By Rachel Tennenbaum
Imagine waking up on a Monday and driving up to Berkeley to check out a new art gallery opening. That night you play some video games and crack open a book before hitting the hay. Think this sounds like a day off for a college student? It’s actually the school day of a 9-year-old. No, it’s not a fantasy Ferris Bueller-style: It’s a daily reality for thousands of young learners who call themselves “unschoolers.”
Unschooling. Some call it a counter-culture, but others just call it natural learning. It’s an offshoot of homeschooling coined by educational philosopher John Holt, but it varies from traditional homeschooling in the sense that there is no curriculum. None. No math, no English, no science, no history. You just live.
It’s the freedom to express yourself in any way at any time,” said Kevin Greene, a 15-year-old unschooler. “If you’re an artist you can paint, you can let your mind wander.”
It may sound difficult to wrap one’s head around — to just live and fill a life with knowledge? This is shocking to most Americans who have attended school their entire lives. But for those who practice unschooling, it’s not that crazy. The idea is that people have a natural curiosity and can learn from living, and this is what will fill up children’s days.
“It doesn’t really seem necessary to have people be in an institution to learn,” said Pam Tellew, mother of two unschoolers. “I think libraries are about a zillion times more important than schools.”
The Internet is a tool that is especially supportive to unschoolers, Tellew added.
So what does one do all day if there’s no school? The question may be flawed.
“You sound like you’re talking about learning about one specific thing… That’s not really what we do,” said Jesse Boss, an 11-year-old radical unschooler. Radical unschoolers like Boss often have no limits on what they study, how much dessert they get and no bedtimes.
“There is no typical day,” said Annie Twist Lubke, a mother of two unschooled boys, Cortland and Caedan. “[One day] we’re traveling up to the city, San Francisco and Berkeley, to get together with other unschoolers. Another day we’re over chopping wood at [the boys’] grandparents house so we have fire. Our days really go wherever the interest is and whatever’s on our schedule.”
Another idea behind unschooling is that all information is interconnected. It’s not that the children aren’t learning, parents say; it’s just that information is not divided up into a curriculum.
“The thing is that we don’t create it as this big subject,” Lubke said. “It’s not this big scary thing — it’s just part of our day.”
She explained that her sons, for example, learned multiplication figuring out the square footage of a shed. Unschoolers and parents insist that this sort of learning will make education pleasurable, as opposed to creating fears of inadequacy.
“It’s been really interesting because it just confirms what I’ve felt all along — anything is an avenue to learning, anything that engages you teaches you something,” Tellew said.
This can be anything from soccer to the video games which one of her sons plays avidly.
And for television fans everywhere, 11-year-old Boss had this to say: “I’m pretty sure my little brother learned math watching television.”
The theme of interconnectedness does not stop at pedagogy. Unschooling expands to breed an idea of jointness throughout life, information and social systems. It’s simply about knowing how to live.
“So much of the focus on schooling is academic information. I’ve come to understand that, yes, all that’s good, but the critical thing is that you know how to learn, how to think, how to communicate,” said Mike Boss, Jesse’s father.
Boss considers unschooling more of a form of parenting than just an educational philosophy.
Parents play multiple roles in unschooling. They are not just teachers, but facilitators in a system foreign to most of them, since almost all attended school. At a large gathering of unschoolers in Boulder Creek, only one parent had been unschooled. The revival of this movement is just now seeing its oldest off to college. For parents, it’s a struggle at times to maintain an open mind.
“Every once in awhile I get a bug in my head saying, ‘Gosh, I don’t think I know that this is out there in the world,’” Tellew said. “I started telling them about math and they didn’t really care. Pushing that kind of stuff is what gives people that resistance.” She would rather her children follow something that excites them.
In this case, parents act as the school themselves — many families often register with the state of California as a private school in order for their children to receive credit for their education. Others work with the local school board or with the HomeSchool Association of California (HSC) in order to get their requirements squared away with the state.
Studies have shown that this type of learning as a family dynamic has proven effective. Dr. Doris Ash is an assistant professor in UC Santa Cruz’s education department and has researched science learning in informal settings like aquariums and zoos.
“The family for me is a stand-in of a social unit that can collaborate together,” said Ash, who watches families as they interact and learn from their environment. “Some kind of exquisite mix happens between what people already know and the activity they’re learning. What kind of knowledge does [the family] build collaboratively? It’s always the case that they know more together than alone.”
Unschooling and home schooling have been growing in popularity during the last few decades. An average conference of unschoolers can pull in as many as 700 to 800 individuals. Other alternative educational systems have gained popularity as well — notably Montessori Schools, which emphasize self-directed child activity, and Waldorf Schools, which stress interdisciplinary learning.
These schools, and unschooling, are an antidote to what some see as the rigid standards surrounding education and evaluation. Dr. Ron Glass is a philosopher and an associate professor in UCSC’s education department. Much of his research focuses on the moral and political philosophy of education and the ideology of education.
“The notion that learning should somehow follow human nature has been around since the time of Rousseau,” Glass said. But the schooling we’re all now familiar with, he explained, is relatively new.
“The school system that we have now was invented in the late 19th century and had very explicit models: factories, railroads and the army,” Glass said. “So they took features from each of those areas and created a school system. The school was designed to basically rank and sort people into the economic, social, ideological order.”
But the 21st century is a very different time than the Industrial Revolution, with few remaining factories.
“Before there was all this standardized curriculum and testing — all that began in the late 19th century — there was no such thing as school failure,” Glass said. “People just went to school or they didn’t.”
Now that the curriculum has become more rigid, it has begun to create problems. Glass said, “It’s the system that produces winners, losers, those who pass, those who fail, those who count as somebody and those who count as nobody.”
Many are beginning to react against the current schooling system. The change, however, is slow.
“I think schools have become so tightly connected to economic, political and social opportunities, and because of that people aren’t willing to abandon the standard model,” Glass said. Still, he continued, people are beginning to push back. Unschooling and the revival of home schooling are two examples of such a change.
“[People are] trying to find a way to have schools be of good quality and give people real opportunities, but without hurting people along the way,” he said.
While these new options are helpful, Glass pointed out that for the time being they are mostly available to families of solid socio-economic ranking. Children with two working parents must attend school.
While questions about lower education are soothed, many still worry about college. How will children transition into the real world? How will they go about applying to college? The reality is that it’s not so difficult. Many unschoolers begin to attend community colleges around the age of 15 or 16, and others have specialized in areas of interest, something looked upon favorably by many private schools. Much also depends on personal goals.
“If [the kids] decide that they want to go to college, they’ll get themselves ready for it,” Tellew said. “What I’ve also seen is people growing up this way and saying, ‘You know, this isn’t what I want.’ It’s more about finding something that’s meaningful to them and meaningful to the world. They don’t care as much about the trappings of [societal definitions of] success.”
But the unschoolers themselves aren’t worried. In fact, they see things a little bit differently. A group of unschoolers met last week for a campout in Boulder Creek sponsored by the Homeschool Association of California (HSC) for all homeschoolers in California, where they found good luck with weather — they camped out under the first week of sun in almost a month. When asked about the perks of unschooling the kids counted friendliness, ease in communication and vivacious curiosity among the benefits.
“Not getting caught up with everything,” said 16-year-old Teamo (pronounced “te amo”) Gregori. “You can just learn and figure things out your own way.”
“Another advantage is getting up a little later,” Jason Ramos said. What time did he wake up that day? 2 p.m.
Ramos stood among a group of boys aged 8 through 16, all of whom were enthusiastic, well-spoken and appeared to be having a great time. Inside, children and adults were walking around together, playing outside or sitting engrossed in card games. A man playing cards wore a blue shirt proclaiming the famous Mark Twain quotation “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” It’s clear that something has begun, and the kids know it too.