by Kate Hammer
September 13, 2010
Kate Hammer is The Globe and
Mail's Education Reporter.
A small but growing movement known as
deschooling, life learning, unschooling, and edu-punk is
home-schooling returned to its postwar progressive roots, far from the
Bible-thumping mould that has come to dominate the modern image of home-schoolers.
Unschooling takes children out of schools, but, unlike a lot of home-school
approaches, it doesn't import the classroom into the home. It does away
altogether with educational clutter such as curricula and grades.
Unschoolers maintain that a child's learning should be curiosity-driven
rather than dictated by teachers and textbooks, and that forcing kids to
adhere to curricula quashes their natural inclination to explore and ask
For kids the typical guideline for deschooling is about 1 month for every
year of school though in reality, most parents have a lot more deschooling
to do than their kids.
Unschooled children can organize their knowledge in free and better ways.
They never need to feel they are through learning, or past the point that
they can begin something new.
Each thing they discover can be useful
eventually. If we help provide them with ever-changing opportunities to see,
hear, smell, taste, feel, move and discuss, what they know will exceed in
breadth and depth what any school's curriculum would have covered. It won't
be the same set of materials - it will be clearer and larger but different.
To an outsider, unschooling may sound like pedagogical tofu: a shapeless,
idealistic substitute for an education. But there's a growing consensus that
unschoolers might be on to something.
Their ideals have been quietly
infiltrating public education.
"An unschooling family mostly just looks
like a family living life… hanging out on the weekend," says mother Pam Laricchia, a former nuclear engineer who lives in Orangeville, Ont.
"But there is lots of learning going on when
you take the time to look at it from the kids' point of view."
Home-schoolers - and unschoolers in particular - are by nature difficult to count. But observers say that, thanks in part to
social networking and the blossoming of Internet resources, their movement
One sign is that dozens of unschooling families will converge near Ms.
Laricchia's home this weekend for the fifth annual Toronto Unschooling
Conference. Another is that since 2002, unschoolers have had their own
publication, Life Learning Magazine. (More recently, it has metamorphosized
Meanwhile, school boards and education ministries are embracing experiential
There was a time when students were drilled and heavily tested on rote
memory, such as the names and dates of British sovereigns. But research
suggests that this is a temporary, limited form of learning: Kids gain more
when they can ask questions and learning is tied to emotion.
The change in thinking has been slow, but it surfaces in the expansion of
high-school co-op programs, or the emphasis on play in the new full-day
kindergarten curriculum Ontario launched this week.
Some children thrive in the classroom and others don't and, despite the best
of intentions, the system sorts them into winners and losers.
Recent initiatives by education ministries and school boards to shrink
dropout rates, promote alternative schools and improve kindergarten are all
fundamentally an effort to reduce the sorting.
Unschooling's underlying idea is that all kids
A LIBERATION MOVEMENT
FOR THE LOVE OF LEARNING
The foundational tome of the unschooler is
How Children Fail, the first book
by an American teacher named John Holt published in 1964.
The writer suggested that smart children
"because they are afraid, bored, and confused."
"They are afraid, above all else, of
failing, of disappointing or displeasing the many anxious adults around
them, whose limitless hopes and expectations for them hang over their
heads like a cloud."
Mr. Holt supports his thesis with observations
from a sort of classroom diary he kept throughout the 1950s and 60s.
He concludes that,
"a child who is learning naturally,
following his curiosity where it leads him, adding to his mental model
of reality whatever he needs and can find a place for, and rejecting
without fear or guilt what he does not need, is growing - in knowledge,
in the love of learning, and in the ability to learn."
The idea puts a lot of faith in children, their
innate interest in learning and in their intelligence. It also restores
faith in parents, returning some control over their children's growth that
they handed to educators and politicians more than a century ago.
This was the philosophy behind home-schooling when it emerged in the 1960s
and 70s as a way for children to learn from the world around them. Then, in
the past few decades, home-schooling was embraced by the Christian right,
which saw it as a way that kids could be shielded from the secular world.
Then the Internet galvanized unschoolers. It provided a support network for
parents seeking alternatives, and made satisfying the whims of a child's
curiosity a lot easier.
Why is the sky blue? Google it... How do you make
a baking-soda volcano? Ask YouTube...
This type of experiential learning suits boys and concrete learners in
particular, who "are set up to fail in the regular school system," according
to Ron Hansen, a professor at the University of Western Ontario.
He says the school system favors abstract learners, the half of the
population who find it easy to think in symbols and signs, for whom written
work comes naturally.
"need action, they need projects, they need
to be tactile as well as using their eyes and their ears."
Although Mr. Hansen believes that unschooling
might not work in every home, he thinks its emphasis on experiential
learning is laudable and has a thing or two to teach public education.
There is an obvious objection, and one familiar to home-schoolers of any
Does any kid who hangs out all day with his parents and who lives by
the whims of his own curiosity have any hope at being anything less than a
Though unschooled children tend to have highly developed critical-thinking
and problem-solving skills, some find it difficult to socialize with large
groups of children, according to Paige Fisher, an instructor in education at
Vancouver Island University who has observed unschooled children.
Another concern more specific to unschooling is if children's education is
formed by their own interests, or solely by those of their parents, there
are likely to be gaps.
"Individual children might be happy, but
it's not clear that this makes for an autonomous or well-rounded adult,
or for a better community," Christopher Lubienski, an associate
professor at the University of Illinois, writes by e-mail.
Structured learning, with external direction,
"can force people to experience things that
they wouldn't otherwise, and quite often find new interests... Ones that
may also have some wider social value."
OFF THE BUS, BUT NOT
ENTIRELY OFF THE GRID
This week, as most children kissed their parents goodbye and boarded yellow
school buses, a group of home-schooling families gathered in a park in
Toronto's west end for a Welcome Back to Not-School party.
They represented a fair cross-section of the city's home-schooling
community, and most would place themselves somewhere on the unschooling
Generally white and well-educated, the unschoolers were the kind of
middle-to-upper-middle-class parents who don't dream of a home in Rosedale
or their kids graduating from medical school.
They didn't fit any other stereotypes, except that all were able to stay
home at least part-time. And they knew their kids' daily lives in a detail
that made the average helicopter parent seem negligent.
They stood in clusters, discussing current events and their children, who
buzzed about from swings to picnic tables in swarms of mixed-age groups. The
sight was a bit jarring to eyes accustomed to traditional school
playgrounds, where kids tend to stick with their classmates.
Carlo Ricci, an associate professor at
Nippissing University, was pushing
his younger, unschooled daughter, Karina, 5, on a swing. His older daughter,
Annabel, 7, attends Grade 2.
He had gradually figured out the differences
that made one girl prefer unschooling while the other was drawn to the
"[Annabel] is like a movie star when she
goes to school. She gets a lot of praise," he said.
Karina is more shy.
John Day's 10-year-old daughter, Brenda, has never seen the inside of a
Still, he specified,
"I'd say we're part-unschoolers."
Mr. Day, an engineer who holds graduate degrees
from Oxford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford, lets
his daughter's interests drive most of her learning.
That may mean writing
fan fiction, watching the pop science program Mythbusters or a
trip to the Ontario Science Centre.
"It's awesome," said Brenda, a spindly
pre-teen with sun-bleached hair. "I spend more time outside and I see my
friends every day."
However, Mr. Day added:
"I think potentially one of the problems
with the unschooled kids is they haven't been prepared with the basics."
So on top of her self-directed learning, Brenda
follows a math curriculum and solves problems in graded workbooks.
THE MANY SCHOOLS OF
There are other factions within the movement, from the radical unschoolers,
who extend the philosophy beyond education to parenting, to those who reject
the term unschooling altogether.
Some unschoolers will refer to the occasional exercise book for math
lessons. Others will never consider a number outside a speedometer or a
Some are vegans, while the unschoolers who let
their children eat more liberally quietly refer to them as the Granola
"There's everything from very earthy
grassroots people to very educated professional people," says Judy
Arnall, a Calgary-based author on parenting who has unschooled her five
children. She is on the phone from Newfoundland, where she is dropping
her 18-year-old son off at Memorial University.
"I think the one thing everyone agrees on is that we want our kids to
foster a love of learning that's intrinsic."
"Unschooling is an acknowledgment that schools and education are in many
ways contradictory, that there's an implicit tension between them," says
Jason Price, an assistant professor at the University of Victoria.
"Education is about the production of more democracy, production of
peace, production of happiness whereas schooling is often the production
of global economic competitiveness."
In Orangeville this weekend, over campfires and
potluck dinners, unschoolers will discuss ways of supporting their
children's learning at Ms. Laricchia's Toronto Unschooling Conference.
Throughout the day, guest speakers will address quandaries such as the ways
kids learn math without a textbook and how to transition your children out
of the regular school system - a sort of psychological-detox process known
When the conference is over, Ms. Laricchia will return to collaborating on
building an online business with her son, Michael, 13. Her daughter, Lissy,
16, is a photographer who was recently invited to participate in a show in
New York. The oldest child, Joseph, has turned 18 and is no longer being
His mom happily admits that the change has had
almost no effect on his day-to-day life.