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.
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:
Responses emphasizing boredom, wasted time, or loss of interest in learning in school:
Responses emphasizing the child's unhappiness, anxiety, or being bullied at school:
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:
Other factors leading to the decision to unschool
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:
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:
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:
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.
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