It’s a Monday afternoon in Mar Vista, Calif., and while other 9-year-olds might be fidgeting at their desks, Isobel Dowdee has played all morning and is now joining her mother and two sisters on a big blanket in their front yard.
Mom, Heather Cushman-Dowdee, keeps the younger girls, Fiona, 5, and Gwyneth, 2, busy drawing pictures. For Isobel, she’s made a large grid with numbers down the side and across the top so her daughter can fill in the multiplication answers. Not that Cushman-Dowdee cares if Isobel does the chart. It’s just that the girl actually wants to do it. Occasionally they play math games or sing counting songs.
For the past three weeks this has been the ritual — Math Mondays they’ve taken to calling it. Yet Cushman-Dowdee bristles at the idea that this is any kind of mathematics class. That’s absolutely against what she and her husband, Kevin Dowdee, believe in.
“The kids love it so far, but I am open to them changing their mind. We adapt and alter what we are doing all of the time,” says Cushman-Dowdee, an artist and cartoonist.
The Dowdees’ ultra-relaxed learning is called “unschooling.” It’s a fast-growing subset of homeschooling that turns traditional education on its ear.
And it's catching on. In the past 20 years the number of unschoolers in the United States has grown from fewer than 2,000 to more than 100,000, says Patrick Farenga, president of Holt Associates, Inc., a Boston-area organization started by John Holt, the late education reformer who coined the term “unschooling.” That’s a conservative estimate; others in the education field put the number closer to 200,000 and say the unschooling population is growing by 10 to 15 percent each year.
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While homeschooling began as a trend among fundamentalist Christians with largely religious motivations, unschooling is more about educational philosophy. It’s rooted in the belief that humans are naturally driven to learn and will do so fiercely if left to their own devices.
Unschooling is difficult to define because no two unschoolers do the same thing.
Like homeschoolers, unschooled children don’t attend traditional class. Unlike most homeschoolers, however, unschoolers do not follow any sort of curriculum. Children are allowed and encouraged to set the agenda and pace using their parents, their own lives and their homes and communities as resources.
So if they want to spend all day learning about bugs or gardening, they head outdoors. If they’re interested in criminal justice, parents might set up a visit to the police station or help them get books on the subject. If something about Greek mythology piques their interest, maybe they’ll cook Greek food or write a play about Perseus and the Gorgon. Or maybe not.
“Here’s how I define it: Unschooling is allowing your child as much freedom to explore and learn from the world as you can comfortably bear as a parent,” says Farenga, co-author of "Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling."
Others have called unschooling ambient learning or child-led learning. Some call it bunk.
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Homeschooling itself is controversial. The National Parent Teacher Association opposes the practice, as do the National Education Association and the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
Unschooling is even more controversial. To some educators it’s tantamount to uneducating. They worry that while the popularity is gaining, it’s not a good idea for many families.
“If the parents are highly educated and/or from a higher socioeconomic level, the kids are going to get all kinds of rich experiences because the nature of the home is going to be about books, experiences, education and learning,” says Myron Dembo, a University of Southern California professor of education. “These kids won’t be harmed as much from [unschooling] as the kids who have parents without much education. One thing I worry about, though, is that the parent may be less competent than the parent thinks.”
Dembo, the author of "Motivation and Learning Strategies for College Success," agrees that the best education comes when children are self-motivated, but he says without formal matriculation some kids risk simply being left out. They may not master basic skills, they won’t receive so much as a high school diploma, and their chances for productive futures could become nonexistent. Yet he acknowledges there are alternative ways to gain college acceptance — such as taking the GED or writing an essay. And unschoolers may enroll in school, or even community college, long enough to develop something of a transcript.
Shana Ronayne Hickman of Cedar Park, Texas, says unschooling has worked well for her son, Kenzie, 8.
She first learned of unschooling when her son was 3. “It made more sense than anything I had ever read in my life,” says Hickman, who now publishes an unschooling support magazine called Live Free Learn Free. “Of course, people learn best when they’re interested in something. Of course, we retain information much better when we actively seek it out. Of course, learning through life is ideal.”
Kenzie, who was surrounded by books and stories from birth, began reading at 4 without any prompting or effort from his parents, says Hickman. Through his own recent exploration and the help of his parents he knows about a range of subjects, including mythology and the Great Depression.
Isobel Dowdee was never taught to read per se either. Yet when she was about 8 she caught on simply through years of wanting and having books read to her. Once she started putting sentences together she almost immediately picked up advanced chapter books and read voraciously for six months straight. Her 5-year-old sister Fiona has just recently started to read on her own.
But not all unschoolers stick to the plan so religiously.
Farenga, perhaps the best-known advocate for unschooling alive today, says his three daughters — the eldest who is now a senior at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and plans to attend medical school — have mostly been unschooled, but they have all also attended more traditional private and/or public schools at various times.
“When it comes to unschooling, of course it’s very important to talk about the parents,” says Farenga.
Unschooling parents must have revolutionary amounts of patience, he says. They have to want to be around their children day in and day out. It helps, too, if they are extremely intellectually curious. But more mundane matters such as finances also come into play.
“If you homeschool or unschool, you’re cutting out some of your income. Even in our family, sometimes financial pressures became a reason the kids went to a school because my wife and I both needed to be working. Other times, my children just wanted to try school,” says Farenga.
Unschooling isn't for everyone, he acknowledges.
"It’s just an alternative and there needs to be more of them in education," he says. "The key is to use school on your terms. Nobody should be forced into a classroom.”
Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of "Fearless Pregnancy: Wisdom and Reassurance from a Doctor, a Midwife and a Mom," published by Fair Winds Press.