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Does Unschooling Present a Viable Education Alternative?

written by: Jennie Dalcour • edited by: Donna Cosmato • updated: 5/20/2014

Unschooling has the reputation for being a lazy option for parents. Although this method is very different from structured home education, unschooling has the potential to provide children with a fine education while encouraging a love of learning. Find out here why some people don't think so.

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    An Non-Traditional Method

    Image provided by Writer “But what do you teach her?"

    “How will he ever learn anything?"

    “Your child won’t be prepared for the real world."

    Criticisms and judgment abound from all sources for parents who choose to use the unschooling method of home education. Some individuals even believe unschooling is just a cover for lazy parents to avoid the work necessary in educating a child.

    Despite the prejudice and stereotypes, unschooling is a growing movement. Out of the estimated 1.5 to 2 million homeschooling students in the United States, approximately one-third of those children are participating in an unschooling education.

    Numbers are only an estimate, however, because in most states homeschooling families are not required to disclose their teaching method or curriculum. The stereotypical picture of an uneducated child spending all day playing video games or watching television does not begin to uncover the reality of unschooling.

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    By Definition...

    Unschooling is a method of home education pioneered by a former teacher, John Holt. After a long teaching career of observing students, Holt concluded that organized schooling stifles and kills children’s natural desire to learn. Unschooled children learn to make their own decisions. They are encouraged to choose what they want to learn. Parents do not buy textbooks, workbooks or curriculum. Formal schedules do not exist.

    The theory behind this radical movement is that children will learn the skills they need to learn when they need them. Parents explain that their children learn math through measuring ingredients in the kitchen, saving money to buy a treat, or calculating tax at the grocery store. Children who need to understand complex algebraic formulas will eagerly learn them out of their perceived necessity, not as a forced drudgery.

    According to Holt, children learn by following their passions. Exploring what piques their interest will allow children to gain a full understanding, not just the appearance of knowledge that structured schooling provides. Parents act as facilitators to provide opportunities and supplies for their children to explore the world and their own curiosities. Life experiences, both in the home and out, become the ultimate educators. Children can delve into hobbies and specific interests. Whether they spend all day reading about Civil War battles, taking photographs of butterflies, or baking cakes, unschooled students turn every activity into an educational experience.

    A handful of brick and mortar schools have adopted an unschooling philosophy in their educational approach. One such school, the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts, offers students the freedom to choose to participate in an activity, watch television or talk with other students. Facilitators aid in the learning process when necessary. Ninety percent of Sudbury Valley’s alumni continue their education at the college level. Unschooling schools offer parents who believe in the unstructured philosophy, but find home education impractical, a viable option.

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    The Common Denominator Between the Two Options

    Although unschooling may be related to or even synonymous with structured home education in many minds, they are far different breeds of educational systems. Homeschooling offers an array of educational choices. On one side of the spectrum lies schooling that mimics a public education within the home. Students work from textbooks and workbooks while following a strict schedule and curriculum. These students may even receive their supplies and learning mandates from a public or charter school.

    Alternately, some parents pick and choose from different books or systems that specialize in particular subjects and even send their students to community colleges to supplement classes that are more advanced. Unschooling lies at the extreme end of the unstructured education side of the spectrum. Countless options lie between.

    The common denominator between successful unschooling and structured homeschooling is parental involvement. Whether parents are actively devising lesson plans or arranging a field trip to a science museum, they must be involved. Unschooling parents have the distinct responsibility to provide a resource-rich, highly inspiring, learning environment. If they choose not to facilitate their child’s desired learning, unschooling will not be satisfactory. Children who are exposed to resources and supplies that fuel their passions will exceed.

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    The Reality of Unschooling

    Structured homeschooling with teaching methods similar to traditional schools has a long history of producing well-educated high school graduates who easily transition to college or the workforce. The question remains whether unschooling produces similar results.

    A simple study that analyzes the test scores of students from traditional schools, structured homeschools, and unschools will not offer accurate results. One study with a small sample size by Sandra Martin-Chang, Odette N. Gould and Reanne E. Meuse found that unschooled children had far lower scores on standardized tests than homeschool and traditional school students.

    However, children in public schools, and often those in structured homeschools, are taught to take tests. They frequently complete quizzes and write essays to demonstrate their knowledge. They are well prepared for these types of tests.

    Unschooled children are at a disadvantage because they have no experience with formal tests or essays. Their education may be similar or superior, but their test-taking skills are lacking. While these unschooled children may not have a broad knowledge base, they are able to find answers, seek out information and maintain a love of learning throughout their lives.