What Unschooling Research Can Already Show Us

Corey DeAngelis correctly points to the nonexistence of “random assignment studies…linking unschooling or homeschooling to student outcomes.” He points to several problems that would come with producing such studies. First, randomly assigning families to unschool is problematic and would violate the very aversion to coercion that typifies unschooling. Also, specifying the types of outcomes we want to compare between unschoolers and “conventional schoolers” is problematic, as unschooling is often based on the idea that learners grow in their own ways at their own rates.

Studies on unschooling, of course, do exist but tend to be small-scale qualitative studies. They either use survey data where past or present unschoolers report on their unschooling experience, or where researchers detail how learners learn outside of schooled structures. These studies carry the limitations of having small and possibly non-representative sample sizes and methodologies where the subjects or investigators are engaged in potentially biased reporting.

I am not as troubled by this as Corey might be. While I’d love to see larger studies done, that will have to wait until unschooling becomes a larger-scale phenomenon. At this point, sadly, what unschoolers must show—what these qualitative studies do show—is that unschooling is a possibility. Culturally, we have imbibed the message that kids simply cannot learn productive things without imposed curriculum, grades, classrooms with teachers, and so on. I’d love to see whether unschooling really does work with larger populations, and maybe someday, those studies can be done. But for now, I want to show people that unschooling is possible, that kids can learn outside of schooled structures. Even if we can say about these qualitative studies that they just relay the experiences of a special kind of learner from a special, non-representative, kind of family, we can answer: “Maybe, but that special kind of kid clearly doesn’t need school as much as you think they do! And if so, maybe other special kinds of kids don’t either.”

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.