No More Pencils, No More Books

No more teachers... or opportunity, advancement, motivation, and all those nasty things you get from educators.

April 26, 2010

Imagine it…

You wake up. Eat whatever you want. Maybe some cookies and milk. Maybe granola. Instead of rushing off to catch the bus or wondering if you did all your homework, you pick up that novel you were reading and finish it. Maybe you want to go out for a jog. Hey, you planted that garden in the backyard and you need to find information on making sure the crops will make it through the incoming cold front. Better do a little reading.

Welcome to the world of unschooling.

I’m actually surprised I’d never heard of unschooling until recently. Home-schooling is teaching kids at home. Parents become the educators and create or use pre-built curriculum for children to learn as well if not better than they would at public schools. At least, that’s the goal.

Unschooling, on the other hand, is letting the child find his or her own passion and do the learning his or herself. In essence, the child would learn in much the same way a baby learns: through play and exploration. An even more extreme form of unschooling called radical unschooling means that the parents will not even discipline a child in the hopes of not stifling creativity or imposing barriers.

And I want you, my dear reader, to understand the difference between these three philosophies, because this is about unschooling. Not homeschooling.

I have a bit of a problem with it. And by “bit of a problem,” I mean, “Sir, we’ve hit an iceberg. And there are meteors falling on us. And Great Cthulhu has risen and is eating the crew. Just thought you’d like to know.”


Cthulhu’s Approval by ~hwango on deviantART

When I first heard of unschooling, my first thought was, “You’re going to tell kids they can learn whatever they want, whenever they want, at their own pace? And they’ll learn better than formally educated students?”

The hell they will!

Think about it. How many people in this country, or the world for that matter, have the natural curiosity and inclination to just learn at-will? I can count in my hands the number of people I’ve met over the years that might make it through the unschooling system as good if not better than they would fare in the public education system. By giving the child that much responsibility for his or her life, it makes it so that the child will learn nothing unless he or she wants to learn it.

I don’t know about you, but when I was in first and second grade, I wanted to watch Looney Tunes. And that was it. You place that much power in the hands of someone who doesn’t have a clear concept of responsibility and consequences and you’re asking for trouble.

Who is going to do this teaching? A book? The internet? There are certainly people who think that just reading books and going online is enough. I present to you Dan Brown (no relation to the author, I think) who gives a fairly complete look into this philosophy.

Let’s break this down. Schools only teach facts now, but since you can get facts from the internet or from books, you don’t need schools. I’ll admit it’s a great description of a bad school, but even a bad school still forces you to learn things you wouldn’t want to learn on your own. I never had a passion for mathematics. Still don’t really like it, but it’s through math and reading that I found my passion for science, specifically physics and astronomy. I would have missed out on that if I was left to my own devices.

At this point, long-time readers will point out that I have my own set of qualms about the current educational system. Well, yes, I do. I think it’s broken, but even a broken system is better than no system at all. A measure of control is still required to show a student how to learn.

The unschooling crowd proudly yells, however, that you don’t need to know as much as you think. Once you find out what you want to do, you focus on that and there you go. I studied art on my own and have taken only one formal class, yet I think I’ve developed some pretty good skills. The logo on this site, the eye with text, is one of my works.


Randomology by *dagger3000 on deviantART

Sadly, this unschooling argument goes back the level of intellectual curiosity in a student. You can nurture this instinct and good parents can push a child to learn more than the standard curriculum allows. My parents were two such examples, but they are far, far from the norm.

As it stands, unschooling kids suffers from two major drawbacks. First of all, a parent is still required, especially in the younger years. How many families can afford to have one parent at home? If only one makes more than enough to provide for the family, great! Hurdle avoided, but we’re not done yet.

The second problem is that you can’t learn only from books. You do have to go out and experience things. I know unschoolers will say that their kids do go and experience the real world. They can farm, they read, they travel, and they do all the things they love to do. However, what happens when they decide they want to be doctors? Engineers? Who’s going to teach them these professions? How are they going to get into a college, get these kinds of certifications, if they don’t even have a GED? I read everything I could on writing before I got to college. Everything. Once I got to DePauw, however, I realized that knowing all these things did me no good if I didn’t interact with others, share my thoughts with experts, and otherwise learn proper structure before going off and doing whatever I wanted.

I will admit something. The idea that children learn best by play is not a new concept. In fact, I and many other educators embrace it. Whenever possible, I try to make class as fun as possible while still ensuring my students learn. I try not to lecture if I can give the students hands-on examples, activities where they interact with others, share ideas, and discuss. They have to apply themselves, think, put it together themselves with my guidance, and in the end they’ve basically done the same thing they did as babies. They played. And they learned.

But it doesn’t mean that you leave children to their own devices. Children are dumb. They are. I’m sorry if you think your kid is special. This rationale that children want to emulate parents may hold part of the time, but children are children. They don’t want to read a book and learn mathematics. They have to be pushed into learning or they seek out their baser instincts and satisfy only those that give immediate satisfaction.

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Let’s imagine, for a second, that we did embrace the idea of unschooling. Everyone had the chance to do it. How long do you think it would take for a massive gap between the educated and the uneducated? Many people are more motivated than others. Within a generation, we’d have one group of people that can do everything needed to survive and has no incentive to go further. Then we’d have a much smaller population that drove forward and and had the resources to learn from experts.

But that’s good, isn’t it? Those who want to learn will learn and those that don’t stay where they are. Everyone gets what they work for…

Let me be as clear as I can here.

This is perhaps the dumbest idea in the world. And this is coming from a guy that once came up with the idea of a giant gun that fired Ewoks with Jawa tracers.

Quiet. There was bourbon involved.

The bottom line is that a formal education is necessary to both be exposed to different ideas and to push students to learn. We aren’t born with the intuition to just learn. We learn what we can to survive. That’s it. Anything else is extra once we meet basic requirements. I’m all for the rights of the individual, but we can’t possibly know how to learn or even what to learn if we just go out on our own. A few gifted individuals may be able to do this, but we’re not all geniuses. If we’re not pushed, we don’t get anywhere. Personally, I’d advocate a mixture of the traditional and Learn by Play methods. Implement better teaching strategies and teachers at school, but also make sure parents get involved. The idea that forcing a child to do something he or she doesn’t want to do will somehow crush the spirit is ridiculous. If you were told “no” when you were a child and lost the will to achieve later in life… I’m sorry, but look at your priorities.

The educational system is broken. I’ll be the first to admit it and get behind efforts to make it better, but to say that you need to just take your kids completely out of formal, structured schools is the educational equivalent of an auto-immune disorder.

Sorry, but until we make some fundamental changes in the ways parents work with kids and kids themselves learn, unschooling will be the equivalent of Lupus.

11 Replies to “No More Pencils, No More Books”

  1. Unschooling is more than a bunch of kooks claiming that video games are The Light. It’s a burgeoning field of educational theory–DePauw offers full courses on it now, if that’s any indication. Like any philosophy/ideology it has its spectrum of intensity; the radical unschoolers that the Today Show chose to introduce the nation to unschooling (a half-criminal example of media bias) are on the far left. I myself am considering unschooling for my children, but Rachel and I fall closer to the conservative end of the spectrum.

    At its best, unschooling does indeed allow a child to pursue their own interests. However, it’s less about letting a child do whatever they want whenever they want than it is the parent(s) saying, “Okay, my kid likes to pretend he’s a knight and fight evil knights with plastic swords. How can we use this interest of his to develop an educational curriculum?” And then maybe you show him some videos about the medieval ages, take them to a renaissance fair, write and produce a play, etc. Throughout the exercises you try to instill as many lessons as you can from as many disciplines as you can. In this example, history is obvious, but hell, go take a blacksmithing course as a family. There’s a lot of mathematics involved in smithing; you can teach shapes, some basic geometry, etc. Write a play with your child—teach them about narrative and about conflict; teach them how to write a sentence of dialogue in proper grammatical format; practice mathematics again with set design and maybe bring in a fog machine for special effects, and explain the science of how the fog is created. Then have the kid write a journal entry about their experiences and regurgitate what they’ve learned, like a test—or have them build a project on their own that mimics what you did as a unit.

    The idea is to allow children to see that their interests can have real-world applications. How many times were you in school and heard someone ask (or asked yourself) “When are we ever going to use this in the real world?” I don’t know about you, but I remember almost nothing of what I learned in school, other than in English and History classes, which were my areas of interest. I have difficulty subtracting without a calculator, and I can’t perform long division at all; Rachel has to help me calculate grades each semester. I remember nothing from science classes either.

    What I DO remember are things like Science Olympiad, and a program called “Odyssey of the Mind” which my fifth grade teacher did every year. With a group of classmates, I responded to a creative prompt, wrote a play, designed costumes and a set, and competed in regional and state competitions. We won the state of Indiana and went to the World Finals in Maryland and got 24th place out of 50 US state competitors and many other nations. All 7 of us consider it the most transformative and worthwhile educational experience we ever had. And it had nothing to do with “in-class learning.” In fact Mrs. Walczak had to battle the school district each year for the right to do it.

    I’d MUCH rather have my kid doing things like that than sitting in any classroom nowadays. I know I went to one of George Bush’s “Failing Schools.” I myself am a better educator than half my grade/middle/high school teachers, and I have no formal training in education whatsoever. Like I implied above, I only took away from school what I was interested in learning, and I was the freaking valedictorian of my high school class.

    Education is the art of older generations passing knowledge down to younger generations, knowledge that has been deemed important to successfully functioning in the society/culture around you. However, curriculum in even the best American schools is no longer applicable to the world we live in. By the time I have children, America will have buckled down so hard on the “teach to the test” philosophy that we’ll have critically wounded several future generations, at a time when other nations are excelling primarily because they are taught how to THINK rather than simply how to accumulate and recite information.

    Unschooling is basically an attempt to rewrite the curriculum, since no one in the nation with any power seems interested in doing so. However, like I said, I’m on the conservative end of the spectrum. If it makes you feel better, call my version of unschooling “Radical Home-Schooling” because I do intend to discipline my children and create a daily structure—no, you’re not in a school building, but there will always be something to “do” every day. I would let my kids explore their interests, yes, but I would want to PUSH them in those interests, even (if not especially) when they don’t want to look any closer at them. That’ll be the hard, but so worthwhile.

    You’re right in that unschooling requires a parent to be at home, and Rachel and I know we may well be unable to do this monetarily. But unschooling doesn’t just require a parent, it requires an INVOLVED parent. It’s a lot of freaking work, to do it right. Rachel, thankfully, is an educational scholar and is fast becoming an expert in unschooling as an evolving field of theory. I can’t speak for those who just want their kids to run around and do whatever.

    We’d also send our kids to high school, after unschooling them in the early years. We think high school is important both for socialization and for college prep. Honestly it’s the potential lack of social interaction that freaks me out more than the lack of RIGID EDUCATIONAL STRUCTURE DIAGRAM THIS SENTENCE BUT DON’T EVER EXPECT ME TO EXPLAIN WHY YOU’D EVER NEED TO DO SOMETHING LIKE THIS RAAGH that I grew up with.

    So ultimately I agree with you that radical unschoolers are morons. The point I’d add is that the field is more complex than the loonier practitioners would have you believe.

    1. I agree on virtually every point you made. I do hope I made it clear that i think the concept has merit and a lot of potential, but is very easy to fall apart. If the parents help guide the kid and offer assistance, that’s great. That’s the best way to learn. I do worry about ONLY doing things the kid wants to do. An involved parent or parents are what make or break this deal for me. This idea that enforcing structure on the child is somehow damaging also bothers me because a child does not know discipline and structure. Even an artist must learn the basics before going on to the “fun” stuff. What you’re talking about certainly sounds like it’s closer to the homeschooling part of education while still very close to unschooling, and I applaud that because it does make the parents not only become involved but offer some sort of guidance and a path. And hey, I hope you at least expose the kid(s) to subjects they don’t show interest in right away.

      Who knows? Maybe the kid finds out s/he likes mathematics more than knights ;-)

      1. I hope to hell they do like math, because that way I can make them do my taxes when I get old.

        My question to the radical unschoolers is, how can you HELP but expose your kids to things they’re not interested in? Interest develops from exposure. I figure the more and varied things we do as a family, the more my kids would have to explore, rather than letting them lead me around on a leash.

        Actually that is the image I will walk around with the rest of the day. Toddlers leading parents around via harnesses.

  2. THE DRESDEN DOLLS. [/fangirliness]

    I don’t see the point in the unschooling process. Justin made some excellent points, but however broken the education system is, there’s a good skeletal structure: learn from social interacting, with programs for those kids who are “gifted” and programs that are for kids who need extra help. (Free lunches-also a good idea. If only the gifted and academic assistance programs got equal funding.) Unschooling sounds a little New Utopian to me, but I do think kids should be able to teach themselves things. We had a block of time every day in my districts’ lower level schools where children could have constructive play time, and “gifted” kids in the highschool can opt to take classes that let them focus the entire year on a project of their own choosing. Some have found their careers through that class. I think some “un”schooling is a good idea, but, really, there’s a fine line between creative teaching and total anarchy. (Or, well, there should be.)

    1. I’m very much on the fence about this… I may have come off negative towards the end of the article, but I agree with the philosophy behind unschooling, just not so hot on the application. I think Justin and those on the more radical home schooling/ conservative unschooling have the right idea: provide a framework and guidance with discipline while allowing the child choice. I’m still not cool with the idea of giving the kid free reign, though, but from what I’ve learned, some unschooling parents don’t advocate that. As for social interaction, home schooling doesn’t mean not interacting with other children. It just means you interact in different environments. Once you get past 1st or 2nd grade, I think, you’re already socialized and now the norms.

      Actually, I think we said it best last night after work… it’s like being a GM in a Dungeons and Dragons game. Provide a framework for the growth to take place, then allow the player/ child to explore. There are things that must be done (dragon slaying, homework, etc) but it’s all geared towards eventual enrichment (and ph4t lootz!). The DM/ parent holds final say while allowing for creative variations to the rules should the creativity serve the greater story/ education.

  3. For me the basic problem with both unschooling and homeschooling is that there are no requirements to be a parent. By keeping a child home from school, that child is completely at the mercy of the failures and biases of the parent(s) in charge of their education. That’s not an education, in my opinion.

    I think a great alternative is Montessori schooling. Children learn at their own pace but with the guidance of qualified teachers. I hope to be able to send my kids to this type of school because I know that I was very much held back by being in a group of 20-30 other kids at all times. Schools cater to the slow students, not the fast ones. I learned that as an educational editor.

    1. Ben, I knew I could trust in you to turn a discussion on the education of our children into a sound effects medley. Well done, sir. And yes, that’s what the Ewok gun would sound like.

      1. I’ll contribute something more useful in the near future. Moving has been painful and my brain is on shutdown.

  4. I’m not the type to take the time leaving comments on individuals blogs generally nevertheless just after stumbling across yours I thought I might drop a little line to give me a short break from work. As you can imagine I have gotten a lttle bit sidetracked after sticking around to look over a number of your posts. Great stuff here and I’ll be back again in the future to read more. Thanks!

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