Unschool movement makes everything a learning opportunity

Teachers and books are optional

On Monday morning, as most children rouse themselves for yet another week of school, Zach Powers, age 9, and his brothers Colby, 7, and Isaac, 5, have a different plan. Unlike their peers, their day's agenda includes a stroll down to the river, a visit with their neighbor and a trip to the library. No schoolbooks or worksheets included. No, the Powers boys aren't playing hooky. They're part of a nationwide homeschool movement called "unschooling," whose adherents believe that children learn best by simply living, unencumbered by imposed curriculums. So, when Becky Power's boys feels like spending the day helping their neighbor with his organ-repair business, she is happy to let them do it. She knows it's all a part of their education.

Five years ago, after extensive reading and a bit of soul-searching, the Powers family, of Sauk City, began homeschooling their children. Becky was concerned about power struggles that she saw occurring with traditional homeschooling, where growing pressure and coaxing from parents were required to get children to comply. Instead, she gravitated towards unschooling, a movement inspired in the 1970s by the work of disillusioned educator and author John Caldwell Holt. Holt suggested parents pull their children out of school, discard textbooks and let the kids take charge of their own learning. Knowledge is then acquired experientially, through child-directed activities, question-asking, and observations of the world.

Holt's followers argue that self-motivated education fosters a child's natural love of learning, independence, self-confidence and a deeper understanding of the world. Many of the fundamental ideologies of unschooling mirror other educational movements, such as Montessori's principle of self-motivated, free choice within the classroom, Reggio Emilia's "negotiated curriculum" and Summerhill School's notion of child-guided learning and self-governing. However, unlike unschooling, most of these movements still depend on institutionalized structure and goal-oriented lessons.

There is little data on the pervasiveness of the unschool movement. Jenina Mella, a volunteer for the homeschool activist group Wisconsin Parents Association (WPA), estimates that about 10% of Madison's homeschool population follow unschool principles. The parents of unschooled children tend to be traditionally educated and often hold college-level degrees. Many are politically conscious, valuing the importance of both social freedoms and civil liberties. Because homeschooling requires one parent to stay at home, these families usually live on tight budgets, thus many opt for a simplified lifestyle.

Although the Internet is alive with message boards guiding these families, unschooling remains hard to define. One faction, calling themselves "radical unschoolers," allow for absolute freedom when it comes to their children's education. Some even permit unlimited television and videogames, believing that any form of restriction or coercion is detrimental to a child's spirit. Radical unschool mother Mary Gold argues in her 2002 article "Give a Kid a Nintendo" that her son developed reading skills from unlimited videogame playing as he scoured game manuals and math skills as he saved money for new Nintendo cartridges.

Most unschool families like to set some limits, finding a balance among their daily activities. Modest structure is important and most maintain regular mealtimes, have the kids do chores, and participate in clubs and sports teams. Some parents will include daily math and writing worksheets; however these are often optional and generally deemphasized.

The efforts of the WPA have helped to insure that Wisconsin laws support unschool families' relaxed structure. Currently, Wisconsin does not require any specific coursework, tests or progress reports; however, parents are asked to cover six basic areas: language arts, reading, math, science, social studies and health. Along with this, the Department of Public Instruction requires 875 instructional hours a year. According to unschool parents, they are able to reach these requirements without difficulty, arguing that their children are learning all of the time -- even while at play.

Since there is no curriculum, unschool parents do not "teach" in the traditional sense. Instead they become active observers, carefully following their children's curiosity, interjecting ideas and concepts when they feel it's appropriate. Parents help to create a setting that encourages learning, keeping such tools as microscopes, writing paper and plenty of books on hand for when the child expresses a curiosity.

Mella stresses the importance of being available for her own son, answering questions as they arise: "If people were to peek in my window and listen to what we're doing, answering questions is about 90% of it." She also believes her job as a role model has been important for her son. "One of the main ways you [create an enriched environment] is by being an interesting, proactive person yourself. It doesn't mean your kids do exactly what you do. It just means they observe you as a model."

Many of these parents stress that unschooling is not "unparenting" -- despite the absence of academic structure, unschool parents are highly involved in their children's lives, helping them to learn society's rules and succeed in the context of our culture.

Critics worry that unschooled children will not learn the essentials of reading, writing and arithmetic. This tends not to concern unschool parents -- they believe their children will pick up the basics from their surroundings. Math skills can be acquired through real-life problems. One near-east-side mom explains, "As soon as you translate things into money or pizza, they learn really well." Math becomes a game that the children engage in because they enjoy the challenge. As kids become older, if they express an interest in advanced math, they can seek ways to learn it, including classes provided by the homeschool community, tutors or university courses.

Some unschooled children quickly pick up reading and writing on their own, while others find it more difficult. When Zach Powers had difficulty, his parents tried different tactics, including software programs and reading games. "The more we tried to encourage, support and push," says his mother, "the more he said, 'forget it, I'm not reading to you.' When we were able to back off from it, he was able to own his success, more than if he was taught by an outside person." Late readers aren't unusual in unschooling crowds. Rather then forcing children to practice, unschool parents stand back and wait for the child to show interest on the theory that children will ask questions about letters and words when they're ready.

Often curiosity leads unschool kids into the community, giving them an opportunity to interact with different people and environments. One west-Madison 12-year-old, Luke, is passionate about fly-fishing. This pursuit has led him to meet other fishermen and discover books on entomology and limnology. To encourage deeper learning, parents teach research skills, assist with project plans and help organize volunteer jobs.

Less emphasis is placed on intellectual development and more is placed on emotional growth. Jenina Mella of the WPA wants her child to be "a happy and emotionally whole person." Mella is confident that by teaching her son self-reliance and fostering his curiosity, he'll be happy at whatever he pursues. "We're all socialized to think if were not training him for the SAT by the time he's 3, he's not going to get into college and he's going to be a failure." Most unschoolers keep college as an option for their children, but don't feel it is necessary to succeed.

Like many of their homeschooled peers, the Powers boys are pleased with their set-up, enjoying the freedom to be curious and explore. Zach, whose current passions include drawing and Pokémon, hopes to become a cartoonist. His brother Colby, perhaps motivated by his neighbor's collection of exotic pets, hopes to work with animals. All three boys express an interest in college, but sending her kids off to a university is not Becky Power's main objective: "Our goal is to foster a love of learning, support it and try to make it as strong as it can be for their whole lives."

Wisconsin Parents Association
Homeschooler organization

Large resource site

Radical unschooling

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