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Who Needs School?

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A growing number of parents are reportedly "unschooling" their children, removing them from traditional schools and letting their interests determine their curriculum. Coined in the late 1970s, the term "unschooling" generally means adopting a more open-ended, student-driven form of education where the teacher or parent serves as a facilitator or guide rather than an instructor. Advocates say it enourgages some students' curiousity and makes them more interested in learning, while critics say it fails to teach students what they need to know.

What do you think is behind the growing unschooling movement? What do children gain or lose by it? What could teachers in traditional schools learn from it, if anything?

20 Comments

I have taught children in middle and high school for 19 years. From what I have observed from students and their parents, especially in the area of behaviors and discipline, there are very few parents who can fill the role of the teacher or facilitator. Frequently they tell teachers and administrators in school that they cannot control their children, which would tend to nonschool their children. If the children will not listen to the parent regarding disciplinary measures, they certainly will not listen when it comes to schooling or nonschooling either one.

I have been an early childhood educator for over 20 years now, and I currently teach and mentor in a university-based lab school. In the field of early education, project-based, child-centered emergent curriculum is what I find to be the most developmentally appropriate way to educate young children (ages 3-8). What critics are currently saying about "traditional" education (especially under the strict confines of NCLB) is that those schools don't focus enough on critical thinking, collaboration and the proper integration of subject areas so that students can see topic connections across the curriculum. In my experience, when students have the opportunity to help guide their own learning, they are more interested in school and they gain the confidence to actively seek answers to their questions. A highly qualified and experienced educator knows how to develop their lessons and activities so that they can idividualize instruction for their students while simultaneoulsy designing an appropriate learning environment that will develop all skills and scaffold student learning. When these factors are in place, most students learn what they need to know and much more!

I recommend elementary schools (and teachers) investigate the research and works done by Lilian Katz, Sylvia Chard, and Judy Harris-Helm or explore the website www.projectapproach.org. They speak very eloquently about how to effectively teach, assess and document student learning in a project-based way. Schools that have more autonomy over their curriculum (or who are led by administrators that believe in best practice) have had great success with this approach to teaching and learning. My lab school is just one of them!

I have been in the classroom teaching General Ed and RSP for 10 years. I currently am finishing up my credential. I also have a 12 year old son that is not a typical student and does not do well with book learning traditions. Because of this he is looked at as a behavior problem. Sometimes yes and sometimes no. When given projects and hands on he does incredibly well. I agree with the last poster, most parents can not do well as educator, facilitator, or counselor; but because of the trials and tribulations of my own experience sometimes I lean in the direction of home schooling. It gets frustrating trying to explain his learning abilities every year and having teachers fight me on what I already know about my son. Although not in favor of it, I would like to try it. I feel school environment is the best for all children. There is nothing to compare to the friendships and experiences students share while in school, this is somehting you can not achieve at home.

A factor behind unschooling is simple dissatisfaction with the current state of education. One size fits all approaches to testing, NCLB mandates and ongoing disputes over funding, texts and class size have driven many away from public education. Its time to face facts - the system is broken and needs restructuring - not just another patch. This 19th century agrarian vision of the school calendar, the factory like buildings of the 20th century with their shift change bells, and the administrators and unions that fight change to protect their political turf have lead us to this point. Unschooling, home schooling, charter schools, etc, etc, etc - these are the symptoms of a terminally ill system. What do we do? That's for another discussion - this one just asks what might be behind the movement.

I have seen some excellent results when parents are educated, well motivated and using good materials. On the other hand, I know several students who were given passing grades by the parent when they know little.

It takes intellegent and dedicated parents to make home school work. The time investment is large. I am suspect of some of the material out there.

What we can learn from this is that the public schools need to:
1) Provide a higher quality educational experience especially in the core subjects. (That is where parents think quality is lacking.)
2) Improve school discipline and safety. (Many parents do not want their child mingling with "that roudy bunch".)

Perhaps one reason for unschooling is the reluctance of parents to have their child fit into what is quickly becoming a "cookie cutter" approach to education. If all children are taught curricula that will ensure their success on standaridized assessments, then they will likely all know, think and perhaps act the same instead of being able to think and reason for themselves. Perhaps a form of socialism?

A variety of methods is needed for a variety of students, however, letting interest determine curriculum implies that all children know what is best for their future. That is a pretty big burden for an eight year old.
Good projects are effective learning tools, but we must be careful not to substitute building, drawing, or cut and paste from the Internet for reading and math. High level thinking and reasoning in today's world require high levels of reading and math.

Picture, if you will, the face of a clock. From 12:00 to 1:00 is what we know (K). From 1:00 to 2:00 is what we don't know (DK). From 2:00 back around to 12:00 is DKDK--we don't know what we don't know.

This is how I view education. The small amount of what we know and what we don't know is but a fraction of what we don't know that we don't know. That is what education is for. If I had not been exposed to astronomy, archaeology, geometry, and a thousand other topics and had been allowed only to pursue what I really love--reading and literature--I wouldn't have even known about these other topics. By being forced to take subjects outside my primary interest areas, I became a more well-rounded individual who can pick up a copy of Smithsonian, Discover Magazine, Time Magazine, Audubon, and other publications and be able to read about things I know something about. Would I have found these magazines interesting if I had not been exposed to ideas in my schooling? Perhaps--eventually. But having been in classes with various topics being discussed and learned, at least I have some background for these topics.

The other day, I was having a booksigning and a young mother came into the bookstore with five children. The children were very well behaved, and wandered about the store like little adults. They appeared to be seeing people around them for the first time. They did not touch anything, but were perfect little people who smiled politely. I thought, "I'll bet they are being home schooled."
They were. Their mother told me later as she purchased one of my books for middle grade students. "It works," she said, "but it isn't easy." She looked tired.

There is something a little bit sad about the so easily identifiable home schooled child. Perhaps they are missing an opportunity to interact with other people and are limited by their family environment in a very protected way that does give them a chance to learn freely or to develop an independent thought. As they grow, their learning environment doesn't change at all. I wonder how the parents can be absolutely everything to their children, and isn't that limiting? I'm not sure I should be writing this, because I am only writing what I observed recently and not what I know for sure. Home schooling seems to be based on fear.

"We are not going to let anybody influence our children." Children are more flexible than that, and they must feel isolated by not being allowed to participate in the world as it is. Perhaps their academic life becomes advanced, but their social skills are not allowed to progress daily outside the family structure. Maybe that's good. I don't really know, but I felt sad to see these children acting so adult. Childhood is such a wonderful time, and every child deserves to have it.

And then again there is the little spoiled brats that scream they want everything. Maybe I should erase this whole bit, but I won't it took me too long to write it.

We chose to homeschool our children, even though we live in an area with very good public schools. My wife has done 95% of the work, and loves it - although it has been a lot of work. Our girls get individual attention, work at their pace (which we have found is quicker that the public school) and we can modify our schedule as needed.
The girls have ample opportunity for social interaction, and honestly like school.
Home schooling - It's all good!

I am a former high school mathematics teacher. I am now a full-time mom, and my husband and I have decided to homeschool our children. I earned my masters degree in Curriculum & Instruction/Mathematics a year ago, and I did my graduate thesis on the homeschooling choice, so I have researched it extensively.

I would just like to make a few comments in response to some of the posts I've read. First of all, there are a myriad of different reasons why parents choose to homeschool their children; please don't assume that it is based on fear.

Socialization is the number one criticism of homeschooling. I believe this is because most people (including myself) have spent countless hours in school during their childhoods and teen years, and it is difficult to fathom that you can have social experiences at that age outside of that realm. I understand this, but consider for a moment how artificial it is to age-segregate children. As an adult, are all of your friends, co-workers, etc. the same exact age as you are? Are you all at the same point in your lives? Homeschooled children are generally not kept at home in isolation. We go out into the community and are constantly around all sorts of people. My daughter is socially well adjusted, has lots of friends, and is involved in many activities. If I were trying to isolate her, which is often the perception of homeschoolers, I wouldn't be running around so much every week! :) Are there some homeschooled children who are isolated? Are there some who are not socially well adjusted? Of course. But isn't that true of children in public schools as well?

Our decision to homeschool largely has to do with the advantage of individualized instruction. Our daughter isn't necessarily a super-genius or anything, but she is very bright. If she were going to public school, she would be beginning kindergarten this coming fall. She is currently reading at a second-grade level, yet she would be presented with letters and letter-sounds in school. At home I can allow her to learn at her own level, and progress at her own pace.

I love teachers - they are, by and large, absolute angels. They do what they do because they love it, and it is one of the hardest jobs out there. The lack of respect afforded to teachers by society still burns me, "easy 'part-time' job, short hours, snow days, summers off, etc." You know the rant. Most teachers do the best they can. They do what most people can't. They often have to deal with kids whose own parents have no control. They have do endure some administrators who are ineffective or combative. They have to abide by perpetually increasing restrictions and mandates over which they have basically no input. And all this for very little pay. I insist again, I love teachers. But they cannot compete with the individualized education I can give my children. And the chaos that is too-often prominent in schools? Yes, I can do without that. Maybe I am protecting my children. But if I don't, who will?

Teachers could learn to be less rigid in their lesson plans and more open to student individuality. Teachers who differentiate instruction are on the right path. What unschooling parents and some teachers realize is that children are learning all of the time. It's not something we can control. However, we can certainly influence the natural process by providing our children with a smorgasbord of ideas and opportunities. Unschooling parents this as well as that children learn best when they are actively engaged in a subject. Because of this understanding, unschooling parents choose to follow their children's lead in terms of what to study. Unschoolers do their best to provide hands-on experiences as well as discuss the many, many questions and topics that their children address. Such parents maintain a very positive and interactive rapport with their children which naturally serves as the backdrop for learning. Unschooled children join all kinds of extracurricular activities that they otherwise wouldn't have the necessary time, if they were in the traditional, factory modeled, school setting. For example, these children join Boy Scouts, baseball, basketball, private piano lessons, choir, football, science classes at children's/science museums, community college specialty classes, Lego competitions, and so many other interesting things. There are just too many opportunities to name them all. These kids also get to enjoy all of the museums during the weekdays when the places are quite accessible rather than the crowded chaos most parents and children have to endure on the weekends. This factor alone lends itself to more time to learn with the interactive exhibits provided by the many children's museums. The children gain all of this and a personal teacher. Traditional schools simply can not compare to what unschooling (& homeschooling) scenarios have to offer. To reiterate, these students have the luxury of having a very small class size, indivualized guidance, ample time for unique learning experiences and extracurricular activities, as well as having a truly caring, invested teacher. The end result is that unschooled children love to learn, learn independently, and think for themselves! For what more could a child ask?

When discussing a particular educational instructional theory, one must realize that there are millions of students in the United States. What is effective in educating one will not be educationally effective for all. Most children I work with would not do well in an unschooled setting. They would love it, and might become experts in video games, but would not exhibit the needed discipline to become a well-rounded educated individual. Parents must make the decision for their child as to what is educationally best. Children are CHILDREN! Just because they like eating chocolate ice cream does not mean I should allow them to choose to eat chocolate ice cream morning, noon, and night. Most children do not have well developed enough brains to make mature decisions about what to study. Does this mean that unschooling should never be used? Of course not. But parents should not choose it simply because the concept is growing in popularity. Unschooling should be chosen because it is the best solution for their childs education. As an educator of 17 years, I believe there is a very small percentage of students that would be successful pursuing this educational style.

Unschooling is more like igniting a fire in a child’s desire to learn as opposed to force-feeding bits of information. Unschooling is more of a philosophy on how children learn than a method. Unschoolers reckon that there is no singular best method to teach children. The focus is on discovering children’s interests and utilizing those to facilitate knowledge acquisition and cultivating interest in other areas. One must recognize that the subjects of the world are inextricably tied to one another and that traditional schools separate these subjects into distinct areas of study. I suppose one could relate an unschooler’s experience to a typical student’s experience in a classroom where the teacher utilizes an integrated approach to teaching the various subject areas as well as capitalizes on students’ interests and developmental levels. A significant difference would be that an unschooler has the whole world as his classroom with an individual tutor as his guide. The unschooling parent has the luxury of knowing his or her student better than a non-parent teacher ever could. This parent also has the luxury of time and freedom to teach and/or guide without the constraints imposed upon them by the federal and state governments. Because of these basic factors, unschooling parents have a significant advantage over classroom teachers. There are millions of excellent classroom teachers, who if given the chance to teach/guide 5 or fewer students for the entire school day for 365 days a year, would achieve remarkable results. Unfortunately that is not the reality of the traditional American classroom. However, I have no doubt that excellent classroom teachers could achieve extremely outstanding results given the opportunity to facilitate student learning in a non-restrictive environment. And this is what unschooling parents have the luxury of doing for their children. As a matter of fact, in the United States alone there are at least thousands of former classroom teachers who are unschooling their children because they have realized the inherent limitations of the school system. Although my children attend public school, I cultivate in them a desire to learn much in the way that an unschooling parent does. The only reason I do not unschool my children is that I simply am not that self-sacrificing. While they’re in school I can pursue my own interests. I.e. career. I admire and commend those parents who give up much of their own pursuits and financial gain to stay home and guide their children’s academic, social, and emotional development. Unschooling is an awesome feat of time, understanding, and love.

Education was a natural response to early civilizations to the struggle of surviving and thriving as a culture. Schooling, therefore, occurs when society or a group or an individual sets up a curriculum--what is to be learned, simply put--to educate people. Can 'unschooling' be understood or seen as the opposite of that?
Correct me if I am wrong, I believe that parents are becoming smarter and more concerned about their children's welfare in pondering about the purpose of education and what it is supposed to be successful at .
According to Kohn(2004), the best sort of schooling is organized around projects*, problems--any situation for which an apparent course of actions is not obvious--and questions. Knowledge is acquired in a context and for a purpose, contended Kohn(2004). The emphasis is on depth and on discovering ideas rather than prescribed curriculum, explained Kohn(2004).
Kohn(2004)pointed out that the mind can be disciplined to ask the following questions:
1)How do we know what we know?
2)Whose perspective is that?
3)How is this related to that?
4)How might things have been otherwise? and,
5)Why is this important?
It is the ability to raise and answer those questions, as well as the disposition to do so that matter. Any set of intellectual objectives, any description of what it means to think deeply and critically, should be accompanied by a reference to one's interest or intrinsic motivation to do such thinking, contended Kohn(2004). Of course, children will always need guidance and structure. If unschooling failed in past, as a colleague mentioned in a previous response, it did so perhaps because children lack structure. Unschooling requires parents to have a clear vision and understanding of what their children's needs. Parents also need to be ready to take their responsibility in acting as a guide, not leaving it up to the children to decide how they will go about it.
"Historian Joel Spring pointed out, you would have been branded a radical(or worse)for suggesting that our educational system is geared to meeting the needs of business. Today, corporations not only acknowledge that fact but complain when they think schools aren't adequately meeting their needs. It's up to the rest of us to firmly tell them to mind their own business", explained Kohn (2004).
Will the children or the parents be responsible to establish structure? or should we even talk about structure because this would refer to 'instructional methods'? How long would it take a child to acquire the knowledge and master necessary skills? Is it necessary to have 13 years of mandatory schooling since unschooled children seem to accomplish more in less time?
In this article, project is defined as:
"Any series of activities and tasks that:
--have a specific objective to be completed within certain specifications,
--have defined start and end dates,
--have funding limits (if applicable)
--consume human and nonhuman resources(money, people, equipment)
--are multifunctional(cut across several functional lines)" (Kerzner, 2006).

Reference

Kerzner, H (Eds.).(2006). Project management: A systems approach to planning, scheduling, and controlling. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publications.

Kohn, A. (2004). What does it mean to be well-educated? Boston, MA:Bacon Press Books.

Education was a natural response to early civilizations to the struggle of surviving and thriving as a culture. Schooling, therefore, occurs when society or a group or an individual sets up a curriculum--what is to be learned, simply put--to educate people. Can 'unschooling' be understood or seen as the opposite of that?
Correct me if I am wrong, I believe that parents are becoming smarter and more concerned about their children's welfare in pondering about the purpose of education and what it is supposed to be successful at .
According to Kohn(2004), the best sort of schooling is organized around projects*, problems--any situation for which an apparent course of actions is not obvious--and questions. Knowledge is acquired in a context and for a purpose, contended Kohn(2004). The emphasis is on depth and on discovering ideas rather than a prescribed curriculum, explained Kohn(2004).
Kohn(2004)pointed out that the mind can be disciplined to ask the following questions:
1)How do we know what we know?
2)Whose perspective is that?
3)How is this related to that?
4)How might things have been otherwise? and,
5)Why is this important?
It is the ability to raise and answer those questions, as well as the disposition to do so that matter. Any set of intellectual objectives, any description of what it means to think deeply and critically, should be accompanied by a reference to one's interest or intrinsic motivation to do such thinking, contended Kohn(2004). Of course, children will always need guidance and structure. If unschooling failed in past, as a colleague mentioned in a previous response, it did so perhaps because children lacked structure, not because unschooling itself was a bad move. Unschooling requires parents to have a clear vision and understanding of their children's needs to cater to them. Parents also need to be ready to take their responsibility in acting as a guide, not leaving it up to the children to decide how they will go about it. Children will always be inquisitive but they should not get into the viscious cycle of 'trials and errors' indefinitely,since valuable time would be wasted. This is the reason why parents must act as a guide to structure their children's inquiry and learning activities.
"Historian Joel Spring pointed out, you would have been branded a radical(or worse)for suggesting that our educational system is geared to meeting the needs of business. Today, corporations not only acknowledge that fact but complain when they think schools aren't adequately meeting their needs. It's up to the rest of us to firmly tell them to mind their own business", explained Kohn (2004).
Will the children or the parents be responsible to establish structure? or should we even talk about structure because this would refer to 'instructional methods'? How long would it take for a child to acquire the knowledge and to master necessary skills? Is it necessary to have 13 years of mandatory schooling since unschooled children seem to accomplish more in less time though not gifted?
In this article, PROJECT is defined as:
"Any series of activities and tasks that:
--have a specific objective to be completed within certain specifications,
--have defined start and end dates,
--have funding limits (if applicable)
--consume human and nonhuman resources(money, people, equipment)
--are multifunctional(cut across several functional lines)" (Kerzner, 2006).

Reference

Kerzner, H (Eds.).(2006). Project management: A systems approach to planning, scheduling, and controlling. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publications.

Kohn, A. (2004). What does it mean to be well-educated? Boston, MA:Bacon Press Books.

This is another of those conversations like public vs private, public vs charter, big school vs small school, middle school vs junior high vs k-8.

The results of any applied research generally come up murky, and for good reason. There is nothing in any of the structures that relates to quality. High quality schooling is more effective than poor quality unschooling, and vice versa. If nothing else, unschooling is not terribly efficient, unless one lives on the prairie at a great distance from one's neighbors. Meanwhile, we have a great need to provide quality education to the great mass of children, in order to ensure the economic viability of this country.

Schools: False Public Utilities.

"Schools at first glance give the impression of being equally open to all comers. In fact, they're only open to those who consistently renew their credentials", noticed Illich (1963). "Schools", He explained, "are presumed essential for attaining the competence required by a society which uses modern technology". Illich(1963)contended that schools are based upon the equally spurious hypothesis that learning is the result of curricular teaching.
Illich(1963) argued that schools pervert the natural inclination to grow and learn into the demand for instruction. "By making man abdicate the responsibility for their own growth", he explained, "School leads many to a kind of spiritual suicide." According to Illich(1963), school is a perfect system of regressive taxation, where the privileged graduates ride on the back of the entire paying public. School, therefore, puts a tax on promotion. Illich(1963) pointed out that the value of a man's schooling is a function of the numbers of years completed and the costliness of the schools he has attended. While the law compels no one to drive, it obliges everyone to go to school!
"The analysis of institutions according to their present placement on a left-right continuum enables me to clarify my belief that fundamental social change must begin with a change of consciousness about institutions and to explain why the dimension of a viable future turns on the rejuvenation of institutional style"(Illich, 1963).
Who needs school, you asked?

Illich, I. (1963). De-schooling society. New York, NY: Marion Boyars Publishers.

As a part of growth and development, children need to associate with there peers on many levels. Unschooling children will stunt this valuable part of their communication on a broad scale. Children who are interacting and interchanging ideas and different social behaviors in various settings will help them in the long run. Depriving children of this may affect future relationships on a personal or social level.

As a home educator I have tasted the bitterness of being stereotyped by public school teachers and have fallen guilty of stereotyping teachers as well. I have determined that there are many misunderstood concepts of home education. Home school is indeed not for all parents, but neither is public education for all students. I agree that it is difficult to understand how a child's education could be self-lead. I will give you a couple of examples. My daughter enjoys cooking and sewing. She learns fractions, quantites, measurements, angles, ratios, decimals, and many other areas of math through this interest. When she demonstrates a life skill using these math concepts, she is shown the math problems that were designed by teachers. She understands with no delay and completes her math. My daughter enjoys running track. She graphs her endurance, researches health/ nutrition, reads the history of runners, reads the history of the Olympics. These are just two examples of how one self educates.

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