School’s never out for 14-year-old Zoe Bentley. Nor is it ever in.
The perky teen from Tucson, Ariz., explores what she likes, when she likes as deeply as she chooses every day of the year. As an “unschooler,” Zoe is untethered from the demands of traditional, compulsory education.
That means, at the moment, she is checking out the redwoods of California with her family, tinkering with her website and looking forward to making her next video on her favorite subject, exogeology, the study of geology on other planets.
“I love seeing the history of an area,” Zoe said. “Maybe a volcano erupted and grew taller over time, or wind eroded rock into sand dunes, or a meteor hit the ground and made a crater. Finding out how these and other formations formed is something I just really like.”
Unschooling has been around for several decades, but advocates say there has been an uptick as more families turn to home schooling overall.
Reliable data are hard to come by, but estimates of children and teens home-schooled in the U.S. range from 1.5 million to 2 million. Of those, as many as one-third could be considered unschoolers like Zoe, meaning their parents are “facilitators,” available with materials and other resources, rather than top-down “teachers.”
There is no fixed curriculum, course schedule or attempt to mimic traditional classrooms. Unless, of course, their children ask for those things.
Zoe, for instance, wanted to know more about geology once she turned 12, so she signed up for a class at Pima Community College. “I had to take a placement test, which was the first test I’d ever taken,” she said. “It was surprisingly easy.”
She since has taken several other college classes, including astrobiology, algebra and chemistry. Maybe, Zoe said, “I’ll earn a degree, but the important thing to me is to learn what I need to and want to know. Everything else is a bonus.”
John Holt, considered the father of unschooling, would have been proud. The fifth-grade teacher died in 1985, leaving behind books and other reflections that include his 1964 work, “How Children Fail.”
The book and others Holt later wrote propelled him into the spotlight as he argued that mainstream schools stymie the learning process by fostering fear and forcing children to study subjects in which they have no interest.
Colorado unschool mother Carol Brown couldn’t agree more.
“Being bored makes school miserable for a lot of kids, plus there is the element of compulsion, which completely changes any activity,” the filmmaker said.
Mrs. Brown and her husband unschooled their eldest daughter until she left for college and their youngest until her junior year in high school, when she chose to attend Telluride Mountain School, a small, progressive school near home.
“Unschooling parents are doing what good parents do anyway when they’re on summer vacation,” Mrs. Brown said. “We just had more time to do it.”
Like other unschoolers, Mrs. Brown’s girls had books, films, art supplies and building materials growing up. They visited beaches, museums and forests. “There’s no one right way for every child to learn or grow up,” Mrs. Brown said. “Freedom is essential for that reason.”
For Clark Aldrich’s 16-year-old son in Connecticut, that meant raising hens for his own egg business.
“It’s a good way to learn about animals, commerce and economics, as well as inventory,” Mr. Aldrich said.
Pat Farenga of Medford, Mass., unschooled his three daughters with his wife but said: “I don’t see unschooling or home schooling as the answer for everybody. It’s the answer for those who choose it.”
Mr. Farenga, who worked with Holt, said Holt coined the term “unschooling” in 1977 but was never terribly fond of it. It stuck for lack of a better description. He considers unschooling a subset of home schooling, while some unschoolers see themselves more akin to democratic free schools, a century-old movement based on a philosophy of self-directed learning and equality in decision-making.
Rare, unschoolers said, are children who never find reasons to pick up the basics - and beyond. That could mean reading later than many parents might wish, or ignoring math until they see a reason on their own to use it.
Unschoolers operate under state laws governing home schooling, which is legal in all 50 states. Such regulations vary tremendously by state, with some requiring standardized tests or adherence to a set curriculum and others nothing more than a letter from parents describing what their children are doing. Unschoolers said they have no trouble meeting their states’ requirements.
In Alaska, for example, home-schooling parents don’t have to notify officials, file any forms or have their children tested.
In Sugar Land, Texas, Elon Bomani’s 11-year-old son has never been to school and doesn’t know how to write cursive. She doesn’t care. When he was younger and had no interest in learning how to read, she found a video on the subject and put it on for him to discover - or ignore as he wished. He is a reader today. Her younger son, who is 6, learned to read when he discovered “Garfield” comic books.
“If children find something that they love, they’ll read,” Mrs. Bomani said.
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