Freedom to Learn

The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

What Leads Families to “Unschool” Their Children? Report II

Why 232 families chose to trust their children's educative instincts

This is the second in a series of three reports on a survey of unschooling families that I conducted in the Fall of 2011.  In the first report, which you can find here, I described the survey method, gave some demographic information about the families that responded, and summarized their responses to questions about the definition and benefits of unschooling as applied to their family. [In that report I said that 231 families with children age 5 or older responded to the survey.  I now add the minor correction that this number was actually 232 families. We inadvertently omitted one family in the initial tabulation.]

Briefly, for those who are new to the topic and have not yet read Report I, families who identify themselves as unschoolers are those that do not send their children to school and 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, do not require their children to do particular assignments for the purpose of education, and 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.  To learn more about the various ways by which unschoolers operationalize these ideas, and the benefits that these families see in unscholing--both for the child and for the family as a whole--look back at Report I.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

My goal now, in Report II, is to describe the paths by which the families that responded to the survey came to unschooling.  This report is based on a qualitative analysis that my colleague Gina Riley and I  made of the responses to Item 6 on the survey form, which reads as follows: 

6. Please describe the path by which your family came to the unschooling philosophy you now practice.  In particular:  (a) Did any specific school experiences of one or more of your children play a role?  If so, briefly describe those experiences. (b) Did any particular author or authors play a role? If so, please name the author or authors and what most appealed to you about their writing.  (c) Did you try homeschooling before unschooling?  If so, what led you from one to the other?

Here, in brief, is what we found:

The decision to remove a child (or children) from school

In response to Question 6a, 101 of the 232 families indicated that at least one of their children attended school prior to starting unschooling, and that the child's experience in school led them to remove the child from school.  In their explanations, 38 of these families referred specifically to the rigidity of the school's rules or the authoritarian nature of the classroom as reason for removing the child; 32 referred to the wasted time, the paltry amount of learning that occurred, and/or to the child's boredom, loss of curiosity, or declining interest in learning; and 32 referred to their child's unhappiness, anxiety, or condition of being bullied.  [Note:  The numbers here and elsewhere in this report are all approximations, as they depend on interpretation of the written statements.]

Here, as illustration, is a representative sample of quotations from respondents' answers to Question 6a (names have been removed in each case):

Responses emphasizing rigidity of rules and authoritarian nature of the classroom:

  • "The school principle threatened to have [my son] prosecuted for bringing a 'weapon' to school. The 'weapon' was a can of silly string."
  • "I saw kids punished for being inquisitive and talkative, which is something I thought most young kids were, naturally."
  • "We were increasingly frustrated by the way things were taught to the kids. One example: kids who understood things quickly in math still had to go through the tedious process of 'showing their work' even if they could figure it out in their heads. Our daughter was bored and frustrated with this kind of busy work. She was getting punished (loss of recess) for not doing her homework, yet got very good grades on her report card and a perfect score on her first MCAS exam."
  • "When my 5yo was going to be held back in kindergarten for not knowing his letters, I knew this was wrong and that all kids learn at a different pace."
  • "We were tired of our children being labeled and tired of them coming home exhausted and quite frankly full of nastiness. They weren't the nice people we remembered them to be. Once we brought them all home, they became 'people' again."
  • "Our oldest child, on her first day of school, was told that she must ask for permission to urinate and permission to eat. She told us that she was unwilling to do that, and we decided, with the school, to withdraw her after a few days of her leaving the school grounds and coming home."

Responses emphasizing boredom, wasted time, or loss of interest in learning in school:

  • "After I put them in public school for a time, it became extremely clear to me that being forced to follow someone else's idea of a curriculum was counterproductive, to the point of making them 'hate' learning (we found this intolerable)."
  • "We hated the blue ribbon public school our oldest attended. He had 1 hour of homework (reading comprehension and math worksheets) every night, for a 6 year old! The work was too easy for him, and he hated it and dragged his feet every night, and we resented the intrusion into our family life and relaxing time."
  • "I worked in the classrooms a lot and saw a LOT of wasted time during which my kids were stuck sitting still and doing absolutely nothing."
  • "By 5th grade, when we took [our son] out, school was destroying his natural curiosity and love of learning. Too many hours in school and then working on homework. He said to me, 'Mom, when is my time?' It was breaking my heart."
  • "We ... found that increasing levels of homework and projects left us slaves to the school's schedule even after school hours and on weekends. Additionally, we found that our oldest child was losing his love of learning, and our 2nd child did not have enough time for her passion and gift - the performing arts."

Responses emphasizing the child's unhappiness, anxiety, or being bullied at school:

  • "School was awful for the whole family. Homework. Hours. Social issues. Lack of physical exercise. Lack of family time. Discipline problems.... I was literally dragging my kids to school they hated it so much."
  • "My eldest son was late to read (late according to the school) and that frustration led me to explore other options, but I didn't pursue any at that time. Later when the same child was in 3rd grade the workload and his frustration level with it, while still achieving "advanced" grades, seemed incongruous. He was working longer hours at school than his father spent at work. For what purpose?"
  • "My older daughter was having test anxiety (it was the first year that No Child Left Behind was implemented), wasn't eating at lunchtime, was overcome by the noise and smells, and was distracted in the classroom. My younger daughter was bored and beginning to refuse to participate in classroom activities. My older daughter had been unhappy her entire school career - I kept thinking she'd outgrow it, but she didn't. Things finally got to the breaking point and I pulled them out without having a plan, but knowing I could definitely do better than the school. I was done sending them someplace that made them so sad and created so much tension in our family."
  • "Our older daughter absolutely hated going to school and all of us were miserable. Due to misconceptions and lack of exposure to homeschooling (forget unschooling, even homeschooling is not common in India), we did not realize that it was a viable option, 'till desperation led us to consider it."
  • "The faculty repeatedly ignored situations where other kids attacked my son physically and verbally. and after two years of taking it he pushed one of his bullies back and was suddenly in trouble (the bully was not in trouble even though it was witnessed by several teachers him being a bully toward my son) The school repeatedly set my son up to fail and ignored my requests and demands for change. Then they called a meeting to discuss what to do 'about my son' instead of what they could to FOR HIM... I told them that there would be no such meeting...."
  • "My eldest child lost her love of learning early on at school. Eventually she stopped even doing maths and went from top of the class to bottom. This was due to a maths teacher who used to mock her and make her feel small."
  • "In the beginning of grade 2, my daughter told me one evening of how one of her friends had been verbally threatened (the term used was 'YOU'RE DEAD MEAT') by another classmate, pushed up against a wall, and told that the classmate's older cousins were going to get her. I was appalled that this was happening to 8 year olds and that, upon talking to my daughter's teacher about this incident, this type of interaction was not considered alarming by the teaching staff. I never want my children to accept and numb themselves to think that treating other humans horrendously, unloving, and unkindly is normal! I wanted my children to know that a loving, more nurturing world exists, thus we began homeschooling!"
  • "When we first started homeschooling my oldest, at age 11, had been so emotionally damaged from his school experiences that we were shocked to see how quickly his personality rebounded within a month or two."

The transition from homeschooling to unschooling

In response to Question 6c, 110 of the 232 families said they had tried homeschooling before transitioning to unschooling.  As explanation for this transition, most of these families described the child's resistance to the home curriculum, the family's unhappiness by the stress the curriculum created, and/or the parents' observations that the child was learning much more on his or her own initiative than through the imposed curriculum.  Here is a representative sample of quotations illustrating these explanations:

  • "We did try school at home initially, using the Waldorf-inspired Oak Meadow curriculum. I think I was in love with the idea of 'playing school' like I was a little girl again! I loved ordering all the supplies and books and planning our 'lessons.' But each year, after a few weeks, I'd eventually start leafing through the pages trying to find content that was relevant, appealing, something that wouldn't make us both nod off! And when tears started flowing over math drill, I knew there had to be a better way. I started to question why it was necessary for my son to learn this thing at this time, and then realized, simply, that it wasn't."
  • "We came to unschooling from traditional homeschooling, because my then-5-year-old wholeheartedly rejected any attempts at regimentation. He learned twice as much if I simply strewed resources in his path and let him go. Unschooling is all that works for him."
  • "With my oldest I had the entire school at home setup. I thought I had to do it that way for him to learn. ... We were both stressed and dreaded sitting down at the table for the day's lessons. Gradually, I started pulling back and began to see that the more I pulled back, the more he flourished. Eventually, we began to ditch curriculum and strict schedules until it evolved into unschooling."
  • "In the beginning we provided lots of exercise books, but our girl's reluctance to do them gradually led us to unschooling (anything looking like instructions made her run away and we didn't want this kind of relationship)."
  • "I never wanted to recreate school at home, but I did find that I pushed school-like activities on my kids in the transition time just after we left school. ... Eventually I saw with my own eyes and heart that anything my kids chose on their own was more meaningful, pleasant, and long-lasting than something I coerced them to do."
  • "It was terrible. We fought all the time and I found myself not only responsible for making him do his homework, but for teaching him as well. Too much pressure for both of us. We were both miserable."
  • "At first I tried Classical Method (The Well-Trained Mind) and reproduced school at home, complete with desk, worksheets, grades, etc. After a month, we were both miserable."
  • "We tried 'school at home' and it was a big flop - we were taking the problems that my son had at public school and were just changing the location. We tried a number of different styles of curriculum and they just didn't feel right. He and I were both happiest when I just let him be. In the meantime I was researching all I could on different ways to homeschool and each time I read about unschooling I thought, 'That would work for him, I just know it would.' I was afraid to trust, though, so we muddled through pretending to homeschool. When my younger two children taught themselves to read, I had the ah-ha moment and said, 'Hey it really can work.'"

Other factors leading to the decision to unschool

Influential authors.

In response to Question 6b, the majority of respondents said that a particular author or authors did play a role in their decision to unschool.  Not surprisingly, the author most often mentioned, by far, was John Holt (named by 127 respondents), the former teacher who went on to condemn forced schooling and promote self-directed education in books such as How Children Fail and How Children Learn.  Holt also coined the term unschooling and founded the first magazine devoted to unschooling-Growing Without Schooling.  Holt's work continues to be carried on by Holt Associates, led by Pat Farenga

The next most frequently mentioned author was John Taylor Gatto (named by 52 respondents), the former New York State Teacher of the Year who left teaching because he was convinced that compulsory schools, no matter how one taught within them, were doing more harm than good.  Gatto went on to write, among other things, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling; A Different Kind of Teacher: Solving the Crisis of American Schooling; and Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher's Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling

The third most often mentioned was Sandra Dodd (named by 39 respondents), who maintains a very active website devoted to unschooling and parenting, is author of The Big Book of Unschooling, and promotes a version of unschooling called "radical unschooling."  Some of the respondents who mentioned Dodd were quite passionate about their respect for her ideas and influence.  Other authors mentioned with considerable frequency were Alfi Kohn, Grace Llewellen, Mary Griffith, Dayna Martin, Naomi Aldort, Ivan Illich, Jeanne Leidloff, Raymond & Dorothy Moore, Jan Hunt, Pat Farenga, Joyce Fetteroll, Rue Kream, and Susan Wise Bauer.

In addition to mentioning specific authors, many mentioned that unschooling websites, conferences, or lectures played a role in their decision.  Many also mentioned the role of friends or acquaintances who were very successfully unschooling their children.

The decision to unschool, without an intervening period of schooling

Eighty six of the families who responded to the survey indicated that they chose unschooling right from the beginning, with no initial period of in-home or out-of-home school. Some of these said that they had made their decision even before they had any children, on the basis of their overall philosophy of life. At least a third of the 86 mentioned that their experiences parenting their young children, before school age, played a role in their decision to unschool.  Some of these had been practicing "attachment" or "natural" parenting, and the decision to unschool seemed to follow naturally from that. For example, one mother wrote:

  • "My first child was a very high need infant, as Dr. William Sears calls babies who want to be in arms constantly. I learned to respond to her cues from day one and it was hard at first, giving up my old life! I learned about attachment parenting and implemented that brilliant idea into my life and followed her lead since. My home births for babies 2 and 3 propelled me with strength that I could also take control of my children's education, or really we could do it together, with them leading the way and me there to support them."

Nearly a third of the whole set of 232 respondents mentioned that their own negative school experiences influenced their decision to unschool their children, and many of these went directly to unschooling without any intervening period of schooling.  For example, one in this group wrote:

  • "My own school experiences probably played a role. I discovered during my college experience that all of my schooling previous to college was completely unnecessary, and a waste of time. ... My K-12 experience was the unhappiest time of my life."

Some of the unschooling parents had been teachers or school counselors and made their decision to unschool based on those experiences.  Here are two excerpts from parents in families in this category:

  • "My husband was teaching in a small high school in ___ by the time our oldest reached school age. I think the experience of dealing with kids who did not fit the system really opened his eyes. It pained him that so many students had simply given up all enthusiasm for learning at that point in their lives. The kids had either learned to jump through the hoops or had completely stopped trying, but there was very little real passion for learning left in them."
  • "I was a public school teacher. I loved teaching, for the most part. I loved being with the children. But I also began to see how flawed the system is, and when my children neared school age I realized I didn't want them on the receiving end of all that was wrong."

----------

And so, in sum, the people who responded to our questionnaire came to unschooling by many routes. Most often, it seems, the decision to unschool came from some combination of (a) a philosophy of life emphasizing the value of freedom and respect for individual differences; (b) observations of their children's learning and emotional experiences both inside and outside of schooling; (c) reflections on their own negative school experiences; and (d) knowledge gained from writers, speakers, websites, and the experiences of other unschooling families. My next post will be Report III on the survey responses.  There I will focus on the main challenges of unschooling for these 232 families.

-----

After reading these first two reports, what is your reaction to the concept of unschooling?  Is this something you could imagine working for your children?  Why or why not?  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.

---------

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).

more...

Subscribe to Freedom to Learn

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?