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There’s hardly a more controversial topic in America today that of schooling. At times, it feels like the battle for how children should be educated has been a part of American politics for as long as America has had politics. Even still, the movement toward public education — heralded in particular in the early-to-mid 1800s by “the father of American public schools” Horace Mann — has resulted in the current public schooling and classroom-based educational model that is preeminent for most K-12 learners.
Whether that environment is good or bad is a matter of perspective. For some people, which can include educational policy makers, teachers and parents, pedagogy in today’s time is far too focused on a “one size fits all” model.
Many individuals believe that the testing culture has taken the place of more experiential learning, and when a student can’t seem to fit this somewhat restrictive model, the system has little recourse but to label them “special education.” And indeed, while this label can ultimately result in a more specialized and personalized form of classroom learning, for the most part, it’s still classroom learning.
The American school system works well — for those who would have already done well in such a system anyway. For all others, it’s akin to an educational quicksand. The faster we push some students through, the faster they sink, and although slow movement can help many struggling students eventually graduate from the system, by the time they do leave they’re often too far behind their peers and thrown headfirst into a work culture that emphasizes early success. Policy makers, to their credit, have been attempting to craft unique alternative schooling methods for students who fall behind, but with a system so ingrained with its own concept of normality, it’s difficult to simply uproot any child and place them into a learning environment that doesn’t quite fit the status quo.
Alternative schooling methods are about as plentiful as pedagogical theories. One such method, called, ironically enough, the “unschooling” method, could easily be misunderstood as an opposing take on schooling. But its other monikers — “natural learning” or “experienced-based learning” — would suggest otherwise. The method is highlighted by a move toward getting students away from the classroom setting and into a more contact-based and, what some might say, “realistic” learning environment. That learning environment is one most of us are familiar with: the real world. “Unschooling” is not a new idea. It’s an idea that has circulated among homeschool families for decades, and more formally popularized by 1970s author and educator John Holt in the then-popular homeschooling newsletter Growing Without Schooling.
Experience-based learning, or “unschooling” has been a popular method among homeschooling families for some time. Yet the modern iteration of it is often termed as the most extreme application of the student-centered approach, where the child learns without restrictions or guidance, and pursues whatever interests suit their individual fancies. In reality, most unschooling is not this carefree, and despite the general perceptions to the contrary, it is not something that is only possible with children who are homeschooled. A typical “unschooled” child’s learning experience might look something like this:
Jonathan’s mother wants him to learn how to convert different types of measurements. His public school teacher has been trying to teach him how to convert teaspoons to cups, but the worksheets that they give him don’t make sense to him. Despite the many pictures that are on the worksheet, Jonathan simply can’t visualize the conversion. Jonathan’s mother knows this is because her son is a kinesthetic learner. It’s not that he’s bad at math or horrible with numbers. He simply needs a more hands on, real-world experience to grasp the concept. Over the weekend, Jonathan’s mother pulls him into the kitchen and they bake together. Instead of giving him measurements in cups, she gives him everything in teaspoons. She has him measure out the teaspoons, and pour each measured ingredient into a clear, glass measuring cup with clear lines for measurements on the side. She stops him frequently, and asks him how many cups of each ingredient he has put in, as well as how many teaspoons he has used to do so. She repeats this hands-on activity every weekend for a month. On the last weekend, she asks him how many teaspoons to a cup. Without looking or hesitating, he smiles up at her and says, “48!” She smiles back, and without missing a beat, asks him a new question: “How many teaspoons in ¼ of a cup?” Jonathan hesitates for a second. He then remembers the basic division he already knows, and applies this principle. He responds hesitantly: “12?” His mother tousles his hair, leans down and whispers, “I am so proud of you.”
While not every example of experienced-based learning will be as successful as Jonathan’s, the heart of such a method is an attempt to place the learner in an environment or setting that emphasizes scenarios that they will likely run into in their lives beyond the school environment. Will Jonathan become a cook or baker in his real life? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. But his future career is irrelevant to his experience-based learning opportunity. What’s important is that he was able to learn in a manner that was focused on a one-to-one, or even a solitary approach, where he was able to interact directly with the mathematics beyond a classroom worksheet and beyond a classroom setting. There is certainly a likelihood that he will still need to know how to convert different measurements in the kitchen — after all, it’s something that most schools still teach at the elementary level, and it does come up in many state standardized math tests in many states.
“Unschooling” methods can be applied to most concepts that are taught at most grade levels. But even the strongest proponents of this learning method will acknowledge that unschooling has its limitations. More demanding concepts in math and science are almost impossible to learn without picking up a book and acquiring a good, qualified teacher. And some experiences are almost certainly best learned by reading about them and not experiencing them. But the concepts that scaffold these larger ones are all ripe for personal experience, and can be found outside the classroom, in the real world of children’s day-to-day lives.
The method is not without its critics, of course. Many educational policy makers and teachers question the qualifications that some parents might or might not have to teach their children the correct information. The National Educators Association in particular has consistently taken a hard line on homeschooling, passing several resolutions in the past 20 years that express a deep concern over whether homeschooled students can meet standardized state qualifications. Research data shows this issue to be a bit more complex than either side would have us believe. 2013 research presented by Robert Kunzman and Milton Gaither (who have both studied the homeschooling movement for years), finds that while homeschoolers do perform better on standardized tests like the SAT/ACT, the gap between their math and verbal scores is significantly wider than what is found among public school students. What’s more, they find that homeschooled students are also far less likely to actually take these tests, resulting in a situation where the scores for homeschooled students may be higher than they would be if an equal proportion of these students took the test as students who attended a public school.
Even so, while the “unschooling” method is spiritually tied to homeschooling, it is not fundamentally bound to homeschooling in principle. It is a method that can be applied to any student — with the potential for noticeable results if used the right way. A 2011 survey of “graduated” unschoolers conducted by educational researchers Peter Gray and Gina Riley found that a large majority of respondents (83 percent) went on to pursue post-secondary education of some kind. More than 75 percent of those who were designated as “unschooled” reported having attained financial self-sufficiency as well, although many of them explained that this was primarily due to their own frugality.
Educational experiences and successes ultimately present a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to data. Success or failure of any schooling method can be both approved and denied if the data is viewed from different angles. The real heart of the matter is just that — the heart. Understanding what schooling method will work for one student over another starts and ends with understanding one’s own child. The standard model and the prevailing idea among most in the educational policy arena — that all children can learn the same way, or can be offered the correct educational opportunities in a traditional school setting — is nothing if not debatable. As with any learning method, some will succeed when given the chance to experience that method, and others will fail. At the end of the day, we may have to acknowledge that if a student can leave school and go on to become independent and successful members of society, it likely does not matter what learning method they utilized to get there.