As a homeschooled student growing up, I was quite accustomed to getting a variety of responses ranging from enthusiastic to curious to skeptical when peers or other people in general found out about my non-traditional education decisions. Whatever the response, it almost always included many questions, and I grew accustomed to which questions to expect as well. By far, the most common question was, “Do you do school in your pajamas?” I always laughed at that one, because for all the stereotypes and misconceptions floating around about homeschooling that were not related at all to my experience, this one was indeed true for me! I was also commonly questioned on how I took tests, who taught me, and how I made friends, and over the years I developed fairly standard answers to explain these things. On rare occasion, and particularly in connection with a skeptical view of homeschooling, people directly questioned whether or not I was actually receiving an education at all. For some, this was based on an idea they had heard of called “unschooling.”
I had not actually heard of unschooling until a few years ago, but the more I learned about it, the more I understood how it could contribute to skepticism about homeschooling. Like any learning style, unschooling can take different forms and produce different results, but as the name suggests, unschooling is actually a rejection of many of the values that are held in common by those who practice other learning styles. A few years ago, ABC did a story on the Martin family, who practice unschooling with their four children, ages 2 to 11 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UuhfhRLwTB0). The mother, Dayna Martin, is a leader in the unschooling community through a Youtube channel and a book she wrote about her family’s experiences, and the father works from home making wooden toys for kids. These parents unquestionably take a radically unstructured approach to raising their children, not only in the area of education, but also through the conspicuous lack of rules about meals, bedtimes, and other such life routines. The Martin children were never formally taught math, reading, history, or other such subjects, but Dana says they’ve learned these skills naturally – although no basis for this claim is given in the news story. Dana also says she doesn’t think everyone is supposed to do the same things in life, and she’s not worried about what her children will do in the future with a skill set that’s lacking in the basic benchmarks of education for our culture.
The Martin family is one example of unschooling, but other families approach the same idea in a different way. A Scottish news channel did an unschooling story that chronicles the educational experience of the Jacobs family, also described as “radical unschooling” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vz7E78-VQFw). Although a large part of the difference may be the slant of the story, the Jacobs children seem to be portrayed in a more positive light, and are shown playing Scrabble and other similarly-educational games, as well as playing Minecraft for “problem solving” skill development. Although, like the Martins, this family does not have a set schedule, there is far less indication that freestyle learning carries over into a radical lack of structure in every area for the Jacobs children.
Although they are certainly not the same, both the Martin and Jacobs families’ experiences are far different from my own experience with homeschooling. Although my school days were certainly less structured than a public school environment, allowing me to choose the order in which I would accomplish things, and also allowing me the freedom to pursue opportunities outside of traditional school subjects that would typically conflict with a regular school schedule, I still “did school.” I had math textbooks, science textbooks, a language-learning computer program, and other similar curriculum structures. I took tests and received grades. At the end of the year, I put together a portfolio of my work and was evaluated by a certified teacher. In Pennsylvania, one of the strictest states for homeschooling regulations, there are still checks and balances in place to ensure that I received an actual education at home. In many other states, there are no such regulations about homeschooling, and that’s what makes unschooling legally possible.
When my parents made the decision to homeschool me and my siblings, they decided that they were primarily responsible for our education, and for them, that meant being directly involved in selecting and teaching what we learned. Although there was a lot of overlap with the general subjects taught in public schools, there were also big departures from the norm, including both additions and subtractions. And yet, when I see the children in these news stories not receiving any kind of formal instruction in core subjects, I cannot help but be concerned for their futures. Is unschooling a viable method for education? Should it be legal? If not, how can we protect freedom in education for positive homeschooling experiences, while guarding against abuse of the system?