Unschoolers learn what they want, when they want

Burn the Schools!

Pink Floyd and Alice Cooper had it right on the question of “education.”


By Jacque Wilson, CNN
August 3, 2011 8:46 a.m. EDT

Students chat outside at Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts.

Six-year-old Karina Ricci doesn’t ever have a typical day. She has no schedule to follow, no lessons to complete.

She spends her time watching TV, doing arts and crafts or practicing the piano. She learned to spell by e-mailing with friends; she uses math concepts while cooking dinner.

Everything she knows has been absorbed “organically,” according to her dad, Dr. Carlo Ricci. She’s not just on summer break — this is her life year round as an at-home unschooler.

“It’s incredible how capable she is,” Ricci said in a phone interview from his home in Toronto, Ontario. “And I think that all young people are that capable … if you don’t tell them they can’t or they’re not allowed, they surprise us in a lot of ways.”

Ricci is professor of alternative learning at Nipissing University and an advocate of unschooling, a concept that’s gaining popularity in both Canada and the United States thanks to frustration with the current public education system. In unschooling the child is in control of his/her learning. They are free to decide what they want to study, when they want to study it.

Experts say there are about 2 million home-educated students in the U.S., and Ricci estimates 10% adhere to unschooling ideals. In addition, there are more than 20 Sudbury schools — private institutions that follow the same philosophy — in North America. A new one is set to open in Toronto next fall.

The unschooling philosophy is based on education pioneer John Holt’s 1964 book “How Children Fail.” Put simply, Holt wrote that living is learning. He believed children should follow their innate curiosity and passions rather than being forced to learn hordes of information they will never use.

“I think our education system as a whole is, to me, in a very delicate and precarious place,” Sudbury Valley staff member Mimsy Sadofsky said. “It keeps trying to do what it can’t do, which is make every child learn everything in the whole wide world. It’s like heading toward a cliff.”

Sadofsky remembers the terror she and her husband felt after deciding to enroll their children in the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts. It was 1968 and her son was unhappy with the rules in his first grade class. But could they entrust a 6-year-old with his education?

“What an enormous risk we were taking with our children’s lives,” Sadofsky said, thinking back. “You’re told to take care of your children and that schools will give them a good education. Suddenly, you’re turning it around.”

But Sadofsky’s kids flourished and are an example of unschooling’s success: one is a mathematician, one is a software coordinator-turned-jam entrepreneur and the third is a geologist.

“They have, and I think this is true of [Sudbury] alumni in general, an incredible sense of who they are and how they work, and confidence in their abilities,” Sadofsky said. “Not that they know everything, but they know how to find what they need.”

Sudbury schools are democratically run, meaning every student and employee has one vote, whatever their age. The only rules are set by the student body and can be changed by a majority. The overlying theme — respect for yourself, others and the property — is taken more seriously, students say, because you’re judged by your peers instead of an authority figure.

Classes are offered but not mandatory — “certifications” are required to use equipment such as sharp cooking utensils. There are no grades. Staff members often do not have a teaching background; they are there simply to guide students in their individual pursuits.

It’s this lack of structure that has child psychiatrist and Harvard Medical professor Steven Schlozman concerned.

“Teaching is really hard. It’s really hard. I don’t think that just anybody can sit down and help a child achieve their educational goals and needs.

“There’s something wonderful about the idea of just letting kids be kids… focusing just on what they like, can do or are passionate about,” Schlozman continued. “The only thing is, they also live in the world and the world is going to need things from them.”

Schlozman said students need trained adults to help them make that leap from what’s wired in our lower brain functions (walking, talking, eating) to higher brain functions (understanding why “To Kill A Mockingbird” is a good book) because pre-adolescent brains lack the capacity for abstraction.

“I would say we could stand, and would probably do better, with less structure in education… the flip side of that though is that there has to be a middle ground,” Schlozman said. “Otherwise you end up with a potential chaos taking the place of maximum learning.”

Calls to the National Education Association for comment on unschooling were not returned.

Ben Locke, 21, says there’s no reason to worry. Locke entered Sudbury Valley as a teen, feeling isolated and unhappy in his public high school.

“It was a radical idea… I’m certain at the time when I made the transition none of us knew exactly what I was getting into.”

Locke spent most of his first year at Sudbury Valley playing video games. Then he discovered the music room across the hall. Eventually he became comfortable enough to spend hours chatting with other students in the common room.

“The conversation in SVS is radically different than in public schools,” Locke said. “There’s no age segregation, no time limit. We would have a wide variety of topics, some of them totally lewd and some of them more deep and philosophical.” Unschooling advocate and former SVS student Freya Sargent said that even seemingly aimless activities like this have a purpose — they lead kids to discover new interests.

“A lot of parents express concern that ‘my kid is going to end up doing nothing,'” Sargent said. “And that may be true for a certain amount of time, but we as a species are very curious and we have this innate need to learn… People may sit around for a while, but then they get bored and they want to be involved.”

Locke is now studying neuroscience at Harvard University — a passion he developed after wondering how music translates across cultures (remember the Mario Bros. theme song?).

Approximately 90% of Sudbury Valley’s graduates go on to college (compared with 69% of graduates from the public education system). Those opposed to unschooling often say students will have trouble adapting to the real world when confronted with grades, tests or working 9 to 5 under an authority figure.

Molly Morningstar isn’t worried. The 19-year-old pre-med student at Hapmshire College in Massachusetts said the freedom she found at SVS didn’t teach her to avoid work — it taught her to work hard at whatever she enjoyed.

“Freedom is a funny word,” she said. “[The] structure of being a doctor is freedom in a sense because it’s what you chose to do with your life. I feel like I’m a very free person right now — but I still work as a barista at a café 30 hours a week. It’s more about taking charge of your time rather than choosing to do nothing.”

7 replies »

  1. Love it! We’re going this route with our children’s education. Children are hard wired to learn, through play and by spending their day with other people of various ages. It turns out if you let people be people, then they do the sort of things people do: innovate, ask questions, experiment, philosophize and learn!

    Some members of my tribe have proposed a “Tribal College,” which is basically radical unschooling at all age levels. Learning how to be a good person, learning language, arts, and how to make a living by working along side someone making a living. I’d love to see more people move toward this style of education.

  2. Alas “progressive” and child-centred learning methods have proved disastrous in the UK since they were introduced decades ago. There is now a movement back to synthetic phonics and other tried and tested learning methods. As long as children are not indoctrinated I do not see what is wrong with “traditional” education methods. Does it really harm children to teach them their times tables off by heart by repetition for example?

  3. I have no problem with teaching my children using various teaching methods. But memorizing times tables? What’s the point of that? It’s just pointless busy work to keep a class occupied. That’s really just behavior management. More important is teaching *why* 4X4=16. Once they know that, then all they need is a pocket calculator. Memorization may come later, unless they have more important things to keep in their heads.

    Phonics…. okay. My 4 year old is already starting to read. Not all families are as educated as mine, though. But a step in the right direction is giving said families more control over the education process, rather than handing it over to state institutions. Over reliance on these institutions is what is systematically destroying the responsibilities of families in child rearing and education.

  4. “It’s just pointless busy work to keep a class occupied.”

    That’s certainly not how my parents saw it (and come to think of it I did more to learn my times tables at home and at school). It was seen as intellectually useful to be able to do mental arithmetic because frankly (and this was before mobile phones) it’s inconvenient taking a calculator everywhere! Furthermore there’s not much point knowing why 5 x 10 makes 50 if you don’t know it does!

    The problem with the anti-authoritarian school of schooling is that in an understandable attempt to help children think for themselves and develop their own opinions it can deprive them of being taught knowledge and how to think. The fact is that children are not entirely capable of working stuff out for themselves, there is an objective body of knowledge in many areas and that has to be communicated to them in ways that work. It is interesting to note over here that “progressives” who have championed “trendy” methods tend to send their children to private schools where the old ways are still (mostly) used and have the best exam results. I understand that in the USSR after the Revolution progressive methods were introduced but they proved so disastrous that the older system was restored, albeit complete with Marxist indoctrination. Your comment about *why* 4X4=16″ actually reminds me of a passage by journalist Peter Hitchens in his chapter on education in The Abolition of Britain:

    “Children were never interested in why seven sevens are forty-nine, only in learning that they are so. Mathematical concepts, number and so forth are matters for professors. Yes this high-minded piffle is accompanied by a statement of faith in children’s ability to learn, by ‘experience’ and ‘out of school’ the very things that their teachers were now too proud to pass on to them. Teachers objected with increasing fury to the idea that they were mere engines for handing on the knowledge of others, partly on the grounds that this was authoritarian. But they did not hesitate to use their own authority to prevent such reactionary knowledge reaching their charges. Any parent investigating schools – state or private – for their young children is likely to come up against a curious evasiveness if he or she asks whether the school teaches times tables”.

    Now I don’t entirely agree with this – it is useful to know why 7×7 = 49 but I think he’s talking about the “why” at a far more advanced level than you and I are.

  5. ” It was seen as intellectually useful to be able to do mental arithmetic because frankly (and this was before mobile phones) it’s inconvenient taking a calculator everywhere! Furthermore there’s not much point knowing why 5 x 10 makes 50 if you don’t know it does!”

    That’s what I was really trying to get at, though. Being able to work it out in your head (or on paper) is more important than memorization. I recall spending an absurd amount of time practicing for and taking “time tests” in school where we had to spout off or write down the solutions to 4X9, 5X2, 8X4, etc. and how quickly we did it was tracked over the course of many school years. Most school days seem to be filled with this sort of work, and I’m of the opinion that it has less to do with learning and more to do with filling the day.

    Though I cheer on unschoolers, I’ll agree that some folks do take it way too far. Teaching kids how to think is, of course, what it should all be about. Unschooling is like the extreme backlash against public education’s failure to do so.

  6. I’m a staff member at school similar to SVS (The Circle School, Harrisburg PA), and found this blog while looking through sites that had linked to the CNN article. Wanted to jump in on traditional vs progressive methods —

    At these schools, the traditional methods are still available, and are still used. If a student wants to learn their multiplication tables, as mentioned above, they’re probably going to do so through the same rote memorization most do. If they want to do a science experiment, they might be employing a more progressive method. I agree that particular methods are best for particular things, and we’re not trying to throw that out.

    FWIW, we don’t identify as either traditional or progressive, but as integral — transcending and including methods of both.

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