From home schooling to 'unschooling'
Parents believe in letting children set the pace

September 3, 2009

Many parents consider Patapsco State Park a leisure destination. Suzy Provine of Millersville views it as a classroom.

As children headed back to local schools this week, she and her four sons explored the park's craggy earth and tossed large and small rocks into standing water to test the laws of gravity. Venues such as Patapsco are why Provine, 38, has never sent her children to traditional school, opting instead for an eclectic approach to learning known as unschooling.

A byproduct of home schooling, unschooling incorporates every facet of a child's life into the education process, allowing a child to follow his passions and learn at his own pace, year-round. And it assumes that an outing at the park - or even hours spent playing a video game - can be just as valuable a teaching resource as Hooked on Phonics.

"It's different from sitting in front of a desk all day," said Provine's oldest son, Marcus, 8, adding that his friends in traditional schools say they would rather be unschooled.

Zoa Conner of LaPlata, co-organizer of the Enjoy Life Unschooling Conference to be held near Frederick this month, said the approach is about helping children discover what they're really interested in.

"If most [people] think back to their own school experiences, how much of the information you were expected to learn do you know today?" added Conner, an unschooling parent. "We cannot know beyond the shadow of a doubt precisely what our children will need when they are 10, 20, 30 or 80. We do all want what is 'best' for our children and we want our children, now and when grown, to be poised to accomplish whatever they may decide is important. This is where unschoolers excel."

While unschooling parents say the method is growing in popularity, some education experts question its effectiveness.

Joyce L. Epstein, director of the National Network of Partnership Schools at the Johns Hopkins University, had never heard of it. She knew of no research on the topic, "and research would be needed in order to justify it."

Teri Flemal, director of Quality Education by Design, a New York-based program that helps parents hire personal teachers and build home curriculum, said she believes unschooling has its place. But she says it's most useful for a child in a crisis transitioning from traditional schooling to home schooling, not as a regular teaching method.

"I'm reading e-mail from unschooling parents who think having their kids remodel their house with them is 'school.' I'm sorry, but it's not," Flemal said. "Painting, hammering, measuring - hey, that was great in primary school. I love that stuff.

"But I can tell you that it will not hold these kids in good stead as they compete with home-schoolers who are creating model video games, requiring them to know the ballistics of how fast and at what angle the bullets need to travel to create an impression of a certain size on the wall, or perhaps the home-schooler who has written a symphony."
I tutor from time to time and once I was asked to do an evaluation on two kids who had been 'unschooled' for a couple of years. Their mother finally realized that the theory of unschooling delivered a lot more than the practice so she wanted to transition them to regular homeschooling.

These kids should have been doing grade 3 and 5 in math and science so I thought they'd test out at grades 1 and 3. This isn't really hyper scary - homeschoolers can catch up on skills and material much, much faster than box-school kids.

My dog had more numeracy than these kids. They had no usable skills. I had to tell the gal that I couldn't help them because they needed really intense remedial work that went way beyond my own subject areas.