Unshackled and Unschooled: Free-Range Learning Movement Grows

| May 2, 2014 | 27 Comments
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Most people have heard of homeschooling — kids are educated by parents or caregivers at home, rather than at school, for a variety of reasons. But within the homeschooling community, the growing “unschooling” subset has a somewhat different, amorphous, definition.

Depending on whom you ask, unschooling is centered around what the child wants to learn using any and all resources available, not just fixed, school-prescribed curriculum. The general idea behind unschooling is this: getting kids to develop a love of learning for its own sake rather than for grades, and giving kids the opportunity to experience “valuable hands-on, community-based, spontaneous, and real-world experiences.”

That’s exactly what Ellen Jenkins has made happen for her son. Jenkins, a stay-at-home mom and former high school art teacher in Dubuque, Iowa, knew she had to do something when she realized her son, Nyle, had not enjoyed kindergarten and continued to be deeply unhappy in first grade. This was a big contrast with Nyle’s 10-year-old sister, who loved school and thrived in a traditional classroom environment.

Jenkins went to Nyle’s school to observe him in class and immediately realized that her son “was bored — he wasn’t getting engaged or challenged.”

Jenkins and her husband, a high school English teacher, pulled Nyle out of school and began teaching him at home, first with a traditional, standards-based curriculum, but soon left that behind for a less structured approach. Jenkins focused on subjects that interested Nyle and involved plenty of outside activities, from nature center and museum visits to raising chickens and digging for bugs on the family’s two-acre lot.

Within two weeks of leaving school, she says, he “basically learned to read – an interest he hadn’t had in the classroom.” Nyle also developed an interest in writing; as part of a unit on biomes, he wrote a short story – “Nyle and the Thorny Devil” – that was chosen for publication in a Dubuque writer’s guild anthology, with Nyle, then 6, reading it to more than 100 people at a reception.

She credits the turnaround with less stress from having to follow a classroom routine, being able to set his own schedule, and “having more running time outside.” Jenkins says Nyle is happier, more peaceful, and more energetic because he was “given the chance to explore learning with the ability to write freely and on his own terms … It’s one more indicator that we made the right decision to educate Nyle outside the school environment.”

Ellen Jenkins, 8-year-old Nyles and their chick.

Ellen Jenkins, 8-year-old Nyles, and their chick.

The Jenkins family has become one of a growing number of unschoolers – a type of homeschooler who opts for a more child-centered, personalized model of learning, rather than simply moving traditional lessons from classroom to home. Judging by the explosion of websites, books, Facebook groups, and homeschool groups adopting the unschooling label, the 40-year-old movement, first coined by author John Holt in the 1970s, appears to be on the upswing, as is homeschooling in general.

About 2.2 million school-aged children are homeschooled in the U.S. today – a number that’s growing by 5 to 10 percent annually, says Brian D. Ray, a former university professor and director of the National Home Education Research Institute.

Ray’s numbers are higher than the 1.77 million homeschoolers (representing 3.4 percent of all students) reported by the U.S. Department of Education in a 2012 survey. Ray believes the government’s survey undercounts the homeschool population, which he measures using data from states that keep it (not all do) plus input from home-school organizations and vendors.

While Ray doesn’t have data on the number of unschoolers, he senses momentum for it: “I hear people talking about it more.” In 2011, an Associated Press story estimated the number of unschoolers could be one-third of typical homeschoolers.

“Being bored makes school miserable for a lot of kids, plus there is the element of compulsion, which completely changes any activity,” Colorado unschool mom Carol Brown said in the AP article.

Whether homeschooling or unschooling, home education is growing for several reasons. “It’s easier to try it than it used to be,” says Ray. “There is less adult peer pressure against it; it’s more socially accepted. The support services are expanded. And adults who were home-educated are now having children” – and have a higher rate of homeschooling their own children.

Jenkins notes that two years ago, when she pulled Nyle from public school, she felt she constantly had to defend her choice; now, she says, homeschooling seems to have become more common, with more homeschool groups popping up near her, and with her state – Iowa – recently doing away with testing and other restrictions for homeschoolers.

PROS AND CONS

Parents homeschool for many reasons. The most common, cited by 25 percent in the Department of Education study, was concern about the school environment (worries about safety, drugs, or negative peer pressure). And 19 percent of parents homeschool for the same reason as Jenkins: dissatisfaction with academic instruction. What’s more, 16 percent of parents said they homeschool in order to provide religious instruction.

But there are plenty of reasons for parents not to choose to homeschool. Many aren’t sure they want to spend that much time with their kids, Ray says. And perhaps the most prevalent reason: They don’t know how they can afford to have a parent stay at home to be a teacher.

When possible, some families have shifted their lifestyles, with a second parent working from home or working part-time, Ray says, and single-parent families have been able to homeschool with help from grandparents or family members. Not counting the lack of (or lowered) income, the cost output to home-educate a child, Ray says, is about $400 to $600 annually on average.

For Jenkins, their decision for her to stay at home full time with her 1-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son, in addition to Nyle, now 8, means they’re “broke and happy.” The family makes do on one income by cooking more (with Nyle and his siblings involved in cooking as a lesson) and driving less. They also use many free or low-cost resources in the community to help foster Nyle’s learning – free art classes offered by the local art museum, frequent library visits to stock up on books, passes to local nature centers, and membership in a new homeschooling parents’ group that plans to begin offering classes next year.

On a typical “unschool” day, Nyle might visit a library, tromp around the nature center and talk to the naturalists, feed and care for his chickens, work on spelling exercises online, do math worksheets, read and write and create artwork – spending no more than 90 minutes or so in actual formal learning, says Jenkins. She and Nyle delve deeply into topics they both agree to study – such as Egypt or insects or biomes — incorporating math, science, social studies, English and other subjects as they relate to the topic.

Achievement tests indicate homeschool students do well; nationwide studies Ray has done show homeschoolers generally perform 15-30 percentile points above average, putting them in the 65th to 85th percentile.

A 2011 Canadian study found that “structured” homeschool students ages five through 10 outperformed traditional students – but that “unstructured” homeschoolers (in other words, unschoolers) fared least well. Ray notes this study only looked at younger children, suggesting that by graduation age, kids may catch up; also, unstructured students aren’t necessarily learning standardized test items and so it isn’t surprising they wouldn’t do well on a test of this knowledge.

Dale J. Stephens was unschooled from grades six through 12 while living in a small California farm town; he did well enough on standardized tests to be recruited by colleges. Stephens chose a private college in Arkansas, but quickly became just as disenchanted with that type of formal, structured education as he had been with his public elementary school.

Stephens dropped out of college and started an UnCollege movement, extending the idea of unschooling beyond K-12 to higher education. He received a Thiel Foundation grant for “changemakers” and wrote a book, “Hacking Your Education,” featuring people who have achieved success in careers without having degrees or having degrees in unrelated fields.

Last year, Stephens, 22, started The UnCollege Gap Year Program. The program costs $15,000* and helps enrollees figure out what they want to do with their lives and includes stints living abroad and interning in relevant industries.

So far, says Stephens, half of those who enrolled in the program’s first cohort have received or taken job offers in the field they were pursuing.

As an unschooler, says Stephens, he was able to have experiences he couldn’t have had given the public school options in his hometown, including starting small businesses (flower delivery and photo sales), working on political campaigns, and helping his town build a new library. He also learned important life skills – how to find mentors, do good research, negotiate, be self-motivated – that he tries to impart to his Gap Year enrollees.

 *Clarification: A previous version of this article stated the wrong cost for the program. The correct number is $15,000.

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  • Karen Hanscom Hale

    Great article! I started homeschooling my oldest daughter after she went to kindergarten and began getting into trouble for socializing. She is a very bright little girl who started speaking in full sentences at 18 months. She could carry on a full conversation with anyone she came in contact with at 2. She was sitting in a classroom with kids who were not as ready for school as she was and she had to wait – learning things over again that she already knew. She was bored. It was at this point that I knew it was time to give homeschooling a try. It was the best decision we ever made. Our first two years have been mainly unschooling. It is such a good fit for my daughter who is now 8. She is creative, imaginative and very self directed. We have read to her constantly since she was a baby. Her comprehension level is that of a middle school student at least. What I love about unschooling is the freedom to not have to be stuck at a table or desk doing all of the things that she already gets. It drives me nuts to sit down and go over sentence structure, punctuation, parts of speech, etc. with her. She speaks so well and can form the most beautiful stories. I also love that she can have as much time for her art as she wants. She would spend entire days drawing, painting, and coloring if allowed. With unschooling she has the freedom to do that. I will admit that it makes me feel a bit like I am not doing enough, but then I realize that she is independent, directing and creating her own learning. I am but a guide to help facilitate that. Anyway, thanks for the reaffirmation of the path I have chosen for our journey.

    • fresh

      I’ve been through this with my daughter as well. And she spoke early too. Interesting :)

  • Laura Weldon

    Lifestyles of learning outside the institution of school don’t neatly fit into categories. That’s one of the ways we move beyond limitations, whether we call ourselves “homeschoolers” or “unschoolers” or any other term. We’re constantly open to what works for our kids, making this infinitely adaptable form of education a sort of open-source education. Our kids have time to learn in depth, to gain knowledge through direct experience, to pursue their interests, and to keep curiosity alive for a lifetime of learning. .
    Laura Weldon,
    author of Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything

    • Travlingypsy

      Yes….thank you for advancing this necessary way of learning. It will change everything not just for a child but for the world. How can I be more involved. I am in my 60′s with years of self taught and apprenticeship programs for healing without medicine and have learned tons in terms of how to remove ourselves from the traditional enslavement of unhealthy systems. Is there a clearing how for this info? I want to be part of an unschool or a community that is teaching in this way. Thank you.

      • Laura Weldon

        I’d love to see each community develop a “knowledge bank” of people eager to share what they know through classes, workshops, apprenticeships, etc. It could be kept at city hall or the public library or online, with ratings and evaluations just like books receive on Amazon and professors receive on Rate My Professor.

        But right now these connections tend to happen person-to-person. A homeschooled 15-year-old just told me that he plans to be a chef. He cooks for family events and has taken community college classes, but wants to learn directly from a chef. That very week he attended a function catered by a well-known chef. He asked a server if there was any way to meet the chef. Turns out the chef was there, the two of them talked, and this young man is now going to be working with the chef three afternoons a week. The opportunity came up because the young man asked (and also because he has time).

        There are some links in this piece that might help you offer your time. http://lauragraceweldon.com/2012/06/19/success-without-college-22-tools-to-make-it-work/

    • Candice Jones

      You are correct. Categorizing a students education places limits on their learning and the methods which they learn from. To homeschool or unschool students we need to use everyday activites as teaching opportunities as well as placing students outside the norm. Putting students in conditions or situations they normally wouldn’t find themselves in will allow them to think critically and explore their own minds for solutions. Changing education daily and keeping learning interactive allows students to engage and learn from every aspect of their lives.

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  • Rebecca

    Nice article, but I hope Nyle talked to “Naturalists” not “naturists” at the Nature center. Ms. Collier needs an editor besides spell check.

    And this isn’t the only incorrect word choice in the article. I expect better from KQED.

    • marlie

      really… that’s all you can say?

  • http://www.gamesforlanguage.com Ulrike Rettig

    Very interesting article, I can imagine that kids can thrive this way. How would kids get interested in languages they have no contact with and parents don’t know?

    • Travlingypsy

      introduce them to other languages. not so hard. lots of people in the community speak other languages, books, tapes, trips…endless ways.

      • http://www.gamesforlanguage.com Ulrike Rettig

        Thanks Travelingypsy, I actually know little about language education in homeschooling communities. In the US – often called a “monolingual”country – language education does not seem that popular. Are homeschooling communities more active with language learning and education than traditional school systems?

        • Missy Bell

          Very likely. Traditional homeschoolers usually make this a high priority and unschooled children often take an interest in learning another language for practical reasons. There are many ways to learn languages – the US hosts a variety of cultures and languages and there is access to all sorts of books and computer programs for a price or through the library.

  • Missy Bell

    I’m not sure with 90 minutes of formal instruction I would call this unschooling. It sounds more like eclectic homeschooling or “learner led” unit based instruction. Unschooling truly follows a child’s passions. There is nothing forced. Spelling words and math worksheets only happen if the child wishes to explore that way of learning. There’s no “school time” – all of life is learning. For more on the subject of unschooling, read here: http://sandradodd.com/unschool/definition.html

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  • SophiePA

    The author forgot to mention another way parents can unschool a child. Hiring someone to do so. I have been unschooling children and training nannies to do so, for the past 5 years. When both parents want to work, have careers, etc. this works out well for everyone. Instead of paying for private school, they hire me. My students have a much larger vocabulary than many adults, can express themselves well, are mindful and are very deep thinkers, thanks to the questioning I do, rather than the pushing of information.

    • Candice Jones

      I think it is amazing that your students have someone dedicated to their individual learning. Many parents cannot afford private schools and the costs that go alone with enrolling children, often more than one, into a private education. You are offering a wonderful alternative for students to learn in a manner that will be specifically taylored for their interests and learning needs. May I ask where you are located and how you started being a private educator?

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  • Candice Jones

    Great article. I was excited to read about how your child has thrived in a homeschool learning environment. As an educator I believe it is extremly important to teach students based on their own learning needs. Your daught thrives in a social learning environment with peers but Nyle seems to prefer more hands-on, think outside the box learning. I think it is wonderful you and your husband recognized this and began teaching your child in areas and way that will encourage him to learn through his own methods. I was astounded at the growing rate of homeschooling students in this country. I understand it is more common that in previous generations but not having children of my own I hadn’t realized how many people were moving their children into this. I live in a state where education is on the back burner. We are laying off teachers by the dozens every year when in reality there really aren’t any teachers to loose. The classroom sizes are increasing every year making it difficult for teachers to do their job and making it difficult for students who may need more differentiation to learn successfully. Based on my day to day experience I believe teaching your child at home is excellent as long as it fits the learning needs of the child

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