Unschooling

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What Unschoolers Say:

Californian Riley Brown is a believer:

Regine Verougstraete moved to the United States from her native Belgium 11 years ago, elected to unschool her two sons after the older one struggled in regular classes.

A day in the life of an unschooling student...

A certain unschooling student named Riley Brown is 12 years old. Riley usually sleeps in until he is ready to get up. Then he does whatever he is interested in doing, like playing guitar or getting together with his friends at the park. Then again he might get on his computer and spend some time learning HTML and building web pages. Riley lives a lifestyle that many of his peers would envy and probably never understand...

Casey, 10 and Magie, 5, are Riley's younger brother and sister. Their routines are very similar.

Diane, Riley's mother couldn't be happier... She says, “I love unschooling. It has been the best decision I could have made for me and my family.”

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What is 'unschooling?' Is it like home schooling?

The Browns are 'unschooling' their children which means they allow their children to do what interests them, instead of trying to make them interested in the same things that others like.

The concept behind unschooling is that children learn more when they are interested in the subject matter, and when a family has the talents and the resources to let this happen, the children can learn a great deal more.

'Unschooling' is a subgroup of home schooling and is growing year by year starting in the 1980's.

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How many home schooling children are there?

The U.S. Department of Education reports that about 1.1 million children were educated by home schooling in 2003. That is the most recent statistics they have. That is a 29% increase 1999 when they estimated that there were 850,000.

Brian D. Ray, president of The National Home Education Research Institute reports during 2002-2003 in the United States, there were an estimated 1.7 to 2.1 million children (grades K-12) that were home educated. This is probably a more realistic estimate.

Education experts estimate that about 10 percent of the home school population is 'unschooled,' so there might have been as many as 210,000 children unchooled that year. It's anyone's guess how many are being educated this way in the present year. One thing for sure is that home education is on the rise.

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Why parents are home schooling their children

Parents are choosing home schooling as an alternative to public and private schools. The majority seem to be Christian conservatives because of curriculum, school violence, and bad socialization. These parents usually choose a curriculum that goes along with their and has a solid structure.

Those that choose unschooling usually believe the school system holds their children back from learning to their full ability and potential.

“I think the one reason that stands out from the rest is that I felt that my kids were losing that incredible spark they had before they entered school.” Deanne Brown said.

“As young children they were curious, imaginative and full of spunk. Learning was natural and fun.” she said..”After being in school for a few years I saw their natural curiosity, imagination and love for learning being crushed by rules and conditioning. Learning became a task.”

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Potential downsides to unschooling your children

“I think the downsides would be related to teachers who don't understand putting parameters around children's decision making.” said Jill Fox, an associate professor of education at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“It's one thing to allow children to choose to study Amelia Earhart before studying Harriet Tubman, with the clear understanding that both will be studied thoroughly during the school year. It is another thing to allow children to study Muhammad Ali and completely skip over what the state standards or district curriculum require.” Fox said.

“Teachers - and parents - have to keep in mind that children's decision-making skills are not yet fully developed. They don't quite understand cause-and-effect and often don't realize the consequences they may face as a result of their decisions.”

And unschooling is not for everyone, experts say.

“It is not suited either to all kids or all parents.” said Tom Hatch, a professor at Columbia University Teachers College in New York City. “It requires students with considerable curiosity and independence, who come up with and get interested in questions and can sustain some interest in them.”

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Turning any experience into something educational

Any family activity, from reading the gas meter to watching the Olympics, can turn into an educational experience. Math is incorporated into everyday life, something father Stephen Parke, a theoretical physicist at Fermilab, calls 'cookie arithmetic.'

The approach is not without its challenges or fears, but the parents believe their decision has made their children independent thinkers.

“To me, learning to think is much more important, especially in the modern age.” Parke said.

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What type of parents are choosing unschooling?

Experts say that parents who choose unschooling or home schooling for their children are usually well educated and believe that the present primary and secondary educational system is not structured for a world that rewards free thinking, curiosity, imagination and independence.

“I don't think you can apply that to all schools.” said Hatch in defense of traditional schools. “It's so hard to predict what opportunities and interests students will have in 20 years, or what the job market will be like in 15 or 20 years from now. I don't think anybody, schools or parents, can base their instruction primarily on that.”

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When did the home schooling movement get started?

Most trace the origins of unschooling to an approach devised by educator John Holt in the 1970s. He believed that children could be natural learners, instead of requiring formal schooling.

“A core distinction between these two approaches, it would seem, comes down to beliefs about human nature, or at least the nature of the child and their learning.” said Robert Kunzman, an assistant professor at Indiana University..”Do they learn best following their own interests, or by being carefully led upon a preordained path.”

Parents involved with unschooling argue that modern resources such as the Internet make exploration easier.

There is little, if any, empirical evidence of how unschooled children fare in later life, but home schooling children are being accepted by Ivy League and other prestigious universities.

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What about the social aspects of unschooling?

Some critics of home schooling say that it denies children interaction with others and thus blunts their social skills.

Not so, say unschooling parents. Deanne Brown points to regular weekly park meeting with other unschoolers and the fact that all three of her children are engaged in team sports.

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Do home schooling children need to take tests?

Rules on unschooling differ among states with some requiring children to take standardized tests to measure progress, others asking only that forms be filed with the state and some requiring nothing.

The question of measuring progress is a thorny one among parents of unschoolers. Most do not grade their children.

“We do not take tests, use a curriculum, grades or punishment and reward systems.” said Deanne Brown. California does not require such measurements for home-schooled students.

“Virginia law requires that home-schoolers provide annual evidence of progress.” said Shay Seaborne, who is unschooling her daughters, Caitlin, 15, and Laurel, 12.

“I meet this requirement with results from a standardized test, as that is the least intrusive means for our family.” Seaborne said.

For many students the first test of their learning in a standardized way comes when they take the SAT or ACT exams for college entry.

Ned Vare and his wife Luz Shosie unschooled their son, Cassidy, first in Colorado and later in Connecticut. Cassidy never attended regular schools and when he took the SAT he had a combined verbal and math score of 1390 and went on to get a GED with a nearly perfect score. He is now enrolled at Hunter College in New York.

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How do home school children explain to others?

While "unschooled" children may have regular social contact with peers who are involved in more traditional schooling, there appears to be a gap of understanding about their differing circumstances.

"My schooled friends opening question is usually, 'What grade are you in?'" said Riley Brown. "I tell them that I would be in the seventh grade, but it really doesn't matter. I don't usually try to explain because they wouldn't get it if I did."