Beyond Homeschooling Your Kids: Radical Unschooling?

by Silicon Valley Blogger on 2010-06-0227

I’m someone who grew up in a traditional, conventional household. I’m also someone who was raised in a different country, so when I heard about homeschooling, I thought of it as an odd set up. Over time, I understood that while rare (it’s against the law in other countries, as this page attests) it’s a bigger movement than I first realized and it was not terribly unusual to have families embrace a homeschooling philosophy. In fact, I’m no longer surprised to hear that there are families that go through some years dedicated to having their kids learn this way, even for a short while.

There are reasons for this — usually some circumstances make it easier to keep a child homeschooled for a period of time, maybe a family decides to move to a new place and needs adjustment, maybe it’s a conscious choice to try a new educational methodology, or for some, it may just be a cheaper option (after all, even public schools these days are trotting out the donation boxes more often and sponsoring more and more fundraisers).

It could also be a response to (or a way to protest) all the pressures of raising children with all the trappings of a “well-balanced” childhood, in a demanding society. Know any families who’ve got soccer/basketball/baseball/hockey/lacrosse/football practice, music and dance recitals, art and drama classes, tutoring and what not to attend and deal with everyday and all week long? Homeschooling sounds like the antithesis of all that: how about removing some of those communal pressures and running things our way?

homeschooling, radical unschooling
Image from the 9gag.com


A lot more people have tried homeschooling and say that things have worked out well for them. But I’m bringing up this subject now because the other night, I was watching Nightline and the subject of discussion was this offshoot of homeschooling called “radical unschooling”. I’ve never heard of such a thing before and as a parent, I found it quite extreme. Well, someone termed it “radical”, and I suppose it’s true to its name:

Unschooling contrasts with other forms of home education in that the student’s education is not directed by a teacher and curriculum. Although unschooling students may choose to make use of teachers or curricula, they are ultimately in control of their own education. Students choose how, when, why, and what they pursue. Radical unschooling, or whole life unschooling, extends the philosophy of unschooling to all of life.

Being so far from what’s mainstream and traditional, this practice certainly has its critics, calling it “lazy parenting”. But here’s what someone wrote in its defense. The claim here is that many kids grow up none the worse for wear, living this way. In fact, there are supposedly many benefits to going down this path.

Personally, I’ve tried to imagine what it would be like if I grew up without boundaries, structure or pesky rules that got in my way of doing what I wanted, even with some parental guidance. I’m not sure it’s the kind of thing I’d be suited for or comfortable with as I function best in a structured environment (as do most people I know). It may be a simplistic argument, but I can’t help but wonder how growing up in an unconventional way can affect how you live in a society that forces you to conform in so many other ways.

But heck, you can always choose to go off the beaten path. Here’s my own story of some extended family members of ours who are homesteading in the wilderness. It works for them, so what can I say?

Copyright © 2010 The Digerati Life. All Rights Reserved.

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

George June 2, 2010 at 8:23 pm

I think homeschooling is a great alternative. There are (a few) people who don’t want their kids to grow up average, and keeping them away from most of the other kids, the below average teachers, and the useless school system makes sense to them. Instead of wasting their kid’s time, they use homeschooling to to teach them important and useful skills.

Funny about Money June 2, 2010 at 8:38 pm

I taught for ten years at an urban upper-division campus whose students mostly came from a couple of nearby junior colleges. It was in the middle of a working-class and working-poor district, and most of our students were adults (average age: 32) and far from affluent.

You would be amazed at the number of people who either were homeschooling their kids or who planned to do so. They were not religious folks trying to protect their children from the baleful influence of a profane society. They were upwardly mobile people who were working very hard to pull themselves and their kids out of poverty. The schools in the area were low in quality — that’s saying something in Arizona, where the school system leaves much to be desired across all districts and social classes — and dangerous.

They wanted their kids to be safe and they wanted them to get a decent education — better than what had been offered to the parents. They followed the day-to-day lesson plans and testing required by the state and district schools.I learned some amazing things from them:

* A child or set of siblings could easily get through an entire day’s curriculum between nine in the morning and lunch.

* The children were not isolated from other kids and “unsocialized.” After the other kids came home from school, they played with them same as they would had they gone to the local school with them. Also, in Arizona schools are required to allow home-schooled kids to participate in extracurricular activities, and so these children played on school teams and participated in band, after-school clubs, National Merit Society, and all that.

* Parents, having discovered that the required schoolwork could be accomplished in half a regular school day, arranged weekly and sometimes daily cultural field trips, sometimes en famille and sometimes with groups of other home-schooled kids. Kids visited museums, universities, businesses, hospitals, legislative bodies, city and state infrastructure facilities, drama, dance, concerts…you name it. They had much, much wider cultural experience than the day-school kids who were plodding through three or four hours of work in eight hours of boredom.

* Also as part of their education, children volunteered for civic and charitable activities.

It’s useful to know that universal public education is a relatively new concept in the West. Also, that its founders’ guiding principles had less to do with educating strong thinkers than with fostering a compliant populace that would do as it was told.

That said, “radical unschooling” bothers me. Given the pervasive superstition and ignorance in our culture — much of it engendered by the very educational system we imagine brings enlightenment — “organic and unstructured” smacks of woo-woo. Not that I think Big Brother should be dictating each child’s daily training; only that children need structure.

Mr. Stranahan’s child, who at 13 or 14 could not write cursive and knew nothing of long division, allegedly “caught up” in two weeks with the middle-school kids he joined as an “experiment.” That speaks less for the mental agility of the Stranahan boy than for the low quality of public education. Now teaching in a community college serving an upper-middle-class suburb, every day I see 19-year-old college freshmen and sophomores who cannot handle fractions, do not know how to figure out what 70% of 700 equals, think Wisconsin is a Rocky Mountain State, and cannot read without moving their lips. It’s entirely possible that a bright child allowed to grow like topsy would excel in public schools that produce such graduates. Or appear to.

Monevator June 3, 2010 at 1:23 am

I pretty much treated the whole education system as those ‘unschoolers’ suggest. So the only difference for me would have been the very welcome one that I wouldn’t have had to trudge into school for the hated six hours a day for 15 years. I was more than self-motivated enough to direct my own learning (by about 12 I was taking 6-8 non-fiction books out of the library a week, doing my own paper route which meant getting up at 6.30am, etc).

Many people love school and it’s fine for them, but it’s such a huge chunk of life that there should be an alternative for those of us who don’t.

Unfortunately:

(a) It’s a parental decision

(b) It’d be quite hard to tell between a smart self-directed kid like I was, and a lazy or maladjusted kid who just didn’t want to go to school on principle. (And (c) most kids vacillate, too, I guess, but you could really check then in and out of school (or could you? Hmm…)).

basicmoneytips.com June 3, 2010 at 4:27 am

I am not a particularly big fan of home schooling. First, while I know not everyone shares this opinion, there is a social development aspect that is not happening as it should. Not just interaction with kids, but being part of a class or club and knowing what that offers.

Second, I have a masters degree, and I was helping a friend with his college algebra recently (I know somewhat harder than high school), but I was shocked how much I had forgotten. At that point I knew home schooling a child would be hard if you got to the high school years.

Jaime @ Like a Bubbling Brook June 3, 2010 at 5:22 am

While we are certainly not fans of unschooling, we wholeheartedly support homeschooling. Funny About Money made some great points in the above comment.

We love being done by lunchtime and having the rest of the day to do other activities, many of which are still educational, but fun. We also get to spend more time outdoors, in nature, learning about life in general.

PJ June 3, 2010 at 8:03 am

You say you “function best in a structured environment (as do most people I know)”… but could that be _because_ you had that kind of environment when you were growing up? Also, given that the real world isn’t all that structured, is that really the best environment to prepare for?

ctreit June 3, 2010 at 8:04 am

I did not grow up here, either, and homeschooling was not an option. My parents probably did not want to homeschool me anyway since they are both teachers. I still don’t get the homeschooling concept and I am still a little suspicious of it. Besides, I don’t know any child here in the US who is not in a regular school.

Marc June 3, 2010 at 8:43 am

Another issue that is missed in homeschooling is lack of social contacts. One of the most important jobs of schools is to show children how to interact with other people.

Rob Bennett June 3, 2010 at 9:44 am

I remember pretending I was sick so that I could stay home and read a book that I had fallen in love with and wanted to finish quickly. All that schoolin’ was getting in the way of my education!

Rob

BRB June 3, 2010 at 1:06 pm

I feel that homeschooling can be done really well, by those that are dedicated. Unschooling on the other hand, leaves much to be desired. I saw two children raised this way and one child couldn’t read by 11 and the other had a lot of issued finding direction for life and became depressed for a time. I’m not saying that this is unusual for people to lose their way, but this one couldn’t figure out why they were depressed when it was perfectly clear to everyone else that they were bored and lacked a purpose. I also feel that in this structure a lot of the more detailed lessons about history, science, etc are not learned in any way and that these people lack some basic knowledge that homeschooled and normally schooled children possess.

Credit Girl June 3, 2010 at 4:04 pm

I totally agree with BRB. If you’re going to homeschool your kids, you’d better do a good job. As a parent, homeschooling your kids will be a full time job on its own. I went to public school and I think that I’ve learned a lot about life that way so my kids will definitely be going to school..

Create Wealth June 3, 2010 at 8:35 pm

I agree with Marc “Another issue that is missed in homeschooling is lack of social contacts. One of the most important jobs of schools is to show children how to interact with other people.”

I have just graduated from uni, and it’s the people with the social skills and contacts who are getting the jobs, not the smartest, or the guys with the highest grades.

Miss Platnum June 4, 2010 at 8:37 am

I remember that time too, Rob :) I always loved vacations more than going to school, but now, grown up I do think that it was something really important. And all those relationships were irreplaceable… relationships you can not make staying at home! Team works, and so on… they surely have their importance!

jim June 4, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Unschooling sounds mostly like half baked experimental theory of education than solid teaching. Anyone remember “new math”? Might sound great in an university education program study paper but whether or not it is effective at teaching most kids seems like mere theory that I wouldn’t want to experiement on my kid to prove. It might work great for a certain small % of very bright kids who learn in certain ways. But for >90% of the kids its not enough structure and too much freedom. Course this is just my opinion, what do I know.

Homeschooling can be very good or very bad. Some parents do a great job and the kids learn tons. But just cause you’re capable of having kids doesn’t qualify you as a good teacher. My cousins kids were homeschooled very poorly.

Silicon Valley Blogger June 4, 2010 at 1:50 pm

@Jim and everyone,

It seems that most of the stuff I’ve read about homeschooling is by advocates who really emphasize the success stories. What I’ve read is something along the lines of “you can’t do worse but can only do better” with educating your kids. But I’m sure that it matters what your school district is, the quality of schools you have in your neighborhood, and whether the resources that are offered by a school are a fit to the needs of your child (I’m talking about kids with special needs, for example, where certain resources are hard to come by).

But I’d be interested in hearing about the other side of the story too, so when Jim mentions how homeschooling has failed for some in his family, then that’s a dose of reality that we need to hear about. I know for a fact I’d be a lousy teacher and wouldn’t do a good job if I tried. Then there’s that whole “socialization” issue that comes with homeschooling. I also agree that developing and maintaining contacts is highly important and these relationships are often nurtured in a school setting. But as Funny About Money mentions, there seems to have been ways around that. Well, for those determined to go the homeshooling route, it sure proves that “if there’s a will, there’s a way”!

Lisa June 4, 2010 at 2:48 pm

Interesting topic, my brother has been discussing the idea of “unschooling” with me recently. I’m not always convinced by his arguements, but there are some good points to be made about how much better we learn when we are passionate about something. I agree that you are much more likely to suceed in an area that you are genuinely interested in and passionate about and if you had the opputunity to advance on your own in those areas instead of wasting time learning subjects you have no interest in. My concerns of course are there are some subjects I think you need to suceed in society and in life (i.e. so many kids hate math, but I strongly believe that’s an essential life skill and I wouldnt want to see that get over-looked).
On the topic of homeschooling, I’m a volunteer tutor at the city library and for the last few months have been working with 3 high school kids who are homeschooled. Their mom brings them in at least once a week to get help (mostly math). I’m glad she recognizes her limitations in the area, but I’m honestly not impressed with her attitude towards their education. They have workbooks with a short lesson followed by mulitple chice questions that are graded. They progress through the lessons fairly quickly, but don’t seem to make any progress in learning the material. Every week they are still struggling with the same basics and their isn’t the right incentive for them to spend the time and effort learning. The sooner they finish – the more free time they have to do something else. Learning the material doesn’t seem to factor in anywhere. The right learning environment and motivation really makes a difference. It’s frustrating to me to see them not learning and not caring.

Henry June 5, 2010 at 4:54 pm

Marc and Create Wealth, when homeschooling first came out the major complaint was the parents were unqualified and the children wouldn’t receive a decent education. Over time that argument was dropped because it clearly wasn’t true. Most universities are happy to accept homeschoolers because as a group they tend to do better than children from public schools.

The major attack now is that the children will miss out on “socialization.” The thought seems to be that the only place children can learn appropriate social responses is in government or private schools. If they aren’t there, then they won’t have any social situations.

This is also clearly not true. For example our children have plenty of social events, from playing with neighbors, to soccer teams, to violin recitals, to homeschool park days, to, well the list goes on. In fact our children have a much greater variety of social interactions, they deal with people of different ages, religions, races and backgrounds. My children are comfortable with two year olds, teenagers and 92-year-olds. The average student in a government school hangs out with kids his own age, often from the same economic background.

Public schools don’t do a good job of teaching good social interaction. Teachers have very little influence. Most of the lessons taught are more from a Lord of the Flies environment. In my 25 years in the workforce I’ve never been beaten up and no one has made fun of me for not trying drugs.

Teachers Unions do push the mantra that homeschoolers miss out on socialization, but the argument has little merit. The unions are threaten because homeschooling is growing fast and takes away their paychecks. Some estimate that up to 5% of the children in the US are homeschooled, and the growth rate has it doubling every seven to ten years.

You might enjoy a YouTube video on Homeschoolers vs. homeschooled.

Nathan June 7, 2010 at 5:24 am

I don’t know how others would actually view homeschooling but in my opinion, I think parents who actually spend their time teaching their children are really great as they are able to balance everything and follow their own curriculum. That is a tough job and it require all efforts for it to be successful. Although great as it is, there are also the downside which is predominantly obvious and can really bring about a big impact in one’s personal development, that is being socially active and having the chance to be in contact to different individuals everyday.

crazyblogger June 8, 2010 at 9:43 pm

Home Schooling is a good practice for children below 5 years. After that I think they should be sent to school for education as well as to develop some social skills along the way.

Tom @ Canadian Finance Blog June 10, 2010 at 2:09 pm

I’m not sure about this “unschooling”… if I had the choice to just pursue what I was interested in, I would have been missing some education on some very important topics.

Jenny Cyphers June 10, 2010 at 2:49 pm

Lisa said “They have workbooks with a short lesson followed by mulitple chice questions that are graded. They progress through the lessons fairly quickly, but don’t seem to make any progress in learning the material. Every week they are still struggling with the same basics and their isn’t the right incentive for them to spend the time and effort learning. The sooner they finish – the more free time they have to do something else. Learning the material doesn’t seem to factor in anywhere. The right learning environment and motivation really makes a difference. It’s frustrating to me to see them not learning and not caring.”

Welcome to public school! This is exactly what goes on! If someone takes that whole idea of how to educate kids and brings it home, they get the same end results, much like what you are witnessing. The reason why unschooling is so hard to understand, is because it assumes something entirely different about how to educate. The underlying premise is that people are born learning, they never stop learning, it’s not something that can be forced or taught. When we have children, we can foster that beyond toddlerhood and into teenhood. Everything taught in school exists in the real world and kids who grow up in an environment outside of school where learning is the focus, will find the world a fascinating place full of interesting things and ideas, many of them traditional “subject” matters.

History is all around us. It exists in art and books and TV shows, it exists in changing technology and political ideology, it exists in the structures of our houses and the architecture of buildings, it exists in food and culture, it’s everywhere, permeating everything we live and breathe. There is no way that a child who lives in an environment where learning is primary, would not find relevance to history and ways to learn more.

That same thought can be applied to every “subject” taught in school. Learning doesn’t need to be linear or lock step, or graded. Learning doesn’t need to come from a textbook manufactured by a publishing company that produces its content through questionable means and sells it to the tax payers via the school system.

Unschooling is about learning, plain and simple.

Crazyblogger says, “Home Schooling is a good practice for children below 5 years”

No, that would be called raising babies. Homeschooling is a legal exemption to public schools, which everywhere around the world starts anywhere from 5-8 yrs of age. Public schools, by the way do not have compulsory education, so while people tout that schools educate, legally, they only guarantee that each child must have a butt in a seat. At best, a good portion of kids get some kind of education, at worst it’s a crap shoot. Outside of the US, the laws mostly read compulsory education, which often includes homeschooling.

Others touched on the socialization issue. I will only say this; I have a 16 yr old daughter who has never been to school. Most of her friends go to school. She herself, has a choice to go to school. Her primary reason for not attending? She is absolutely appalled by the way kids in school behave socially, towards each other, towards teachers, towards parents, and towards the general populace. It is not at all the way most homeschooled kids behave, unschooled or otherwise, they are generally much more kind and respectful of others than their public schooled peers.

misstopaz June 14, 2010 at 6:22 am

Although both types of schooling have their pros and cons, I would still choose to send my kids to school – socializing, going out of the same “home” environment I think has a great balance in their lives.

Maria Droujkova June 15, 2010 at 7:32 pm

There is entirely too much theorizing about homeschooling going on – when one can simply observe how it works, in practice. Some 3% of US school age children currently homeschool, and 7% of children with college-educated parents do. A journalist can go and observe several dozen of them. A lay person can go and read studies and reports of those who have observed. You will find, for example, that homeschoolers match or exceed institutionally educated kids on socialization metrics.

Those who insist on theoretical proof that a practice works, even though it works in observable reality, can consider this. “Homeschooling” is a misnomer: it’s not about homes, and the educational approaches hardly resemble schooling. Most homeschoolers belong to coops, clubs, support groups – it’s one of the most networked family populations. There are large positive differences in average success, specifically, of poor homeschooled kids vs. poor kids in public schools, as another commenter already mentioned, because of close supervision and parental dedication (the variables that make the difference in school studies, as well). A homeschooler has a higher chance to be admitted to most colleges, as statistics show.

My hope, as an educator, is to have multiple systems of learning in place ten years from now – family learning, community learning, institutional learning, online learning and so on. Each kids should have dozens of options, as opposed to 1-2. Then the quality will go up.

Laura Grace Weldon June 16, 2010 at 4:28 pm

What we’re all forgetting is that what we term “homeschooling” is the way humanity has always learned. Children have always observed, imitated, participated and gained useful knowledge directly—-without artificial inducements. Schooling is the experiment.

In my family we learn by doing. We help our children pursue their interests. We expect them to be responsible (on our farm that means a lot of chores) and we expect them to be respectful but we also trust the process of learning. We spend plenty of time in the wider community with people of all ages. To me, that’s real learning.

My new book Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything includes research on learning by historians, neurologists, psychologists and anthropologists. It also cites the experiences of over 100 families who educate freely. Self-directed kids who are critical, innovative thinkers will grow into the adults we need in this rapidly changing world.

Home School Dad June 17, 2010 at 2:02 pm

Basic Money Tips wrote: “I am not a particularly big fan of home schooling. First, while I know not everyone shares this opinion, there is a social development aspect that is not happening as it should. Not just interaction with kids, but being part of a class or club and knowing what that offers.”

Public School is not the only place that offers classes and clubs. Our local church offers classes and clubs. Our local park district offers classes and clubs. Our home school support group offers classes and clubs. Our local home school co-op offers classes (Okay they don’t offer clubs, but nobodies perfect. And I haven’t yet gotten to 4H, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts. And as Maria Droujkava just mentioned home schoolers are one of the most networked of family populations.

I actually think it is the public schools where the social development aspect does not happen where it should. Age segregation and the elevation of the peer group over the parent (at least in terms of educational hours spent together) is where I think social development is stymied not in the home.

P.S. Our local library (where I am writing this comment) has classes and clubs.

Amy LeForge June 19, 2010 at 3:56 pm

Kudos to Jenny Cyphers for such a balanced and thoughtful defense of unschooling. That said, I’m a pretty structured homeschooler. :) My own belief is that families need to do what’s right for them at the time that it’s right for them. I’m not trying to be relativistic. Rather, children are different…they have different needs and wants as they develop and parents should strive to meet those needs in the way that works best.

Does this mean that some families will go to public school? Yes! And more power to them. Other families choose private schooling, and still others the home option. Take a closer look at the huge spectrum of learning styles and approaches being used at home and you may be surprised. There are opportunities as free-flowing as unschooling all the way to extreme structure. It’s even possible to do classes online, with more and more options being created all the time. I feel very confident in teaching the high school grades, especially knowing that there are so many helpful resources out there should I need them.

For those of us that choose to teach at home, I’d love to see the whole socialization argument dropped. Unless you live in an extremely remote location or deliberately keep your children away from other human beings at all times, it’s pretty difficult to avoid social interaction. And really, how much time do public schooled children have to interact during their day? Recess, and lunch time, right? That’s what…an hour total? Or if you’re in the higher grades, then it’s lunch and the 5 minutes between classes. Still under an hour. While they’re in class, they’re supposed to be paying attention to the teacher and working, not socializing. Right?

Because my children can finish their work in half a day, they can relax in the afternoons or pursue an interesting activity and still have plenty of time and energy to participate in a sport (required for all members of our family), Scouts, church youth group, and hang out with friends. Consider for a moment a public-schooled child’s stress level while participating in extra-curricular activities. He or she will work for 7 or 8 hours in school, go to practice, then go home, eat a late dinner and face homework. That’s a lot more stress than I’d like to put on my own kids.

I mentioned above that I am not an unschooler. This is because my children are NOT self-directed learners. Whenever I’ve tried less structured approaches we’ve ended in chaos and tears. After a lot of tries and fails, we’re getting better and better at finding a way to do the schoolwork and not drive ourselves crazy.

That said, I do see value in unschooling and over time I see more and more of that philosophy creeping into my own approach as it works for my boys.

I don’t agree with some radical unschoolers with whom I’ve interacted over the years; some say that all structure is evil and can be very unkind towards anyone who disagrees with their techniques. I guess we’ll all find out if they were right when their kids become adults.

In the meantime, I’m over here doing my best to give my boys exactly what they need to grow and learn. I hope that all families are blessed to do the same.

Jeanette September 15, 2010 at 6:28 pm

I homeschool my son Jimmy and have since third grade. I don’t do it for religious or “unschooling” purposes. I do it because he is super smart and gets super bored in the classroom. THEN he gets super out of control causing super-dee-dooper big problems. I tried the ADHD meds. They made him skinny and sleepless. SO…I homeschool him, with the help of the school district and K12 (an excellent online school). But I also like to add stuff to the curriculum, especially history. History is, hands down, my favorite topic for study so I started a blog to help my son study ancient history. It is Ancient History for Homeschool. I would love for you to visit it and let me know what your thoughts are.

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