Comparing unschooling to regular schools

Seth Roberts pointed to a The Globe and Mail (a Canadian newspaper) article on unschooling. It’s a touchy topic: the government spends a huge amount of money on schools and your kids spend thirteen years of their lives in them. Thirteen years!

There are a few things in the article that annoyed me enough to write this up. I’m not defending anyone’s idea of unschooling or homeschooling since I don’t know much about them, but I do want to point out some of the crap that people talk about regular schools since I know a bucketload about those.

Kate Hammer’s article is good overall, well worth reading, but it has a few quotes that bug me. First, she gets this right:

Some children thrive in the classroom and others don’t…

This contains a lot of wisdom. A population has people of diverse personality. What works for some might not work for others. Anyone with at least two kids knows this. Our two big kids are now old enough that we can compare styles. Otto (5) is learning in a very different way to Lucy Jean (7). Otto sits at a desk and works on drawing for hours on end, showing his results to us only when he makes something he is proud of. Lucy Jean likes to discuss every step the whole way through. The differences between them are evident across many facets of their lives.



So given that a population of kids has plenty of diversity, it isn’t much of a stretch to say that there are some kids that thrive better in schools and others that thrive better learning at home. There’s plenty of variation in quality for both forms of education, too. Rather than have a central authority mandating a one-size-fits-all education, parents can choose the best system of learning for their own kids. Then they can work on getting the best out of whatever system they choose. They might not get the same answer for each of their children.

The sentence goes on:

…and, despite the best of intentions, the system sorts them into winners and losers. […] Unschooling’s underlying idea is that all kids are winners.

I hate this politically correct ‘everyone is a winner’ idea. I buy that unschooling rejects the relentless grading and ranking of the education system, but calling it ‘all kids are winners’ makes them sound like hippies and makes it easier to dismiss anything interesting they are doing.

But that doesn’t annoy me as much as this quote from Christopher Lubienski:

Another concern more specific to unschooling is if children’s education is formed by their own interests, or solely by those of their parents, there are likely to be gaps.

“Individual children might be happy, but it’s not clear that this makes for an autonomous or well-rounded adult, or for a better community,” Christopher Lubienski, an associate professor at the University of Illinois, writes by e-mail.

Reading the above we have the following areas highlighted:

  • gaps in education
  • autonomy
  • well-roundedness
  • community

There’s an implication here – when Lubienski says “it’s not clear this makes for an autonomous or well-rounded adult, or for a better community,” he’s not comparing it to anything. He’s implying that regular schooling does a better job at this, but he doesn’t call it out in any way we can look at. Was there more to the interview that could have helped us learn more? Any data?

It is plausible that these are areas of concern, but for all systems of education and not just unschooling. Does he think my high school education left me autonomous and well-rounded and part of the community? What a load of garbage. Did he go to a special school?

The bit that makes me laugh the most is the idea of well-roundedness. How do you define a well-rounded individual? I’m sure it doesn’t include the knowledge of calculus and the ability to spout Avogadro’s constant. What about my inability to build trust, fix a flat tyre, cook a steak or finish a project?

Structured learning, with external direction, “can force people to experience things that they wouldn’t otherwise, and quite often find new interests. … Ones that may also have some wider social value.”

This is Lubienski again. Smart answers kept popping into my mind as I read this. 3) I tried to think of ‘new interests’ discovered at school but all I could think of were things I learned from my fellow school inmates to deal with the boredom, things like shoplifting, joyriding, alcohol abuse and drugs. 2) I railed against the notion that a centralized committee can force my kids to ‘experience’ new things. 1) But the thought that dominated was that even if there are good things on offer, it wasn’t worth thirteen years in scholastic prison. I spent those thirteen years being hounded, graded, ranked, controlled and bored.

Mr. Day, an engineer who holds graduate degrees from Oxford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford, lets his daughter’s interests drive most of her learning. That may mean writing Artemis Fowl fan fiction, watching the pop science program Mythbusters or a trip to the Ontario Science Centre.

Thank you, Mr. Day! I never thought of Mythbusters as educational, but now I’m thinking their system of forming hypotheses and testing them is some of the best learning you can get. This is my biggest takeaway from the article – buy some Mythbusters.


4 Responses to “Comparing unschooling to regular schools”

  1. September 15, 2010 at 06:42


    But seriously, sometimes I wish I’d had the ability to really dive into particular areas of interest. I was good at a variety of things, and I feel like I came out well-rounded, but, well, a bit of a dilettante. I’m good at things that have a short ramp between “inept” and “adequate,” and I’m willing to stay at adequate for a while building excellence. Examples: crochet, program management.

    Things that have a long ramp between inept and adequate, though, I’m not so good at. I don’t like being inept. Examples: guitar, coding.

    As it is, on my good days, I feel like I have the ability to nominally relate to a broad variety of people on a large number of topics, and on my bad days, I feel like I’m a poseur in a broad variety of areas. I don’t know if I’d be less of a dilettante if I’d been able to self-direct my education to the topics that fascinated me most when I was young. It’s interesting to think about, though.

  2. 2 Deb Lloyd
    September 15, 2010 at 08:44

    Hey Brent, I welcome your turning a spotlight onto school education. You are, as always, right — right that schools are not a good set up for a significant number of children. This was always the case, but never more so that right now. It has now become a vital issue because today’s kids have grown up in a very different world than any other generation before them. Their playtime/free time has always been totally structured or electronically delivered (left to the television or computer game). This is all unhindered by any timetable. Yet, we still insist on imposing 19th century education models and mid-20th century facilities. This results in…well you mentioned several!!

    Now, homeschooling is very advanced and quite common in the US. It seems to be structured and well designed with lots of support and communication among homeschool facilitators. Yet it is not common or well provided for in Australia. Lebineski is right to some degree in the Australian context. It is common knowledge among teachers that kids arriving to school after being homeschooled for a period will have significant gaps in their knowledge. The teacher is usually Mum or Dad, and if they hated maths…well that is tough luck, they will not teach the kid maths (or not teach them very well.). I think that is the risk he is trying to expose here. He draws a long bow saying that doing the opposite makes them well rounded is nonsense because as we all know, kids can be “unschooled” at school, yet turn out not just OK, but fantastic.

    Whether or not a kid gets new interests is also diminished in today’s public school environment – I agree with you again on that. It takes interested teachers, small classes, leadership opportunities, a rich array of well put together extra-curricular activities to do that…and they don’t exist in the public school system. They are only for the elite as they are offered in private schools. However, at my school (public) kids of both genders do get exposure to cooking, sewing, metal work, wood work, computer programming, CAD, and some other things that we did not when I was at school.

    Mythbusters is good. Also Bill Bryson’s “Short History of Everything” is a great book for building interest and relevance in Science. I use “Man Versus Wild” in Geography – the kids lap it up. Horrible Histories books are good. Kids love blood, sex and gore.

    Finally I will say that this debate about unschooling is very old. There was a school in England which was around for a few decades which let the kids decide what they did and when they did it. They ran classes, often out in the garden when the weather was good, but you didn’t have to go to any classes if you didn’t want to. It attracted kids from progressive families from several countries. It was a very controversial place and was highly scrutinised at the time. Yet it produced a great number of very, very creative thinkers. I will try to find some info on it.

    Must go now.

    Deb. x

  3. September 15, 2010 at 21:05

    Deb, always good to hear your perspective on this.

    Aretae commented on the Seth Roberts post, he’s a blogger I read a lot who homeschools his three kids and he knows what he’s talking about. http://www.blog.sethroberts.net/2010/09/11/unschooling/#comment-514394

  4. September 15, 2010 at 21:08

    Deb, the English school you mention is Summerhill (A.S. Neill). There’s an American school that is similar called Sudbury. I’ve read a book on Sudbury but the Summerhill book won’t arrive for a week or so.

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