My Concerns about Unschooling

I have a friend who unschools her two children, and is passionate about unschooling as an educational method. Here children are ten and eight now, and she’s been unschooling them since her oldest hit kindergarten. She takes them to museums and art shows and cultural festivals, she takes them to living history parks and art classes and science programs, she takes them to planetarium shows and on county geological field trips and to the library. Their home is full of material that is intellectually stimulating and interesting reading for people of all ages, and awash in toys and games that encourage learning. She introduces her children to new experiences and new subjects to help them learn what they like, and is quick to find a class or field trip for whatever they find interesting. My friend puts a lot of effort into being the facilitator of student-directed learning, and her children are growing up in an engaging educational atmosphere with a mother who listens to their needs and desires.

If that is what unschooling is, I have no problem with it. And often, this is indeed exactly what it is—leaving aside grades and textbooks and curriculum plans and instead raising children in an educationally rich environment where the parent serves as a facilitator to student-led learning, learning that is not limited to school hours but instead simply incorporated into life itself.

Sadly, though, I’ve also seen unschooling invoked as a cover for bad homeschool environments. I know a girl whose parents stopped educating her when she was elementary aged. Her father was abusive and never held a job, so instead he put his children to work cleaning houses, pet sitting, etc., and took the money they earned to pay rent. When she was 17 she came to me, distraught. She told me she very much wanted to get a college education, but not only had no textbooks to learn from but was actually kept so busy she wasn’t allowed time to study. I recently told this story to a passionate current homeschooler I know, and her response was: “Oh! She was unschooled!” This wasn’t said in a negative way, but rather as affirmation of this girl’s parents’ actions—the girl wasn’t going uneducated, I was assured, she was simply being unschooled. I’ve seen way to many homeschoolers, when faced with a bad homeschool environment where education was not taking place, respond by saying that actually everything was just fine, the family was simply “unschooling.” And that’s not okay.

Sadly too, I have also seen unschooling used as a cover for lazy homeschooling. I recently told the story of a young woman named Sarah, who grew up homeschooled in a state without any oversight or assessment requirements and never actually studied science. She told me that her mother had textbooks, and planned to get through them with her and her siblings, but just never actually did—and that her mother used “unschooling” as an excuse for this failure. Unschooling, Sarah said, functioned in her family as an excuse her mother made to be lazy. It wasn’t something her mother did with intent or care—it was just something her mother would throw out as an excuse when she felt bad about the fact that they weren’t getting through the work she had originally planned. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen unschooling used this way either.

I’m totally fine with unschooling when it involves the parent serving as a facilitator of child-led learning in an educationally rich atmosphere in which the parent listens to the needs and desires of the child. What I’m not okay with is unschooling serving as an excuse for not schooling or as a way to give a pass to exploitative child labor or bad homeschooling situations. And you know what? Unschoolers shouldn’t be okay with that either. 

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • AnonaMiss

    How does teaching something like math – sums, products, fractions, long division etc. – work in even the most diligent unschooling curriculum? So much of basic math is memorization, both of results (e.g. single-digit sums and products) and processes (e.g. drilling procedures of equation solving, long division, properties of logarithms), so that when you get to the next step of the mathematical hierarchy you don’t have to be constantly looking up the techniques and answers you need to solve the more basic parts of the problem.

    My parents spent a lot of time on my education when I was out of school, mostly in ways that sound like they would be consistent with unschooling (though I was also in school), but math education involved a lot of workbooks and flashcards. Not for lack of parental knowledge, either: my dad has a graduate degree in mathematics, and many nights after he read me my bedtime story he’d explain to me the basic concepts of higher-order fragments of mathematics, like the concept of a derivative, or how in topology a teacup reduces to a torus, or different algorithms for creating ‘optimal’ triangular tesselations from a collection of coordinates. It was always fascinating, but rarely helpful; and I have sort of a hunch that attempting to unschool mathematics would end up the same way.

    • Christine

      Arithmetic is easy to introduce when you’re unschooling. Even if the child doesn’t want to do drills, you can memorize through repetition. Kind of like working with resistors – yes, you can learn it through drill, and some instructors make you do so, but the reason that people in the field have the colour codes memorized is because they use them all the time, not because they learned it in school.

      The idea with higher maths (which tend to require less drill) is that you introduce the concepts, and that will hopefully inspire the child to study on their own. (That’s my interpretation. There are parents who would add a “if they are interested”, and a bunch of other qualifiers.)

      • The_L1985

        Paul Lockhart has said, basically, that math education is done all wrong. Instead of posing interesting geometrical and algebraic problems (“If we draw a triangle inside a rectangle so that one of the sides of the triangle is a whole side of the rectangle, how much space will the triangle take up?”), textbooks present the answers to these questions as new rules for students to memorize, thus removing the very soul from mathematics. I think he’s right about this.

        So, for higher math, basically give students a question where the answer will turn out to be a new formula. It takes a bit longer to do it that way (and you may need to give tiny hints to some kids), but the concepts are more likely to stick because “I figured this out all by myself.”

      • ako

        That’s really beautiful. Most of my talent in math class was the playing-with-shapes stuff that, in ordinary classes, was considered weird little games and extra activities around the ‘real’ work of endless equations. It’s lovely to see someone talking about stuff like visually flipping and rearranging shapes like it’s real math, instead of just the mathematical equivalent of candy.

      • The_L1985

        It is real math–it’s the stuff that mathematicians do. I didn’t do any real math from K-12. I did arithmetic, sure, I plugged stuff into memorized formulas in high school, but I didn’t do any pure mathematics. I just memorized stuff.

      • Christine

        On a mech eng exam, in university, they will almost always accept a geometric solution if no solution method is specified. (Tip for engineering exams: if you know the easy solution method you’re out in an hour. If you know the generic one that solves all the problems, you may or may not finish in the time allotted.) We had to do geometric solutions for several courses – draw a diagram to scale, measure the line that represents the solution.

      • wmdkitty

        Yeah, if I can see how it works, and it’s hands-on (like much of geometry) I can grok it. The straight numbers and trying to memorise abstract formulas that make no sense and stuff? Not so much.

      • Feminerd

        Just remember that not everyone is visual. That sort of problem could (and did) reduce me to tears in school more than once- I am an auditory and reading/words learner, but I suck at spatial relations. Proofs made much more sense than pictures in geometry; I could follow those, but if you’d stuck me with a triangle inside a rectangle and told me to derive a proof on my own, I couldn’t have done it.

        The same problem reared its ugly head in calculus when we calculated 3D areas. I just couldn’t visualize the shape we were trying to get the area of, so I had no context for whatever number I came up with. My numbers were usually right, though, because I understood how the equations worked in the abstract even if I couldn’t ever visualize them.

      • The_L1985

        I think that all students should be trained to stretch their visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning senses, because all 3 forms of learning are good. Naturally some form of accommodation would need to be made for students with disabilities, but I do honestly think we need to help young children to visualize things so that they can cope in HS.

      • Feminerd

        For sure. Some students will just be better at some forms of learning and senses than others; to switch to an entirely spatial way of teaching math is all I argue against.

    • The_L1985

      “So much of basic math is memorization, both of results (e.g.
      single-digit sums and products) and processes (e.g. drilling procedures
      of equation solving, long division, properties of logarithms), so that
      when you get to the next step of the mathematical hierarchy you don’t
      have to be constantly looking up the techniques and answers you need to
      solve the more basic parts of the problem.”

      It depends. First off, remember that we live in a world where calculators are near-ubiquitous. We higher-level math types are of the opinion that if you have a tool to make things easier, why not use it? (The very thought of trying to teach calculus in the days before graphing calculators makes me feel very uncomfortable.)

      I am a strong proponent of hands-on math learning (have some links, courtesy of Pinterest). Kids can figure out for themselves how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide if you give them a bit of prompting and a real-world problem to solve. The algorithms we memorized in school are secondary to understanding what it means to add, subtract, multiply, and divide.

      By 4th grade, I knew the algorithms well and memorized my times tables like a good little student, but I was utterly hopeless at word problems. Which operation do I use? If it’s one where order matters (subtraction or division), then which number goes in which place? Knowing that 5 X 7 = 35 is useless if you can’t extrapolate that to figure out that buying 7 of the 5-dollar packs of trading cards will cost you $35.

      To this day, with college students, I am constantly emphasizing that fractions are a way to divide, and that division means “splitting something into equal shares.” I don’t want them to just stop putting absurdities like “2/6 = 3;” I want them to understand why this is wrong so they don’t make the same mistake with 2/4.

      As for higher math, you can introduce the concept of equations through pattern-recognition. For example, this activity has students identify how the pattern of tiles changes from one “step” to another, and how to write an equation with it–thus teaching them that there is a pattern to how equations work.

      • Conuly

        “To this day, with college students, I am constantly emphasizing that fractions are a way to divide”

        I do extra math with my nieces outside of school, and when we hit fractions last time around I remembered how annoyed I had been when I realized that fractions were division, precisely because nobody had explained it and it seemed to me that if they had, life would’ve been easier. (Then I was even more consternated when I used this information to make division and multiplication easier, by simply juggling the factors around, and realized that none of my math teachers understood what I was doing.) So literally every day, I started with “remember, fractions are just division. When we say “one half” all we mean is “one divided into two equal parts”.

      • Feminerd

        I don’t think teaching calculus without graphing calculators would be that bad. Everything I learned in calculus we learned to do by hand first, to make sure we understood how it worked and the steps it took. Then we went over how to do it with the calculator. Our tests had calculator and non-calculator sections sometimes.

        It was incredibly tedious sometimes, but well worth it in understanding gained.

      • The_L1985

        My mother took calculus before calculators. I’ve heard the horror stories of only getting to do ONE problem the entire class period because it took so long to do all the arithmetic.

        Having graphing calculators allows you to get in enough practice problems to really understand what you’re doing. Never underestimate the importance of that practice!

      • Christine

        What level calculus was this? We did a whole bunch in high school without calculators, and they never took that long. (In university we didn’t work problems in class, and they never really tried to take our calculators away, so it worked anyhow). This is why they make you memorize your trig functions before you take calculus.

      • The_L1985

        All of them, I guess. When I took AP Calculus, I quickly realized that trying to do the computations would be a major PitA without a calculator. Who wants to integrate 2*pi*r^2 dr without having a calculator handy for the multiplication parts?

      • Anat

        Hey, I learned calculus before the advent of graphing calculators. And while I had access to a simple calculator since the age of 10 or so, I still learned to do square roots algorithmically (2 different algorithms, actually).

        I don’t see why a graphing calculator is necessary to get the general shape of a function – you derive it and solve the derivative. And derive again. Depending on each situation, the exact value of an inflection point might be tedious to find, but you should be safe knowing how many of them there are.

      • Christine

        Graphic calculators (if given in the earlier grades) are great for just gaining an intuitive sense of how functions work, especially trig functions. My high school programme required us to buy graphing calculators early on, and we all played with various graphs. We had no idea what cos meant, but we knew that if we graphed it we got a pretty wave pattern. We knew that if we wanted a pretty wave pattern that went up at the axes we needed to use cos, whereas if we wanted it to cross the origin we needed to use sin. We had a very good understanding of what multiplying a function by -1 did.

        That all said, it’s hardly necessary. It just made it a little bit easier for us when it came time for the drills and exercises. We still had to learn to derive from first principles (and then forget it immediately once we learned how to do it normally, just like everyone else).

    • Sally

      Unschooling doesn’t have to mean unsystematic. You would likely teach a lot of early math just by incorporating it into daily living. A lot of this is like how you teach a preschooler say, to count by counting his toys. Or you teach the alphabet song while driving in the car. Extend that to adding and subtracting and fractions all done while setting the table, buying produce, and sharing a pile of cookies with friends. You offer chances to write letters and numbers and number sentences, which kids generally are eager to learn to do anyway. So in theory your child is keeping up with his school peers but without all the worksheets.

      Then at some point when the peers move ahead because they’re using a math textbook and your child isn’t, your child might stall out for a while. But you look for chances to bring up math situations, like maybe trying to figure out what the discount will be in the store when the sign says 20 % off. At some point, your kids says, “I’d like to learn more math.” At that point, you whip out a math textbook (or maybe you’ve had it sitting on the coffee table for a while) and offer to teach it to him. You might both go through it the old fashioned way, with lessons and homework and all. In essance, your child has decided to take a math class from you. In fact, if your child wants to learn math that requires a systematic approach, it’s your job as the facilitator to make that happen.

      That’s the basic model for any subject. You learn what you can by living (but the parent is intentional and does provide a rich experience), and then at any point where the child wants to study a subject, you figure out how to make that happen either with library books, museum classes, co-op classes, or even a textbook.

      • AnotherOne

        I dunno. A lot of the experiential, unstructured, child-led learning styles appeal to me (and I basically spend the entire summer doing those kinds of things with my kids), but when I hear unschooling parents describing some of the acrobatics they use to get their older kids interested in higher math, more complex science, etc., it starts sounding manipulative and needlessly complicated to me–like you’re trying to trick your kid (and yourself) into thinking something is their idea. It seems disingenuous to me to start bringing up all these math situations and leave math textbooks lying around, trying to get them to exhibit interest in something you think they need to learn. Why not just say “hey, higher math is something we learn because it helps our brains process information and solve complex problems and is a good preparation for college and a variety of careers.” And by all means make it fun, use the best pedagogical tools you can, illustrate its connection to the real world. But I feel like some unschooling parents adhere to a philosophy that entails elaborate charades.
        I know this isn’t exactly a reasoned critique, since my personal experience with unschooling is limited to the two or three families I know who do it (with varying levels of success/commitment). I’m an old enough former homeschooler that no one in my family’s circles had heard of unschooling until I was in my early 20s. And I fully admit that my first thought when I heard of it was thank god my parents hadn’t heard of that, or else we wouldn’t have gotten even the small amount of structured learning that we did get.

      • Sally

        “But I feel like some unschooling parents adhere to a philosophy that entails elaborate charades.”

        I think that’s a fair critique. At what point does creating a rich environment including leaving materials out (not unlike a library displaying items they want to highlight to catch our interest) become manipulative? -Or whatever ways parents try to entice their kids.

        Based on some experiences I’m having with one of my kids’ friends as well as conversations here, I think one form of manipulation is acting like you’re doing one thing, but you’re really trying to get something else. I do think that line could be crossed with unschooling. So maybe when that line is getting rather blurred, it’s time to have those more frank conversations you suggest. Just say, “Hey, I’m leaving this book here because I think you might like it, and I’m hoping you’ll look at it and become interested. And here are some other practical reasons to study this topic.”

      • AnotherOne

        I agree. And to a certain extent I don’t think my original comment is very fair; after all, in terms of manipulative behaviour, leaving math books laying around and talking about sale prices to get your kids interested in math is pretty benign.

        I think I react to it because it feels like a manifestation of a broader trend in religious and secular homeschooling circles to pressure or manipulate your kids to produce reactions that validate the homeschooling philosophy that you’ve invested your self-worth, or your godliness, or your worth as a parent into. Then, because you’re so psychologically committed to that philosophy, you stick to it come hell or high water. I used to think that happened only with religious homeschoolers like my parents, who kept “homeschooling” despite the fact that it absolutely wasn’t working, because sending us to public school was tantamount to turning us into hellbound crack smoking prostitutes. But I see it with secular/non-Christian homeschoolers too, who are so committed to unschooling or whatever other childrearing or educational philosophy that they have the same psychological need as fundamentalists Christians for their children to behave in ways that prove their parents are right (and mainstream society utterly wrong). The first time I realized this was when I was talking to a pagan unschooling mom who was very sympathetic to my bad experience as a fundy Christian homeschooler. But, in the same conversation, I asked whether she would ever consider sending her kids to public school if unschooling wasn’t working for whatever reason. She waxed eloquent about how *her* kids would never *want* to go to a government school to be brainwashed, and how it would break her heart to see her kids forced to spend six hours a day around the tea party fundamentalist homophobes at the local public school. Granted, my kids go to such a school (rural area, red state), so I understand her concerns, but the situation isn’t nearly as dire as she made it out to be. All that to say that if you just switched out a few vocabulary words, her diatribe about public school echoed my parents’ fundy critiques in a way that completely threw me for a loop.
        Sorry for the long random stories :)

      • Bobo

        I agree, my parents thought public schools were awful and homeschooling was not just an educational choice, but something their identities were tied up in. They were not fundamentalist Christians but they were fundamentalist about homeschooling. I have found this to be true to one degree or another with most homeschoolers I have talked with.
        I would urge anyone considering homeschooling not to make an ideology of it, but evaluate honestly how it is working for your family and make decisions based on that.

      • Sally

        Yes, and don’t put down the public schools to your kids or to other people, even people who are down on public schools (but especially your neighbors who are sending their kids to public school). You never know what will happen in the future and you might have to or even want to send your kids to school.
        Identity wrapped up in homeschooling? Exactly! It may not start for that reason, but it sure can continue for that reason.

      • Bobo

        That’s a good point, I was just as prejudiced against public schools as my parents and this prejudice was one of the last things I critically examined about my upbringing. It has taken seeing my daughter thrive in public kindergarten to convince me that I’m not a bad parent for choosing not to home school. This, in spite of the fact that my on homeschooling experience had lots of inadequacies.

      • AnotherOne

        So true. My kids have been in two very different public schools (huge, troubled, inner city school system and rural red state school). Each has had its positives and negatives, and I know there were children at each who are not thriving, and whose needs could be better met, but neither school situation has come anywhere close to being the caricature of awfulness that I’ve heard homeschooling parents decry. My kids have thrived at both; they’ve had some great teachers and good opportunities, and they’ve been able to meet and overcome social and other challenges that have arisen. I’m very grateful for that.

      • Sally

        “Then, because you’re so psychologically committed to that philosophy, you stick to it come hell or high water.”

        I hear that!

      • Rosa

        It really depends a lot on the kid, and the resources and support you offer them.

        My kid is learning basic coding because he wants to make his own videogame. This isn’t something they do at his school, but his dad is into it (and is a software engineer) so they’re doing it together. If it were just me & the kid, I’d have to sign him up for a class, which would put us up against time & money & availability constraints, or learn it myself with him, which would face energy & time constraints. They do electrical wiring together too – something I wouldn’t feel confident even knowing how to start teaching (they started when kiddo was 5, so not able to play with electricity on his own.)

        A child who decides to do something like design a robot or a sailing ship, who doesn’t yet have the geometry, physics, fine motor skills, budgeting, and other skills they need, can totally learn them in the service of the project. But it takes a parent making those resources available (and knowing what knowledge is even needed!) AND giving emotional/focus support so the child doesn’t just stop the first time a difficult gap pops up, to make that kind of experiential learning really happen for most kids.

      • Renee

        “Why not just say “hey, higher math is something we learn because it helps our brains process information and solve complex problems and is a good preparation for college and a variety of careers.” ”

        Why would you think that the parents couldn’t say this? There is nothing about US that precludes this. If you treat your kids with respect and talk with them, this stuff will come up, and if not, its OK to bring it up. Just because the kid directs their learning does NOT mean you get no input! Just that you respect their direction and requests.

    • Conuly

      Well, assuming the family in question goes whole hog instead of being MOSTLY unschooling but still insisting their kid do some math every day (I know online two families who do just that, just to make sure their bases are covered), there are ways to slip math drill into daily life. Games are popular, and many public schools utilize them for drill. The most popular has to be “math war”, which is just like regular war except you remove the face cards and flip over two cards at a time. Whoever has the highest sum (or greatest product, or smallest difference) wins the round.

    • ako

      I’ve never been involved with unschooling, but this seems like it’d really depend on the learning style. I know I’ve had a lot of energy wasted on different subjects, math included, where teachers pushed rote drills and flashcards and it got me nowhere. And many mathematical concepts stuck for me when they were presented in a non-drill way, particularly with a visual component. (In second grade, a teacher explained multiplication and short division using the way the students were grouped in the classroom as an example, and I got it right away because I could see it. In first grade, we got fractions with construction paper and scissors and it stuck. In fourth grade we had pages of long division exercises and I did terribly, because 1) I couldn’t visualize it as anything more than numbers on paper, and 2) the problems were all so easy I could just cheat and fake the process so I didn’t grasp the point. Being good at visualization and bad at rote drills is also why I got Cs and Ds in high school algebra and then surprised everyone, myself included, with an A in geometry.)

      • luckyducky

        I agree, math should be taught conceptually and actually that’s what I’ve seen being done with my children — they were introduced to multiplication and division in pK — but when 2nd grade rolled around, she still needed to memorize multiplication tables (grasped conceptually — it makes it much easier to memorize because there is something to “hang” the new knowledge on) and while I gritted my teeth through all the rote memorization in high school chemistry, I voluntarily re-memorized at least the top 1/2 of the period table because it made doing the interesting stuff and getting a decent grade in chemistry easier (even though we were always allowed a periodic table of elements during exams… sped it up when you new the atomic number, etc. off the top of your head). We often just do it in the wrong order — insist that students need to do the rote stuff then learn the conceptual.

      • ako

        I think some of this might be learning style differences – I can memorize things fairly easily without conscious effort when I’m interested (and I thought the tangle tables we did in school were really fun, because problem-solving and puzzles!), so learning to recite the numbers was way less helpful than, say, learning to think of the relationship between multiplying by five and counting by fives. Which just goes to show, teaching is complicated and flexibility is necessary.

      • luckyducky

        I agree, when you have a conceptual grasp of the relationships between the things you are memorizing and the relationship between memorized factoids and the larger body of knowledge you are building it can seem like no work at all though some people are better at it than others (I was working with a kid with Aspergers who remembered everything I said word-for-word along side another child with an auditory learning disability who couldn’t remember my name… interesting mix). However, at some point, it is worth drilling and moving from thinking of the relationship between counting by 5s an multiplying by 5 to knowing reflexively 5×7 is 35 just to save time and minimize mental calculation errors though I suspect that it helps build useful neural pathways (or something along those lines).

    • The_L1985

      “So much of basic math is memorization, both of results (e.g.
      single-digit sums and products) and processes (e.g. drilling procedures
      of equation solving, long division, properties of logarithms)”

      No, no, a thousand times no! 10^47 times, no. Arithmetic should not be memorization of algorithms! Yes, students should do the same operations over and over so they can memorize the answers to simple problems (like the times tables, for instance), but learning the standard algorithm is not the same thing as understanding addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division.

      Algebra is often taught as memorization of formulas, but it shouldn’t be that way either. Real-world examples should lead in to the topics, not be saved for end-of-section problems! Bring in the history of math–we teach the history of literature and science all the time, why not mathematics? Make a game of it–it won’t just stick better, it won’t be any more time-consuming for the students to learn, because it will be meaningful.

      Properties of logarithms? Give students a worksheet with things like “Find log 3, log 2, and log 6. What do you notice about the result? Is there the same relationship between log 4, log 3, and log 12? Does this work for ln as well?” Not only does it help students get familiar with their calculators, it turns the properties of logarithms from rote memorization into discovery.

      • Christine

        The problem is less that algebra is taught as memorization of formulae, and more that the teachers don’t understand it well enough to realise that it’s anything different. I’d rather have a teacher who simply taught an algorithm, but actually understood what was happening, than one who had a more interesting way of teaching it, but honestly believed that algebra was just an algorithm, and that his lesson was just an innovative way to teach the algorithm. (Obviously I’d rather one who understood and taught it well over either of those, but I’m looking at causes here.)

      • sylvia_rachel

        I hear people (informed people, not just random people — I have friends who teach math and one who teaches math teachers) talk all the time about how great “discovery math” is, and how much better kids learn math concepts when they have to figure them out for themselves.

        This sounds perfectly logical and reasonable to me. But I’ve been watching my almost-11-year-old struggle with this for six years and only occasionally get it, and go from loving math and being good at it to feeling like a failure. Over and over and over again, her teachers will send home problems to work on that the kids have not been taught how to solve; over and over again she can answer all the questions or solve all the problems, but then spends an hour getting increasingly distraught because the last item on the page is some incomprehensible question about strategy that she just doesn’t understand. The whole thing is an endless source of frustration, and what makes it worse is that most of the time I can’t help her, because the parts she doesn’t understand are the same ones I don’t understand — I had no trouble teaching her how to do long division, but if the question is “what strategy did you use to find the answer?” I am clueless.* I remember one exercise where the answers were all really obvious provided that you knew how odd and even numbers behave, but we ended up practically shouting at each other over it because she didn’t know what odd and even numbers are. Nobody had explained it. And that wasn’t a bug, it turned out, it was supposed to be a feature: the exercise was supposed to prompt the kids to figure out that these two categories exist. I’m sure that must work for some kids, but it sure didn’t work for mine — it just made her cry.

        I suspect this may turn out to be like the phonics vs. whole-language debate in literacy education, where the eventual conclusion is that what you actually need is some of each…

        *Once, back in about grade 1 or 2, DD had to do a page of addition problems, which took her about five minutes, and then write an answer to the question, “What strategy did you use?” She looked up at me and said, “What does that mean?” I suggested maybe they wanted to know how she got her answers. “I used my fingers,” she said. I told her to just write that down, because it might not be the right answer but at least it was true.

      • The_L1985

        Yeah, I think that discovery math is great, but if a student is struggling with it, the teacher should re-consider the kinds of questions being asked, or at least give a tiny hint to help students get started in the right direction.

  • Christine

    I understand that unschooling is just the homeschool version of child-led learning, and I know that a lot of people who were unschooled do quite well academically later in life (although the one guy I’m know personally not only has some major socialization issues, he got special accomidation from the university – he might even have been allowed to drop to a part time course load). But I still have a problem with the fact that unschooling doesn’t seem to have any real differences from permanent summer vacation. I’m still unsure whether this is just unease that can be ignored, or if I just haven’t yet figured out what’s bugging me.

    I know I’m uncomfortable with the fact that there are no mandatory subjects in a pure homeschooling setting, especially since I generally am not very interested in something until I know about it. I would have gotten very specialized.

    • The_L1985

      I’ve seen people throw a complete shit-fit at the idea of arithmetic learning being hands-on, because “I learned algorithms, therefore children must learn algorithms in order to be able to do math.” I really do think a lot of it is just that we’ve been conditioned to think of “school” as working only one way. If we can’t get past the idea of “school” as lecture + memorization of formulas, then we can’t really evaluate whether other teaching methods are effective or not.

      Look at the math examples in that Pinterest link in the previous paragraph. They teach the same math facts we learned in school, from kindergarten on up, but they do it in a fresh and exciting way that helps the rules make sense. I can see kids loving each activity, and I can certainly picture these concepts “sticking” better because of their context. If “unschooling” involves fun activities like this, I’m all for that.

      That said, I agree that the idea of no subject being mandatory in unschooling gives me the willies. Even if you don’t call it grammar, literature, history, math, science, and civics, students still have to know the basic ideas we generally label with those subject names.

      • Conuly

        Part of the problem is that heavily constructive approaches to teaching math work best when the teacher a. has a firm grasp of the subject and b. has a good amount of time to devote to it every day. (And also c., likes the curriculum, but that’s another issue.)

        The trouble is that many elementary school teachers weren’t taught math effectively as children and so don’t have a good grounding in it, and certainly don’t have the time necessary to fully go through the curriculum. So the children fall behind.

      • Claire

        I am sorry to butt in, but while it’s different depending on the college and time of when you got your degree, most teaching degrees requires 1-2 specialized course dealing with teaching math. I’m a student teacher and my college requires 4 specialized classes geared towards teaching kids math. And this is for an elementary degree.

        However, I do admit that while I find the classes easy, others do not and do struggle. I just wanted to clarify that teacher do take classes on subjects they have to teach with gearing to explain and be able to teach it.

      • Conuly

        I’m legitimately glad to hear it!

        However, I had so many teachers in elementary school that only understood math in a limited way (a nine year old who hasn’t mastered her times tables should really not be able to perform calculations that baffle her teachers, and believe me, I was just not that great at the subject!) and still hear teachers say they don’t always understand why they do this or that, they just memorized the steps.

        Either something has changed recently in teacher education, or there are still some serious gaps to be plugged, especially on the elementary level.

      • Christine

        I had to help a homeschooled friend learn fractions, because her mom only knew one way to explain them. Her mother hadn’t even bothered to get out the smarties to teach her. I’ve never known an elementary school level teacher to have a problem like that, they all have 4 or 5 different ways to explain the subject. However, it’s not uncommon for them to not understand it properly in the first place. They may know it well enough to explain it to students who don’t have trouble (even that’s not guaranteed), but if they get questioned a lot of the time their only tactic is to switch to a different explanation.

        So the classes that Claire mentioned help, somewhat, but they aren’t a guarantee of the teacher understanding the subject.

      • Rosa

        that’s a good case for continued & periodic mentoring & team teaching – instead of training teachers for 4 years and then dropping them into the system, we need to combine the continuing-ed rules for teachers with some sort of peer review and learning.

      • Conuly

        Like in Japan?

      • Rosa

        Do they do that in Japan? That’s awesome (Japanese schools are pretty authoritarian compared to ours, though, in general – at least they were 20 years ago when I was there.)

        Some districts here do it (my mom was a mentor teacher, my aunt team-taught with a partner for years, my son’s teacher spent a few years peer-reviewing and educating teachers in science modules in our district) but it’s not as widespread or systematized as it should be, and we have a teacher burnout rate to prove it.

      • Conuly

        I haven’t been to Japan, but everybody says they have a great system for model teaching.

      • Rosa

        cool, I didn’t know that. I only saw them from a students view, which was partly awesome (millions of clubs, big grind through high school but then college was like a giant party) and partly really grim (six days of school a week because of cram school, uniforms, strict appearance rules, mandatory club membership, 40 kids to a classroom, etc.) And of course I only saw one prefecture/city system.

      • Christine

        We’d need a completely different paradigm for professional skills to do that though. Continuing ed for teachers is generally pedagogical training, and this problem lies in understanding really basic subject matter. So not only would a way to teach elementary-level math without offense be needed, the instructors would need to be able to convince these teachers that they don’t actually understand the subject as well as they do.

      • smrnda

        One problem with maths educators (and I’d include college profs in this as well) isn’t so much the educator not knowing the material, but the educator not being able to see how other people *don’t get it* – I’ve seen both elementary school teachers and college profs at a loss to explain something they think is obvious to a puzzled student, and where they just seem to repeat the same explanation over and over again. Being able to figure out exactly what the student isn’t getting is important.

      • Christine

        There are two different problems. I think that the issue with the teacher not understanding why someone wouldn’t be able to get it is more common at higher levels. Around here you don’t need a strong background in everything you’re going to be teaching. So if your degree is in English, you will still have to teach math if you do elementary school. Kids don’t switch teachers for different subjects until at least grade 6, more often grade 7 or 9. (The math & teaching degree at my university only qualifies for intermediate or senior students, not for primary).

      • Claire

        They’re are some gaps since you have programs like Teach America that recruit non-education majors to teach in public schools for two years or more. They’re given a very diluted run down on teaching strategies in a short amount of time compares to semester loads and student teaching that a education major has to do. Of course you also have bad apples which I do have in my graduating class (I also worrying about being one as well).

        There’s been a lot of revamp and it has differently change from when I was in school in the 90s. There’s a big shift towards constructionist learning where I am at. Also more focus on STEM.

      • The_L1985

        Yes, but even with those courses, there’s no guarantee teachers will remember them. There was a study done involving division by a fraction. Here’s a summary. Basically most of the American teachers studied couldn’t divide fractions correctly, and only 1 was able to correctly explain what was going on!

        Something is very wrong with the way math is taught in this country if even the teachers aren’t understanding it! As the study indicates, this is not the case in other countries (China was the comparison point).

      • Monala

        Many good teachers and schools already use some form of these games, because research has shown that kids need to conceptualize math first (which hands-on activities help with) to understand it.

        However, the games alone are not enough. They need to then learn how to represent math concepts in numbers and operational symbols. So the teacher’s job is to help kids translate the concepts into what we would consider “math problems.”

        My question about unschooling is this: why would unschooling parents ever play games like this, if the child doesn’t express an interest in math? Maybe it comes about because, say, the parent and child are cooking together or building something together and the project requires math to complete. But wouldn’t the parent then just show the child the math needed in the context of the activity? Why would they need to turn to a math game at all?

      • Sally

        I’m not sure I understand the question. Maybe if I ask, “Why wouldn’t they play math games?”, the answer to that would help clarify what you’re getting at. (Or maybe someone else understands the question better.)

        OK, I reread your post and I’m going to take a stab at it. If the child is showing no interest in math, a parent might invite them to play a math game to get that interest going. But how we define math game might be important. There are a lot of regular games that involve math. And then there are games designed to “make math fun.” I think an unschooler is very likely to play regular games that involve math naturally. If they introduce “make math fun” games, my guess would be they’d do it as a bridge to getting the child interested in math (or for the child who is already interested, of course). I also think that if the child didn’t want to play, after several offers over various days, the parent would put it away and try again a few months later. -Or try a different approach.

        Does that address what you were getting at?

      • Rosa

        Some of us find math games fun.

        Some of us were driven to educational games by too many repetitions of Hi Ho Cherry O.

        Some people parent tiny math geniuses who discover the concept of prime numbers by playing with a stack of dice on a rainy afternoon one day. And then others of us are nerdy enough to demonstrate the same concept to our own non-genius children with a stack of dice in imitation.

        All of these scenarios depend on pretty engaged parenting, though.

      • sylvia_rachel

        My daughter’s public school does a ton of hands-on math stuff. She does enjoy it, but it seems to me that only about half of it sticks. (Still, that might be a bigger proportion than if they didn’t use manipulables and such…)

  • Mel

    I believe that students have a right to be exposed to all academic subjects. I like the idea of more interactive learning supplemented by real-life experience. My only concern is that I benefited from taking classes that I did not have an initial interest in. For example, I did not want to take a government or economics class during high school but was required to by my state. Looking back, I needed those classes. I did not realize how little I knew about each topic prior to the classes. And I really enjoyed those classes. The basis of a liberal arts education is a survey of many different subjects.

    I also wonder how parents watch for and deal with fears about subjects. I was badly afraid of higher level math classes and science. I didn’t think I could do them despite my high level of interest in science. With support from parents and teachers, I completed through Calculus AB and four years of advanced science classes.

    • Sally

      In theory, the parent either exposes the child to enough of the topic to get them interested, or the child gets to the point where they want to pursue a certain career so they are willing to take the formal classes needed to get there (such as all classes needed to get into college). A parent might participate in politics herself in order to get her child into it. Or they might read some literature that involves a compelling story involving government workings.

      How does all this play out in real life? Does a parent actually get their child to study all these variety of subjects? I don’t know. I know unschoolers irl that certainly didn’t seem to be, but I don’t know for sure. I heard a very well-spoken unschooled girl (then a young adult) who clearly had had a well-rounded experience and study interviewed on NPR about 12 years ago.

      On the other hand, I know of one unschooled child who wanted to go to high school but didn’t tell her mom soon enough for them to get her ready (in time to apply for a magnet school since they were in a large city), so she never went. Ugg. Hopefully they studied a lot of the subjects other ways, but I’m skeptical.

  • Sally

    The other thing unschooling parents can do is to either use their district’s standards or better yet, those “What Your X Grader Needs to Know” books, and just check off what your child is accomplishing as you go. The child doesn’t even have to see what you’re tracking if you don’t want to spoil the wonder of it all. The key is to not feel like you have to check things off in order. Some things you will because they happen in order naturally, but the list is not a script to dictate what to do when. It’s used as a record of what you (your child actually) did do. That said, it can also give you ideas of where you’d like to go next with your prompting and whetting of appetites if you see some serious gaps developing. But I think as an unschooling parent, you have to live with those gaps for a long time sometimes.

    • Rosa

      and soon, the nationwide core standards will be 100% available as well!

      • The_L1985

        Um…nationwide standards? The NCTM has math standards, but…there are no federal education laws other than “your kid should be in school.” Standards are set by each state.

      • Sally

        Google “Common Core Standards.” Something like 47 states are adopting these national standards.

      • Seeker

        Rosa, oh, no; the homeschooling community is shrieking and flinging poo at the very idea of standards.

      • Sally

        Yes, but not because they can’t be a reference guide. They’re worried there will be trickle-down and standards will impact them either through textbooks modifying or through homeschoolers being required to have their kids follow those standards. It’s not that some standard isn’t reasonable (although many would say any are), but these specific standards are considered by some to be problematic. And then there are those who object purely on the “big brother” aspect of the standards being national.

      • Rosa

        Not ALL of them. And the conservative ones are outshouted by various Republican elected officials and “family values” groups who don’t even want them for public schools.

    • The_L1985

      More people should know that state educational standards are available on the Internet.

      • Sally

        True, true. But the way they’re written, they can be rather nebulous (even to teachers). But yes, why not include them in so much as they are helpful?

      • Renee

        They do know (the US locally). It is not too relevant because they see learning so differently that its apples and oranges to compare their kids to schooled ones.

  • John Kruger

    The really troubling aspect of homeschooling, or “unschooling” I suppose, is the lack of oversight. I have no problem at all with giving parents some wiggle room to try new and innovative teaching techniques. No doubt there are a lot of parents that can do better than a 30 person classroom environment, particularly at the lower levels.

    As a society, however, letting basic education slip through the cracks for anyone is an enormous disservice to them. There are basic skills that people need to be part of society, and if they do not have them it is inevitable that they will become a drain on that society if they cannot effectively participate. People need to be able to do things like manage money with math and read contracts for all manner of legal agreements. Droves of hungry and unemployable people are going to be a real problem for any society they end up occupying.

    So, if there are standards for evaluating student performance and methods for intervening on inadequate homeschooling, go to it. A democracy demands access to education for all its citizens, even those whose parents would subvert the effort. I definitely consider neglecting a child’s education to be adequate grounds for removal of the child from that environment. The child labor example was particularly egregious.

  • Maryjane

    I believe that as a parent my main responsibility is to raise each of my children to become an independent functioning adult. The problem I have with unschooling INSTEAD of a conventional education, as opposed to in ADDITION to a conventional education, is that I am going to be sending my children into the “real” world. Unschooling IMO is just living. How can one NOT learn at least one thing new everyday and then build on that information, perhaps even leading to extensive research? But the dominant culture where I am living doesn’t recognize that style of education as legitimate. Conventional education, be it through homeschool, charter school, or traditional school, albeit on a higher level, gives one choices and choices means freedom. I have this for myself how could I want less for my kids?

    • Sally

      “How can one NOT learn at least one thing new everyday and then build on that information, perhaps even leading to extensive research?”
      Well, examples have been given as to how this can happen. Too much child labor is one example. Lack of access to materials and experiences is another.
      “Just living” can look very different in different situations. Some of those differences are great. Some are just not. Some are terrible.

      • Maryjane

        True. I assumed, perhaps in hubris, that we were commenting on an article about people who live in the U.S.A. and are capable of taking on such an endeavor such as unschooling.

      • Anat

        The people Sally is talking about live in the USA. Some are ideologically invested in limiting their children’s access to certain areas of knowledge or certain views. Some are ideologically invested in having large families or off-the-grid living. Others are cases where the parents show signs of pathology and dysfunction in the treatment of their children.

      • Maryjane

        Then I suppose the point of the article was made!

    • lana hobbs

      Unschooling is just living – yes! I plan to public school my kids but still cook with them, take them to museums and the library and concerts, encourage study and following interests, etcetera. Public schooling doesn’t preclude doing the fun unschooling things :)

      • lana hobbs

        I personally love to learn and want to foster an environment of learning. But I am bipolar and sometimes I won’t be able to do it all. So public school and a lifestyle of loving to learn is a better answer for us.

      • Maryjane

        I admire your attitude. My older daughter went to public school, but we still learned together. Going to the theatre, zoo, aquarium or fishing, crabbing, baking, whatever…And we always went to the public library just to browse and see what sparked our interest. Now with the internet the world truely has opened up; If you have access to the internet and/or the public library how can you not learn.

      • The_L1985

        OMG the library…By the end of 2nd grade I’d read the entire children’s section of my local small-town library. Granted, it wasn’t very big, but this did happen.

        I wanted to learn as much as I could about everything, real or fictional. I wanted to make things and do new puzzles and DO ALL THE THINGS!! It took ACE to make me not want to touch history or science with a 10-ft pole anymore–and I learned better about that once I got into college.

      • Rosa

        It’s hard to even tell younger people what small towns were like before the internet. I ran out of books at our small town library in middle school and then i ended up reading a bunch of random crap paperbacks from the one non-Bible book store in town. Access to information is so much better now.

      • Christine

        Oddly enough, when my husband moved from a reasonably local (30 minutes by car) small town to our medium-sized city, his library selection went down. This was back before we had merged our system with the other local ones and we only had two branches back then, no I don’t understand how that worked. He would have had to do a full-out interlibrary loan, and that just doesn’t work for regular reading.

      • Rosa

        Yeah, it’s a funding/structural issue also. But we were about an hour and a half from the nearst bigger town, so as a kid there was just no access at all outside of it. Now even when we visit my parents out in the middle of nowhere, we can use the internet to look things up.

      • Christine

        I’m sure that there are more books available too. It’s getting easier and easier to do inter-library loans, so even if your parents’ local library was part of a small system (i.e. only a few branches), it’s probably more connected to the other small ‘local’ systems than it used to be.

        That said, I grew up in a large city, so I tend to underestimate the difficulty involved in integrating different systems, because I forget about the existence of geographical separations.

      • The_L1985

        I don’t think there was a system. There was just the [Town] Public Library. If you wanted to go to the [Other, Nearby Town] Public Library, you had to get a separate library card for that library.

      • The_L1985

        My parents tried to get me interested in their books (they had book versions of PBS’s The Ring of Truth and world history specials), but I only wanted to look at the pictures in them. And just forget adult novels, which had no pictures. I wasn’t old enough to understand why anybody would want to read a book with no illustrations.

        If my library hadn’t started getting copies of the American Girl books (along with other, non-toy-selling books like Goosebumps) in ’91, there’s no telling what I would have done.

      • Gillianren

        Being bipolar is a big part of why I won’t homeschool. I know how to cope, but no child deserves to be trapped alone with me all day long when I’m having a depressive episode. Even being alone with me manic is probably a bad idea. I’m capable of teaching at least up to a middle school level, and even large amounts of high school, but it simply isn’t fair to the child not to let them get away from me for large parts of the day.

  • Katherine Lorraine

    My sister and I were unschooled, but we also lived in Pennsylvania so we had to have a strict curriculum that we adhered to. It made for a really interesting mix of un- and home-schooling that provided an extremely rich, educational experience for my sister and I.
    Although it was, indeed, free of good science and full of fundamentalist stuff.

    • Christine

      And I think that addresses one of my biggest worries about unschooling – it’s not really ok to just let the kid decide what they’re going to learn. Not only do they not know what there is to learn, but they don’t know the consequences of not learning. Conventional child-led-learning actually still has a fair bit of direction from the teacher/facilitator, and this makes sure that the kids are fairly well-rounded. You don’t have to wait until a child spontaneously decides to learn math/reading/etc, you can direct them to activities that will teach them, and still be doing child-led learning.

    • MI Dawn

      But you have, indeed, worked very hard to make up for that! I can readily vouch for that fact.

  • lana hobbs

    True unschooling appeals to me, but I’ve also seen it as an excuse for educational neglect. I’d call it laziness but I think that’d be unfair as the moms are usually working very hard to just keep up with basics, in families where there are lots of children, ends barely meet, and mom is stressed and possibly pregnant (i refer to the quiverfull stereotype because it is true for so many people) I think that in cases where mom is too tired or busy to school or unschool properly, kids should be put into public school.

  • Anat

    I’m wondering if every child is a good candidate for unschooling. In my family I think I and one of my cousins would have done OK with unschooling. We played with science kits and read articles in illustrated encyclopedias in our free time (whether after school or in the summer). But at least one of my brothers had no interest in reading until he found himself in a classroom where learning to read was expected of him, and all his peers were doing so. And my other cousins never had any intellectual interests. Do kids like that succeed in an unschooling environment?

    • luckyducky

      That is my though. I have 2 children. The oldest is a model student the other doesn’t look like he’s shaping up to be (trying not to pigeon hole him, he’s perfectly capable, just not interested in proving himself via tests an homework). But even with my older child, there are times when we have to insist that we sit down and power through certain things, like reading, which she does extreme well now but hated learning to do.

      Now, I would buy the argument that she (and he) would eventually decide to read so they could learn about things they are interested in… but what about those things that they aren’t interested in or don’t think they would be interested in so never try?

      And, sure, somethings are boring to learn but they provide a scaffold for building a deeper knowledge base… without some sort of structure, you can easily end up with gaps and holes you aren’t even aware of.

    • ako

      Yeah, I’m thinking that for unschooling to work, you need the right family situation – not just a kid who’s actively interested in learning at least the basics of all of the essential subjects without adult prompting, but parents who are both willing and able to help it happen, and often a community with the appropriate resources. Which is why I tend to worry when I hear unschooling presented as the universally superior educational option.

    • Renee

      Most USers will say that US is NOT for every kid, nor every family. Just one option for those that want it.

  • Gillianren

    If my mom had let us guide our own learning completely, I never would have learned any math past algebra, my older sister probably would have had difficulty with the lack of structure, and my younger sister probably never have learned anything much at all. At age seven? We would have all thought that was okay. Part of why you aren’t allowed to control your own life completely at that age is that you don’t know the consequences. Even in high school, I would have cheerfully stopped taking math much sooner than I did. Some of my friends would have stopped taking everything but math, come to that. Well, and physics.

    I also have real problems with the idea that people will magically discover that they are interested in things they’ve never encountered. It’s true that one of my main intellectual interests these days comes from randomly encountering a book in my college library, but the odds against my finding that one book out of probably hundreds of thousands are pretty high. If I hadn’t been at that particular college, it never would have happened at all!

  • Semidaunted

    See, I went to public school and had traditional education, but my parents also did what is defined here as ‘unschooling’. They both had graduate degrees and valued education deeply, both had the time and resources to take me on several trips, send me to science camps, museums, and buy me the educational books, movies and magazines that I loved and consumed greedily. They taught me how to learn on my own, both outside of school and in it. Unstructured, student lead learning and formal schooling are not mutually exclusive. The formal schooling, from elementary to university gave me the opportunity to learn from a variety of amazing teachers who I keep in touch with to this day. They were people who had worked in their fields and loved teaching. They gave me adult sounding boards and perspectives I never would have learned otherwise. They forced me to expand my interests and see how other subjects were important to my interests. A scientist who cannot write will alway struggle. A writer who cannot use logic or understand science is missing a whole world of inspiration and wonder. I was very, very lucky. I wish I could extend the chances I had to everyone. But my parents grew up poor, and the public education system, for all it’s flaws allowed them to get the careers they did that gave them the resources to pass on to me. Admittedly their college tuition was not as inflated as it is now.

    It seems to me that homeschooling is to easily taken advantage of, that perhaps it should be an option for unique situations such as remote areas, traveling lifestyles, or areas with poor, awful schools (a judgment left open to opinion, I’ll give you, but I mean schools without good teachers, etc etc.). Otherwise the cost doesn’t seem worth the benefit.

    • Rosa

      Yeah, my kid is in public school and every parent does extra educational stuff outside of school, from saturday school to learn Arabic & Quran, to summer math & programming camp, to gardening and cooking together. Not all of them have the resources to do it this intensely but every parent I’ve met is teaching their kid as well as providing schooling – that’s a basic part of parenting.

      I’m sure there are neglectful parents not doing this for some of the kids, but then I don’t meet them at school or when we’re out and about doing things with the kids.

      • Conuly

        Declining to enroll your child in scads of extracurricular educational activities isn’t “neglectful”. There are many reasons not to do this sort of thing ranging from a lack of time or money to a belief that downtime is valuable as well.

      • Rosa

        No, but simply not ever doing things with them or teaching them anything, is. Notice “gardening and cooking together” on that list? I am sure neglectful parents exist, but almost by definition I wouldn’t see them with their kids. Sometimes I see the kids later, when I volunteer at the library or as a tutor for illiterate young adults.

      • The_L1985

        Wait, wait, wait. All this stuff was structured and scheduled? That’s not unschooling, it’s just extra-curricular schooling. I say this as someone who took ballet for 9 years and piano lessons for 12, and whose brother was on kids’ soccer teams for 8 years. Any extra-curricular activity, no matter how exciting, can become drudgery, especially if the child isn’t particularly interested.

        Besides, kids need time to be spontaneous and imaginative and, well, kids. It’s not good to fill all of a child’s time with structured activities.

  • MyOwnPerson

    The problem that I have with unschooling is that school isn’t just about learning, it’s also about discipline. I think one of the most valuable things you learn in school is to get up in the morning and do something you don’t want to do every single day. Unschoolers will bemoan conditioning children for the American work machine, but since that’s the world they’ll actually be living in, and most of us won’t have the luxury of exclusively pursuing our interests into adulthood, this is a valuable discipline.

    • Sally

      “I think one of the most valuable things you learn in school is to get up in the morning and do something you don’t want to do every single day.”
      I think I know what you’re trying to say, but boy, I wonder if you meant it the way it came out.
      I think the discipline issue is valid. There aren’t very many ways to make a living that don’t involve some drudgery and discipline to get through that part. Even completing projects you love have that “I hate this part” part. There’s a lot to be said for learning to stick it out consistently. One could argue that you could learn that as you get into your teen years and, in theory, have “picked a major.” The ideal of unschooling, as I understand it, is that by around age 12, you do have a passion and you do become disciplined about it.
      But I’m going to object to the idea that school, or any form of instruction, is best done in a form that feels like getting up in the morning and doing something you don’t want to do every single day. I think we want to at least strive to make learning something you do want to do every day. I would argue (and so would the unschoolers) that if you don’t have at least some interest in the topic, you won’t learn it very well.

      • Alice

        Well, it’s like the question of “Should you love your job so much that you never “work” a day in your life?” Even people who love their jobs have to do certain tasks they don’t like, have bad days, and days when they would rather be somewhere else. In an ideal situation, you aren’t miserable all the time and you generally enjoy it, but there will still be times when the job takes discipline and perseverance.

        Also, I don’t think teachers or parents are 100% responsible for making sure a kid is interested and sees the importance of a subject. A small percentage of that has to come from the kid. Sometimes there is too much of a “Your job is to entertain me and make me happy!!!” mindset in humans of all ages.

      • Sally

        You and I are saying the exact same thing in your first paragraph, so I’ll just say I agree.
        I also agree that it’s not the teacher’s job to enterain the kids.

      • Christine

        You are going to go and spend 6 hours with 30 of your peers. No matter how good the teacher is, and how captivating the material, there’s no way that isn’t doing something you don’t want to do.

      • Sally


        I guess maybe we have a different definition of “don’t want to go.” Did I want to get up when my alarm went off? No. Did I ever like school and want to go in the broader sense and was happy to go once I got in gear? Yes.

        I am not alone. Some kids genuinely like school. And I think the better the classes, the more kids there are who like it.

        But one of the *most valuable* lessons of school is to get up in the morning and do something you do not want to do every day? Again, maybe no one wants to get out of bed. But I just can’t agree that a universal lesson of school is to go do something no one wants to do. I know MyOwnPerson didn’t say “universal” and “no one,” but that seems like the point of the comment. I just can’t agree with that. But if you reread my comment, you’ll see I do agree all things have *some* drudgery and require discipline, including school. And I do see the point that if a kid unschools, they may never learn to stick it out (whatever that might be) when they don’t want to push through the part that requires discipline.
        Some parents teach discipline through chores instead.

      • ako

        I know when I was a kid, I’d occasionally fake not having a fever because school was fun and I didn’t want to miss it. I agree with you that school should be largely enjoyable with a certain practical minimum of “No, you sometimes have to do things other than what you feel like at the moment”. Life shouldn’t be primarily about drudgery, and “There are lots of lovely and fun things to do plus a small amount of mildly unpleasant sacrificing for the common good” seems like a good start for kids.

      • Christine

        I’m not trying to say that the point of school is to be unpleasant. Nor do I think that having to sit through classes for that long would be unpleasant. But once you spend 10 years with the same 30-60 kids, you are going to have large amounts of time where it’s unpleasant because of who you’re going to see.
        Let’s take the case of a sample child, who is extroverted enough that putting up with other people in general is it’s own reward, and average enough that they’re in the cliques. They are still going to get sniped at by their group, go on the outs with their close friend(s), and generally have all the stress that socializing results in for children. And this is the fairly unlikely best-case scenario. Many elementary schools are small enough that you’re not going to find anyone else there that you have a lot in common with, and that’s assuming you’re from a similar cultural background and of average intelligence.

      • The_L1985

        True. In my experience, though, socially things didn’t get too bad until middle school. Something about puberty causes some kids to kick the nastiness into high gear.

      • Christine

        I was in a K-8, so it’s difficult for me to be able to draw the lines for when problems start. Especially since this is looking at how things were for other kids – I might be an extrovert, but nothing else about that sample child of mine applies.

      • The_L1985

        Oh, I’m sure when the problems start depends on a lot of factors and is different for each kid. :)

      • The_L1985

        Not to mention, everyone has to do chores. Whining and complaining will not magically clean your laundry or dishes, nor will it make food appear in your kitchen!

        “But I’m going to object to the idea that school, or any form of
        instruction, is best done in a form that feels like getting up in the
        morning and doing something you don’t want to do every single day.”

        I definitely agree that learning should be done in a way that makes kids want to learn. The greatest tragedy of my education, IMO, was that by 4th grade I’d gone from loving school to HATING it and not wanting to get out of bed in the morning. I very quickly learned to “coast.”

      • Sally

        Yes, if one of the benefits of going to school is to learn to do something you don’t want to do every day, we really need to improve school.
        We were posting at the same time, but I agree about chores. Many relaxed and unschoolers use chores to teach the value of completing tasks you don’t want to do (and to contribute to the family).

    • MyOwnPerson

      Sorry, I wasn’t trying to imply that school should be miserable, just that there is value to having a structured day and having to wake up in the morning and study math today even if it was art you wanted to do instead.

      • minuteye

        There is also some value in learning to delay gratification. Learning to read is a slog, but being able to read is tremendous fun. Children aren’t great at seeing the end-game; telling them that it’ll pay off in the long run rings pretty hollow (at least, that’s what I remember about being a kid) but showing them, over the course of years, that putting in difficult and sometimes unpleasant work really is worth the things it can accomplish… that’s a very valuable lesson, and it’s something I can’t see them learning on their own.

        tl;dr Pretty sure I’m agreeing with you :)

    • Michelle

      The point is to find an interest become an expert/trust agent and work for themselves. I would be disappointed if they ended up in this sad work machine you speak of.

  • Patrick

    One aspect in all the discussions that I have seen about homeschooling and unschooling that really has bugged me is the assumption that every family has the resources and the ability to make this work. The friend mentioned in the post who takes her children to museums, living history parks, festivals, and the like must have 1. chosen to stay at home 2. has the money/time to do all these things and 3. live in an area where there is access to this. If you have the ability, sure, this sounds like a fantastic way to be able to teach your children about the world around them.

    I come from a family where both my parents had to work just to pay the mortgage and provide for 3 children. There wasn’t much extra and, when you live in the middle of a rural area and hours away from the closest museums, it was next to impossible for those types of educational opportunities. My parents did as much as they could to supplement our education by teaching us to read at a young age and taking us to the library. But, when you’re surrounded by fields, it isn’t a cheap proposition to get to places where you can have these types of learning experiences.

    As many in other comments have noticed, unschooling seems to be a neat way to go about learning, but for many of us, there was no way it could be a primary source of education because it requires time and resources from families that just weren’t there. If it wasn’t for public education, I seriously wonder what type of educational opportunities I would have had available to me. Would I have been able to cultivate my love for science and math considering my parents were fairly lacking in those areas?

  • Alice

    It sounds like you almost have to be well-off financially to do unschooling well, to have the money for all of the activities and a rich educational environment in the home. I know there are plenty of free activities and resources, but it’s got to be challenging. (Of course, textbooks ain’t cheap either).

    And how many families are able to have one parent who can be a full-time teacher? My parents both worked almost all of the time and struggled to make ends meet even though we were solidly middle-class. They taught me how to read and do math when I was around kindergarten age, and from then on I did all the workbooks by myself with basically no supervision.

    I didn’t do any math one year, and I think it was partly an attention-seeking tactic and partly just laziness. Also, I always wondered if I was doing enough every day since there were no set rules or deadlines.

    The worst part was not being able to do any social activities because my mom didn’t have time to take me, and not being able to pay for the ones that weren’t free. I realize now that maybe another parent could have picked me up and dropped me off at the free activities, but those parents were frazzled too I think.

    That was definitely not a great situation, but at the same time, I shudder at the thought of kids who grow up with a parent who has nothing to do all day but spend time with them and teach them. I’m sure it can be wonderful when you’re young, but it sounds rather smothering and enmeshing once you’re in middle school and high school. Especially for introverts like me.

    It just seems like a really difficult balance to achieve: not being a helicopter parent but also not being neglectful.

    • “Rebecca”

      Your homeschooling sounds a lot like mine was. Honestly the only saving grace of my education was that I *did* get those hours of basic math, grammar, spelling, history, etc in my head through textbooks. If I’d been “unschooled” with 2 stressed, working parents, it would have been a disaster.

      I suppose unschooling could be done well, but letting a kid choose 100% of their own curriculum sounds like a terrible idea. Kids can be lazy little shits, and what idea do they have of their own future? If it had been up to me I would have done nothing but read about animals. While learning about animals is not a bad thing, where would that have left me as a teen or adult if that was the only thing I’d ever seriously studied?

      • Alice

        It sounds like we did. Yeah, it definitely would have been worse without the textbooks. I already had way too much free reign.

        I was allowed to choose the textbooks for each subject from the home-school catalog, and it was very nice to have the choice, but I stressed about it too because what if I chose wrong and there were so many to choose from. I often felt like I chose wrong because grass is always greener.

        We switched textbooks midway through /numerous/ times, especially math books. My parents would switch after I complained enough. My mom eventually had to say, “Honey, all math books are pretty much the same.” One time after a standardized test, I was crying and freaking out because I was convinced I failed it. I was babbling a lot of random things, and I happened to say that I hated the textbook. So my parents threw it out. I had no idea they were going to do that, and I wished later I hadn’t said anything.

        That’s also why I never wrote papers in home-schooling. Once in a while my mom would say, “You really need to learn how so you’ll be prepared for college.” Then I would say “I hate writing!” and change the subject. A few of the books had paper-writing assignments, but I skipped them, and my parents never knew since they also had me grade my own work. *shudder*

        So in college, it was hard to psychologically adjust to the idea that no matter how much I complained or cried, the class requirements and deadlines weren’t going to disappear. (Fortunately, I had enough common sense not to do those things in front of the professor).

        I’m glad my parents took my feelings and opinions seriously, but teachers have to be tough sometimes, and it’s hard to do when you’re emotionally attached to the student.

      • “Rebecca”

        Yep, my parents used to make me sit down and actually finish everything, but soon they got burnt out and they gave up on making me do any work I didn’t like. This is something homeschool parents have to watch out for!

      • Rosa

        The idea – and I’ve seen it play out for some kids – is that knowledge and accomplishment are intrinsically rewarding and we rob kids of that by putting so much extrinsic reward/punishment on their education.

        Of course as a parent it is really, really, really, really hard not to put extrinsic rewards (even parental approval and praise!) on a kid’s activities, so it’s not like just not schooling will eliminate that.

      • luckyducky

        I don’t buy it… I use to but think of all the games we play where score it kept… why, some external measure. Even the desire to accomplish something (semi-) tangible is to produce something we can show, often/usually to someone else. I think the desire to do something is best when the motivation is intrinsic but all but the most hardcore of us crave some sort of externalized validation for what we do/have accomplished to keep us going.

      • Rosa

        Yeah, my own attention and organization issues mean I function a lot better with a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and rewards, so I’m especially leery of sweeping generalizations about how all people do better with intrinsic rewards only (or natural consequences, for that matter.)

        It’s especially bad when it comes with the assertion that there is NO WAY to measure or benchmark the education of unschoolers because the process is so intrinsically different than schooling. That’s making children the guinea pigs of a big ideological experiment that has no criteria for success until they become adults.

      • Jayn

        While learning about animals is not a bad thing, where would that have
        left me as a teen or adult if that was the only thing I’d ever seriously

        Probably someplace better than where I would have been under the same circumstances. Most of my self-directed ‘research’ in high school was based on ancient myth and new age stuff. My only career prospect would probably be fortune teller (which I did dabble with, but I never had enough confidence in myself to consider doing for money).

        I do agree with your comment about kids being lazy little shits–I would totally have jumped at the idea of self-directed learning, but I can’t see it ending well if I had. While I love learning new stuff, I SUCK at self-motivation, and was not self-aware enough at that age to realise that I really need outside structure to be imposed on me.

  • Wren

    I am terribly competitive, undisciplined, and social. Unschooling would have been horrible for me.

  • JoannaDW

    I like unschooling myself, but I don’t see it as any better or worse than any other kind of education. It comes down to what works for you and your family and, of course, how you do it in such a way that ensures a well-rounded education and that follows state law makes all the difference. My biggest concern with unschooling is that not all personalities are well-suited to it…being with family 24/7, skipping whole subjects because of a lack of interest on the child’s part/failure of the parent to instill interest, lack of resources, and also disability. It’s not uncommon for people with learning, mental, psychiatric, or developmental disabilities to struggle with executive functioning, motivation (!), self-awareness, etc. all of which can kill unschooling efforts. We can’t expect any normal child, much less a special needs child, to diagnose themselves with a learning problem, investigate treatments and accommodations, and then implement them. Parents cannot even do that and in many fundamentalist environments, as well as all-natural, progressive, “alternative” environments, parents are hostile to the idea that such problems even exist and that it might be necessary to treat them with something other than the rod or a diet of organic goulash. It is at times necessary to get specialized instruction to deal with these problems and many unschoolers are not equipped to provide that.

  • gimpi1

    I think even at the best, unschooling can lead to problems. It’s important to be able to learn things that don’t interest you in the least. It’s important to be able to write about topics you don’t care for. It’s vital to be able to understand points of view that aren’t your own.

    Trying to impart a love of learning for its own sake is great. But we all have to do things we would never do for their own sake. How to unschoolers pick up that vital skill?

  • Hilary

    Ok, a question – how by the noodle appendages of the Flying Spaghetti Monster are unschooled kids going to manage pacing themselves through the boredom and repetition of a 9 – 5 type job? Or are they all going to be such brilliant creative geniuses that they will never have to resort to sullying themselves with a retail or corporate type job? Because like it or not, going through the pace, scheduling and rhythm of structured time in public schools helps when your paycheck is on the line at a boring job. Or how to deal with accountability to a boss who is not your parent.

    • Seeker

      Hilary; I homeschooled my son for high school, so we could split the time between community college (some subjects) and high school (others). I signed up my son for a computer programming class at the CC that was heavily advertised to the homeschooling community. My son’s lab partner, who was also 14, had been unschooled all his life. He missed a lot of classes, he clearly couldn’t grasp coding practices, and he couldn’t even spell basic words like “flower” and “tank” (one of the projects was to create a simple animation). His dear old Mum ranted and raved about how horrible public school was and her primary example was that it was cruel to make children wake up and go to school every day. I also wonder what will happen to her son,and how in the world he can possibly go to college or hold down a job if he has no idea about showing up places on time.

      • Sally

        This is exactly what I think people are afraid of with unschooling, and when this is the attitude and result, those fears are justified.
        I knew an unschooling family for some years. Before moving away, the mom wrote a post saying she had failed her kids. She didn’t say how, but being the most unschoolish family I had ever seen, I was pretty sure I had a good idea what she meant.
        That said, one of her kids worked at a retail job for several years. She obviously managed to have enough skills to work there and to keep the job. But it did seem like a shame they hadn’t been more proactive. The youngest always seemed so lonely.

      • Rosa

        Money is very motivating. Some kids with creative, anti-9-to-5 parents end up aiming for that corner office and picking up all the skills they need to do it, despite all obstacles.

        But I’m trying to find something Moon Zappa wrote (probably in the foreward to the essay collection Wild Child) and failing – it’s along the lines of “I was raised to be a rock star and I don’t have any other skills.” Which isn’t true, she seems to have done fine, but she started out with money and connections, too.

        She did say “I had too much freedom. You can’t define yourself.” though.

      • smrnda

        I think Francis Ford Coppola, commenting on what went on in the filming of Apocalypse Now, actually said “we had too much money and too much freedom.” Your quotes made me think of that line, and though only tangentially relevant, I had to post it.

    • Bobo

      Well, I was home schooled in a very unstructured way, not unschooling per se, more like chaos. I actually like having a regular schedule, because I have a lot of trouble structuring my own time. I don’t mind tedious tasks and am quite conscientious about completing them. It’s true that I struggle a bit with punctuality but I am highly reliable in other ways and I have never had a boss who did not think highly of me.
      My younger sister, who’s schooling was even more chaotic than mine, is also a stellar employee.

      Of course, this is just an anecdote, but I think it does illustrate that the results of an unstructured upbringing is not necessarily an adult who can’t handle structure. In some cases it might create be an adult who seeks out structure because she finds it hard to create it for herself.
      That said, I do struggle with completing tasks I set myself, and although I have done well in college it has been much more stressful than necessary due to my lack of organization and tendency to procrastinate. I don’t know how much of this upbringing and how much temperament , but a bit of structure and accountability before the the college level might have helped.

      • Rosa

        Lots of kids turn out great despite all sorts of less than ideal circumstances. But the ideal would be an education that helped instead of hindered each child.

      • Bobo

        I agree, my point was merely that psychological responses are sometimes counter intuitive, people often overcompensate for the problems of their upbringing rather than automatically falling into the the patterns they grew up with.

      • Bobo

        That said, while my schooling was chaotic, I actually had many responsibilities growing up, taking care my siblings and helping with housework, so perhaps that is why I don’t have much difficulty being accountable at work.

    • Renee

      Not everyone can do a 9-5 anyway. US parents will say- that is not what I want for my kid. And really, we need more entrepreneurs anyway, not more 9-5ers.

      Now, will US make more entrepreneurs? I don’t know, but arguing that kids won’t want to, or be able to, have a boring job just is not a good argument. Its not that hard to get up if you NEED to, and one can live in a million other ways without a 9-5 job.

      • Rosa

        an awful lot of us have known people first hand who *could not* function in a 9-5 workplace because of lacking basic social, timeliness, and follow-through skills. In a good economy, there’s some leeway for learning that stuff on the job, but right now it can mean not finding paid work for years. There is a huge difference between having the opportunity to make it outside of cubicle-land, and being forced out by never being taught basic skills.

  • Monika Tillsley

    My parents were both teachers and my husband is currently studying to teach primary school. There is no way I am qualified to do their job and home school my child. I am smart and good at my own job but I’m no teacher.

  • lollardheretic

    I went to regular school. Private school (pre-K through 8th grade) and then public high school. So regular old school. My parents never did anything remotely “unschool” like with me. (I think I’m a bit too old. I’m 37). What they did to, apparently from the time I was born, was talk to me. We used to eat dinner every night in front of the television (like all good ‘merican families) and watch the news. My mom would holler (more or less) at the tv (this was the early 80s and she was an avid, avid democrat in California so we’d been through Reagan as governor and then as Pres). And we’d talk about what was on tv. Then we’d talk about other stuff. We’d talk and talk and talk. And talk. Did I mention we’d talk? My dad would talk too. When I asked him about Geraldine Ferarro (the First woman VP candidate, for those who don’t remember) we talked about it. When I asked what would happen if I dated a black man (I’m white) we talked about it. When I asked about Hell (see above about private school, and my folks weren’t religious) we talked about it.

    All that talking was really educational, too. It gave me a lot of different perspectives from the ones I was getting at school, and so I stood out (sometimes WAY WAY out) from my friends, but it made me trust my parents because they were honest with me.

    They also read a lot, and never ever told me I couldn’t read something. That did a lot too. Even though most of what I read was fiction (Hello Stephen King and Clive Barker!), it still was eye opening, and I still could talk to them about it.

    It meant when I got older, I could talk to them too, esp. in high school. So I think, in some ways, my parents met the “unschooling” goals, without ever doing it, even with me in very traditional education, just by talking to me. And some of it was about school, but most of it was just about everything.

  • Renee

    After reading the other comments, it strikes me that many people here are missing something major about US- it is NOT like school. Not in any way. It is philosophically a totally different animal. I am not great at explaining it, but wanted to mention this.The learning is not the same, it does not happen at the same pace or age, and does not need too. The comparison would not be from kid to kid, but from adult to adult- do USers do well in the world? The issue is that no one knows. I have seen impressive teens from US families as well as ones that are barely literate.

    IMO, US sounds so great, but I think its one of those things that is generally better off as a theory, not a reality. I love the idea, think it sounds awesome, and have spent a lot of time learning about it and meeting US families, so my criticism isn’t from dislike/misunderstanding of the idea. I wish we could do it, but do not have the resources to do it well. Most people do not.

  • Renee

    If you are curious about US philosophy and practice, here is a good place to start.

    I think people should read about US from a well known and respected USer. Here is her take on US. She is a radical US, which is US but for the entire life, not just education.

    (I am not promoting her, or her ideas, just introducing US from those that define it in the culture.)

    • Sally

      Well, that was very interesting. It didn’t really explain the practice of unschooling, but it did talk about the parenting philosophy behind radical unschooling- a philosophy that sounds very much like Libby Anne’s parenting philosophy. It’s almost like they’re saying, if you take this philosophy all the way (and they do call this *radical* unschooling), you will end up unschooling your child. Of course there are many parents who send their children to school but who have a similar parenting philosophy to this author. But you will get something different at school than you will at home that way. -Unless you send your child to a Sudburry school or another private school that is very child-centered.

  • Susie M

    I remember reading about unschooling in a homeschooling magazine when I was around 11-12. I immediately told my mom it was an awful idea. She listened to me and agreed.

    As a eleven year old, I knew myself, my tendencies, and the way humans work. I knew that, left to my own devices, I would happily devour every book in sight, delving into the world of creative writing, language, history, and foreign language. But I would leave math problems and lectures about plant life and the ecosystem alone.

    I couldn’t trust myself to study the years of mathematics and science I still had ahead of me, and I doubted most children could trust themselves either.

    With that being said, I am a huge proponent of cultivating children’s passions and strength. My parents constantly encouraged us to be individuals–we have a creative writing major, a music pedagogy major, an Ag. major, and a boy wizard at mathematics. And that’s just the first half of our family.

    Unschooling, in its purest, healthiest form, seeks to teach children that learning is fun–and indeed it is. But not all learning will be fun to every child. The writing class that I excel in is pure torture for my genius (in mathematics) brother, and I constantly was turning to my younger brother for mathematics help. It didn’t mean that learning wasn’t fun for us, just that we had to work in certain areas.

    One of my brothers thought he wasn’t designed for school. Most classes disinterested in him. However, when he was placed in a small, private school, he discovered that his competitive, organized nature LOVED the rigors of brick and mortar schooling. He enjoyed beating his peers, studying for tests, and reaping the rewards of his labor. His orderly mind found beauty in academia, even though he still claimed to not have a favorite topic.

    Finally, he discovered his niche. My incredibly hard working, bright, organized brother found the field of agriculture. There he found subjects that astounded him, delighted him, and pleased him. He now writes his papers with the gusto that Socrates debated.

    It was “school” and hours spent in farm work that finally caused him to realize where he would best succeed. Now, he’s an Ag major with a very high GPA that talks excitedly about the future and his place in it.

  • David S.

    Personally I think unschooling would have been a complete failure for me. I look at my life after school, and the way I’ve carried books about topology, group theory and Esperanto around until they were beaten to pieces and failed to learn any of the subject. I’ve found Coursera great for that additional structure, because I can’t do it for the most part without it.

  • polkm123

    I recently heard that

    Two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of 4th grade will end up in jail or on welfare. Over 70 percent of America’s inmates cannot read above a 4th grade level.

    1 in 4 children in America grow up without learning how to read.

    As of 2011, America was the only free-market OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) country where the current generation was less well educated than the previous.

    Nearly 85 percent of the juveniles who face trial in the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate, proving that there is a close relationship between illiteracy and crime. More than 60 percent of all inmates are functionally illiterate.

    53 percent of 4th graders admitted to reading recreationally “almost every day,” while only 20 percent of 8th graders could say the same. (2009 study)

    75 percent of Americans who receive food stamps perform at the lowest 2 levels of literacy, and 90 percent of high school dropouts are on welfare.

    Teenage girls ages 16 to 19 who live at or below the poverty level and have below average literacy skills are 6 times more likely to have children out of wedlock than the girls their age who can read proficiently.

    Reports show that low literacy directly costs the healthcare industry over $70 million every year.

    In 2013, Washington, D.C. was ranked the most literate American city for the third year in a row, with Seattle and Minneapolis close behind.

    Long Beach, CA was ranked the country’s most illiterate city, followed by Mesa, AZ, and Aurora, CO.

    but wait these are the kids that go to school, so whats your point?

  • reginahny

    There is so much unexamined privilege in the idea of an individual parent having the opportunity to “unschool” it boggles the mind (never mind the presumed access to public cultural, historical and educational facilities and services). Single parents who work? oooops, no unschool for you. “Working poor” partners who both must work? ooops, no unschool for you. Women who will be expected to be the unschool teacher? ooops, no outside career for you, etc. Check the privilege, please.

  • xristiana sophia

    What you are describing – except for that first lady – is not unschooling my friend, it’s unparenting, its uninterested, its self-unawareness. Let’s not put everything down to unschooling.

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