As families around the world settle back into school life, a movement of “unschoolers” is proposing a radical alternative: give your kids complete autonomy. In an article published last month in Outside Magazine, writer Ben Hewitt describes how his 9- and 12-year-old spend their days waking up at the crack of dawn, foraging for chokeberries, fishing for brook trout, and building shelters unassisted.
Hewitt describes unschooling as “self-directed, adult-facilitated life learning in the context of [the children’s]own unique interests,” which will sound familiar to proponents of child-initiated education philosophies like Montessori and Reggio Emilia.
Though no hard data is available, it is estimated that unschoolers make up around 10 percent of America’s 1.8 million homeschooled children.
To Beijing families, unschooling may sound especially crazy. Many parents talk about the extreme pressure for their kids to perform at school and the need to “keep with up the Jones” when it comes to extracurricular activities.
Indeed, Hewitt writes about unschooling not merely as an education choice, but also a “lifestyle choice.” His family lives “in the sticks,” and he and his wife sell produce and meat to keep afloat.
However, the trade-off is complete freedom. Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray says:
"School deliberately removes the environmental conditions that foster self-directed learning and natural curiosity. It’s like locking a child in a closet.”
“But what about university prospects?” you may ask. The writer points out that many universities have developed application forms specifically for homeschooled students.
For example, Columbia University in New York City states that homeschooled students will receive “the same evaluation” as any other applicant.
What stumps me is the requirement to send a copy of the student’s curriculum for the past four years. How would a family with a “curriculum” as unstructured as the Hewitts’ qualify their sons’ activities? “Advanced Foraging?”
All details aside, the most succinct assessment of unschooling lies in the following quote: “But then, that’s true of every choice a parent makes: no matter what we choose for our children, we are by default not choosing something else.”
When you choose a classroom education for your kids, the things you are not choosing may include more mental stimulation, better health, more sleep, religious freedom, less academic pressure, increased creativity and independence, and the ability to learn at their own pace.
The benefits, on the other hand, may include more structure, better socialization, fewer financial sacrifices, a clear path to university, standardized testing, more time for yourself and/or your partner, and less judgment from others.
As with everything else, it’s up to each family to determine what works for them.
Photo: Viki Watkins (Flickr)