Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Case for Unschooling

Unschooling is currently in the news, our children (12 and 15) are unschooled, and the best defense is a good offense, so …

One of the assumptions built into the conventional version of K-12 schooling, private and public, is that there is some subset of human knowledge, large enough to occupy most of twelve years of school, that everyone needs to know. That assumption is false. There is a very short list of skills–reading, writing or typing, and simple arithmetic are the only ones that occur to me–that almost everyone will find worth learning. Beyond that, education involves learning things, but not any particular things. The standard curriculum is for the most part an arbitrary list of what happens to be in fashion–the subjects everyone is required to pretend to learn.

Consider, as examples, English composition, American history, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Each will prove very useful so some people, occasionally useful to more, and almost entirely useless to quite a lot. And, although practically every high school graduate is supposed to have learned each of those things, many, probably a majority, have not--as anyone who has taught college freshmen can testify.

A second assumption is that the way for children to learn things is to be told "this is what you must learn today," assigned some reading, and sat down to listen to a teacher. One result is that children spend most of their time being told things they have no interest in knowing. Another, given the diversity of interests and abilities, is that a third of the pupils in a classroom are bored because they already know what is being taught, a third are bored because they are completely lost, and only the middle third are, with luck, listening, understanding and learning. A sufficiently good teacher can improve those numbers somewhat–but sufficiently good teachers are scarce.

One observed result is that most children regard education as unpleasant work, to be avoided when possible. Another is that schools spend six years teaching things–arithmetic, say–that the average kid could learn in a year or two. If he wanted to. A third is that we end up with high school graduates many, perhaps a majority, of whom do not actually know many of the things they have spent all those years pretending to learn.

There is at least one more thing wrong with the conventional model. Judging sources of information on internal evidence is a very important intellectual skill. In the classroom, that skill is anti-taught. The pupil is told things by two authorities–the teacher and the textbook–and his job is to believe what they say. Here again, a sufficiently good teacher may be able to overcome the logic of the setting and teach some degree of critical thinking–but here again, sufficiently good teachers are rare.

One of the great advantages of the Internet, considered as an educational tool, is that it is so obviously an unfiltered medium, leaving it up to each reader to figure out for himself how much to trust his sources of information. It isn't perfect, but at least it is teaching the right lesson instead of the wrong one.

The views I have been expressing are not based on any extensive surveys, but they are based on experience. I went to a first rate private school, my wife to a good suburban public school. Both of us had a few good teachers and classes, but what we most remember is being bored most of the time. I learned more about the English language reading Kipling's poetry for fun and going through a book or two a day, largely Agatha Christie and her competitors, during summer vacation, than I did in English class. I learned more about political philosophy arguing politics with my best friend than I did in social science.

There are a number of alternatives to the conventional model. The one we have chosen is unschooling–leaving our children free to control their own time, learn whatever they find of interest. I sometimes describe it as throwing books at them and seeing which ones stick. In our case the sticky ones included The Selfish Gene (my daughter at about 12), How to Lie With Statistics (both kids), How to Take A Chance (a popular book on probability theory, of especial interest to my son, at about ten, because of his interest in role playing games), and lots of fiction, much of it intended for adults.

No doubt they will end up not knowing several of the things on the standard curriculum–as will many of those subject to it. But my son has learned more history and geography from books and computer games than he would have in elementary school history classes–and avoided the fatal lesson that learning things is boring work, to be avoided whenever possible. My daughter has some catching up to do in math before she is ready for college–but both kids regard solving two equations with two unknowns (and integer solutions) as an entertaining puzzle.

In the background, as I write this, my daughter is practicing on her harp. Without anyone telling her to.

68 Comments:

At 9:45 PM, February 02, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Word nigga

 
At 10:01 PM, February 02, 2006, Blogger Jadagul said...

It seems to me that the combined weakness and strength of unschooling is that it depends heavily on the child (and the parent's ability to inspire enthusiasm). If the kid has no interest in learning stuff, and no one pushes him to learn the stuff, he'll just never learn it. So, say, someone who has no interest in reading—not uncommon when his parents have little interest themselves—probably just wouldn't learn much of anything.

On the other hand, if a child is motivated, and his parents are supportive in a way that maintains that motivation, this sounds like it could work really well. I know the year I homeschooled was surprisingly productive.

 
At 10:01 PM, February 02, 2006, Anonymous Ben Darrington said...

Very interesting. Can you recommend any books or internet resources on Unschooling?

 
At 10:07 PM, February 02, 2006, Anonymous Jovan said...

School isn't enjoyable, true, but neither is most of what a majority of people do for a living. Public School is - well its true mission, at least - to discipline a populace in preparation for workforce precipitation, modern educators accomplish absurd repetitive assignments which bore people. It’s supposed to bore people, yet their expected to do it anyway. This is the goal of public education.

Don’t forget the need for social skills as well; something Mrs. Ellis might be missing out on browsing the internet 10 hours a day.

 
At 10:12 PM, February 02, 2006, Anonymous Jovan said...

Participation. My mistake.

 
At 12:16 AM, February 03, 2006, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jadagul writes:

"If the kid has no interest in learning stuff, and no one pushes him to learn the stuff, he'll just never learn it."

I agree that it depends on the kid, and to some degree on the parents if the unschooling is home unschooling, as ours currently is. On the other hand, it's much more likely that a kid will be interested in something than that he will be interested in the particular things a school wants him to learn today.

And, of course, there are a lot of kids for whom the conventional model works very badly--including, I suspect, most of the ones not interested in anything.

 
At 12:18 AM, February 03, 2006, Blogger David Friedman said...

Ben Darrington asks for resources.

I'm not really an expert--mostly we've just done it. But you might want to look at John Holt's work. I think he coined the term "unschooling," and the one time I met him, many years ago, I found his views interesting and persuasive.

 
At 3:38 AM, February 03, 2006, Blogger Roy W. Wright said...

David, you have no idea how glad this post has made me. I was just commenting to my wife the other day that I couldn't think of anyone who homeschools, or especially unschools, and whom I respect intellectually. Now I can finally name at least one person!

 
At 8:17 AM, February 03, 2006, Anonymous Tom Courtney said...

While in general I am all for exactly what you are doing, there is one troubling area for me: language acquisition.

I think it is fairly well known that there's a time in a child's life where language acquisition is the easiest - the brain is currently set up to do a lot of it. Afterwards, as the brain develops, things become harder.

Acquiring one's native language is not a problem - the kid just has to be around people who speak it and get a chance to participate. But learning a foreign language is more problematical, unless you're in an environment where many languages are spoken.

Now I am not sure how valuable a second language is. For people who live in Europe, where the language can change when you go 100 miles, probably a lot. For me in Boston, not having French is a minor inconvenience, since we go to Quebec every now and then. But it does feel like I wasted an opportunity not learning some second language when I was the right age for it.

I wonder if some extra care should be taken to take advantage of the limited time offer of superior language learning in a child's life?

 
At 8:44 AM, February 03, 2006, Blogger Larry White said...

To that short list of core skills, the "three R's" if you will, I would add basic logic. Sad to say, however, I am unaware of any school that teaches it as a basic subject.

As to a child's motivation, I can't recall ever meeting a child who didn't want to learn something, even if I didn't think the desired knowlege was of much use. Kids seem to be "hard wired" to meet expectations--but not demands. The greatest influence a parent, or a good teacher, can have is the fundamental expectations they have for the child. Children also seem to be wired to inductive logic, and quickly identify real expectations rather than stated ones.

David, you indicate that you, your wife, and your children, were educated in three distinctly different ways--all with pretty good outcomes. I suspect that you all shared the factor of high basic expectations, probably from your parents, founded on a core belief in your abilities.

 
At 8:54 AM, February 03, 2006, Blogger Carlotta said...

We thoroughly enjoy our "unschooling" times, though we tend to call the process "autonomous education" here in the UK.

For a Popperian epistemology that is often seen as underpinning autonomous education in the UK, there is: www.takingchildrenseriously.com

 
At 9:00 AM, February 03, 2006, Anonymous js290 said...

Unschooling seems like it would work if the parents are more educated than the teachers of the schools that the kids have a choice of attending.

Also, the empiricists in me says people come to the conclusion of unschooling precisely because of the structured schooling they were forced to go through. Do kids really know what they want to know? And, as someone pointed out earlier, the reality of life is doing things you don't want to do most of the time.

Re: logic in grade school. My Philosophy professor argued that the best time to teach philosophy was to grade school kids when they are more inclined to ask "why?" naturally.

 
At 9:39 AM, February 03, 2006, Blogger David Friedman said...

js290 said...

"Unschooling seems like it would work if the parents are more educated than the teachers of the schools that the kids have a choice of attending."

That's an advantage, but I don't think either necessary or sufficient. There are, after all, lots of books and other resources out there to fill in the gaps in what the parents know.

Tom raises the question of learning languages. I don't think that's an issue for home schooling, since there are computer programs and books you can learn from. But it is a problem with unschooling, since most children won't want to put in the amount of effort needed to acquire a foreign language. I'm still waiting for someone to produce a program that makes the process fun--perhaps a video game in which some of the characters talk French, starting with very simple French.

The canonical solution is for the parents to talk to each other in a foreign language when they don't want the children to understand. But we don't seem to have enough secrets from our children to make that workable.

 
At 11:04 AM, February 03, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Several commenters have mentioned that the real purpose of schooling to is to resign people to a fate of boredom and unhappiness for the rest of their lives. And I certainly agree.

Which is exactly why I intend to unschool my children. I want them to really appreciate what's important in life, and not become another medicated, TV-addicted zombie like the average public school product.

Very few people manage to escape a conventional education with their natural sense of wonder and joy intact.

 
At 12:28 PM, February 03, 2006, Anonymous Pete Bessman said...

Word nigga

I don't know if this makes me a bad person, and I'm sorry if it offends --- but I absolutely busted a gut laughing when I read this.

As for the post, it's brilliant. School has been non-stop pain and suffering in my eyes --- I can't wait 'till it's over. I should write a book about my experience, but I doubt it was terribly atypical, and yet it entailed such an overwhelming degree of persistent lunacy that I can't believe I lived through it.

 
At 12:50 PM, February 03, 2006, Anonymous Dog of Justice said...

I consider homeschooling obviously superior to K-12 public schooling. But, correct me if I'm wrong, doesn't it require a larger parental time commitment than is realistically possible for two professionals?

 
At 12:55 PM, February 03, 2006, Blogger primenumbergirl said...

Great post. My kids go to a fairly good suburban school. You know, one of those that everyone wishes that every school could be like. Yet, the crap they are forced to spend their time on is amazing. So much of it is way too specialized to be of much value to anyone not actually pursueing a career in the field. Thus, it has to be dumbed down for the kids, yet they get to believe that they understand the subject. It's just plain annoying. I can see why kids like watching TV, after spending all of their beautiful young lives sitting and listen to some teacher gasp and wheeze about the two party political system or read some lame book they just want to shut down with some mindless activity. I know that if I had to do it all over my kids would never have been educated the way that they were.


On a related topic: I have noticed that people who have been trained with this educational model (sit in a class room and we will teach you "everything" you need to be successful in life) is that once they are out of school they have no desire to ever learn anything again. Or else when they get out in the real world they are totally clueless on how to solve new problems with that don't have formulaic answers. They aren't even linear thinkers, they seem to have lost their ability to conceptualize solutions to problems. Everyone sits around waiting for someone else to tell them what to do. It's like no one knows how to self-motivate anymore. I've never thought about whether this may be due to they way they were educated but maybe it is.

 
At 1:03 PM, February 03, 2006, Blogger Matt McIntosh said...

"Several commenters have mentioned that the real purpose of schooling to is to resign people to a fate of boredom and unhappiness for the rest of their lives."

This reminded me of Paul Graham's essay on How to Do What You Love. It's helped me a lot and I think it's also topical.

 
At 1:05 PM, February 03, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Several things:

Jovan - ouch! I'm glad I don't work with you. Here's a good Paul Graham essay on how the fact that school prepares you to think that work is boring is a bad thing.

David - The easy criticism is that you, your wife, and your children are very unusual people, hence your experience may not generalize.

But I think there is a more complicated and constructive criticism to be made, related to what commenter jadagul said. While its true that much of what is taught in school is useless, there are lots of things which are useful to know but take effort to learn. Essentially there is some up-front effort for a reward that lasts a lifetime. But kids have a high discount rate, and the gratification of the Aha! is not always quick enough or large enough to motivate them to learn these things on their own. Nor is what is fun, or what kids want to learn, necessarily the most useful stuff for them to learn.

Of course, then we have to look at the problems with the other side, with forcing kids to learn something, and we see that they are huge. The effort:reward ratio is terrible - unmotivated kids are bad learners, they tend to learn for the tests and then forget, they understand things superficially rather than deeply, leading to all those ignorant college frosh.

My conclusion then is not that the conventional model is right, nor that teachers (or parents as teachers) should just help the kids to learn what they want when they want. Rather, that the job of the teacher is to help the kids learn what they want *and* motivate them to be interested in things which will be useful, show them how things that seem boring now will be useful for interesting things later, and overcome that high discount rate. (hat tip: Olstads)

Here's an example - I fully support the idea of learning by/while doing. Knowledge gained in context is much more interesting and memorable. But a kid who wants to do X is not going to see that science lessons Y & Z are related. Nor will they necessarily know how to do X, or how to simplify X into X' that a kid their age can do. If you just let them "control their time" and "learn whatever they find of interest", they may give up on X as too hard and go play computer games or read a book, and they are unlikely to learn Y & Z. But if the parent/teacher, using their much broader and deeper knowledge, takes the child's interest in X, directs it towards an X' that is within their abilities, and uses it to teach them Y & Z - that's the model that seems best to me.

But I could be wrong about whether that would work, and I certainly agree that I learned very little that stuck in public school classes, or even college, unless it was so fun that I would have learned it on my own.

Also, the fact that games and books have some educational value does not mean that they constitute an education - just like the fact that cookies have some nutritional value does not mean that they constitute a meal. You override your kid's food instints because you know they'd mostly choose fluff - so why then do you give their educational instincts for fluff free rein? Yes, education is different in that forced food still has nutrition, while forced education loses most of its value. But does that really justify unconditional surrender? Why not the educational equivalent of the airplane spoonful of food, flying around and making exciting noises so the kid will want to eat it?

Also, I'd like to add to your list of benefits that the internet offers. By making it so much easier to find answers on your own (you don't even need to walk to the library), its great for both teaching researching skills, and offering instant gratification, important for those with short attention spans and high discount rates, like kids. And me.

- Patri Friedman (David's public schooled son, who was also mostly bored in school)

 
At 1:11 PM, February 03, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see a lot of comments on how public school turns out sheep who have lost the joy of learning. While there may be some causation in that correlation, note that sheeplike parents tend to have sheeplike kids who they send to public schools. Without randomized trials, it seems premature to attribute the sheepiness of the output to public school's sheepification.

- Patri

 
At 1:25 PM, February 03, 2006, Blogger David Friedman said...

Dog of Justice asks about the time commitment that homeschooling requires for two professionals.

I can't speak from direct experience. My wife hasn't worked since our daughter was born, and my job gives me quite a lot of free time and flexibility.

On the other hand, the unschooling model requires less organized parental input that the schooling version of home schooling. With both parents working, you would need someone to keep an eye on the kids in working hours--perhaps a non-working member of another home schooling couple. The parents are still involved--but in terms of conversation, suggesting books, and the like, not organized instruction.

 
At 5:40 PM, February 03, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about competition?

I wonder about the role of competition. There were a number of subjects where I'm certain I pushed myself harder than I might have because I was to some extent in a friendly ongoing competition with peers. I think a little healthy competition is great for motivation, as long as it's well delimited and never emphasized as the point. It seems like competition is one thing unschooling cannot easily provide, and might anti-teach, possibly in a bad way.

 
At 6:43 PM, February 03, 2006, Anonymous Tom Courtney said...

Don’t forget the need for social skills as well; something Mrs. Ellis might be missing out on browsing the internet 10 hours a day.

This is just a new version of an old canard - when I was a kid, my parents worried that spending all my time reading might be bad for me, since I wouldn't be out with other kids all that much. It turns out they were precisely wrong, the insatiable reading was exactly what I needed to fit into the peer group I eventually chose.

Compare the internet to the incessant readers of yore: there's more social interaction built in, whether it is news groups, blogs, or online gaming. Add in that each generation builds its own social structure for their own condition, and it may turn out to be that not only is 10 hours a day on the internet not bad for the kids, it may well be vital.

By my parents standards, I'm a rude bastard. I interrupt conversations and jump ahead, I insist that people not say knowingly false things when they speak to me, I don't worry a lot about a plethora of details my mom would have considered vital. But for my group, that turns out to be precisely the correct behavior.

So it will go with the next generation, I think. What is important to us might not be so big to them. My parents' Ed Jack Paar addiction became my following of Star Trek becomes young Bill's playing of World Of Warcraft.

 
At 1:24 PM, February 04, 2006, Blogger Meaghan Walker-Williams said...

Thanks for the reminder David. Josh has been reluctant to learn cursive. He just for a letter for his birthday from my aunt. He couldnt read it. I explained the best way to read cursive was to learn how to write it which helped one how to learn it. Since we are into Tolkein he said he also wanted to learn how to wrie that fancy writing he has seen like the elves do. I said well, it looks a bit like Caligraphy. So - without further ado, I shall logg off the computer and as soon as Charles gets home, we are going to buy a beginners caligraphy set as well as a beginners cursive practice book for him!

 
At 6:51 AM, February 05, 2006, Blogger Kyle Bennett said...

"I'm still waiting for someone to produce a program that makes the process fun--perhaps a video game in which some of the characters talk French, starting with very simple French."

Triple Play Plus! has language software that uses games to teach languages. It also has voice recognition to provide feedback on pronounciation.

I used the Japanese version a few times maybe four or five years ago and it was very easy. The voice recognition was spotty but generally worked OK I imagine that's gotten better since.

The games aren't video-game type action games, but more simple, like bingo (select the pictures that correspond to the audio caller's foreign-language words), matching games, that sort of thing.

It's no competition for regualar video games, or even for Leap Frog, but it's enough to take away the drudgery and would probably be entertaining for middle-school age kids.

 
At 7:13 AM, February 05, 2006, Blogger Kyle Bennett said...

BTW, I mentioned Leap Frog above, have you looked at that at all? Their stuff is astoundingly good. I got a Leapster system for my nephew last christmas, and my sister says that he will not put it down - he takes it literally everywhere with him.

He's four, and he's doing fractions and teaching his younger cousin to read. Kids do want to learn, and will do it faster than any pre designed system could imagine if they are allowed to set their own pace, given the tools to keep it interesting, and with just enough guidance to get them over the rough spots and lead them towards what to do next.

 
At 2:28 PM, February 05, 2006, Blogger Jadagul said...

Along the lines of video games to teach languages, when I was younger I had a couple strategy games (X-com is awesome) that could be played in multiple languages. So after I'd played it in English, I tried playing it in French for a while. Don't know that it accomplished much, but it also didn't have that many words and I didn't play it very long.

So maybe take a regular game that's already good, preferably with lots of text (an RPG maybe?) and gradually shift fron English to French or Spanish or Japanese? If the shift is gradual enough, you can probably pick up a fair amount from context. Especially if it's the kind of game you could play several times through, more-translated each time.

 
At 6:58 PM, February 05, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have one question:

Do you or your wife teach your daughter how to play the harp or do you hire some teacher for it?

It seems to me the original post confuses process and concept to some degree. My view of classroom schooling is that it is efficient for average parents to trade their money (or tax money) for the knowledge that school teachers have, or for the time that parents lack to teach their children. As others have pointed out, the fact that the poster and his spouse have more of both and consider the schooling inefficient for them bears little relevance to others.

I don't object much to the point that most subjects taught in high school are probably not that essential to daily life. I did not attend high school in US. However, I, along with a few friends of mine, find the US HS curriculum to be much more fluid than other countries, to a point that many undergrad freshman lack what one would consider basic skills for college education. I am not sure what the poster's opinion on that is.

Finally, there are skills that, IMHO, require external drives. I am a physics grad student, and a former musician. My experience is that, at least for physics problem solving skills and musical instrumental playing, the pupil will be better off with at least some supervision/ external motivation when he/she first starts. It seems to me, schooling can be efficient for the parents with limited amount of resources (no time to be with their kids all day). The comparison between the outstanding achievement of the poster's children to an average school kid is a skewed measurement.

I, for one, also don't think I really learned much in high school, but it did prepare me for better concentration, or tolerance for hard work that is required later on.

 
At 7:51 PM, February 05, 2006, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous asks:

Do you or your wife teach your daughter how to play the harp or do you hire some teacher for it?

We hire a teacher. My wife plays violin and sings, and provides a good deal of additional input on music. Also, my wife and daughter participate in an early music group that meets weekly.

...

My view of classroom schooling is that it is efficient for average parents to trade their money (or tax money) for the knowledge that school teachers have, or for the time that parents lack to teach their children.

Sometimes it is. The point of unschooling isn't that you never learn from anyone else, but that you do so only when you choose to. Unschooling can be done in a school as well as at home--with classes happening when kids want them.

In addition, a lot of learning can be done from books, which are less expensive, more expert, and more convenient than teachers.


...

However, I, along with a few friends of mine, find the US HS curriculum to be much more fluid than other countries, to a point that many undergrad freshman lack what one would consider basic skills for college education. I am not sure what the poster's opinion on that is.

To begin with, a majority of kids don't go to college. Of those that do, a large fraction, perhaps a majority, don't actually need (say) algebra for the things they end up doing. If they do find that they need it, they can learn it.

...

My experience is that, at least for physics problem solving skills and musical instrumental playing, the pupil will be better off with at least some supervision/ external motivation when he/she first starts.

What's wrong with internal motivation? I took piano lessons for a while, under parental pressure, and learned essentially nothing. My daughter takes harp lessons, by her own choice, and loves playing.

I will happily agree that I happen, by pure good fortune, to have the world's most wonderful children. But my observation is that most children are willing to put a lot of time and energy into learning those things that they, for one reason or another, want to learn. And I think most things children put time and energy into end up being educational, one way or another--more educational than most things children are doing because someone else makes them do them.

 
At 2:33 AM, February 06, 2006, Anonymous Mark Torelli said...

Yeah my dad gave me systems of equations when I was like 8, I thought it was a fun puzzle.

The idea sounds interesting, but I'm a little skeptical. I will never send my kids to regular schools. But I believe if I had been unschooled I would have been lazy enough to avoid learning quite a bit that was useful to learn. I definitely needed SOME external motivation.

My plan for my kids, assuming that neither of their parents will have 10 hours a day to devote to them, and assuming that I ever actually make any, is to home school them in a relatively unstructured way, but still with some forced areas of learning. In other words I might say one weekend "you have a week to learn about so and so, go and do it, and next weekend you get to tell me what you learned". To me that's almost as easy on the parent, almost as easy on the kid, but much more certain than unschooling.

 
At 2:38 AM, February 06, 2006, Anonymous Mark Torelli said...

To add to what I said. I also think unschooling may go too far in the other direction as fas as teaching kids how to deal with obligation and responsibility. It's true that one week they may be forced to learn about something they don't care about. But it's also true that sometimes in adult life you have to do things that you don't want to do. Obviously it's not great to teach them that you just have to be miserable all the time, but I believe you can go too far in the other direction.

Something so radically unstructured seems like it runs a heavy risk of producing adults who haven't learned these life lessons.

 
At 8:43 AM, February 06, 2006, Anonymous Joel said...

"But it's also true that sometimes in adult life you have to do things that you don't want to do."

Why? What a horrible attitude, and one that I wouldn't care to pass on to my children. Unless you are talking about taxes. Then I'd agree with you. The main difference between choosing to do things that you don't find appealing in order to fill a basic need and being coerced into a school for 8 hours a day seems to be an obvious one to me.

We use the Robinson Curriculum at our house. It is a self-education curriculum that builds a solid foundation for a life-long "unschooling" paradigm.

The television is a huge limiting factor in any educational environment.

I recommend the experience to anybody. It is such a fantastic experience to spend these years with your kids. There are no social issues if you are motivated to meet up with your local groups. There is a huge diverse group of people out there choosing home education for many reasons. We've made a lot of adult friends through our choice to home educate.

I'd be curious as to how long your kids have unschooled. Did you use something structured in their elementary years?

 
At 8:51 AM, February 06, 2006, Blogger David Friedman said...

Mark Torelli said...

" ... I also think unschooling may go too far in the other direction as fas as teaching kids how to deal with obligation and responsibility."

A couple of years ago, my son organized a weekly D&D game with some other home schooled kids; he was DM. That meant that once a week he had to spend some hours rolling up monsters, planning that week's adventure, etc., and get it done by a particular time. He did it, so far as I could tell reliably, and without our doing any nagging at all.

A year or two back our daughter decided she ought to have a chore and volunteered to take charge of emptying the dishwasher. We sometimes have to remind her, but she does it.

Or in other words, I think life, even the life of a child, will provide situations where something has to be done even though you don't want to do it at the moment.

 
At 2:21 PM, February 06, 2006, Blogger The Sanity Inspector said...

I believe that any sound education is at some point going to require the student to make an effort against his or her natural grain. If kids think that they are supposed to be kept amused in exchange for learning something, that they are supposed to just passively exfoliate like a hothouse blossom, then they will eventually founder on the rocks of real life. The much-maligned techniques of drilling and memorization nevertheless do build cognitive muscle and a deserved feeling of accomplishment that today's edu-fads can't. That's one reason why within a century we've gone from teaching Greek and Latin in high school to teaching remedial reading in college.

The expatriate curmudgeon Fred Reed puts the same argument, though much more crudely.

 
At 3:29 PM, February 06, 2006, Blogger Damian said...

You may also be interested to read Daniel Quinn's My Ishmael, in which he discusses an ideal educational system - children learning from all adults, visiting workplaces as necessary and letting curiosity be their guide. Good stuff.

 
At 3:33 PM, February 06, 2006, Anonymous rehill said...

I was surprised you didn't bring up the problem of the material that is part of the standard high school economics classes. Wher I'm from, that alone would be reason enough to start looking at unschooling

 
At 7:03 PM, February 06, 2006, Anonymous Mark Torelli said...

David Friedman said...

"Or in other words, I think life, even the life of a child, will provide situations where something has to be done even though you don't want to do it at the moment."

The two examples you provided don't support that. Your son was willing to take on responsibility in connection with something he really enjoyed, and your daughter voluntarily took on responsibility. Neither of those "had" to be done.

I think you are looking through the eyes of people, yourself and your children, who are naturally self-motivated, and can't see how this would work for those who are not. I have a lifetime of experience with that particular situation.

I think unschooling may be absolutely fantastic for your children, and I think it would have been an unmitigated disaster for me personally. I suppose then that I'm not disputing the strategy outright, just claiming that it's only one good solution among a few, none of which will be the best choice 100% of the time.

 
At 12:17 AM, February 07, 2006, Blogger David Friedman said...

Mark writes:

"The two examples you provided don't support that. Your son was willing to take on responsibility in connection with something he really enjoyed, and your daughter voluntarily took on responsibility. Neither of those "had" to be done."

Both responsibilities were taken on voluntarily--as most adult responsibilities are. But once taken on, they "had to be done" even when the child didn't want to do them at the moment.

I agree with you that people vary a good deal; I don't have sufficient basis to conclude that unschooling is best for everyone. But I think it is likely to be best for a considerable number of children, not just my own.

 
At 8:53 AM, February 07, 2006, Anonymous Mark Torelli said...

David writes

"Both responsibilities were taken on voluntarily--as most adult responsibilities are"

Except the big one... providing yourself with food and shelter is pretty much involuntary. At least as soon as your parents cut off the charity train. That's the one that got me!

In any case I think I've beaten this horse long enough. Your conclusion is probably correct, as most children have to learn an extreme lack of self-motivation (taught to them in school of course).

So we're in agreement. I hope it works out great for your children.

 
At 9:09 AM, February 07, 2006, Anonymous Mark Torelli said...

Joel said -

"Why? What a horrible attitude, and one that I wouldn't care to pass on to my children. Unless you are talking about taxes. Then I'd agree with you. The main difference between choosing to do things that you don't find appealing in order to fill a basic need and being coerced into a school for 8 hours a day seems to be an obvious one to me."

Sorry I missed this comment before, let me respond. I am basically talking about taxes, and food and shelter, basic needs. As for your last sentence, I do completely agree, it is an obvious difference. I am completely against standard schooling.

 
At 1:58 PM, February 07, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Patri wouldn't like to work with jovan? There's a surprise. Patri lives in a fantasy, where employers are so wise and benevolent, they grant the workers one day a week of unschooling!

 
At 3:30 PM, February 07, 2006, Blogger Dana said...

I've spent the last few months learning economics from books and the internet, and an econ teacher at my school told me I know more than him. That's one of the advantages of unschooling: you're not limited by the knowledge of an individual; you have as much information as you desire at your disposal.

Another, given the diversity of interests and abilities, is that a third of the pupils in a classroom are bored because they already know what is being taught, a third are bored because they are completely lost, and only the middle third are, with luck, listening, understanding and learning.
You teach college. In high school, it's more like 10%, 80% and 10%.

 
At 1:35 AM, February 08, 2006, Anonymous rws1st said...

What do you think of the Sudbury valley school model? How did you find that to compare to Montessori?

 
At 5:11 AM, February 08, 2006, Anonymous Julius Blumfeld said...

We have tried both unschooling and more formal home ed.

The problem we found with unschooling was that the lack of structure meant that very often both the children and their mother felt as though they were just drifting along without much progress. They ended up getting up late and just blobbing along. The more formal approach with journals, work books and assigned times for work ("Sums from 7.30 to 8.30, English from 10.00 to 11.00 etc) seems to make everybody feel more secure - which is a virtue in itself.

 
At 11:54 AM, February 08, 2006, Blogger David Friedman said...

rws1st said...

"What do you think of the Sudbury valley school model? How did you find that to compare to Montessori?"

The Sudbury model has two elements--freedom and democracy. I approve of the former, have mixed views on the latter, for two reasons.

1. Part of the idea of a free school/unschooling approach is that the student gets to decide what he wants to learn. But in a Sudbury School there is, in effect, one compulsory course--small group politics. If you don't spend quite a lot of time on that, other people make decisions important to you for you. Small group politics is a useful skill, but not one that every child should devote the equivalent of a full year course every year to.

My estimate is that, in the Sudbury model school we were associated with for eight years, as of the point at which we left, the average student was spending five or six hours a week in judicial committee, school meeting, and the like. Of course, the figure might be substantially smaller for a larger and better functioning school.

2. The Sudbury model, in which the school is run mostly by majority vote of students and staff, is vulnerable to the usual risks of democratic breakdown. In particular, a coalition that can get control of the school's internal judicial system has a great deal of power to control everyone else--bullying with official support.

Montessori, although interesting, isn't really an unschooling model. Our daughter was briefly at a local Montessori school and left at the point when we thought she was ready to learn to read and they didn't. Of course, Montessori schools vary quite a lot among themselves.

 
At 3:43 PM, February 08, 2006, Anonymous Laurie said...

As to the foreign language topic above, my first encounter with that was 10th grade. Not what you'd call the best age to acquire a foreign language. ;) I doubt you'll find many K and 1st grade (the optimal age, they say) foreign language classes. Instead, they spend 4 years teaching the basics of reading. My son, unschooled, taught himself how to read. I honestly don't know how he did it. I know that all he could read at age 4 was his name. And at age 5, he's reading chapter books and comprehending them. If I had to give a level, I'd say he could put some 5th graders to shame. Instead of sitting down and being forced to spit out "aaaa...A is for Apple", he figured it out on his own and very quickly, compared to conventional schools. What's the difference? Is my kid a genius? Nope. He *wanted* to learn how to read and he did. And I have to believe he has a lot more self confidence in learning that on his own than sitting in a classroom being taught the same thing the next kid is. What sense of accomplishment is involved in that?

The only thing Cooper could find to nay-say was the lack of socialization in homeschooled kids. I actually laugh out loud whenever anyone brings that up. My kids are around adults all day - the grocery store, servicemen that come to the house, the car mechanic, etc. They're not stuck in a room with people their own age who don't speak well either. My kids amaze adults with their language skills. This, again, is not because they're genius kids. This is because their environment allows for it and encourages it.

We love unschooling and my kids are thriving with it.

 
At 6:02 AM, February 09, 2006, Blogger Andrea said...

Hi! The 3rd carnival of unschooling is up here:
http://atypicalhomeschool.net/resources/educational-theory-and-philosophy/carnival-of-unschooling-3/
and you're in it. ;)

 
At 6:40 AM, February 09, 2006, Anonymous JoVE said...

Well put. As someone who has taught freshmen university students (from good school, with supportive parents, etc etc) and been sorely disappointed in their ability to judge the value of sources, I wholeheartedly agree.

 
At 9:00 AM, February 09, 2006, Blogger Anthony said...

Joel said:

>"But it's also true that sometimes
>in adult life you have to do
>things that you don't want to do."

>Why? What a horrible attitude, and
>one that I wouldn't care to pass
>on to my children.

I don't like cleaning my house, or buying groceries, or doing laundry. But these are things I *have to* do if I want to have a clean house (fsvo clean), be able to cook at home, or wear clean clothes, all things which I do like.

I generally won't do things I don't like to do, unless they are instrumental to goals I do like (except paying taxes and obeying traffic laws, but even those are instrumental to staying out of jail), but there are many unpleasant things in life which are necessary to deal with to have the pleasant things.

Children need to learn that sometimes, the unpleasant must be endured to get to the pleasant.

 
At 10:28 AM, February 09, 2006, Blogger David Friedman said...

"Children need to learn that sometimes, the unpleasant must be endured to get to the pleasant."

I agree.

And they will learn that, because they will be pursuing their own goals, and achieving those goals will sometimes require doing things they don't want to do. To take a minor example, tuning a harp isn't fun--but it is necessary if you want to enjoy playing it.

Let me put the point more generally. We want children to learn what the real world is like. One way is to put the child in an artificial world and give it features that you think the real world has--homework assignments that have to be done because the child is ordered to do them, not because they are a means to accomplish something he actually wants to accomplish, but that are supposed to teach him the need to do things you don't want to do.

The other way is to put him in the real world--let him actually try to achieve his goals, and learn what is needed to do so.

 
At 10:49 AM, February 09, 2006, Blogger barriogirl said...

The problem is that most colleges don't accept an "unschooling" transcript. I was a home schooler for many years. Because my son wanted to go to Caltech or Harvey Mudd College I was forced to get creative with school. I enrolled him in a community college at 11. At 16, he is a high school student at HMC. Although I think he has a good chance at getting accepted to Caltech and HMC, there is no guarantee. This is why I chose the path I did. I love unschooling because it's not as stressful as conventional school but the highly competitive schools aren't too keen on unschooling. This has been my experience at least.

 
At 8:51 PM, February 09, 2006, Anonymous Adam Rabie said...

I wish you were my father.

I was a victim of the public education system, which motivated me to do nothing other than pretend to learn.
I didn't even know what science meant until i dropped out university and learned who Karl Popper was.

The internet has been my number one education tool and has definitely helped rapidly and efficiently increase my knowledge. I have been out of school for one half years, and have learned more on my own than i could've with 20 (if even) years of public education.

The problem is that students get better and better at beating the tests rather than retaining or comprehending the information. This is heavily due to poor teaching, but methodical problems also bare a large blame.

Students, whose goal is to get good grades, achieve their desires more efficiently by just conquering the tests. This means students are most likely to put an emphasis on studying to do well for a particular type of test to be taken on one specific day. Why know the information a week later? This emphasis obviously most often sacrfices the student's motivation to retain or comprehend the material.

Over the years the problem only gets worse because the student evolves and gets better at beating the system. That is why so many kids get through school without knowing a thing. Even those who get good grades. I got 90's in courses i knew jack all about.

Also, i agree that if we have to have an instituted curriculum, then, the focus should be on the fundmantally important subjects that will be diversly applicable. These include, in no particular order: probalitiy theory, parts of economic theory, logic, evidence evaluation and reading-writing.

 
At 5:38 PM, February 10, 2006, Anonymous Loudius Fubqua said...

Yes, but what about the social environment?

 
At 9:10 PM, February 10, 2006, Anonymous Linda said...

Let me put the point more generally. We want children to learn what the real world is like. One way is to put the child in an artificial world and give it features that you think the real world has--homework assignments that have to be done because the child is ordered to do them, not because they are a means to accomplish something he actually wants to accomplish, but that are supposed to teach him the need to do things you don't want to do.

The other way is to put him in the real world--let him actually try to achieve his goals, and learn what is needed to do so.


Oh, very well said!

 
At 12:08 AM, February 13, 2006, Blogger Russell said...

As for socialization, in school, it's called "talking in class" and is discouraged. Unschooling socialization involves the kid being out in society. School socialization involves the kid being surrounded by a random selection of kids all his own age. And that prepares him for WHAT?

 
At 7:58 AM, February 14, 2006, Anonymous kris said...

What most floors me in criticism of unschooling is the assumption that children don't want to learn, or will prove to be too lazy to learn, or whatever. Anyone who's ever watched a toddler knows that curiosity and the desire to master a task are inborn in human beings.

My husband dropped out of high school. He was bored stiff. He opted to work as an auto mechanic instead, having learned about engines from his dad and on his own by tinkering, taking engines apart and rebuilding them, etc. He didn't learn to do much of anything in school, not even to read--he learned on his own because, at the age of around 4 or 5, he wanted to read his dad's magazines on steam engines.

When he decided he wanted more schooling, he got his GED and started taking college classes. His lack of motivation in k-12 did not translate to a lifelong lack of motivation. Today he has a PhD and is a research scientist--no thanks at all to public schooling--hard to think of a profession where curiosity and the desire to learn is more of a prerequisite.

He spent a lot of his childhood and adolescence refusing to go to school, proving his teachers wrong about various matters using library books, and being bored when he WAS in school. Yes, he had to take remedial classes when he first started college. But so what? Then he was ready--there were things he wanted to achieve, and he set about doing what he needed to do to get there.

I don't think he's unique. I see my granddaughter immersing herself in, say, the study of ladybugs--observing them in a jar, getting books out of the library, drawing them, etc. She hadn't shown much interest in reading, but suddenly she's changed her mind about that--she knows she needs to learn in order to read Harry Potter!

So I just don't get that assumption that kids must be forced to learn, or forced to learn certain subjects, or forced to do rote memorization (she's learning her times tables just fine; repetition through LeapPad, problem-solving, etc. is doing the trick without the tedium of memorization). I believe that if the child's natural curiosity and desire for mastery of knowledge or specific tasks are not killed off, she will be more than willing to endure some unpleasantness in order to achieve the eventual goal.

 
At 11:36 PM, March 17, 2007, Blogger MensaRefugee said...

Unschooling will never work in RL as policy because too many people cannot stand others getting ahead. School is the great normalizer - the stars are forced to perform below their level. And the great majority is happier than they would be otherwise.

They may believe themselves to be unhappy now, but I wonder if they would still root for a solution if they saw 15 year old self taught engineers, while their own little darlings (or themselves) cannot master Algebra till 16.

 
At 1:52 PM, August 25, 2007, Blogger Jonathan said...

tom courtney: "But learning a foreign language is more problematical, unless you're in an environment where many languages are spoken."

In Europe such an environment is not uncommon. In Catalonia, where I live, most people can and do speak both Catalan and Spanish. English and French are often encountered, and tourists can be heard speaking various other languages. My six-year old son has some understanding of the four languages I mentioned -- though admittedly he goes to a conventional school and is taught three of them formally.

Even in the USA, there are many Spanish speakers and smaller minorities speaking many other languages.

My mother learned sign language as a child, to communicate with an adult member of her family.

 
At 2:09 PM, August 25, 2007, Blogger Jonathan said...

In general I agree very much with the points made against conventional schooling, though I think some kind of school would suit many people (and children) better than keeping the children at home all the time.

Your criticism of the Sudbury model (too much democracy!) is interesting. To some extent the practice of democracy should be educational, but I suppose it's possible to overdo it. In which case, I think such a school could tone down the element of democracy without losing its advantages in other respects.

 
At 9:56 PM, May 11, 2008, Blogger abigail said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 10:48 PM, May 11, 2008, Blogger David Friedman said...

(This is being added to the discussion long after the original post)

"The problem is that most colleges don't accept an "unschooling" transcript."

At this point, our unschooled daughter has been accepted by Oberlin and St Olaf and is on the waiting list for Vassar, which is her first choice.

It's true that she was turned down by several other schools and that some of them seemed to have a hard time figuring out how to evaluate a home unschooled student. But they did have SAT scores, essays, a grade from a college course she tool last summer, a very long list of books she had read and, in most cases, an interview.

 
At 8:45 AM, January 22, 2009, Blogger 海賊王 said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 11:14 PM, March 16, 2009, Blogger moto said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 1:25 PM, October 11, 2011, Blogger P Flooers said...

Thanks for this essay. I've often said the timeline of industrial education is arbitrary, as is the curricula. Once you glimpse the truth of just how arbitrary it all is, that reading the face of a clock at six years old or learning cursive at nine--for instance--is arbitrary and does not make children more intelligent, you see the naked emperor plainly. Industrial education does not make children smarter. Its just a thing we inflict on children and it is completely unnecessary.

 
At 5:33 PM, October 11, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The greatest challenge is knowing how much more I could do if I had the discipline and focus to provide a richer environment, knowing their extraordinary potential and letting it die on the vine...seeing the same for myself - how much more I could live up to if I would just motivate. This in itself as an attitude from their parent might poison them. I feel lost a lot and I feel this is the right road, just one with many paths. The road to school is not right for us. My spouse feeds them affirmation. I watch and worry a lot. I recently read my son a list of my dreams for him. The next day he sat to learn script and handed me a paragraph an hour later. This is the sort of common event that feeds my faith. Yes, in stages, they read, they do math, they self-assign tasks, they tend to the animals, and everyone we meet calls them smart. Sites like this ease the fear. I spend a lot of time in schools. I am quite clear we are not going there, and not for religious or political reasons, rather simply for the erasure of the self that is the institution. My children do not need to get institutionalized. Thanks for this site.

 
At 12:59 PM, December 31, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Believe it or not, I traveled the path of "unschooling" without knowing it at the time. I was a child in the 80s when many parents didn't know what homeschooling was. I was a very spirited, intelligent kid. But I hated public school with a passion. All the bullying, social drama, and compulsory learning of meaningless information made no sense to me, even in grade school.

So, I became a truant more often than not. I found ways to skip school and stay home. Both my parents often worked and they didn't force me. They tried but gave up because of my strong will.

What did I do with my time. I kept my school books at home. Basically, I would memorize them in a few weeks. But I spent most of my time watching TV programs and creating activities for myself. I was at home alone during the day.

I would be out for a whole month before I went back for a week or two. It made it more difficult to be there. But my academics skills were so advanced that I was going to be switched two grades up. But I got cheated because of my poor attendance. It doesn't matter because I would have still skipped.

Fast forwarding to the present. I don't regret it a bit. I learned more about life and TRUTH by avoiding the useless 40 hour "work" week of public school. The majority of information that gets pounded in your head at school is forgotten because it is never used. Some people try to pass off the myth that the information grows your brain and makes it wiser. That's false. Academic knowledge does no such thing. Call it worldly knowledge. Wisdom comes from life. I call it biblical knowledge. And it remains separate from man's knowledge completely.

I truly believe that the world is designed to keep people broken and led astray. Homeschooling is natural. Public schooling is not.

 
At 1:00 PM, December 31, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, it's nonsensical to think we are all here for the same purpose. Or to fit the same mold. Some people are meant to read. Some people aren't. It is the reason why we see so many miserable people in the world. Too much controlling of people's will. Live and let live.

 
At 10:54 PM, January 04, 2013, OpenID amyleebell said...

I spend a lot of time researching famous home scholars of the past, such as the Wright Brothers, George Washington Carver, Alexander Graham Bell, and Ansel Adams (So far, I have researched 14 homeschoolers, all of whom many of you would recognize by name). I have found that most of these people had very little formal schooling, but what they did have was an obsession. The Wright Brothers were obsessed with flight, Alexander Graham Bell was obsessed with sound, and so on and so forth. Initially I was surprised to find that they did not all have liberal educations, but as I pondered these historical figures and their influence on society, I came to the conclusion that a liberal education does not mean much, except on paper.

 

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