Unschooling: Forget Homeschooling, They’ll Figure it Out Themselves

A growing number of Canadian families are educating their kids—or, more accurately, allowing them to educate themselves—by discarding schedules, workbooks, building blocks and milestones. Is this crazy or can it really work?

Unschooling: Forget Homeschooling, They'll Figure it Out ThemselvesOn any given school day one thing will always be true in Raquel Molina’s Vancouver Island home: Her two kids will not be in school. While they will be doing their learning at home, outside of the established education system, the Molina kids are not home-schooled. In fact, a search of their house would turn up nary a lesson plan, textbook, workbook, schedule or any other vestige of a structured educational environment. And a few other things about this household might raise a few eyebrows. Molina lets the family’s day take shape according to natural rhythms—every day is like a day off—and the kids do whatever they want with their time, at all times. Kabrin, 10, and Isabel, 6, derive their learning from practical experience, hands-on play and everyday situations such as shopping at a store and cooking in the kitchen. “Part of me would like to sit my kids down and teach them math and all these different book-related things. But I don’t want to do that to them,” says Molina. “I will never sit down and say, “Let’s learn.’ Ever.”

Molina is unschooling her kids—and that’s a very different thing than homeschooling them. While home-schooling parents often remove their children from public schools for religious or other philosophical reasons but seek to transplant the academic environment from the classroom to the kitchen table, unschooling families seek to shed all the trappings of the formal education system. That means no lessons, no schedule, no structure and no exams. While it’s not exactly clear how many families in Canada are currently unschooling (unschoolers are usually lumped into homeschooling statistics, which themselves are very problematic), there’s a sense among experts that this trend is picking up steam.

free to be me

A direct descendant of free schools (such as England’s Summerhill School) and the anti-establishment movements of the 1960s, unschooling is all about choice and freedom for the child. Dr. Carlo Ricci, an associate professor at Ontario’s Nipissing University’s Schulich School of Education and editor of the Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning, notes that this educational philosophy is, above all, learner centred and democratic. “The learner-centred part is that young people get to choose what they want to learn, when they want to learn and how they want to learn it, and the democratic part is that they have a say in controlling their environment,” he explains. Ricci and other unschooling advocates take a very severe view of how our current education system operates. They feel that school isn’t a place where children learn well but rather makes kids “dumber” because it forces them to focus on topics beyond their interests. Children, in their view, are the last acceptably oppressed group and need to be given more power and choice. Modern schools are prisons and were created in order to establish control. Marks and grades are tools of manipulation and are used to oppress students. “Schools are very undemocratic places, where young people have very little control over their bodies, minds and spirits and are constantly being told what to do and how to respond,” says Ricci, who follows unschooling principles with his own two kids.

And while the rules vary by province and board (in general, British Columbia and Alberta tend to be the most understanding, whereas Quebec is the least), unschooling parents, for the most part, need not worry about running afoul of truancy laws, says Paul Faris, president of the Home School Legal Defence Association of Canada (which also represents and provides consultative services to unschoolers). As a rule, provinces and boards are most interested in knowing that a child’s education is being taken care of and, for the most part, simply require parents to notify or register with the school board at the start of the year. In Ontario this is generally all that’s required (unless someone at the local school or board raises an objection), while in other provinces, such as Alberta, parents must register, submit an education plan and meet with a facilitator who is tasked with providing input and guidance.

But unschooling isn’t just an educational methodology—it’s a philosophy of life that often affects every part of day-to-day living for those who practise it. And taken to its fullest, most extreme degree, it shapes everything about the way a mother and father raise their children—something that’s known as “radical unschooling.”

For Calgary mom Cindy Bablitz, author of the upcoming (2011) book, School’s Out Forever: The Art and Science of Unschooling Life… So Far (self-published), who unschools her three kids, Noah, 11, Tristan, 8, and Elijah, 5, the mainstream-parenting focus on rules, discipline and punishment is negative and destructive. Instead, she says, “our unschooling life allows space for relationships to be paramount.” Bablitz originally started down this path because a friend had begun home-schooling and Bablitz was curious. Her son was ready for Kindergarten, and she viewed this as a perfect year to try home-schooling while researching its advantages. She started as a home-schooler, but as she read more and more on the topic, she slowly evolved into an unschooler.

In the Bablitz household there are no time outs, just discussions—the philosophy they live is respectful of each family member. “The goal is for decisions to be consensual. Everyone should be heard and have the experience of being honoured and valued. In the way that we live as a family, no one person’s needs trump another’s, just because of position or hierarchy or chronology, says Bablitz. For example, a conflict over heading home after a long visit to the neighbourhood playground (Mom wants to leave, child does not) would begin with Bablitz re-examining her own motives. If her kids want to stay because they’re having fun, that’s just as valid as her choice to leave. So, how does the standoff resolve itself? “After discussion, sometimes my agenda wins out, sometimes someone else’s does, but always each person is made to feel that they were heard and that they contributed to the decision. Everything is negotiable.”

Radical unschoolers are very interested in empowering their children, and that can result in a level of permissiveness that many parents may be uncomfortable with. For Bablitz, the immediate response when her children have an idea that they would like to try is to say “yes.” She recalls helping her son build a cardboard-box fort. It occurred to her, as he was working away with a sharp knife, that mainstream parenting would likely have denied him
the opportunity to create simply because of the tools required for his project. “Unschooling means fostering a consensual rather than an authoritarian mindset,” says Bablitz. “Consensual choices also mean that we honour our humanity. For example, we set no firm bedtimes or mealtimes. We don’t set a militant schedule that will be out of sync with our biology. We wake when we wake and eat when we’re hungry,” she says.

While not every family operates this way, the unschooling lifestyle almost always requires at least one parent—usually the mother—to stay home and supervise the kids. Living day-to-day in a house filled with children, with no schedule and no moments of respite, can be completely exhausting, says Halifax mom Marsha Abarbanel, who is unschooling her five kids, Kate, 18, Dan, 16, Sarah, 14, Matt, 12, and Sam, 9. They don’t own a television, and she severely limits the amount of time her kids spend on the Internet. “They’re home with me all the time. I don’t get a break. Which is okay, except in February, when it’s awful and you can’t go outside. And it can be loud, and it’s almost always messy,” she says. Another drawback, Abarbanel explains, is the fact that a romantic getaway with her husband is pretty much out of the question, as the babysitter would have to devote 24 hours a day to taking care of her kids, something few people (even close friends) are prepared to do.

knocking down the building blocks

Not every family practises unschooling in its purest form. For example, Abarbanel sets aside time and uses home-schooling curricula to teach formal math lessons (albeit in an informal setting—usually the living-room floor, with blankets) to her kids. That’s a change from most unschoolers, who simply allow learning to arise from everyday activities. Instead of using textbooks, these families maintain that their children can learn basic math skills by adding and subtracting while preparing a dish in the kitchen or by looking at price tags while shopping at a store. Shannon Cowan socializes with many unschoolers but chooses to use a curriculum and learning activities to teach her six-year-old daughter, Zaira, including an hour or two of formal instruction each day, and will probably do the same with her younger daughter, Teegan, 3. But she adds, within the program Zaira’s learning is quite free in that she is not confined to a desk doing worksheets or a full day of structured learning. “I read a lot about brain development, and I understand that there are some windows of opportunity for children to learn certain things,” says the mom from Errington, B.C. “I have my child in swimming lessons to learn swimming, and I have her in fiddle lessons because she wants to learn fiddle, so why wouldn’t I teach her how to read?”

But those who adhere to a more alloyed form of unschooling insist that a child’s desires be the only governing force on their education. “We need to teach young people to focus on their passions,” says Ricci. “It’s important that we teach them to say no, and to quit, and to empower them to follow what interests they have.” So if a child hates science, that’s fine—they don’t need to waste time plowing through it, especially because, Ricci insists, they will pick up whatever they need for life by just observing the world around them. And if they don’t read until they’re 10 years old, no problem—they will pick it up naturally, when it’s right for them. Same for math, says Molina. “When one day they develop an interest in something math-related, I’m sure they will learn math,” she says.

Most unschoolers share a serious aversion to the educational building blocks and developmental milestones so important to many mainstream experts and parents, insisting that these are artificially constructed and of no value whatsoever. Anita Roy, editor of unschooling.ca, believes that these educational practices were created during the Industrial Revolution to cultivate a skilled and obedient workforce. “Building blocks… it’s such a tired cliché,” scoffs Roy, who unschooled all three of her kids, Zaman, 20, Bashu, 18, and Kian, 17, in Nanoose Bay, B.C. And she adds that if students don’t want to learn generally undesirable (but potentially important) subjects such as algebra and trigonometry, that doesn’t really matter because the vast majority of students learn it and then immediately forget those lessons upon graduation. “The burden of proof is on the school system to prove the usefulness of something that’s promptly forgotten,” she says, noting that students can always go back and pick up courses on a need-by-need basis, if they choose to do so.

But Dr. Peter Trifonas, an associate professor in the department of curriculum, teaching and learning at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), worries that unschooling parents are simply abdicating their responsibility and that there’s no solid theory to support the efficacy of these methods. “I’m really uncomfortable with leaving anything open to a blind ignorance and faith that things will go right,” he says. Moreover, Trifonas adds that unschooling students run the risk of being one-dimensional and that kids don’t always intuitively know what they’d like to learn about when they’re not presented with an array of options as they would be in a school setting (although he admits that this can happen to kids in school as well).

And Dr. Myron Dembo, author of Motivation and Learning Strategies for College Success (Routledge) and professor emeritus of educational psychology at the University of Southern California, notes that experiential education alone is not enough to impart higher-level learning. Rather, to form a proper base of knowledge, experiences must be prefaced and followed up with fact-based lessons, readings and other learning tools, and he worries about the gaps that unschooling may leave in a basic knowledge base. Further, Dembo notes that unschooling may produce some adverse consequences not anticipated by all parents who start down this road—that, for example, parents who allow their kids to steer clear of math and science because they don’t interest them are in effect excluding them from further studies and careers in these areas. “As a parent, are you willing to eliminate opportunities for your children? Clearly, some doors will be shut,” he observes.

stepping back into the fold

Still, Ricci insists that a high school diploma is not the only key to unlocking the doors of colleges and universities, calling this a “false worry.” He notes that there are at least 10 different ways to get into post-secondary education without a transcript, including opting for open universities, such as Athabasca in Alberta and Thompson Rivers in British Columbia, or waiting until you’re 19 years old and considered a mature student. But Roy’s middle son, Bashu, certainly didn’t wait that long — he took his first university course at the age of 12. The school—Vancouver Island University—didn’t have any established guidelines for this situation, so it simply asked for a letter from a local principal, vouching for him, and Roy found one who would comply. After getting an A+ in that first class, a philosophy course, Bashu went on to earn 12 credits, taking Japanese and English composition, and then, at the age of 14, decided that he wanted to try out high school to take drama and music with students his age. “Our unschooling didn’t preclude Bashu from going to school. It just meant that it wasn’t coercive and he had a choice,” says Roy.

Bashu, who is now 18 and spends his time composing and performing music, remembers that he looked older than his age and that his university mates assumed he was at least 16. The philosophy course was mainly comprised of discussion and quizzes, with few formal requirements. “I loved it,” he says. Bashu is glad that he went to university so young, remains a fan of unschooling and has no idea what’s next — perhaps more university or college and definitely more music.

Bashu says he had no issues with adjusting to structured educational environments, and Roy adds that unschooled teenagers who knew few boundaries growing up almost always do well when they start working at a part-time job. “Kids, as soon as you give them a paycheque, will do structure,” she laughs. And while there’s little quantitative evidence on the success or failure of unschooling kids when they go on to careers and life, Ricci observes that, at least anecdotally, these students tend to do well. He notes the numerous examples in business, entertainment, high tech and other areas of people who found success only after getting away from the system. “A lot of them are individuals who dropped out of school or talked about how school was an interference and an obstacle in their learning,” says Ricci.

Back at the Molina house, Raquel says that she’s not at all worried about her kids’ prospects down the road. She hopes that they will follow post-secondary educational pursuits — if they choose to do so — and is confident that they won’t encounter serious roadblocks because of their unschooling background. “It’s getting to be more common now,” she says.

Contributing editor Tim Johnson was actually “old-schooled,” a long-forgotten educational practice that involved blackboards, desks in rows and paying attention to the teacher.

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