The Chicago Tribune

For these kids, school is always out

Method of home-school study allows children to learn by pursuing their own interests

By VINCENT J. SCHODOLSKI, Tribune National Correspondent

LAGUNA NIGUEL, Calif. — Riley Brown is 12 and lives a life many of his peers might envy, or perhaps find incomprehensible. 

On any given day, Riley will probably sleep until he is ready to get out of bed and then spend his time doing whatever interests him. Maybe he’ll play his guitar, or go to the park to meet with like-minded friends. Or, maybe he will boot up his computer and start “playing around” with HTML codes. 

His younger brother, Casey, 10, and his sister, Maggie, 5, do more or less the same thing.  And their mother, Deanne, could not be happier.

“I love unschooling,” she said. “It has been the best decision I could have made for me and my family.”

The Browns are part of an approach to education that is called “unschooling” and allows children to pursue what interests them, rather than trying to make them interested in things that interest others.

The concept holds that learning is best done when a child’s interests are engaged, and for a family with the talents and the resources to allow this to happen, great success is possible.

“Unschooling” is a subset of home schooling, which has grown rapidly in recent years.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, about 1.1 million children were home-schooled in 2003, the most recent year for which statistics are available. That is up from 850,000 in 1999 and represents a 29 percent increase.

Education experts estimate that about 10 percent of the home-schooled population is “unschooled,” meaning that there might be as many as 110,000 young people being educated in this way.

A significant part of the growth in home schooling has been among Christian conservatives who shunned public and private schools for reasons that included curriculum, school violence and social trends. These parents often seek highly structured curricula suited to their conservative beliefs.

But those who practice unschooling tend to do so because they believe the school system, be it public or even expensive private, does not allow children to learn to their full potential.

“I think the one reason that stands out from the rest is that I felt that my kids were losing that incredible spark they had before they entered school,” Deanne Brown said.  “As young children, they were curious, imaginative and full of spunk. Learning was natural and fun,” she said. “After being in school for a few years, I saw their natural curiosity, imagination and love for learning being crushed by rules and conditioning. Learning became a task.”

Not everyone is convinced that unschooling is a great idea.

“I think the downsides would be related to teachers who don’t understand putting parameters around children’s decision making,” said Jill Fox, an associate professor of education at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“It’s one thing to allow children to choose to study Amelia Earhart before studying Harriet Tubman, with the clear understanding that both will be studied thoroughly during the school year. It is another thing to allow children to study Muhammad Ali and completely skip over what the state standards or district curriculum require,” Fox said.

“Teachers — and parents — have to keep in mind that children’s decision-making skills are not yet fully developed. They don’t quite understand cause-and-effect and often don’t realize the consequences they may face as a result of their decisions.”

And unschooling is not for everyone, experts say.

“It is not suited either to all kids or all parents,” said Tom Hatch, a professor at Columbia University Teachers College in New York City. “It requires students with considerable curiosity and independence, who come up with and get interested in questions and can sustain some interest in them.”

Several hundred families attended a two-day home-schooling conference that began Friday at an Arlington Heights, Ill., hotel. There they chose between sessions such as one that taught the principles of DNA and another called “Shakespeare Without Fear.”

Winifred Haun of Oak Park, Ill., a mother of three, was among those networking and searching for new ideas at the Home Educators Conference Fund event.

Haun started Northside Unschoolers of Chicago five years ago with 15 families and now organizes events, from support groups to Spanish classes, for 100 families throughout Chicago and the suburbs.

“People are realizing that school doesn’t do what it’s advertised to do,” said Haun, a former teacher in Chicago who said she felt like “an advanced baby sitter” for children who did not want to be in class.

Her experiences and further reading led her to unschooling when her oldest, 10-year-old Athena, was not yet school age.

These days, Athena is into drawing tropical birds, practicing ballet and reading Harry Potter books. Her sister Iris, 4, has taken to writing names and words she likes, such as “princess.” Selene, 19 months, joins her mother and sisters for Girl Scout meetings, trips to museums and a weekly open gym session with other unschoolers.

Any family activity, from reading the gas meter to watching the Olympics, can turn into an educational experience. Math is incorporated into everyday life, something father Stephen Parke, a theoretical physicist at Fermilab, calls “cookie arithmetic.”

The approach is not without its challenges or fears, but the parents believe their decision has made their children independent thinkers.

“To me, learning to think is much more important, especially in the modern age,” Parke said.

Experts say that parents who choose this path for their children are usually well educated and believe that the present primary and secondary educational system is not structured for a world that prizes free thinking, curiosity, imagination and independence.

“I don’t think you can apply that to all schools,” said Hatch in defense of traditional schools. “It’s so hard to predict what opportunities and interests students will have in 20 years, or what the job market will be like in 15 or 20 years from now. I don’t think anybody, schools or parents, can base their instruction primarily on that.”

Most trace the origins of unschooling to an approach devised by educator John Holt in the 1970s. He believed that children could be natural learners, instead of requiring formal schooling.

“A core distinction between these two approaches, it would seem, comes down to beliefs about human nature, or at least the nature of the child and their learning,” said Robert Kunzman, an assistant professor at Indiana University. “Do they learn best following their own interests, or by being carefully led upon a preordained path?”

Parents involved with unschooling argue that modern resources such as the Internet make exploration easy.

There is little, if any, empirical evidence of how unschooled children fare in later life, but home-schooled children are being accepted by Ivy League colleges and other prestigious universities.

Riley Brown of California  is a believer.

“I like being able to have a lot of freedom, which gives me a lot of time to explore my interests,” he said. “I also like not having to get up at 6:30 in the morning and being able to stay up late.”

Regine Verougstraete, who moved to the United States from her native Belgium 11 years ago, elected to unschool her two sons after the older one struggled in regular classes.

“He had lost the pleasure of learning,” she said of now 10-year-old Elliott.

Now he and his 7-year-old brother, Teodore, study at home with mother as the mainstay teacher in their home in South Pasadena, Calif.

Some critics of home-schooling say that it denies children interaction with others and thus blunts their social skills.

Not so, unschooling parents say. Deanne Brown points to regular weekly park meeting with other unschoolers and the fact that all three of her children are engaged in team sports.

Rules for unschooling differ among states, with some requiring children to take standardized tests to measure progress, others asking only that forms be filed with the state and some requiring nothing.

The question of measuring progress is a thorny one among parents of unschoolers. Most do not grade their children.

“We do not take tests, use a curriculum, grades, or punishment and reward systems,” said Deanne Brown. California does not require such measurements for home-schooled students.

“Virginia law requires that home-schoolers provide annual evidence of progress,” said Shay Seaborne, who is unschooling her daughters Caitlin, 15, and Laurel, 12.

“I meet this requirement with results from a standardized test, as that is the least intrusive means for our family,” Seaborne said.

For many students, the first test of their learning in a standardized way comes when they take the SAT or ACT exams for college entry.

Ned Vare and his wife, Luz Shosie, unschooled their son, Cassidy, first in Colorado and later in Connecticut. Cassidy never attended regular schools, and when he took the SATs, he had a combined verbal and math score of 1390 and went on to get a GED with a nearly perfect score. He now is enrolled at Hunter College in New York.

While “unschooled” children may have regular social contact with peers who are involved in more traditional schooling, there appears to be a gap of understanding about their differing circumstances.

“My schooled friends’ opening question is usually, ‘What grade are you in?’” Riley Brown said. “I tell them that I would be in the seventh grade, but it really doesn’t matter. I don’t usually try to explain because they wouldn’t get it if I did.”

Date of Publication: October 22, 2006