Commentary 30 Apr 2010 08:34 pm

Welcome to ‘unschooling’

This week’s column from the April 29 Alliance Review:

The “unschooling” movement, featured last week on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” is the latest educational tempest in a teapot.

A branch of homeschooling, unschooling rejects formal curriculums in favor of allowing children to study — if you want to call it that — anything they are interested in, including video games and TV. Because a spectrum exists in any movement and because TV news loves the fringe, the parents on the ABC segments (freely available online) practice extreme unschooling. This means they operate with few, if any, rules, not even mandating that their children go to bed at a sensible time or brush their teeth.

Instead, kids follow their whims, setting and presumably accomplishing self-mandated goals without the specter of Big Brother looming over their shoulders. They don’t use textbooks (unless they want to) and they don’t formally study math or literature or history (again, unless they want to).

A relative tipped me off to the program, probably thinking that as a teacher I would find it crazy enough to write about. She was right about the writing part, but I don’t necessarily find it crazy.

Oh, the hippy-dippy, don’t-brush-your-teeth, anything-goes stuff is nuts, of course. Kids need structure and boundaries, after all, if just to ensure that they don’t whirl around the house like little dervishes. The only people who benefit from poor dental hygiene are dentists who get to clean up the mess.

But the kernel of the idea, that kids should be allowed to follow their own interests instead of a program mandated by a school board or government, is sound. In theory, if not in practice, unschooling looks a lot like the strengths movement as described by Jenifer Fox in her 2008 book “Your Child’s Strengths.”

The key component of a strengths curriculum is that schools stop focusing on what a child can’t do and focus instead on the things he or she can do. Often, the latter involves things they are good at, or that they want to become good at.

For instance, a student who is intrinsically motivated to play the guitar can be guided to learn a lot more than merely strumming the opening to “Stairway to Heaven.” She could research and report on the development of the instrument (history), track the instrument’s appearance in story and poetry (literature) and experiment with the ways that shortening or lengthening the strings affects sound (science). The act of learning to read music involves halves and quarters and lots of other things I don’t know very well (math), and building and individualizing her own instrument could provide an outlet for construction trades (old-school “wood shop”) and art.

It would be emphatically more than “doing nothing” or “listening to rock.” And when children become intrinsically involved in an activity, their weaknesses — the things we spend so much time and money to remediate unsuccessfully in public schools — tend to be minimized or overcome.

American education is too often tied to a model that made sense when it was preparing kids for factory work or for doing repetitive tasks. For generations it made sense to have students report to a common building, sit in rows, march in single file and learn the same things at the same times because this mirrored what most of them would be doing the rest of their lives — punching time clocks, eating lunch from noon to 1 p.m. and listening to a foreman or manager in the same way they listened to a teacher or principal.

This industrial model is long gone in the world of work, but it’s still reflected in our schools (just as summer vacation is a holdover from our earlier agrarian roots), firmly entrenched by state and federal mandates that all children be tested on the same material as if they are little automatons stamped on a press.

The trick is how to mirror the country’s new work aesthetic in a cost-efficient, practical way in our schools. After all, a room of kids all doing their own thing looks and sounds an awful lot like chaos and is more expensive than the traditional model. It also requires that our belief in “time in the seat” must give way to a different model, with schools awarding credit for skills and knowledge gained elsewhere. (Ohio has started down this road, but it has a long way to go.)

Is it any wonder, then, that some parents, realizing much of what passes for education these days is outmoded and counter-productive, are trying new models for themselves?

Unfortunately, ABC chose to spotlight a few extremists whose methods are as shaky as their kid’s teeth will become unless someone, somewhere, imposes a little common sense.

2 Responses to “Welcome to ‘unschooling’”

  1. on 01 May 2010 at 1.Barb said …

    I agree that school has to be different. In a brainstorming session several years ago a friend suggested that we put 7th & 8th graders to work for those two years in a variety of physical jobs to teach them: work ethic, basic job skills (getting there on time, getting along with people, work integrity, etc.) and then offer them high school. They’d make up those 2 years in NO time and have a clue why they’re in school. We could streamline school if we weren’t allocating so much time for growing up and hormones. I absolutely don’t think schools should omit classic studies just to prepare kids for jobs - arts are so important to brain development, problem solving skills, and personal fulfillment. My former students are in their 40’s and 50’s and I hear from them all the time that the things we did and studied in high school English helped their lives be more productive and valuable.

  2. on 23 Sep 2010 at 2.Reginald Nordlie said …

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