June 13, 2018
By Kerry McDonald
This inaugural episode focuses on unschooling and…freedom.
I am excited to launch this new podcast series that amplifies the ideas and practices of unschooling and Self-Directed Education using a broad array of topic launching pads. Unschooling can be connected to so many things in the past, present, and future! Let’s talk about some of them here!
First, let’s get to a working definition of unschooling. The term Unschooling means different things to different people. It was coined in the late 1970s by the educator and social reformer, John Holt, who was among the early leaders of the modern homeschooling movement, helping to legalize and normalize homeschooling during the last two decades of the 20th century. Today, unschooling is a philosophy of education that dismisses conventional school and school-at-home approaches, and instead values a non-coercive, self-directed, interest-driven, adult-facilitated learning environment.
The number of unschoolers has been growing steadily in the new millennium. It is hard to estimate exactly how many unschoolers there are. A 2016 article in USA Today suggested that about 10 percent of today’s nearly two million homeschoolers identify as unschoolers, but another 2016 article in the Christian Science Monitor suggested that up to half of today’s homeschoolers incorporate unschooling ideas and practices. New 2016 data from the National Center for Education Statistics suggest that 20% of homeschoolers either “always” or “mostly” use informal learning practices. So we can probably safely say that as few as 10 percent and as many as 50 percent of today’s homeschoolers are unschoolers. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
In recent years, there has been an explosion in the number of self-directed learning centers and unschooling schools—like the Sudbury model—sprouting across the United States and worldwide. Some of the children who attend these centers and schools are registered as homeschoolers; but many are not, and they may attend the center or school part-time or full-time. When we include the new and growing alternatives to school that emphasize Self-Directed Education, the number of unschoolers expands significantly.
In my forthcoming book, Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom, which is being published later this year by Chicago Review Press, I spotlight some of the unschooling families, as well as self-directed centers and unschooling schools, that put unschooling ideals into practice. I discovered a recurring theme while traveling around the country researching this book. Echoed in the stories and daily experiences of both unschooling parents and educators was an unrelenting faith in the power of freedom. It was this idea that young people should be freed from a coercive system of schooling and allowed to educate themselves, with the support and mentorship of adults, while following their own, distinct interests and goals, that motivated these parents and educators. This self-directed education looks nothing like schooling, although often young people will seek out instruction, participate in formal classes, and engage in what we would consider rigorous “academic” work. But they are choosing to do this, based on their own interests and goals. They have the freedom to choose what classes, if any, to take or not take. They have the freedom to explore, discover, and synthesize their world, driven by their innate human curiosity.
“Oh, but children can’t learn with that much freedom!” some skeptics may counter. “If they are given the freedom to direct their own learning they won’t learn anything. They will do nothing. And they certainly won’t seek out rigorous academics.”
But this simply isn’t true. When children know that they are fully in charge of directing their own education, with the guidance of adults—and when their natural learning instincts have not been extinguished by conventional schooling or have been rekindled after leaving it—they will learn and do remarkable things. My older daughter, Molly, whom you will hear from shortly, has been taking a very rigorous fiction writing class through Outschool.com, an online learning platform for kids. The class is taught by an award-winning fiction writer and incorporates live group discussion with her classmates around the world and ongoing writing expectations and feedback. It is quite a commitment! But it is something that she is passionate about, that she is driving! As an unschooling parent, I connected her to Outschool.com as a possible resource, as well as other local writing classes, and she found that this online class was the best fit for her writing goals. She writes all the time, enthusiastically prepares for her class, and connects with many of her classmates around the globe through Google hangouts. She also knows that if this course no longer meets her needs, she can leave. Like we adults who may take an adult education class or an online course that we may drop or discontinue if it doesn’t meet our expectations, so too unschooled children have the freedom to quit.
Unschooling is the ultimate expression of freedom in education. It places the child in charge of his or her own learning, while adults facilitate that learning, connect the child to broader community resources, and ensure that the child becomes highly literate and numerate. This is where freedom meets responsibility—and this was another primary theme of my book research. As the 20th century Nobel prize-winning economist, Friedrich Hayek, wrote in The Constitution of Liberty: “Liberty and responsibility are inseparable.” Or as Eleanor Roosevelt said: “Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility.” Providing the freedom in unschooling is often the easy part; demonstrating responsibility, as both children and adults in the unschooling relationship, is often much trickier. As I detail in the book, freedom and responsibility looks different for each unschooling family and organization. As an example, some parents and educators place screen time limits in their homes, centers or schools because they feel that it creates a better balance between freedom and responsibility; others don’t. For many, this particular issue is constantly changing and evolving. In fact, this topic could be a podcast episode all its own.
The larger point is that balancing freedom with responsibility is a critical component, not only of unschooling’s success for any individual family or organization, but also for the true potential of unschooling ideals to redefine education in the 21st century. Increasingly, parents and educators are challenging the idea that the best way to educate people for life in a free society is to compel them to spend most of their formative years learning by force. We must nurture in children their natural creativity, ingenuity, exuberance, and empathy--qualities deeply necessary for the innovation era as we try to distinguish our human advantage from those of robots. Unschooling is the model that will allow these qualities to flourish, and will serve as the antidote to our dominant schooling system that steadily destroys these qualities. For unschooling ideals and practices to firmly take root and grow to their greatest potential, we unschooling advocates must frequently highlight and reinforce the essential dance of freedom and responsibility, for unschoolers and for society as a whole.
If, as Nelson Mandela said, “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” and if we want that world to be freer, then unschooling is the preferred pathway to a truly free society.