Addressing Some Common Unschooling Concerns

This article is a response to the National Post’s article by Sarah BoesveldUnschooling: Raising Independent Trailblazers or Lazy Free Floaters?

Thank you, Ms Boesveld, for your excellent article. In it you raise many of the concerns of unschooling families, extended family, and policy makers with regards to this pedagogical choice.

I am an unschooling mom, an entrepreneur, and an educational reformer in Quebec. I’d like to offer you some links and resources for good information on modern unschooling.

Some demographics: In Canada, the majority of unschooling families are secular, urban, educated, and middle or upper middle economic class – enough for one parent to stay home and to cover the costs of all the materials and outings. They feel they are capable of doing excellent work with their child, and they’re surrounded by sufficient activities and shared interest groups to make sure that their kid is appropriately socialized.

Concern: Complex Subjects – “offers no curriculum to conquer”.

In your article you write that “curricula is tossed by the wayside” in unschooling. That is not accurate. Unschoolers don’t throw out curricula, they just aren’t compulsory.

In some cases, curriculums make the difference between unschooled people who do well, and those who struggle, because plans are pretty useful (though not required) for a person to be well adapted to their society. Sometimes that society is a tiny community in the Kootenays. But as you mentioned, civic engagement is high among the measured results for unschooled kids. They generally aren’t being raised in isolation. Many unschoolers use curricula from around the world on a wide variety of subjects, and I’ve provided some links below to a few popular choices.

Many people have similar concerns to those of Prof. Ungerleider, whom I quote hereon from the NP article:

Concern: Social Versatility – Children must learn “under the guidance of someone who is well prepared to manage [-] diversity and allow differences of viewpoints to prevail.”

As educated, secular/humanist families, many unschoolers agree, and 80% of unschooled kids go on to post-secondary schools in order to continue to promote a life-long love of learning (1: Psychology Today). The families who choose to live in a different society, such as world-schoolers for example, elite athletes and musicians, or off-gridders, retain their rights under the Canadian charter, the UN Charters of Human Rights and on the Rights of Children, and many provincial charters to a culturally appropriate education, and to make socialization choices appropriate to those cultural ones within the confines of child protection laws, thus allowing for a diversity of childrearing practices.

Concern: Independence – “When does the youngster begin to establish independence from the parent?’

Like in any family, the parenting philosophies of unschoolers run the gamut from helicopter to hands-off. In helicopter-leaning families, independence can develop as a rebellion in teen years, later, or never at all.  In hands-off families, independence is earlier and wider (2: Psychology Today). Most families sit somewhere in the middle, depending on the topic. For example, some families set strict screen time limits, some set none. These are questions in all families, of course, not just for unschoolers. But it’s a concern. For example, in Quebec, it is challenging to arrange opportunities for the kids to learn something without parental supervision during school hours. So, for a family that wants to broaden their child’s ability to navigate the world – a very common motivation for unschoolers who see traditional school as intellectually restrictive (3: Parenting Report) – they have to get pretty creative to meet that goal: form groups, sign up for classes, make deals with the local school to join the orchestra, start a club at the science center etc. Setting those things up incidentally increases their independence, which is useful but often needlessly complicated.

Concern: Grades and Progress –  “Children should be able to reference their prior knowledge and experience and chart progress —how does one do that without grades?”

Unschoolers are encouraged to take on projects or themes to answer the questions they have about the world, as are kids in schools. Many of the same resources are used – books, curricula, clubs, web resources, experts, field trips. Measures of success are linked to the original question. If it is a simple one: why is the sky blue? Then the child has succeeded when they get the answer. If it is a complex one: how do I launch a rocket? Then the child will work on the question until it is answered to their satisfaction and, like in good schools but with a very much more focused mentorship, will be given the resources to succeed (algebra, space camp, rocket-building club). Success is measured by results. As for charting over time and keeping records, some do it with portfolios, others with journals or blogs or vlogs, or photo essays. A great many find various artistic pursuits. This will often comprise a significantly more complete personal record and progression of learning than might school grades, Some unschooling families would very much appreciate classes on various pedagogical skills, including year-to-year tracking.

Concern: Public Schools – “Unschoolers may not be giving today’s school system enough credit”

True. There is a definite push against traditional schools, particularly in areas of the country that have had to deal with child protective services instead of teachers to get educational support. As reformers, we’re working to protect these families so that they can exercise their rights without prejudice, and have access to appropriate expert advice. This is often offered through schools, but too often not to homeschoolers. In Quebec, the Protecteur du citoyen (Ombudsmen’s office) has asked the government to correct this situation. (4: Protecteur du citoyen). As for the school system, the teacher drop-out rate in Canada is as high as 25%. (5: UBC). Among students, our literacy rates are great, but our STEM rates are dismal. The system works to prepare the majority to work in current industries, but leaves behind some 30% of people before grade 11, mostly boys, and is institutionally unresponsive to technological, economic, or social changes. We can in public and in private do better for the ones we’re leaving behind. We should. Among other things, we can integrate child-led learning into public systems, which remain key to creating democratic and technologically sound cultures.

Fun fact: Some notable unschoolers include Elon Musk, Thomas Edison, many elite athletes and musicians, and most famous persons from before the advent of Universities in the middle-ages.

Concern: Reintegration and Higher Education – “Aren’t you just making it harder for your son or daughter to catch up in the future?”

According to this study, (6: Psychology Today), unschoolers tend to do well academically in tertiary education, be intrinsically motivated, and be more satisfied with their careers later on. Like other people, they tend to espouse their parent’s values. As in democratic schools – something like unschooling in groups – there is almost no incidence of “mathophobia”, dyslexia, adhd or, for that matter, bullying or age-discrimination (7: Summerhill School). When they do have trouble, they tend to be more adept at managing. As mentioned in your article, these young people are used to speaking up for their needs and getting the resources they need, as compared to their age peers.

Concern: Socialization – “I would be worried about the diversity of experience provided to the youngster”

We are, too. That’s why in the stricter provinces we need support to be permitted to assemble and share resources such as hiring experts or opening community centres, and why there are 7 democratic schools in Canada, and multiple learning centres in Quebec and elsewhere. This is especially vital in rural areas and for poorer families, who are mostly excluded from this educational option at this time.

Concern: Research – “More research needs to be done on the long-term effects of unschooling”.

Yes. Please!

“Dr. Ricci says studies have found homeschool kids do better on SAT tests and rank better in citizenship than their school-going peers.”

Here are some other studies. (Let us know of others?)

Awareness about this educational option is really helpful to getting the rights and support these families and communities need, and clearing some questions for concerned others (extended family, policy makers).

Please share, and read up, and enjoy the experience of accompanying young scholars, if you can.

-Tammy Mackenzie,

Unschooling by the books / Thanks for your article, Ms Boesveld. I hope you’ll be moved to remove one or two of your references to “tossing out curricula”?

Samples and Checklists: UNSCHOOLING CURRICULUM

Radical Unschooling Guidance

Global Vilage Curriculum K-8

Unschooling and Time4Learning

The unschooled version of a seventh-grade-ish curriculum plan for 2012-13