Freedom to Learn

The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

The Benefits of Unschooling: Report I from a Large Survey

What, to unschoolers, are the benefits of skipping school?

Five months ago, in September, 2011, I posted an essay (here) introducing readers to the unschooling movement and inviting unschooling families to participate in a survey. The survey questionnaire—which was posted on Pat Farenga's Learning Without School site and Jan Hunt's Natural Child Project site—asked unschooling families to tell us a bit about their family, including the age and sex of each child, the employment of each parent, and the history of schooling, homeschooling, and unschooling of each child. It also asked the respondents to define unschooling as it is practiced in their home, to describe the path that led them to unschooling, and to tell us about the biggest challenges and benefits of unschooling for their family. My colleague Gina Riley (adjunct professor of special education at Hunter College) and I have been working on analyzing the results and preparing a report for publication in an educational journal.

Here, in a series of reports in this blog, my intention is to present a more informal report of the survey results. In this first report, I present some general statistics about the families who responded and then  focus on their definitions of unschooling and their statements about the benefits of unschooling. In subsequent reports I'll focus on their paths to unschooling and the biggest challenges of unschooling. One thing I can do here, which we won't be able to do in the more formal academic article, is to present many quotations from the survey forms. Many of the respondents are eloquent writers, who had no trouble putting their enthusiasm for unschooling into words.

Who responded to the survey?

In all, 254 families responded to the survey. However, for 23 of these families the oldest child had not yet reached school age (which we took to be 5 years old), and we chose not to include those families for the purpose of our main analyses. This left us with 231 unschooling families. Of these, 186 were from the United States, 19 were from Canada, and the remaining 26 were from other countries, mostly in Europe. The respondents from the US came from 34 different states, the most frequently represented of which are California (23), New York (14), and Oregon (10).

Of the 231 families, 48 had one child, 104 had two children, 51 had three, and the rest had four or more. In the great majority of families (220), the person who filled out the questionnaire was the mom; in nine families it was the dad, and in two families it was an unschooled child (now an adult). Most (209) of the families appeared to be two-parent families (as best as we could judge from the questionnaires), with both parents (or one parent and a step-parent) living at home. Twenty-one families were headed by single mothers, and one was headed by a single dad.

Concerning employment, roughly half of the mothers identified themselves as stay-at-home moms (often with part-time jobs), and the remaining were relatively evenly split among those employed as professionals of one type or another, self-employed enrepreneurs, and "other". The great majority of the fathers were employed full time and were also relatively evenly split among professionals, self-employed entrepreneurs, and others.

It should be clear to anyone reading this report that this is not a random sample of all unschoolers. Rather, the respondents are those who in one way or another found the survey form and took the trouble to fill it out and email it to me. One might expect that, as a whole, these are among the most enthusiastic unschoolers, the ones who are most eager to share their experiences. The general claims I make here apply only to the group who responded, not necessarily to the whole population of unschoolers.

How did the respondents define unschooling?

In my earlier post, in which I announced the survey, I defined unschooling simply as not schooling. I elaborated by saying: "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."

In the survey, one of our items was: "Please describe briefly how your family defines unschooling. What if any responsibility do you, as parent(s), assume for the education of your children? [I am asking only for generalities here. I may ask for more details in a subsequent survey.]"

Essentially all of the respondents emphasized the role of their children in directing their own education and in pointing out that education is not separate from life itself.  The responses varied, however, in the ways they described the parents' roles. We coded the responses, somewhat arbitrarily, into three categories--which I'll simply refer to as Categories 1, 2, and 3--according to the degree to which they mentioned deliberate roles the parents played in guiding and/or motivating their child's education. I should emphasize that these categories do not have to do with the degree to which the parents are involved in the child's daily lives, but just with the degree to which that involvement, according to the parents' descriptions, was deliberately directed toward the child's education. [See Endnote 1.]

By our coding, 100 (43%) of the responses fell into Category 1. These were the responses that most most strongly emphasized the role of the child and did not describe parental activities conducted specifically for the purpose of the child's eduction, other than being responsive to the child's wishes or the child's lead. As illustration, one respondent in this category wrote: "Unschooling equals freedom in learning and in life. We push aside paradigms and established regulations with regards to schooling and trust our children to pave their own way in their own educations. Everything they want to experience has value. We trust them." Another wrote: "Unschooling, for us, means there is absolutely no curriculum, agenda, timetable, or goal setting. The children are responsible for what, how, and when they learn."

By our coding, 96 (42%) of the responses fell into Category 2. These differed from Category 1 only in that they made some mention of deliberate parental roles in guiding or motivating their children's education. As illustration, one in this category wrote: "We define unschooling as creating an enriching environment for our children where natural learning and passions can flourish. We want our life to be about connection—to each other, to our interests and passions, to a joyful life together....As a parent, I am my children's experienced partner and guide and I help them to gain access to materials and people that they might not otherwise have access to. I introduce them to things, places, people that I think might be interesting to them, but I do not push them or feel rejected or discouraged if they do not find it interesting...."

Finally, 35 (15%) of the responses fell into Category 3. These were responses that might be considered as falling at the borderline between unchooling and what is sometimes called "relaxed homeschooling." The parents in these cases seemed to have at least some relatively specific educational goals in mind for their children and seemed to work deliberately toward achieving those goals. As illustration, one in this category wrote: "We believe that, for the most part, our daughter should be encouraged to explore subjects that are of interest to her, and it is our responsibility as parents to make learning opportunities available to her... I usually ask her to learn something or do something new or educational every day (and I explain to her why learning something new every day is such a cool thing to do!)."

What, to these families, are the benefits of unschooling?

The question about benefits came last in the questionnaire. It was worded as follows: "What, for your family, have been the biggest benefits of unschooling?" This was the question that led to the most prolific and often eloquent answers. The most common categories of benefits were the following:

1. Learning advantages for the child. At least 132 respondents (57% of the total) mentioned benefits that fell in this category. They said that their children were learning more, or learning more efficiently, or learning more relevant material, or learning more eagerly in the unschooling situation than they would if they were in school or being schooled at home. Many in this category said that because their children were in charge of their own learning, their curiosity and eagerness to learn remained intact.

2. Emotional and social advantages for the child. At least 116 respondents (50% of the total) mentioned benefits that fell in this category. They said that their children were happier, less stressed, more self-confident, more agreeable, or more socially outgoing than they would be if they were in school or being schooled at home. Many in this category referred to the social advantages; their children interacted regularly with people of all ages in the community, not just with kids their own age as they would if they were in school.

3. Family closeness. At least 131 respondents (57% of the total) mentioned benefits that fell in this category. They wrote that because of unschooling they could spend more time together as a family, do what they wanted to together, and that the lack of hassle over homework or other schooling issues promoted warm, harmonious family relationships.

4. Family freedom from the schooling schedule. At least 84 (36% of the total) mentioned benefits in this category. They said that freedom from the school's schedule allowed the children and the family as a whole to operate according to more natural rhythms of their own choice and to take trips that would otherwise be impossible. Some also mentioned that because of the free schedule, their kids could get jobs or participate in community projects that would be impossible if they had to be in school during the day.

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For the remainder of this post, I'm pasting in 33 quotations, from the questionnaires, about the benefits of unschooling. The quotations reflect the views and the enthusiasm of these unschooling families much better than any paraphrasing I could provide. Since many of you are not going to read through the whole list of quotes, I'll note here (rather than at the end)  that I welcome your comments and questions. What if any experiences do you have with unschooling? Can you imagine it working for your family? If you were to do a survey of unschooling families, what questions would you want to ask? This blog is a forum for discussion, and your views and knowledge are valued and taken seriously, by me and by other 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 truly applies only to you and me, then send me an email. —But now, read on....
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A sample of quotations about the benefits of unschooling

Each quotation comes from a different questionnaire.

• "Wow...this list could be miles long! More time together, less arguing, watching our daughter spend hours absorbed in things that she is pursuing on her own, seeing her getting enough sleep and not coming down with viruses that she used to catch at school, exploring museums and other community resources together, talking as a family every day, not rushing in the morning, no homework, no mandatory school functions, no dysfunctional school social environment, no lunch to pack, no papers to fill out and send back every day, no fundraising, seeing our daughter happy with who she is and what she is doing, not worrying about tests/grades/teacher's opinions, spending money that used to be spent on tuition or curriculum supplies on things that she truly wants to learn about. The biggest, number one benefit has to be our family relationships, though. What a difference now that we actually have time for each other! School did not just keep [our child] busy; it overwhelmed the whole family."

• "Children who are full of joy, full of love for learning, creative, self-directed, passionate, enthusiastic, playful, thoughtful, questioning, and curious. Siblings who are very good friends. Close family bond among all of us. Lots of time together. Ability to experience and explore the world."

• "Oh my, the benefits are enormous. ... Lifelong curiosity, family closeness, extraordinary success as my children step into academia and careers, and the empowerment that comes with being oneself in a world relentlessly telling us that we're only what we look like or own. I see it every weekend when my college kids are home and my research biologist daughter is back from work. They sit at the table long after dinner is over, talking about their admittedly esoteric interests and bantering as only those who love each other do. Then, even as adults, they push away from the table to go work on a project together, something that has bonded them for years. As the day stretches out they finally gather on the porch, reluctant to part, still conversing and planning and laughing. I can't imagine greater riches."

• "Enjoying a family-centered life rather than an institution-centered life has been the biggest benefit of unschooling. Our late riser can rise late and our early morning lover can get up early. We don't need to wrap our lives around the schedule of a school. Our kids learn all the time, instead of being trained to learn one subject at a time, in 50-minute increments bookended by bells. We are incredibly fortunate to live in a time and place where we enjoy the free life of unschooling."

• "The other big benefit is that my kids have such a love of learning and of life, which was never destroyed by conventional school. So we don't have the kind of power struggles that other parents seem to have over bedtimes and homework. ... After all, happy relationships should ideally not be based on power issues. I can truly say that we are free of that, and that we spend time together as a family not because we are forced to, but because we enjoy it and love each other. What could be better than that?"

• "Seeing the kids learn things naturally, and at their own pace without forcing them. Seeing the amount of creativity and imagination my kids have because they aren't expected to conform and be followers. Seeing them become very involved and interested in subjects that I wouldn't have imagined."

• "When I am around friends whose kids are in school, I am struck by how much of their lives center around school. Get to bed so you can get up so you can be there on time, pack lunch, get home so you can do homework, organize all your stuff so you'll have it the next day. There are so many disagreements and struggles around all of this stuff-YUCK. It's life-changing just not having to have a schedule and nag everyone all the time to keep up with it!"

• "The children can delve deeper into subjects that matter to them, spend longer on topics that interest them. . . . The children can participate in the real world, learn real life skills, converse with people of all ages. They do not have to waste time with endless review, boring homework, having to work above or beneath their abilities, or in unpleasant power dynamics with adults with whom they have no connection. They can be themselves, and learn about themselves, and become who they truly want to be."

• "The world, and all of its amazing opportunities, truly is my children's playground. My husband and I firmly believe that if our children have freedom and the opportunity to explore and follow their interests now that, as they mature and have to work, they will have a much better chance of truly knowing what they would like to do and will find their careers and adult life both worthwhile and enjoyable."

• "Watching our daughter relax and enjoy her days is immensely satisfying, especially against the backdrop of her past few schooled years. The freedom from school and its expectations, the freedom to be, to live, has been liberating for all of us."

• "Watching my children learn so much so effortlessly. I watched my 5 year old daughter teach herself to read and write. It was the most amazing thing to watch. It was like she was a codebreaker."

• "The biggest benefits have been witnessing our daughters' creativity blossom full force, their ability to think outside the box when presented with problems, their resourcefulness, and their genuine desire to ask questions and learn as much as they can about the world around them. Also, seeing them internalize the lesson that making mistakes is a necessary and wonderful platform for growth and further learning, which means they see mistakes as a positive and necessary part of their education. They're not afraid to try their hand at just about anything."

• "Trust!. This unschooling path has taught me to trust my instincts and to trust my children to know what feels right to them. There is no perfect life but mistakes are our mirror to see what we would have done differently and how we will decide now with the knowledge we have."

• "The list is endless: Most important: that learning was simply a normal part of everyday life, as natural and as necessary as breathing-never something confined to a specific place or time. But also: Being able to spend so much time together, getting to know each other so well. Being able to travel whenever we wanted (useful when the girls began fencing competitively, too-we never had to worry about school releases). That the girls OWNED their learning-despite their occasional doubts, by the time they reached adulthood, they knew how to go about learning anything they were interested in because they'd been able to do that all their lives. That the girls grew up curious and could indulge that curiosity. That the girls were not subjected to school textbooks and could read what we still think of as "real" books. That the girls learned for themselves how to organize and prioritize their time and energy to get things done. That we had the leisure not only to learn what and where we wanted, but to figure out the best ways we learned, which could change from year to year and subject to subject. That nobody had to ask permission for bathroom breaks. That we could eat while we read if we wanted to."

• "The curiosity that he had as a 3 or 4 year old is still there. He thinks life is interesting and fun. He has confidence in his ability to do anything he wants to do."

• "A huge reduction in stress for our kids and me... being able to sleep and eat on our own natural schedule ...learning at their own pace, in ways that work best for them, information and skills that they chose to learn, and therefore coming to enjoy learning!
Freedom! [My children] got to live as free people, and blossomed as individuals! They had the time to figure out who they are, what they enjoy and are interested in; had opportunities to learn and do all kinds of interesting things that schooled children typically don't have time for; were free from the bullying and threats (from the teachers) at school; and had a group of homeschooled friends who were/are very nice, generally happy and optimistic, friendly, interesting and interested people."

• "Another huge benefit is that [my son's] stress levels are way down, and he is happy. I realized by keeping him in school, I was stifling his creativity, his passions, and teaching him he must put those things on the back burner and conform to what society thinks is best for him to learn.... He wants to work and make money, and now he is also free to contribute to society in a valuable way instead of being in a classroom all day."

• "I got my son back. The school wanted him ‘diagnosed' with something he doesn't have... he's just a super creative, intensely sensitive kid who has so much to offer the world just as he is. ... He has never had a problem getting along with other kids. He makes friends everywhere he goes and is still in touch with his school friends too. Unschooling has been such a blessing for us it has taken the stress off of my son (as well as me) and allows him to follow his bliss... and create and imagine and think for himself. He reads better now than he ever did in school."

• "One example is that of control. My youngest is a walking power struggle; she can turn any moment into a fight for control. By allowing her education be her choice and responsibility, we have a far better relationship and she spends her energy learning instead of fighting. (We have enough to fight over with whether she will brush her teeth or wear weather-appropriate clothes, after all.)"

• "I feel like I'm trying to answer a question about the benefits of breathing. We don't have to schedule, assume, judge, direct, or anxiously evaluate. We just get to enjoy each other. My son gets to live a life focused on what he loves at the moment."

• "I love watching my kids grow and learn and ask questions. I love having one less thing to worry about (finding the time for "school") and I love being able to skip curriculum shopping and planning. I also look around at other homeschoolers and feel sorry for their constant stress and worry. (Is my kid learning enough? Did we pick the right curriculum? How much does homeschooling cost?) I see traditional homeschoolers so burned out by the stress they make for themselves. Don't they know their kids will learn despite them?"

• "Hands down, the relationship with our kids has flourished. We have never gone through the typical teen angst or rebellion so often touted as normal. I don't think it is. If you build up your family life where members work together and help one another, where the focus is on happy learning, it's hard NOT to get along and enjoy each other's company! Schools have an insidious way of pitting parents against kids and eroding the relationship that could flourish outside of that environment. When kids, and all people really, can relax and enjoy life and learn and pursue interests, they are happy. When people are happy, they get along better, they work together and inspire one another, learn from one another and grow stronger and healthier. All of that has spilled over into marriage life and all family relationships, including siblings. I knew without a doubt that the learning would happen and that it would be amazing! I didn't expect the stark difference in our relationship with our kids, as compared to what I thought it should be like by what I saw in other families with kids in school."

• "Watching our children's interest in learning grow rather than diminish, and seeing them use their knowledge regularly in conversation and in play with others, rather than "dumping" it after a test."

• "The happiness and joy we experience every day is the biggest benefit. Our lives are essentially stress free since we are living our lives the way we want by making the choices that feel good for us. We have a very close relationship built on love, mutual trust, and mutual respect. As an educator I see that my daughter has amazing critical thinking skills that many of my adult college students lack. ... My daughter lives and learns in the real world and loves it. What more could I ask for?"

• "Looking at my grown children, I can see that both are securely self-motivated, both are much more social and outgoing than I was at their ages, both are living lives they have crafted out of their own interests and talents. That is deeply satisfying. In addition, we all have a strong connection which has grown directly from our shared experiences throughout their childhoods."

• "I have seen my sons' passions bloom. They are happy and expressive and take pride in themselves and their projects. They are knowledgeable about so many more things than their schooled peers. They have a mindset that is not hampered by negativity or limitations, something more common with their schooled peers. They have big imaginations."

• "My daughters are very creative and artistic, loved college way more (they reported) than their burned-out-about-institutions peers, are skeptical and generally science-minded, and are ethical people."

• "Unschooling saved both my children's self-esteem, for different reasons. [My son] was pegged as a ‘bad' kid at school, and, had he continued down the path he was going (with the school and teachers openly hostile towards him), the damage school was causing him would have led him to self-medicate through alcohol and drugs by the time he was in high school. When we withdrew him from school, not only did his self esteem return but the close, trusting relationship we had before he went to pre-school returned. [My daughter] was diagnosed with learning disabilities and I was told she would never read on grade level and she was always going to need special services. Keeping her out of school and letting her learn at her own pace prevented her from a lifetime of feeling like she was stupid."

• "Unschooling is not a panacea that prevents all unhappiness or difficulty; it's important not to oversimplify or romanticize this. Our daughters have had problems and struggles like all teenagers do in our society. They are extremely smart and well-educated, but I think that would be true if they had gone to school. I think the biggest difference is that they know themselves better than we did at their age. They may be a little closer to their true path in life. That was certainly our hope, and if it turns out to be true, it's worth a lot."

• "This cannot be answered except by the children themselves. For us as parents the child's joy is all the benefit needed. Today, our children have their own children and they also have chosen to unschool. Daily they face a life that is entirely different from those things that came our way during their childhood."

• "The peace, the joy, the trust between us far exceeds anything I imagined possible in parent/child relationships. Seeing [my daughter] be who she is! Her self-confidence, her curiosity, the joy with which she lives are all strong characteristics that I think would have been damaged by school. Watching her engaged in the things that move her has been a lesson in and of itself for all the adults in her life--she is the most focused human being I've ever met. She can work for hours on something that is meaningful to her--nothing she wants is "hard" or "work" even, so my language isn't correct. (I'm sure if she were in school, though, she'd be labeled as having ADD)."

• "My daughter's happiness, her curiosity, her love of exploration, her freedom. Our freedom as a family, the cooperative nature of our relationships and the trust between us that remains intact."

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See new book, Free to Learn

Endnote

[1] Note added March 2, 2012.  In the earlier version of this post I used the labels "radical unschooling," "moderate unschooling," and "relaxed homeschooling" for the three categories of ways that the respondents described their unschooling practices.  However, several readers pointed out that these terms--especially the term "radical unschooling"--have meanings to people in the unschooling community that are different from the meanings that formed the basis for our categories.  Therefore, I changed the labels to, simply, Categories 1, 2, and 3.  -PG

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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