Freedom to Learn

The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

What Is Unschooling? Invitation to a Survey

Unschooling is a growing, radical educational movement that deserves attention.

Unschooling is a movement that turns conventional thinking about education upside down. I'd like to learn more about it and tell the world more about it, and for that reason I'm conducting a survey of unschooling families. If you are a member of such a family and are willing to participate, you can find the form here.  If you can't find it that way, you can request the form from me by email, at grayp@bc.edu. The form itself contains all the information you need to complete and return it. It's short and not hard to complete. I would be very grateful for your participation. I invite you also to forward the form, or a link to this post, to other unschooling families, so they might also participate. (I plan to analyze the responses beginning in late November, so please return your form before November 23, 2011).

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[Note added Januay 8, 2012:  The survey is now closed. Note added April 17, 2012: Results of the survey are now posted, as Report I (on benefits of unschooling); Report II (on paths to unschooling), and Report III (on challenges to unschooling. But read on, here, for more on unschooling.]

Here's some of what I know already about unschooling, before conducting the survey. Defined most simply, unschooling is not schooling. Unschoolers do not send their children to school and they do not do at home the kinds of things that are done at school. More specifically, they do not establish a curriculum for their children, they do not require their children to do particular assignments for the purpose of education, and they do not test their children to measure progress. Instead, they allow their children freedom to pursue their own interests and to learn, in their own ways, what they need to know to follow those interests. They also, in various ways, provide an environmental context and environmental support for the child's learning. Life and learning do not occur in a vacuum; they occur in the context of a cultural environment, and unschooling parents help define and bring the child into contact with that environment.

All in all, unschoolers have a view of education that is 180 degrees different from that of our standard system of schooling. They believe that education is something that children (and people of all ages) do for themselves, not something done to them, and they believe that education is a normal part of all of life, not something separate from life that occurs at special times in special places.

Nobody knows just how many kids in the United States are currently unschoolers. For official record-keeping purposes, unschoolers are lumped in with homeschoolers. State laws don't allow parents to just take their kids out of school; parents have to somehow prove that their kids are being educated at home, and that puts them into the homeschooling category. Homeschooling, overall, is growing at an accelerating rate. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, which conducts a survey every 4 years, there were in the United States about 850,000 homeschooled kids (age 5 to 17) in 1999, 1.1 million in 2003, and 1.5 million in 2007. Stated as percentages of all school-aged kids, these numbers translate to 1.7% in 1999, 2.2% in 2003, and 2.9% in 2007. The data aren't in yet for 2011, but if we extrapolate the curve from the previous years, we might guess that today close to 4% of all school-aged kids are classed as homeschoolers.

People involved in the homeschooling movement estimate that roughly 10% of homeschoolers are unschoolers, which seems reasonable to me based on the proportions of them seen at homeschooling conventions. If this is true, then upwards of 150,000 kids are unschooling in the United States today and the numbers are increasing at an accelerating rate from year to year. The estimate would be even higher, perhaps much higher, if so-called "relaxed homeschoolers" were included. These are families who "sort of" have a curriculum for their kids but don't necessarily follow it or enforce it. All in all, unschooling is a very significant educational movement, because it involves such a large number of kids and it violates so sharply the standard view that kids must be forced to learn an imposed curriculum if they are going to succeed.

Academic researchers have steered clear of any serious study of unschooling, just as they have steered clear of Sudbury model schools and all other innovations in education that deny the value of an imposed curriculum. The one exception is a 2008 Ph.D. dissertation by Donna Harel Kirschner, at the University of Pennsylvania's Department of Anthropology. Kirschner interviewed and conducted home visits of 22 unschooling families, familiarized herself with the literature on unschooling, and wrote a dissertation describing the philosophy and practices of the families she studied. Unfortunately, Kirschner's work has not appeared in any academic or non-academic publications, and the dissertation itself is hard to obtain. You can purchase a copy of it from ProQuest Digital Dissertations (or get it free from them if you happen to have membership status at a subscribing university library). The full title is Producing Unschoolers: Learning Through Living in a U.S. Educational Movement.

But you can learn much more about unschooling by perusing the websites and reading the books of those who are involved in the movement. If you Google unschooling, you will find many choices available, but here are a few such resources that I am familiar with and recommend:

• Pat Farenga's website. Pat Farenga is perhaps the foremost authority on unschooling. He worked closely with John Holt, the noted author on children and learning, until the latter's untimely death in 1985. Holt's books, including How Children Fail and How Children Learn, published in the 1960s and ‘70s, are still seen as guiding lights by most people in the unschooling movement, and Pat has done much to keep those writings in press and available. Holt coined the term unschooling and founded the magazine Growing Without Schooling in the 1970s, and Pat continued to publish the magazine after Holt's death, from 1985 until 2001. Pat is a very popular writer, speaker, and media consultant on unschooling and has served as counselor to many new unschoolers and homeschoolers. At Pat's website you can find, among other things, Pat's blog, book reviews, videos relevant to unschooling, and a link to the full set of issues of Growing Without Schooling.

Life Learning Magazine. When Growing Without Schooling stopped publication, Life Learning Magazine became the leading journal of the unschooling movement. The magazine is packed with well-written articles about the philosophy and practice of unschooling. Since 2008 the magazine has been completely digital. The editor, Wendy Priesnitz, is herself a terrific author. You can find her blog at this site and links to her other writings. I particularly recommend her brief book, Challenging Assumptions in Education. The assumptions she challenges are these: Education is something that is done to you; Knowledge belongs to a cult of experts; Others know best what children should learn; Schools provide effective training; and Schools have a noble purpose.

The Natural Child Project. Here you can find well-written, thought-provoking articles not just on unschooling but on all aspects of parenting, including breastfeeding and the whole range of issues having to do with family harmony. The unschooling movement is very much linked to the larger natural child-raising movement, and here you see that link clearly. You can also subscribe here to the Natural Child Newsletter  and can find links to writings by Jan Hunt and others. Jan is editor of the newsletter and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart. She is also co-editor (with her son Jason) of The Unschooling Unmanual, which I recently read and enjoyed. It is an excellent collection of essays relevant to unschooling, including one by the novelist Daniel Quinn, one by John Holt, and two by Hunt herself.

Sandra Dodd's Radical Unschooling Website. This is another great unschooling website, which I just recently discovered. Its explicit aim is to provide practical information, resources, and encouragement to people who have taken the unschooling path. You can find here clear, well-written essays on almost every topic relevant to unschooling, links to books and other sites relevant to unschooling, and an up-to-date list of state, regional, and national organizations devoted to unschooling. As is true also of Pat Farenga, Wendy Priesnitz, and Jan Hunt, Sandra is an unschooling parent herself, so her words come not just from theory and reading, but also from first-hand experience.

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And now, I invite you to contribute your thoughts and questions. If you are new to the idea of unschooling and have questions about it, please ask. If you have experience with it and would like to add to or disagree with what I have said, please do. If you know of other unschooling websites that readers would find interesting, please tell us about them here. This blog is not just mine; it is a forum for debate and discussion among readers.

As always, I prefer if you post your comments and questions here rather than send them to me by private email. By putting them here, you share with other readers, not just with me. I read all comments and try to respond to all serious questions. Of course, if you have something to say that applies only to you and me, then send me an email.

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See new book, Free to Learn

Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, is author of the newly published book Free to Learn (Basic Books) and Psychology (a textbook now in its 6th edition).

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