Unschooling Formatted for TV

Unschooling was featured on the Today Show this morning and it was generally a fair portrayal of what it is and how it is done. The Bentley family, featured in the video segment, was particularly articulate and they were shown actively learning and doing things in their community; as a result, I don’t think the audience viewed unschooling as children doing nothing or as unparenting, which is a relief.

The education experts on the show expressed the standard concerns: unschoolers aren’t tested so how do we know they’re learning compared to their schooled counterparts? Parents may not be qualified to teach certain things. The kids could be isolated if they aren’t involved in activities outside the home. Aren’t there going to be gaps in their knowledge? By the way, these are the same concerns that are often raised about homeschooling in general, which proves to me, again, that homeschooling and unschooling are inextricably linked and efforts to separate them are not wise. Since most unschooling and homeschooling resources cover these questions in detail, as have I, I won’t respond to them here. 

It was good to hear Robyn Silverman, a teen and child development expert, note that unschoolers get into college with non-traditional transcripts, but it was disappointing to hear her say that unschooling is primarily for parents of “self-propelled” children. All children are born with self-motivation and a very common thread among unschoolers are stories about how they decided to unschool after their children went to school and became morose, unmotivated learners. They know their children weren’t this way before they went to school, so they view unschooling as a way to reinvigorate their children’s love of learning. Unschooling can work for any child and there are thousands of examples online and in print.

Further, both experts and the show overall make it seem like unschooling is a new trend, some recent development that doesn’t have a track record and is therefore somewhat dangerous to do with your children. There is no mention of John Holt and his creation of unschooling in 1977 after years of teaching in and writing about schools. There is no mention of the thousands of unschoolers who are now productive, adult citizens, some of them unschooling their own children now. There is no mention of teachers, in both alternative and conventional schools, who either unschool their children or take inspiration from it in their work. There is no mention that unschoolers are forging their lives earlier than those in school can, building up resumes and experiences that serve them well as adults, and that two-thirds of all American colleges and universities have admission procedures for homeschoolers/unschoolers. Indeed, according to U.S. census data only about 27.5% of all Americans have four-year college degrees, so it is odd that the media and society view getting into college as the ultimate sign of adult success. Shouldn’t we focus on how the 73.5% of Americans without four-year degrees find work, careers, and lives worth living instead of making them feel less worthy for not going or completing college? Uncollege is a concept that I hope gets further attention and it’s founder acknowledges the influence of unschooling on his thinking.

Further, unschooling is an option for families, not a mandate. You can try it and adapt it as you see fit; your kids can move in and out of school as necessary; you can do it for any amount of time. It is NOT school, which is why it is a true option for children who hate school, or don’t fit in, or find class too boring, or find class too challenging. I wish the experts had considered these issues instead of finding fault with unschooling because it does not follow conventional school techniques; that is the point, after all. As noted earlier, people often come to unschooling because their children were not flourishing in school, or because even though they did well in school (as the adult Bentley’s say they did in their segment) they want an education that is more involving for their children than marching through the steps of standardized curricula.

Unschooling is about learning and doing things that matter in the real world and in your life, and the Bentley family provides a great model of this for viewers. In six minutes, The Today Show condensed and analyzed an educational movement that has been growing for decades. Some day, I hope the deeper stories that lie beneath the surface of this one will be examined.