Twitter Feed
This area does not yet contain any content.
This area does not yet contain any content.


Entries in unschooling (30)


How Unschoolers Learn Math

The latest issue of the free HoltGWS newsletter tells about the updates I'm making to this site, new books coming in 2013—John Holt: A Celebration of Learning and a new edition of Escape from Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children—and some articles by John Holt about learning math by discovery, his favorite math textbook for beginners, and some good Internet resources I've found for math.

Read it here.


Learning Without Us

A new article in Educational Leadership was brought to my attention: Preparing Students to Learn Without Us by Will Richardson. As I read it I thought, once again, here is an educator willing to entertain this thought as long as the teacher remains in charge of how the learning occurs, in this case by linking a student’s personal interest in something to the core curriculum in whatever convoluted way necessary to achieve the goal.  The main point that John Holt, Ivan Illich, and others make so often—learning is the result of the activity of learners, not necessarily a result of teaching—always seems to get quickly lost in all school reform discussions. Instead, how teachers and schools are altered by technology that can personalize learning becomes the issue, and we ignore the human disruptive innovation—people learning from situations and other people outside of conventional schooling—and focus on the machinery: how technology will make existing schools continue as they are, only better. The important insight provided by Jacques Ellul and later Illich, that schooling itself is a technology used to control a population, is glossed over or not even considered in the rush to claim the latest technology that will change schooling.

However, unschoolers and some alternative schools have, for decades, supported independent learning for children, without using any of the latest educational technology as their justification for doing so. They use people in their families and communities, classes, projects, volunteering, and other opportunities to live and learn; they aren’t being tracked and assessed dynamically through cookies and cameras, but rather engage and discuss their situation with those working with them in order to know how they are doing. Many homeschoolers do use online courses, but I think not nearly as much as they use offline courses and learning opportunities (I wish there were more research about homeschoolers and their use of distance learning compared to how school uses it now and proposes to use it in the future. Does anyone know of such studies?). It is interesting to me that trusting people to decide what, when, how, and from whom they will learn is palatable to most educators only when they can use technology to control and predict what learners are doing. Technology is truly, in this instance, a double-edge sword.

The few dissenters cited at the end of the article give me hope that some in the teaching profession feel they should not be in the people-shaping business—trying to mold individual students to fit into job slots determined by their performance in school—and have not lost sight of a student’s humanity, dignity, and unique powers to learn.

The article starts off, as many do today, by paying lip service to the idea that we are learning all the time and that school interrupts that process. Unschoolers, in particular, can use or take heart from the arguments being made in support of letting learners control more of their learning and, who knows? Perhaps among teachers who think as the dissenters in this article do, we have allies who want to help create a learning society built around democracy and free will rather than a regime of mandatory continuing education, built around the plans of others and controlled through technology. Here are some excerpts to give you the gist of what I’m trying to convey about this article, which can be read in its entirety: Preparing students to learn without us.

The ability to learn what we want, when we want, with whomever we want as long as we have access creates a huge push against a system of education steeped in time-and-place learning. Notes McLeod,


Between adaptive software that can present and assess mastery of content, video games and simulations that can engage kids on a different level, and mobile technologies and online environments that allow learning to happen on demand, we need to fundamentally rethink what we do in the classroom with kids. (personal communication, October 1, 2011)


That rethinking revolves around a fundamental question: When we have an easy connection to the people and resources we need to learn whatever and whenever we want, what fundamental changes need to happen in schools to provide students with the skills and experiences they need to do this type of learning well? Or, to put it more succinctly, are we preparing students to learn without us? How can we shift curriculum and pedagogy to more effectively help students form and answer their own questions, develop patience with uncertainty and ambiguity, appreciate and learn from failure, and develop the ability to go deeply into the subjects about which they have a passion to learn?

. . . ."It requires a totally different skill set on the teacher's part," Stutzman says. "We have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, because we don't know the exact direction that a class will go when we walk in. Depending on student questions, reflections, or activities, our plans could quickly morph into something we never dreamed would happen at the outset."

In other words, it's risk and reward. "It's scary not to know exactly where your students will go if their curriculums are potentially different, and it requires a lot of adjusting," Stutzman explains. "But the benefit is that students get to see our genuine reactions to new discoveries as well as to challenges, and they see us model the learning process together." Students understand that there is no one "right" answer that the teacher expects, that there are many answers, and that the teacher and students will likely discover many of these together.

. . . Assessment changes as well. Donhauser says that the emphasis moves to assessing in the moment rather than at the end of a book or unit. "Rather than having a defined product that I receive from 25 students," she says, "I receive 25 individual assignments with their own unique content, insights, and styles." Using Google Docs, students continually update their progress, and she provides regular feedback. Students also give one another feedback on their plans as they go. Everyone follows a rubric that covers such areas as standards, learning outcomes, artifact explanation, blog posts, learning activities, work ethic, and research.

. . . Despite the promise of personalizing learning and some teachers' best efforts to give their students more agency in the education process, many educators wonder whether the concept goes far enough in preparing students for the wide array of learning opportunities outside the classroom.

Many educators cite an important difference between "personalized" learning and "personal" learning—the latter connotes a deeper degree of autonomy for the learner. Some, like Stephen Downes, a senior researcher at the National Research Council of Canada and a longtime education blogger, see that as an important distinction. "Autonomy is what distinguishes between personal learning, which we do for ourselves, and personalized learning, which is done for us," Downes (2011) tweeted last fall.

. . . It's a potential summed up nicely in the white paper The Right to Learn (Anytime Anywhere Learning Foundation, 2011). The authors write,

We need to shift our thinking from a goal that focuses on the delivery of something—a primary education—to a goal that is about empowering our young people to leverage their innate and natural curiosity to learn whatever and whenever they need to. The goal is about eliminating obstacles to the exercise of this right—whether the obstacle is the structure and scheduling of the school day, the narrow divisions of subject, the arbitrary separation of learners by age, or others—rather than supplying or rearranging resources. (p. 6)




Student Liberation and Childism

I recently learned about this site created by a student, Student Liberation. It is clear, simple, and direct in its stated purpose: "Getting students out of schools and schools out of students."

I especially like its selection of anti-school articles as they cover a wide range of perspectives about schooling—Barbara Ehrenreich, Alfie Kohn, Peter Gray, John Holt, Noam Chomsky, Emma Goldman, etc.—yet they all come together in support of learners being active participants in their learning.

Along these same lines, here is another writer on the side of children getting involved in The War on Kids:

 Are you a childist?

The word is difficult to say, much less get your mind around. Yet Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, a psychoanalyst and biographer who died this past December, felt strongly that it should become an active part of the American lexicon. Indeed, in her recently published book, Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children, she argues that childism — which she defines as prejudice against children — is, and has long been, rife in our society.

Read more:

I can’t wait to read this book!



If College is About Making More Money, You Might Want to Reconsider

Dale Stephens’ Uncollege efforts are, I think, a very positive step in the direction of creating a movement to reclaim higher education for individual enrichment, instead of viewing college as general certification that one is eligible for work. Of course, this flies in the face of conventional media reports that bellow to the masses that unemployment is more horrible for those without a college degree. Dale digs into the conventional wisdom to reveal some inconvenient truths about the costs and benefits of college degrees:

As the New York Times reported last May, while the average unemployment rate of all college graduates may seem low, the rate for recent college grads is up to three times higher, while their starting salaries have sharply declined . . .

For those under twenty-five the outlook is grim: 22% are unemployed and 22.4% are working in jobs that don't require their degree.  The environment college graduates face is frightening.  My friend Jenny wrote a piece in the Times in August called "Generation Limbo," profiling graduates from elite schools who are working as bartenders and collecting welfare checks.  

In response to the article about me in the New York Times last week, a commenter called me irresponsible for suggesting that young people skip college when the unemployment rate is higher for those without degrees.  Ten years ago, this may have been true.  

Today, I think it's irresponsible to suggest to young people that getting a university degree will secure a brighter future.  The reality is that only half of recent college graduates are working in jobs that require their degree, and they are doing so with an average of $27,000 in debt.


In my last post I quoted from Dan Rubin, an adult who was unschooled, and I noted that it was unclear from his writing if he’d graduated college. Helen, Dan’s mom, wrote back to me that Dan does not have a college degree, though he took some college courses. Nonetheless, Dan is “Creative Director for a major international company.” There are other ways to find work worth doing and make a decent living than just by graduating college.


Reflections from an Adult Unschooler

Astra Taylor, a writer and filmmaker, has written a personal essay about growing up as an unschooler, and she reflects upon the influence of Growing Without Schooling magazine on her life. It is nice to know that the work me and my colleagues did is appreciated by those who were directly affected by it, and I really like how Astra understands at a deep level how our culture is increasingly against self-directed learning, particularly for children, and how schooling is dominating their lives more now than ever. This has always been a difficult issue to find allies and support for and, as Astra notes in the selections below, it has become nearly impossible in today's womb-to-tomb schooling climate.

Also, like many home- and unschooled children I know, Astra chooses to go to public school and comes out to unschool again. Reading how she navigated high school and college, moving in and out of school as her heart and ambition move her, shows how many different combinations of learning opportunities can be used instead of the linear, factory-style model of school consumption.

When my mom was doing her stint stalking caribou, books about radical education were in wide circulation. First and most famous was A. S. Neill’s Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, an account of the legendary antiauthoritarian boarding school in England, which sold more than three million copies between 1960 and 1973—an astounding figure. Then there was Paul Goodman’s Compulsory Miseducation (1964), John Holt’s How Children Fail (1964) and How Children Learn (1967), Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age (1967) and Free Schools (1972), Carl Rogers’s Freedom to Learn (1969), George Dennison’s The Lives of Children (1969), and Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society (1970), to name the most influential. In those early days Growing Without Schooling, the magazine started by Holt and published well into the 1990s, came in a brown paper wrapper, as though the subject matter addressed in its pages might be as objectionable to the postmaster or to nosy neighbors as pornography.

These publications were part of a top-to-bottom movement to devise new philosophies of and forums for learning. First there were the “freedom schools” that had been part of the civil rights movement. Next were the hundreds of “free schools” founded across the country committed to child-centered and democratic education. Finally, there was the widespread campus unrest against the corporate multiversity, beginning at Berkeley, which then became part of the movement against the Vietnam War and culminated in the massive student strikes that shook the nation—coupled with the establishment of open universities, where idealistic students and faculty sought to liberate learning from the tyranny of accreditation.

Today, the prospect of a book like Summerhill—one that paints a sympathetic portrait of kids who refuse to attend classes, do schoolwork, or obey authority—reaching an audience of millions seems absurd. Instead we have well-meaning studies like Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting and The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing. These and countless other recent books and articles rightly criticize the current emphasis on testing and tracking, our obsession with “enriching” kids as though they are bags of flour, and our single-minded obsession with climbing to the top of the meritocracy no matter how rigged and meaningless it is to begin with. But in the end they make no rousing or imaginative suggestions of other ways to live and learn. After-school tutoring is OK—just do it in moderation. Ditto for SAT prep classes, sports, and other “extracurricular” activities. These books advise parents to stay on the well-trodden path of standardized schooling, but to travel it a bit slower.

. . . We differed from homeschoolers in essential ways. We weren’t replicating school at home. We had no textbooks, class times, schedules, deadlines, tests, or curricula. Were we fascinated by primates? By rocks? By baseball cards or balloon animals? If so, it was our duty to investigate. My parents eschewed coercion and counted on our curiosity, which they understood to be a most basic human capacity. This is really what the whole debate over compulsory schooling is about. Do we trust people’s capacity to be curious or not? This trust isn’t always easy to muster. The older I get the more astonished I am that my parents had it in such abundance when most of us mete it out as though it were a scarce resource; whereas I suspect the more we dispense trust to others the more we see how deserving most people are of it. After all, have you ever met anyone who isn’t interested in something? Sometimes other people’s interests aren’t fascinating to you, sure—but people always have interests. Have you ever met someone who was incapable of learning? John Holt, who coined the term unschooling, summarized his view this way: “The human animal is a learning animal; we like to learn; we are good at it; we don’t need to be shown how or made to do it. What kills the processes are the people interfering with it or trying to regulate it or control it.”


After enduring some higher education Astra discovers the Albany Free School, whose work and efforts we wrote about and supported at GWS for years (as well as many other radical writers and teachers), and writes about her conversations with Mike Guidice, a young teacher there. Mike notes, after some time working at the Free School, “I am just now starting to understand the intersection of my antiauthoritarian politics and the school.” This, I think, is a very important realization for those of us who have been working in this area for so long: the connections we see as obvious, and that drive us to continue our work, are not that clear to young people who did not grow up with the ideas, books, and trust in their abilities to learn that Astra describes.

Indeed, many of those books and ideas, which were very popular in the sixties and seventies, are now out of print and ignored by academics, so they only exist in little enclaves on the Internet and in society. Most important, as Illich and Holt wrote in the early seventies, education is no longer a personal quest but has become a public commodity we are compelled to consume; those who refuse to partake are considered by the education establishment to be uncooperative citizens and losers who, obviously, need more schooling so they can be made to fit into society. Fortunately, in the United States and elsewhere, we can still be conscientious objectors to compulsory education and help our children, and others, escape the negative effects of schooling. But as Astra notes at the end of her essay, the creation of a new community that supports learning and provides resources for all children to learn instead of focusing resources on schools to control and predict learning, seems to be a public policy that is impossible to achieve.

Growing up, I experienced unschooling as a compromise, the more appealing of the two extremes available in Georgia given my family’s modest budget: staying at home and teaching myself, or going to public school and having my spirit crushed. What I really wanted—what I still want, even now, as an adult—is that intellectual community I was looking for in high school and college, but never quite found. I would have loved to commune with other young people and find out what a school of freedom could be like. But for some reason, such a possibility was unthinkable, a wild fantasy—instead, the only option available was to submit to irrational authority six and a half hours a day, five days a week, in a series of cinder-block holding cells. If nothing else, we should pause to wonder why there’s so rarely any middle ground.

To read Astra Taylor’s essay in its entirety, you can go to the magazine website that published it: or you can purchase the essay as a Kindle Single.