Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Home Unschooling: Practice

One point I should have made at the beginning of the previous post is the distinction between unschooling and homeschooling. Most home schooling is not unschooling--the parents have a curriculum and are following something closer to the conventional model than we are. And one can do unschooling in a school. Our kids were in a very small private school modeled on Sudbury Valley School for some years. Eventually problems arose, we switched from school unschooling to home unschooling, and on the whole found it more satisfactory. Hence the titles of these posts.


When our daughter was five, she was going to a local Montessori school. Her mother thought she was ready to learn to read; they didn't. So Betty taught her to read, using Doctor Seuss books. Our son, three years younger, observed the process and taught himself. We heard about the local Sudbury school, new that year, brought our daughter over to visit. She decided she preferred it to the Montessori school, so we shifted her. A few years later we added her brother, a few years after that shifted to home schooling.

The Sudbury model includes classes if students want them. When our daughter was about ten there was a class, lasting somewhat over a year, in math. It started assuming the students knew nothing, ended with the early stages of algebra. That is pretty much all of the formal instruction either of them had. In addition, we required them to learn the multiplication tables, which are useful to know but boring to learn. That, I think, was the closest thing to compulsory learning in their education.

How did they get educated? They both read a lot, and although some of the books they read were children's books, pretty early they were also reading books intended for adults. When our daughter was about nine we were traveling and ran out of books for her to read, so she read the Elizabeth Peters books her mother had brought along—and liked them. A few years later our son, about eight, went everywhere carrying the big one volume edition of Lord of the Rings.

Betty remembered having liked and learned from How To Lie With Statistics--actually about how not to be fooled by statistical arguments--so we got a copy and both kids liked it. Our son likes D&D and other games with dice rolling, so was interested in learning how to figure out the probability of getting various results. It turned out that the same author and illustrator had produced a book on simple probability theory—How to Take a Chance—so we got it and he read it multiple times. The result was a ten year old (I'm guessing—we didn't keep records) who could calculate the probability of rolling 6 or under with three six-sided dice. For the last few years his hobby has been creating games. At the Los Angeles World Science Fiction Convention he had an interesting and productive conversation with Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson games concerning a game Bill had invented; currently one of his ambitions is to get a board game commercially published by age sixteen.

I am fond of evolutionary biology, so recommended The Selfish Gene to my daughter. She liked it, found the approach intriguing, and read other things. Currently she is waiting for me to finish The Moral Animal so that we can discuss it. She also likes economics. At this point she has audited four of the classes I teach at the law school, following them at the level of the better students. She also has her own footnote in one of my articles, crediting her with a significant point she contributed to it.

Both kids spend a lot of time online. We discovered that Bill had taught himself to type when the family was playing a networked game on the home network—Diablo or Diablo II—and misspelled words started appearing on our screen. He needed to type because he played games online and wanted to be able to communicate. Later he wanted to learn how to spell so that he wouldn't look stupid to the people he was communicating with. His sister spends a good deal of time on World of Warcraft, some of it writing up battle reports and other essays to be posted on suitable web sites. She too wants her writing to look good and so consults, usually with her mother, on how best to say things.

I am fond of poetry and know quite a lot of it. When our daughter was little, I used it to put her to sleep. Sometime thereafter we were driving somewhere at night and heard a small voice from the back seat reciting "Lars Porsena of Clusium, by the nine gods he swore"—the opening lines of "Horatius at the Bridge"—in a a two year old’s lisp. She now knows quite a lot more poetry. When I put my son to bed—my wife and I take turns—we generally talk for a while, then he asks for some poems.

A few years back, I read and recommended to my daughter Duff Cooper's excellent biography of Talleyrand. She noticed the references to Talleyrand's memoirs and decided that, since some of her writing involved politics, it would be interesting to learn about it from a world class practitioner. I found her an English translation; she is now part way through the first volume.

Some years ago our daughter decided she was seriously interested in music. Since then she has participated regularly in two choirs--one at her mother's church, one specializing in early music--and taken harp lessons. She practices because she wants to, not because we make her. She is thinking of majoring in music in college, then trying to get a job as an editor. As some evidence of her qualifications, she has edited some of my manuscripts and done a useful job. Our current plan is for her to do some volunteer proofreading for the firm that published my novel.

But the largest part of their education, after reading, is probably conversation. We talk at meals. We talk when putting one or the other of them to bed. My daughter and I go for long walks at night and spend them discussing the novel I'm writing or the characters she roleplays on World of Warcraft.

Our most recent concern has been getting our daughter, now 17, into college. She doesn't have grades, she doesn't have a list of courses taken. She does have a list of books read—still incomplete, but already in the hundreds.

Without grades she needed another way of convincing colleges of her ability, and standardized tests were the obvious solution. She spent some time studying for the SAT exams, but enormously less than the time she would have put in on those subjects in any conventional school, did extremely well on the verbal, tolerably on the math; her combined score is well within the range for the students at the very selective liberal arts colleges she plans to apply to. Just to play safe she has now taken the SAT exams again, after spending a little more time on math, part of it solving pages of simple equations I produced for her. To keep it interesting, I included a few that no value of X solved, a few that all values of X solved, and a few that reduced to 1/x=0.

Many schools now require two of the SAT II achievement tests—again especially significant for a home schooled student. It turns out that "literature" is not, as I feared, a test of what you have read but of how well you can read, and she reads very well. For a second one she chose American history, read all of Paul Johnson's A History of the American People—well written and opinionated, hence not boring—plus part of a book of primary source material. She spent a good deal of time in the week before the exam using Wikipedia to compile her own time line of Presidents and what happened during their terms. The results of both exams were satisfactory.

What is the result? Our daughter will enter college knowing much more about economics, evolutionary biology, music, renaissance dance, and how to write than most of her fellow students, probably less about physics, biology, world history, except where it intersects historical novels she has read or subjects that interest her. She will know much more than most of them about how to educate herself. And why.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting reading.

The seemingly infinite boredom of schooling is still fresh in my memory. A truely staggering waste of time.

My bachelors education was slightly better, but its biggest redeeming quality was its noncompulsory attendance. It wasnt until i started my masters that i started attending classes with the intent of learning something every now and then.

Regardless of the drawbacks the alternatives might have, there is definitly a lot to be gained for some people compared to the mainstream system.

Tim of Angle said...

I have always been struck by the resemblance of a modern school to a factory based on the assembly line. There really hasn't been any serious advance in educational technique since the introduction of the textbook in the mid-fifteenth century. We have the technology to do better.

I've always thought that the British University system using tutors, lecturers, and examinations for degrees was superior to the German system adopted by the United States. Perhaps it's not too late to fix that.

Anonymous said...

If "editor" means copy editor, jobs in that field are getting scarce. I've worked for a couple of decades as a copy editor, specializing in scientific and scholarly titles. I used to work for a large scientific publisher, but about five years ago, they decided to stop employing in-house copy editors. Instead, they outsourced their copy editing to compositors overseas. I still do freelance work for them on a few "boutique journals," which means "journals copy edited by a native English speaker." But most of their journal articles are not so edited.

Over the past few years, I've developed a very good relationship with a compositor located in the United States, and have edited quite a few books in such areas as philosophy, classics, and history, many of them for Cambridge. I have about as much work as I can make time for. So I earn enough to get by on. But it's not a highly paid position, and of course there are no benefits—in particular, no medical benefits. And I can't expect my income to increase significantly, because I'm at the top of the pay scale for my particular occupation.

I admire someone who wants to edit, and I don't necessarily want to discourage your daughter. But she won't earn large amounts—certainly not enough to send her own children to the kind of college where you're sending her—and she'll face the usual income fluctuations of freelance work, so if she's not comfortable with keeping several months' income in the bank as a cushion against fluctuations, she probably will be financially stressed at regular (or irregular) intervals. So she should think carefully about whether this is the job for her, in practical terms.

Anonymous said...

The most common objection to home unschooling I've read, and the one that keeps bugging me is, "what if the child does not display much natural curiosity and spends his time playing passively."

While curiosity is certainly a naturally evolved trait for children, toys also evolved to tap into children's psychology and I'm pretty sure they learned how to "cheat". For example, it is not unthinkable that television satisfies the instinct to play and discover without actually fulfilling its original goal.

Have you ever worried that a child did not take enough interest in "serious" material or felt the urge to impose a specific study because of its steep learning curve?

Anonymous said...

Another very good post. Our experience seems to mirror yours to a great extent. While the particulars are different, our children are following their interests. For me there are few pleasures that can equal seeing your child excel at what they love.

- p said...


You wrote: “Our most recent concern has been getting our daughter, now 17, into college.”

The way this is stated, it begs the question: Does Becca want to go to college?

If so, why?

Also, in what way (or to what degree) are the educational experiences at colleges under consideration like the experience of being unschooled? Do the colleges follow a conventional structure, or support unconventional styles of learning?

I realize that the first two questions, especially, might be too personal as stated. The general theme is that I’m curious about why you feel the college experience – or the colleges under consideration – would be valuable after having unschooled.

I don’t ask to criticize. The perception that college is a much more traditional environment than unschooling seems reasonable, and I was hoping you could elaborate on how you’ve resolved the apparent conflict.

Taylor Conant said...


I share patrick's curiosity about why, after your children have spent so much time in a non-traditional learning environment, you now are trying to help one get into a traditional learning environment, one which I've found personally over the last few years to be incredibly antithetical to the virtues of seeking out truth and knowledge? I'd love to hear more about that, perhaps you've got an answer in another planned post.

On another, somewhat related note, I would like to ask you and any of your more informed readers who are following this: have you found any good methods for teaching younger children foreign languages?

I appreciate the "unschooling" method you've been discussing here because it allows for a level of autodidactism which generally means the child will be more interested in what they themselves choose to learn, thus increasing the likelihood that they will be motivated enough to actually learn the subject. Recently my youngest sister, age 10, expressed interest to me in learning Spanish. She knows her older siblings have all had exposure of various sorts to foreign languages in middle school, high school and college and she seems to want to get a jump start on learning all of this. But having never learned a 2nd language very successfully myself (of course, I was always instructed, against my will at the time, in public schools on the subject), I don't know where to point her.

I've been considering textbooks, audio-cd programs and other things. Does anyone have a good suggestion about resources for younger children interested in teaching themselves a foreign language (probably most important to speak it, then work on reading and writing it)?

These posts have been fascinating David, if you have more to share on the topic I'd love to read about it.

jimbino said...

I was traditionally schooled in excellent Chicago suburban schools and second the opinion that, for all their excellence, they still left me often bored, sometimes having to sit through classes that I could actually have taught. Though my parents taught me to read at three, which stood me in good stead, I now sense certain deficiencies in my education that I would attempt to correct in education of my own children, if I had any.

Though now a physicist, I wasn't really exposed to math until I found a cast-off slide rule in an alley trashcan at age 10. That accident really changed my life, when my parents, who had no idea how to use such a tool, arranged for counseling from a math professor friend. But now, much older, wiser and multi-lingual, I recognize that I have suffered from a lack of early intense exposure to math and foreign language. I can’t help feeling that there are certain things that a child must be exposed to very early if he is to make good progress later on, and those include reading, math, foreign language, music and chess.

Topics like geography, history, social studies, keyboarding, socialization and even sports can all be tackled much later with little, if any, loss.

David Friedman said...

Arthur asks:

"Have you ever worried that a child did not take enough interest in "serious" material or felt the urge to impose a specific study because of its steep learning curve?"

The closest to that is the case of our daughter and math. She is quite good at it, doesn't much like it--although both her parents do. I suspect she would enjoy it if she spent enough time to be comfortable with it.

But that's up to her--and there are lots of other things to do in the world. If she ends up doing economics seriously, which is possible, I expect that at some point she will decide she needs more math and learn it.

On the more general issue of unmotivated kids, I simply don't have enough data. But I should add that we don't watch television--a policy that goes back long before we had children.

The last time I bought a TV would have been about thirty years ago, when the Atari video games, which used a television as a monitor, came out. I got one, attached it to my old and unused television, couldn't tell which direction the tanks were pointing, so bought a new TV.

That ended up in a closet once computer games replaced the Atari, and was left behind at our last move more than a decade ago. I prefer to waste my time online--it's more fun and more educational.

David Friedman said...

Patrick asks about why we want our daughter to go to college. Part of the reason is that there are things she now wants to learn--especially music--that we aren't competent to teach and that it would be easier to learn in a college environment than to teach herself.

But the main reason is that we think, and she agrees, that it would be good for her to be in an environment with lots of other smart people her age.

And if she finds she doesn't like it, she can always quit, come home, and look for an editing job.

He also asks about the comparison between college and unschooling. The similarity is that, in many colleges, almost all classes are ones the student chose to take. One of our daughter's criteria in choosing a college is the absence of a compulsory core of courses that everyone has to take.

David Friedman said...

Taylor asks about learning languages. Our daughter tried, for a while, to learn French using a computer program (and help from her mother, whose French is better than mine but well short of fluency). It never really worked.

This past summer, she took a course in Italian at the university where I teach; they have a "Young Scholars" program that lets high school age kids take college courses. She learned a lot and, I think, enjoyed it.

On the other hand ... . Of the languages I've studied the one language, Italian, that I taught myself out of a Berlitz book I think I learned about as well as the three (French, German, Latin) that at various points I've taken courses in, in high school or college. Of course, that isn't saying very much, since I'm not very good at any of them.

Glen said...

On self-learning languages: I highly recommend the "pimsleur method" tape or cd-based series for getting conversational in a new language.

It does nothing for the ability to read and write and it's expensive but totally worth it.

(You can get a Pimsleur course for about half price used via Amazon, and sometimes you can find an "intro" package that just has the first 8 lessons if you want to try-before-you-buy.)

Anonymous said...

The fastest way to learn a language is to find some people that speak it and converse nearly exclusively with your hands, feet and the new words you've learned.

If such people are unavailable, or the ones that are have a bad personality, second best is to meet somebody online that is fluent in the language you want to learn but only barely understands (and is therefore willing not to make excessive use of) English.

On a computer, you can cheat and look up words and grammar conveniently, which can certainly help, but I think real life is still better (engages you more) if it is a possibility.

Mike Huben said...

When I read here of unschooling, I recognize that I have unschooled myself all my life in addition to attending regular school.

I read Moby Dick for pleasure in 2nd grade: I wanted to read about whales, and I had exhausted the children's section of the library. Did I get it all? No. But I learned a lot about whaling, much vocabulary, etc. And I've re-read Moby Dick several times over the decades.

In 7th grade, I taught myself inorganic chemistry. I built up a huge chemistry set, grew large crystals, etc. When I took chemistry in 10th grade, I knew more than the teacher: but I learned many other chemistry principles anyhow.

I had a knack for math: the good background I got from my suburban school prepared me for recreational math in 11th grade, especially Martin Gardiner's Mathematical Games columns in Scientific American (which I started reading at age 10.)

And I haven't stopped: at age 53 I'm still picking up new subjects. Just recently I've changed from computer programming (which I taught myself) to teaching math in public schools.

My point is that I'm an example that some students will educate themselves whether they are schooled, unschooled, or both. But the problem with self-directed study is that the student doesn't know what to learn as well as somebody experienced does, such as a curriculum designer. I was a very good programmer, but I found out late in my career that I could have been much better if I had learned the subject more broadly and in less depth.

In a way, schooling versus unschooling is like the phonics/whole language argument. Both work, mixtures work, and flexibility in choosing which for an individual student is better than rigid choice of one or the other. But they produce different products, and there are tradeoffs. The biggest tradeoff, IMHO, is that homeschooling and unschooling are much more inefficient uses of time of supervising adults and teachers. I have 25 to 30 students in each of my 5 public school classes.

David Friedman said...

Mike correctly observes that he unschooled himself despite going to school; I did the same. He then offers two arguments for the standard model:

1. The student doesn't know what to learn as well as a curriculum designer.

But the student knows much more about what he wants to learn. And if he wants the material presented in organized form, there are always books--and the best book available to him will be written by someone who know more about the subject than the people who design high school curricua.

2. Home schooling is costly in time.

To begin with, it is much less costly in student time--which is also valuable. Think of the thousands of hours that both of us wasted sitting in classes not learning. Beyond that, in our experience, most of the adult time is conversation at dinner, putting kids to bed, other normal parental activities.

Current public schools end up costing about six to ten thousand dollars per student per year. I expect a lot of parents would be happy to school their own children for that amount--some, after all, currently do it for free.

Anonymous said...

Speaking as one of the people being homeschooled, I think that I know an astonishing amount about an anstonishing number of useless things, plus some useful skills. From what I have heard, this mirrors actual schooling.

The difference, of course, is that I would guess that I entertained myself quite a lot more learning my set of useless things ( WWII Geography, Starcraft tactics, D&D rules down to the page) then I would have learning a more normal collection of useless things (Chemistry, biology, Shakespeare down to the page).

Anonymous said...


StarCraft? Oh... why did you have to mention that! It was the sole exception to my policy of never using proprietary software for some time. Eventually I ran into some bugs in the proprietary display driver (which I needed to run StarCraft) and I decided stop making exceptions.

For a long time afterwards, I continued to follow the Korean scene and cheer my favorite players on. Now it's been a number of years since StarCraft vanished from my life completely, but I still have warm feelings for the game.

Curious that one can get addicted to a competitive video-game in the same way one can grow attached to a sport. Perhaps there is a chance that Blizzard can be persuaded to free Starcaft, now that StarCraft II is about to replace it.

A little bit more on topic, all the "useless" skills you mention have elements that are generalizable to a wider range of useful problems. The knowledge may be useless, but you need some situation to gain ability, in the same way as the particular details of a textbook exercise are not as important as the process of working your way through it.

Personally I think that what you learn is not nearly as important as learning the skills that help you learn more effectively. The best way to learn to learn is to practice, and it sticks better if you enjoy doing it.

Jonathan said...

I think unschooling sounds great and I wish I'd been brought up that way. Your children are very lucky in their parents.

But for most parents it's not a feasible option. Often both parents go out to work and have to dump the children in a school every day. And virtually all schools follow the traditional model, which parents therefore have to accept whether they like it or not.

I suppose they could get together with other parents and try to organize a new school for themselves; the feasibility of this probably varies with location.

Anonymous said...


thank you for responding to my original request. It looks like a lot of people had been wondering the same thing. At this point I don't know if I have the courage to do what you did, but I might change my mind down the road. One point that hasn't been made in the comments is "work". One reason why my schooling experience was bearable is because I spent summers working in an agricultural setting. Did your kids ever expressed the desire to take a job? A part-time job would provide the "conscientiousness" and social skills that some people have argued schools provide.

Anonymous said...

jonathan said: "But for most parents it's not a feasible option. Often both parents go out to work and have to dump the children in a school every day. And virtually all schools follow the traditional model, which parents therefore have to accept whether they like it or not."

Would it surprise you to learn that a little over 40% of homeschooled children come from working parent families - that is, both parents working full-time in a two-parent family, or one parent working full-time in a one-parent family?

Anonymous said...

Mike Huben's post raises an interesting point, about which I've often wondered: There are clearly things you should learn, but that aren't all that much fun--multiplication tables are a pretty good example, but there must be others. It seems like there's some core of knowledge that you might need to strongly encourage your kids to acquire, despite having a broad kind of unschooling approach to teaching them. Is there a good description or argument for what that includes, anywhere?

For example, I really wish I'd learned Spanish though immersion as a kid; I'd speak it fluently and without an accent now. That seems like something it might make sense to push your kids to do, since they will never be a 5-year-old language sponge again. (Though I haven't done this with my 6 year old, though I do try to teach him and my 2 year old some Spanish.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your description of your home school experiences. I assume the Sudbury Valley type school you refer to is one I learned a bit about some years ago.(That one started as Silicon Valley School, changed its name, had John Gatto speak.) If so I would be very interested in knowing what happened to the school and your experience there.

Anonymous said...

The aren't any things you necessarily need to learn in and out of themselves. You need them because they are necessary for some other tasks. There may be an incentive to learn things that aren't much fun once they are necessary to do something that is.

I learned multiplication tables, and quite a lot of other simple algorithms, just to boost the speed at which I could solve/check math problems in my head. I was playing a game that rewarded fast math.

Assuming speed is the primary application of multiplication tables, what is necessary is not to force somebody to learn multiplication tables, but to convince him/her that solving math problems more quickly is useful or fun.

Learning to speak a new language fluently (and without foreign accent) is still possible at old age. Usually it is not worth the effort to most people. Certainly it is easier to learn at young age, but a lot of things are, I'm not sure if this is a very good argument for compulsory learning.

At any rate, most young people will pick up a new language when surrounded by it. I don't know of any other method to teach a language "by immersion".

Anonymous said...

I find the idea of unschooling fascinating, particularly because I am currently in the middle of my first year of teaching and find myself remarkably uninspired by the traditional school model.

I do have one question though - what does the state say about unschooling? Aren't all children required to go to school (or meet certain homeschooling requirements)? Or is parental consent enough to remove them from school?

Jonathan said...

Sarah: "Would it surprise you to learn that a little over 40% of homeschooled children come from working parent families..."

Well, yes, it would. In fact, I don't understand how it's possible. Perhaps in some cases grandparents are willing to dedicate large amounts of their own time?

David Friedman said...

Sarah asks about the legal status of unschooling. The relevant law, in the U.S., varies by state. In California, where we live, parents can file a form making their home a private school for their kids; there are no significant restrictions or requirements.

Jonathan said...

Afterthought: if you have spare cash, I suppose you can hire someone to come in and look after the children every day: a private tutor, in effect. I suppose that's how it's done.

Jonathan said...

Wikipedia: "Countries with the most prevalent home education movements include Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Some countries have highly regulated home education programs as an extension of the compulsory school system; others, such as Germany, have outlawed it entirely. In other countries, while not restricted by law, homeschooling is not socially acceptable or considered desirable and is virtually non-existent."

Anonymous said...

You mention problems with the Sudbury model - what were they, that caused you to switch to homeschooling?

Anonymous said...

jonathan: "Afterthought: if you have spare cash, I suppose you can hire someone to come in and look after the children every day: a private tutor, in effect. I suppose that's how it's done."

Most homeschoolers aren't nearly well off enough to hire a private tutor or someone to come in and look after the children all day. Usually they just get creative about how to fit in both work and family life.

I have known single parents, for example, who swapped child care and rides to the kids' activities with another family while their children were young, arranging their work schedules accordingly. A single university professor paid for child care during her classes, and took her well-behaved youngsters along to office hours and other functions. A hairdresser swapped haircuts and math tutoring for child care while she worked. A husband-firefighter and wife-social worker arranged for their long shifts to be on different days, making sure that one adult was always home, and they still usually had two days a week together as a family.

As children get older, it gets easier, as the kids need less constant looking after and become more competent at taking care of themselves for part of the day. Homeschooled children often have many activities they attend outside the home anyway, and seeing to them for those times may become just a task of finding them rides with other families.

Teens, of course, typically become very independent. The unschooled ones are used to deciding what to do with their unscheduled time and don't need someone directing them all day. I don't know any that aren't really busy.

Unschooling is all the time, every day, and helping make family life work for everyone is part and parcel of it. Homeschooling, as in school-at-home, can be done any time that works for a particular family.

Jonathan said...

Sarah, thanks for the interesting examples. I'd imagine that only a small minority of people would be willing and able to manage such arrangements, but I'd be happy to be proved wrong.

Anonymous said...

Well, given that homeschoolers are only a few percent of the total population, we're already talking about a small minority. Of those, though, the percentage of parents working is not small at all. The slightly over 40% I noted earlier only includes parents working full-time (35+ hours/wk) outside the home. Many more work part-time, or have home businesses.

You can look at the data yourself if you like. The full National Center for Education Statistics report (2003 is the most recent) is here:

The table showing demographic breakdowns is here:

Anonymous said...

Sorry about the truncated links. If you google NCES and homeschooling, the top link will take you to the NCES report. From there, look at homeschooling rates by student and family characteristics. They give total numbers in each category, but you can easily figure out what percentage of the total number of homeschoolers that represents.