FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Getting "Unschooled"

Imagine being a kid and your "school day" starting whenever you felt like getting up (noon, say), and then consisting of doing whatever you wanted all day long. Watching TV, playing, whatever. It may sound like a child's fantasy, but it's actually part of an educational movement called "unschooling" that, while not quite sweeping the nation, is beginning to attract attention.

Of course, this was around when I was growing up; we called it "Saturday morning." Introduced in the late 1970s by educator John Holt, "unschooling" now claims to involve about 150,000 children, or about 10% of the US homeschooled population. The movement has reportedly grown by nearly 30% since 1999 -- driven, in part, by parents who are reacting against the high-pressure, over-scheduled, achievement-obsessed culture now engulfing many of today's families. Many support resources are available online, such as Unschooling.com and the Family Unschoolers Network (FUN).

A cross between traditional homeschooling and child-empowering educational approaches such as Montessori, "unschooling" would seem to work best with highly intelligent children with lots of internal motivation and curiosity... and with parents who are highly involved and who set good examples for learning. Most "unschooled" kids, it should be noted, take their local school districts' standardized tests just like their more traditionally schooled friends.

The following is a typical "unschool" day in the life of 10-year-old Nailah Ellis of Marietta, Georgia:

Nailah's day starts about 11 a.m., her typical wake-up time. She studies Chinese, reading, writing, piano and martial arts. But there's no set schedule. She works on what she wants, when she wants. She'll even watch some TV -- science documentaries are a favorite -- until her day comes to an end about 2 a.m.

Clearly, Nailah is no slacker. But that doesn't quell the critics of "unschooling" who simply see it as parental permissiveness run amok. Additionally, more traditional educators bemoan the lack of structure and interaction with peers.

Which leads to the obvious speculation: How will "unschooled" children respond when they grow up and have to fit into more regimented environments such as college and the workplace? How will they relate to others -- especially potential partners and spouses -- who were brought up in more traditional settings? Will they adjust? Or will they inspire the environments around them to change? Much of this, of course, will depend on whether and how greatly "unschooling" catches on in the coming years.

Sources: CNN.com, Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), Salon.com