
Michael Apple: “I think that it’s only a small percent of home-scholers that are doing this, and the research on this is actually quite limited, and mostly limited to middle-class people. We have to remember as well that if you’re going to go into this, you need to be fully dedicated, and the vast majority of parents are working two jobs. They’re being not just unschooled, but deskilled, in terms of their incomes, with incomes falling within minoritized communities, and because of this I am a little more skeptical about whether this is a model I would like most people to follow. I must admit as a parent of an African-American child myself, I am not a romantic about what goes on and I have a good deal of sympathy for what Maleka is struggling to do, and I think successfully. To me the issue is what do we to collectively? The vast majority of students in the United States will never see a self-directed learning program or an unschooled program. They will go to regular public schools, which, by the way, were victories, not only defeats. African-American and Latino and indigenous people were forbidden from going to school. So let’s remember that the school is the last truly public institution. Everything else is being privatized. And there’s massive attacks on teachers and schools, turning them into voucher plans and for-profit schools. And to the extent that the unschooling movement grows, it actually, unfortunately, and certainly not consciously on the part of its participants, it contributes to the attacks on teachers and schools. And it will lead to defunding of public schools, which will be a disaster for many more children than will see an unschooling program.”
From The Reading List
Boston Globe: “ Twenty percent of home-schooled kids are getting ‘unschooled.’ What’s that?” — “‘You want to come see the worm bin?’ asks Mary, a towheaded 9-year-old, who then hustles me to a shed on the edge of an outdoor garden at the JP Green School in Jamaica Plain. Sifting through a green plastic bin, she shows off dark, wet soil teeming with wriggling red worms. ‘The worms break down the compost and it’s good soil and fertilizer for the plants,’ she says. ‘It’s like poop.’ A few steps away, her 10-year-old brother, Jimmy, is standing at a cinder-block wall, painting a mural of a tree that, he says, grows cats in a ‘parallel dimension.’ Other children are helping to build a chicken coop, or just wandering among the gardens of lettuce, cilantro, and wood sorrel.
“Nothing about the scene this Tuesday morning in June looks anything like school — and that’s by design, says Andree Zaleska, the JP Green School’s co-founder and co-director. It was created as a center for ‘unschooling,’ where children are largely free from traditional school structure. ‘Kids are talked at and given busy work, but I don’t think they are absorbing much of what they are taught anyway,’ Zaleska says. She also thinks the sharp decline in recess time at schools ‘damages’ students, affecting their ability to concentrate.
“At the Green School, which is open Monday through Wednesday roughly in line with the school year, children ages 4 to 11 spend 90 minutes a day in science classes, mostly engaged in hands-on work such as dissecting flowers. The rest of the time, they can zoom around on Razor scooters, hack apart logs with hatchets to observe the bugs that fall out, and make smoothies with fresh herbs from the garden. Zaleska says it’s not so much school she’s offering as a traditional childhood — in other words, the exact opposite of jamming preschoolers’ lives with activities meant to help them get into an Ivy.”
Psychology Today: “ A Survey of Grown Unschoolers I: Overview of Findings” — “In a study that preceded the one to be described here, my colleague Gina Riley and I surveyed parents in unschooling families—that is, in families where the children did not go to school and were not homeschooled in any curriculum-based way, but instead were allowed to take charge of their own education. The call for participants for that study was posted, in September, 2011, on my blog (here) and on various other websites, and a total of 232 families who met our criteria for participation responded and filled out the questionnaire. Most respondents were mothers, only 9 were fathers. In that study we asked questions about their reasons for unschooling, the pathways by which they came to unschooling, and the major benefits and challenges of unschooling in their experience.
“I posted the results of that study as a series of three articles in this blog—here, here, and here—and Gina and I also published a paper on it in the Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning (here). Not surprisingly, the respondents in that survey were very enthusiastic and positive about their unschooling experiences. They described benefits having to do with their children’s psychological and physical wellbeing, improved social lives, and improved efficiency of learning and attitudes about learning. They also wrote about the increased family closeness and harmony, and the freedom from having to follow a school-imposed schedule, that benefited the whole family. The challenges they described had to do primarily with having to defend their unschooling practices to those who did not understand them or disapproved of them, and with overcoming some of their own culturally-ingrained, habitual ways of thinking about education.”
KQED: “ How do Unschoolers Turn Out?” — “Peter Gray has studied how learning happens without any academic requirements at a democratic school. The Boston College research professor also wrote about the long history and benefits of age-mixed, self-directed education in his book Free to Learn. Over the years, as he encountered more and more families who had adopted this approach at home (these so-called ‘unschoolers’ are estimated to represent about 10 percent of the more than two million homeschooled children), he began to wonder about its outcomes in that setting. Finding no academic studies that adequately answered his question, he decided to conduct his own.
“In 2011, he and colleague Gina Riley surveyed 232 parents who unschool their children, which they defined as not following any curriculum, instead letting the children take charge of their own education. The respondents were overwhelmingly positive about their unschooling experience, saying it improved their children’s general well-being as well as their learning, and also enhanced family harmony. Their challenges primarily stemmed from feeling a need to defend their practices to family and friends, and overcoming their own deeply ingrained ways of thinking about education.”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.