Addressing Some Misconceptions about Unschooling

I am pleased to see that others appear to agree with my assessment that while unschooling and libertarianism are both valuable, they are separate things. It is not that I believe libertarians shouldn’t be unschoolers (or vice versa); just that I see no necessary connection between them. Some come to unschooling because they believe that children have similar rights not to be coerced as to adults. Others, because they are convinced that schools are tools of the establishment (capitalist or socialist, depending on whom you ask) and see unschooling as a path toward individual and social change. Others still come to unschooling for wholly nonpolitical reasons. Like myself, they come to it because they are persuaded that it just works as well or better than conventional schooling.

This “It just works!” theme might be a good one to unpack for a bit. I think all of the contributors have done a good job of providing personal testimony and alluding to research arguing the effectiveness of unschoooling. But this is surely a hard case to convince skeptics of, especially given that we occupy a world that is so used to conventional school as the path for learning. It might therefore be worthwhile to address some common concerns about unschooling.

Won’t kids just play video games [or insert your favorite seemingly trivial thing] all day? There are a few responses I have to this understandable concern. First, let’s assume that some kids will in fact spend their days intensely playing video games or using screens. The objection assumes that one either plays video games or learns, and if a child is doing the former, they can’t be doing the latter. But researchers have long known that video games are actually amazing learning devices. If you think about what it takes to beat and master a video game, the answer is “learn… a LOT!” Video games employ a lot of text (and some kids learn to read through playing them), almost all video games make heavy use of math (“How many points do I need to buy the stuff I need to kill the dragon?”), and players learn to strategize and solve problems.

At Pathfinder, we recently “graduated” a member (we do not call them “students,” nor do they call staff “teachers”) who in the most literal sense did nothing but play video games. He came to Pathfinder obsessed with Minecraft. What happened? Minecraft led to coding within Minecraft; that led to coding outside of Minecraft, which led to an interest in cryptography and other stuff I don’t understand. Now, he spends his time interning at a software company. I bring this up because even if a child does choose to use their time playing video games, this doesn’t mean that other things won’t come along to interest them.

This leads to the next way I handle this objection. In my experience (and hearing others’ experiences), unschooling tends to work this way: a learner finds something they are passionate about and devotes weeks and months to it until they are finished or get bored, finds a new thing to invest their time in, and repeat. We are used to the ways of conventional schools, where learning is supposed to take place in chunks of time, around one hour each, where you move from learning one thing to the next to the next. Yet think about how artificial that is. Suppose you had maybe a week where you could spend your days learning whatever and however you wanted. How many would make a schedule where you play your guitar from 9 to 9:50am, work on learning Spanish from 9:55 to 11am, eat at 11:05 to noon regardless of whether you were hungry then, and so on? While some may prefer such a rigid schedule, my guess is that most of us would play our guitar until we got bored, move to something new and pursue it until we were ready for a change, etc. Some of us might even be so engrossed in whatever we’re doing that we spend all day on it. There’s just nothing wrong with that.

Why not just try to change the public system? I have no problem with people trying to change the public system so that learners have more freedom there. I just personally don’t see much cause for optimism on that front. The public system has a powerful and regrettable inertia, and the changes that would be required are ones I think are too radical for that system to accommodate. We’d have to get rid, or significantly lessen the grip, of things like a paced curriculum that tells kids what to learn when (regardless of their interest at that time); we’d also have to get rid of the use of tests and grades given to students who didn’t ask for them, and a lot of other structures that make school school. Historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban refer to these structures as parts of “the grammar of schooling” and note that they stubbornly resist all but cosmetic change simply because they are so deeply embedded in what we are used to as “school.” We unschoolers, for various reasons, have decided that it makes the most sense to bypass conventional schools rather than attempting to change these Goliaths.

Is this just a way to keep kids ignorant? If I was not firmly convinced by evidence that uschooling is effective at preparing kids for the world, I would not advocate it. Period! I fully stand with Michael Strong when he says: “My main interest in unschooling is not ‘libertarianism’ or ‘rights’ per se, but rather universal human flourishing.” In her recent book, Unschooled, Kerry McDonald has also done a fine job synthesizing the literature and telling stories of unschoolers she has met that amply illustrate that the bells, whistles, and coercive structures of schooling simply aren’t necessary to produce valuable learning. When given a resource-rich and supportive environment (where adults help but do not coerce learners), these kids surprise you until you’ve been surprised by enough of them that it ceases to be surprising.

But isn’t this really just a select group of kids? This is a tough one, because I know of no demographic data about what types of families unschooled kids tend to come from. But my goal (I suspect one all of my fellow discussion participants share) is to find ways to expand the possibility of unschooling to more and more families. Here, Corey DeAngelis’s essay reminds us of what I think is a “double whammy” for unschoolers: on one hand, governments are leery to subsidize their educational options, unschooling or “democratic”/“free” schools, with state funds. Yet without such support, the only families that will unschool are those who can afford to absorb all of the (money, time, and energy) costs.

I hope skeptics will take a close look at some of the evidence my fellow discussants and I have cited in support of giving children more freedom in their educations.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Kerry McDonald says that those who care about liberty should give unschooling a look. Structured education with a fixed curriculum and standardized testing is the product of a bureaucratized system. But children are spontaneous learners, says McDonald, and they do best when adults give opportunities and support rather than structure and evaluation.

Response Essays

  • Kevin Currie-Knight is a libertarian. He also likes unschooling. But, he says, it’s a mistake to conflate them; either view should stand or fall on its own—political liberty for adults might be the best choice, but this doesn’t imply that unstructured learning is best for children. And unstructured learning may be best for children without implying much of anything about the adult world of politics. While his personal answer to each of these is “yes,” the two are independent questions in his view.

  • Corey DeAngelis discusses the complicated relationship between unschooling and school choice. While he finds the evidence for school choice persuasive, and while he is also open to unschooling, he sets out several reasons why the two initiatives may not be wholly compatible. He recommends Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) as potentially flexible enough to offer meaningful help for unschoolers.

  • Michael Strong considers what society would look like if we schooled less and educated more. While he is supportive of unschooling in principle, not everything of that name is equal, and he cautions that we still have much to learn about learning itself. One thing that seems unlikely to work, though, is spending more and more money on traditional schooling.