Kerry McDonald has been deeply involved in education policy and practice for two decades. She has a B.A. in Economics from Bowdoin College and an M.Ed. from Harvard University. This blog gives information on family learning for adults.
John Holt, the well-known author and homeschooling pioneer, coined the term "unschooling" in November 1977 in the second issue of his fledgling newsletter for homeschoolers, Growing Without Schooling (GWS).
In this issue, Holt writes:
"GWS will say 'unschooling' when we mean taking children out of school, and 'deschooling' when we mean changing the laws to make schools non-compulsory and to take away from them their power to grade, rank, and label people i.e. to make lasting, official, public judgments about them."
It's fascinating to consider how these terms have evolved since Holt's definitions emerged. While initially meant to describe removing children from school, unschooling today is often more narrowly defined as a specific homeschooling approach that is self-directed rather curriculum-driven. The term deschooling has also evolved, from Holt's initial definition advocating for eliminating compulsory schooling laws that was largely influenced by his interactions with Ivan Illich, the author of the 1970 book, Deschooling Society.
Today, "deschooling" is often thought of as the period of time it takes a child who has been schooled to overcome a schooled mindset and reignite her natural learning instincts. As most of us adults were also schooled, the modern use of the "deschooling" term applies to us as well, as we try to shed the idea that one needs to be schooled in order to learn.
Language changes, and it is no wonder that as the homeschooling population has soared over the last four decades its terms would also be stretched and shaped. This is a sign of success. Holt never imagined that more than two percent of the U.S. school-age population would be homeschooled; today, the percent is nearly double that.
I appreciate what the term "unschooling" now means for many families, particularly for the homeschooling families who navigate the many educational philosophies and approaches available to them in search of the best fit. I also think it is worthwhile to reclaim the term's origins and dig deeper into Holt's initial message--not because we should change how we currently use the language of unschooling, but so that we can expand it.
In the first pages of Holt's inaugural issue of GWS, he writes about his disinterest in alternative schools except to the degree that they allow more families to take or keep their children out of conventional schools. Holt writes:
"GWS will not be much concerned with schools, even alternative or free schools, except as they may enable people to keep their children out of school by 1) calling their own home a school, or 2) enrolling their children, as some have already, in schools near or far which then approve a home study program."
In other words, Holt wasn't supporting alternative schools but alternatives to school that would enable more parents to remove children from conventional schooling for unschooling--often using homeschooling as a legal designation where necessary. At the time, before homeschooling was fully legally recognized in all U.S. states by 1993, these alternatives may have been the only option for some families. I would argue that today, for many families, these alternatives to school are also the only option they have for abandoning forced schooling for unschooling. While there are plenty of single parents and two working parents who make family-centered unschooling work beautifully, for many parents this is not possible.
There are also many families who are deeply committed to unschooling but find as their children grow that their kids crave new and different opportunities, often surrounded by a gaggle of other kids. Some of these children end up going to school after years of homeschooling. With more alternatives to school, Holt's vision of enabling "people to keep their children out of school" would be more widely successful.
By reclaiming Holt's initial definition of the word "unschooling" to mean "taking children out of school," and appreciating his tolerance for alternatives to school that make unschooling more possible for more families, we can help to make unschooling a more expansive, comprehensive term. We can affirm the homeschooling families who allow their children to learn at home and throughout their community in a self-directed way, while also embracing alternatives to school that empower parents to take charge of their child's education and remove them from forced schooling.
So while the modern use of the term "deschooling" is helpful and important in allowing children (and ourselves!) ample time and space for detaching from a schooled mindset of learning, we would be wise to also expand its definition to include Holt's vision for challenging compulsory schooling laws as a whole. In fact, in his 1981 book, Teach Your Own, Holt writes:
"At first I did not question the compulsory nature of schooling. But by 1968 or so I had come to feel strongly that the kinds of changes I wanted to see in schools, above all in the ways teachers related to students, could not happen as long as schools were compulsory."
However we use the terms "unschooling" and "deschooling" the goal is clear: Help more parents to remove their children from coercive schools and create a world in which education is separate and distinct from schooling.
It will be released this spring and I can't wait for you to read it! The stories of the parents, educators, and unschooled alumni are so inspiring and uplifting, and Peter Gray's Foreword is spectacular.
Order your copy today--and stay tuned for book release details!
It was the stopwatch on the wall that did it. The colorful paint and framed pastel prints nearby tried to hide its conspicuousness, but it was there: red neon digits glowing like the timer at an NBA basketball game. I asked the hospital tour guide what the clock was for, knowing full well its purpose but curious if it's intent could somehow be justified. "Oh, never mind that," she replied cheerfully. "It's just a way for us to keep track of how long your labor is."
I had been here before. Not in this smaller, supposedly more personalized hospital but giving birth in a hospital, on two previous occasions. Both times medical error caused complications for me, ranging from an allergic reaction to prophylactic penicillin to massive hemorrhaging.
But this new hospital would be better, I told myself, in the third trimester of my third pregnancy. Here I could have a natural, non-induced birth, attended by midwives. The baby wouldn't be rushed, she could pick her own birth date, and no one would pull too quickly on the cord.
But then I saw the timer.
It reminded me that institutions have policies and procedures, often designed to protect (or at least protect from liability). They have their own timeframe, their own expectations for when and how certain things should happen. You are a simply a widget. When you agree to the services of an institution, you agree to their policies and procedures. Sure, you may try some creative bargaining, arming yourself with a birth plan and clearly stated wishes. But in labor, at the hospital, you relinquish control.
Sometimes things go smoothly and you make it through a hospital birth just fine. More frequently, at least in America, things don't go quite like you anticipated, but everyone reassures you that you have a healthy baby and that's all that matters--even though, deep down, you wonder if that should be so mollifying.
At home, there were no timers. My last two babies were born on their own time, in their own way, with no complications. (You can read more about my experience opting-out of hospital birth in my article at Midwifery Today.)
As September rolls along, you may be having your own stopwatch moment. Maybe all is not quite right at your child's school. Maybe you keep being reassured that it will get better, that this is just the way it is, that everything is fine. But maybe you keep sensing that timer. Maybe you wonder if your child is simply a widget, growing along someone else's timeframe according to someone else's policies and procedures. Maybe you don't like the proposed interventions. Maybe school is not in your child's best interest.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, there was a flurry of innovative schools. The "free school" movement was underway, swept along by a strong anti-establishment current during Vietnam War-era America. The modern homeschooling movement was also born, birthed first by countercultural "hippie" liberals before growing rapidly within the religious conservative sphere.
When the social protests faded and the countercultural stream dried up, the majority of the "free schools" also disappeared. Homeschooling, with its agility, hyper-personalization, and rootedness in the family unit, expanded and flourished, ultimately becoming a bipartisan movement that today educates over two million kids.
But most of the "free schools" and similarly small, ideologically-driven schools of the countercultural era vanished. Ron Miller writes in Free Schools, Free People that "when, in the 1970s, American politics stabilized and hippie fashions, rock music, natural foods, and other trappings of the counterculture were transformed into commercial commodities, the tension between consciousness and politics, between personal wholeness and social change, developed into a split, and radical pedagogy was largely divided into its constituent elements."
A few lucky schools remained, like the Sudbury Valley School, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary and serves as a beacon for edupreneurs looking to launch self-directed, Sudbury-style schools. Most of the earlier edupreneurs were not so fortunate and a primary reason may be that they launched schools based on a mission mindset as opposed to an entrepreneurial one.
This continues to be a problem today. Small, innovative schools and self-directed learning centers frequently fail or constantly teeter on the verge of collapse, often because they are driven by ideology and not by business savvy.
Some of these edupreneurs openly declare that they don't want to embrace sound business practices, wrongly associating successful entrepreneurship with greed. They may run their school as a non-profit, arguing that they are not about maximizing revenue but are offering unmeasurable value through relationships and positive experiences.
Newsflash: Whether you run XYZ learning center or Nike, you are creating a value proposition for your clients that hinges on relationship-building and positive experiences. Relationships and positivity are not unique to non-profit edupreneurs. Clients are paying you for a product. This is a free-market exchange.
Successful edupreneurs--whether for-profit or non-profit ones--recognize that a clear and persuasive mission is an essential starting point, but if you stop there, you'll fail. Ideology can only get you so far. Generating revenue, whether through tuition, or donors, or venture capital funds, is the key to an enduring enterprise. So here are four tips for launching--and sustaining--a successful school or learning center:
1. Go beyond mission to value. By all means, start with a clear and powerful mission statement, but quickly move to your value proposition. Why should clients pay for your service? Why is that service special? What do you offer that your competitors don't? When I launched my corporate training company pre-parenthood, I saw a specific need that was not being met by my competitors and I focused exclusively on a niche market. I created value for clients and built a highly profitable company with paid employees. You can do this, too.
2. Revenue should be the goal. Some non-profit edupreneurs cringe at words like "revenue" and "profit," but unless you have a rich uncle bankrolling your venture, you need cash. Time and again I hear from edupreneurs who tried to launch learning centers or schools and they failed because they could no longer work for free. Building a business may require sacrificing some initial income and security, but it should be temporary. Revenue should be your goal.
3. Think like an entrepreneur. What is the opportunity? Where are your competitors failing? Where are the gaps? Successful entrepreneurs seize that gap. They create a product or service that is new and needed. They talk to their customers and their potential customers and then they work their tails off to offer a commodity that is not currently offered--or not offered well. And yes, you are selling a commodity. Even if you are a non-profit, social entrepreneur, you are in the commodity business. Unless you are bartering, clients are paying you for a service. They are giving you money in exchange for something of value. Your job is to sell them on that value.
4. Sharpen your business skills. A major reason why the mission-driven schools of the '60s and '70s failed, and why new ones continue to fail today, is that the founders focused on principle and neglected the practical. Don't do this. Accomplished edupreneurs know how good businesses--even non-profit ones--work. They understand revenue and expenses. They know the difference between fixed and variable costs. They recognize how sales and marketing work, and why they are so important. Do you know what a balance sheet is? If not, start there before launching your enterprise.
You can avoid the fate of the earlier edupreneurs whose ventures dried up when their ideology could not sustain them long enough to pay the bills. Launching a school or a center is running a business. You are an entrepreneur. Your customers are the key to your success. You are selling a commodity.
The sooner you adopt the mindset of an entrepreneur, and embrace sound business practices, the better able you will be to create and grow the school or center of your dreams.
I have been writing more there than here lately, including my latest article today for NPR Boston. Click here to read my commentary on the rising interest in unschooling and other self-directed alternatives to school.
Back-to-school time stirs a range of emotions. Some of us have fond memories, but for others, Scout’s recollection of school in Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” resonates: … as I inched sluggishly along the treadmill of the Maycomb County school system, I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something. Out of what I knew not, yet I did not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me.
You can also find my other recent articles here and here. An article I wrote for Reason Magazine is in the October 2018 print edition, available now to digital subscribers, and should be available online to all later this fall. It's called, "Don't Homeschool Your Kids, Unschool Them."
Finally, this is a fantastic article by writer and editor Dan Sanchez on how to "deschool" your writing to become successful as a professional writer. Here is an excerpt that nails the difference between the way we're taught writing in school and the way today's career writers actually write:
"As a student writer, your job was to perform according to specifications. A successful essay was one that jumped through the right hoops as defined by the assignment requirements and grading rubrics. It also demonstrated that you had done the reading and attended the lectures. But as a real-world writer, you're now in the experience business. Your job is to show your readers a good time: to intrigue and inspire, to enlighten and engross, to please and provoke. You're a dealer in fascinating ideas and satisfying arguments, a purveyor of a-ha moments and epiphanies."
It started with a “Dude Perfect” video on YouTube. A couple of years ago, when Jack was very interested in basketball, he found these guys who make fun videos about making baskets with all sorts of twists and turns. He continued to watch these videos, even after his interest in basketball waned; and when his interest in photography sprouted, he followed the basket-swishers on Instagram. It was there that Jack first learned about the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
The "dudes" posted a video of a young boy with muscular dystrophy who had an opportunity to be in a "Dude Perfect" YouTube video as part of Make-A-Wish's efforts to grant wishes to critically ill children. Jack was mesmerized. He visited the Make-A-Wish Instagram page and was increasingly curious.
Jack then asked if I knew about the organization. I said I had a vague understanding of their mission, but suggested he visit their website to find out more. He read to me the gripping story about the organization's beginnings to its current impact. I was in tears. He explored much of the site, reading more stories and learning more about the different chapters. He decided to make an online donation, giving 20 percent of his total savings to this organization that captivated him. He wanted to know how much Make-A-Wish's total annual donations amounted to. I suggested he search on Wikipedia, but he couldn't find the information there so he returned to the organization's website and downloaded their 2017 annual report and analyzed their audited financial statements to determine annual revenue and expenses, all on his own.
Were you voluntarily reading financial statements at age nine? I certainly wasn't. And I'm fairly certain that the first time I read one was to prepare for a test, not because I was personally curious about an organization's economic health.
This is unschooling. This is where attaining strong literacy and numeracy skills meet individual interests and innate childhood curiosity. This was not forced. This was not part of a curriculum or an objective to get my child to do something or to learn something. It sprouted from a circuitous path of emerging and waning interests to a current desire to learn more about a specific topic. It involved my adult presence and support and interest in his interest, and my encouragement of his knowledge-seeking. This is how parents and educators create the conditions necessary for self-education.
If someone asks what an interest in basketball has to do with "real" learning or how watching YouTube videos can be "educational," this is a good example of how genuine interests lead to deep learning--when those interests and that learning are supported by grown-ups.
In her article, "How Do They Know That?" long-time unschooling author and advocate, Wendy Priesnitz, writes about the natural and enduring ways children learn without schooling. She explains that the difficulty in imagining how one could learn without school is firmly rooted in our own schooled experience, in our own conditioning. She writes:
"The elephant in the room is that much of what is supposedly learned in school isn’t really learned at all. It is mostly material that has been memorized, whether it be history dates, mathematical formulae, or the difference between a verb and a noun. Absent any interest in learning the material and any context for it, as well as sufficient time to experiment with, adapt, and apply the information, I do not think that we can call this process learning. Rather, it is memorizing, regurgitating, and forgetting. (Why else would teachers and some parents bemoan the 'ground lost' during summer vacation?!)"
Independent of curriculum and assessment, learning outside of conventional schooling happens organically through real-life immersion in the people, places, and things around us--both real and virtual. When young people are supported in their self-education, and when we adults respect their interests and encourage their curiosity, they learn and do remarkable things: things (like reading financial statements), that many of us would only think to do when forced.
When I was a child, I remember counting the days until the end of the school year. Once June hit, I would mark off on the calendar the field trip day to a museum and "field day, with its tug-of-war and potato sack races. Those days wouldn't "count" in my total remaining days of the school year because they wouldn't actually be school days. They would be fun. And I loved school! Yet, today I wonder: If I loved school so much, why was I always so eager for it to end?
My Instagram feed fills this time of year with photos announcing the last day of school, for both homeschoolers and conventional schoolers alike. Often, these photos are accompanied by a "first day of school" photo from the fall, showing the beginning and the end. I get it. Childhood moves so quickly that we crave tangible markers of the passage of time, visible measures of growth.
These photos are a vivid reminder of how different unschooling is from standard schooling or school-at-home. With unschooling, there is no beginning and end, no start and stop. I can't even imagine having a "last day of the school year" photo for my kids. What would it look like? The last day of what?
For unschoolers, learning is woven into the continuous, year-round, natural process of living. It is not separated into certain subject silos or reserved for a specified number of hours or days. It is not orchestrated by a linear, sequential curriculum determining how, when, and in what ways a human will learn. It is not pre-determined. It is not forced.
In How Children Fail, John Holt describes how children become conditioned to be taught, to be coerced into learning, to be prodded with bribes and punishments. Children learn that this is what it means to be educated, that others hold the puppet strings. They learn that learning is not within themselves but at the command of others. Holt writes:
"This idea that children won't learn without outside rewards and penalties, or in the debased jargon of the behaviorists, 'positive and negative reinforcements,' usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we treat children long enough as if that were true, they will come to believe it is true. So many people have said to me, 'If we didn't make children do things, they wouldn't do anything.' Even worse, they say, 'If I weren't made to do things, I wouldn't do anything.'
It is the creed of a slave." (italics in original)
My kids read, write, do math, and explore all sorts of topics all year long--not because we tell them to read, write, calculate, and explore, but because they are genuinely excited about learning. They have not been trained otherwise. They read books that they love, ask daily if they can do Prodigy Math on the computer because it is so much fun, write blog posts or scripts or emails or stories because they decide to do so--not because they are cajoled into it. They have no reason to think that math is only something one does during certain seasons or as an "enrichment" activity. They can't imagine a forced writing or reading assignment. They write and read because they want to, because it's useful and enjoyable. They have no mental model to think that reading, writing, and arithmetic are somehow onerous subjects to be avoided, or only reserved for certain times and places.
My 11-year-old daughter has been taking a rigorous fiction writing class through Outschool.com, an online learning platform for kids. The class is taught by an award-winning fiction writer and incorporates live group discussions with her classmates around the world and ongoing writing expectations and feedback. It is quite a commitment, but it is something that she is passionate about, that she is driving. As an unschooling parent, I connected her to Outschool as a possible resource, as well as other local writing classes, and she found that this online class was the best fit for her writing goals. She writes all the time, enthusiastically prepares for her class, and connects with many of her classmates around the globe through Google Hangouts. She also knows that if this course no longer meets her needs, she can leave. So far, she has no interest in leaving and signed on for a three-month summer extension of the course. I found it interesting that some of her other summer classmates are homeschoolers.
Non-coercive, self-directed, interest-driven, adult-facilitated learning has no first day and last day. Unschooling is interconnected with daily life, and authentic learning isn't tied to an arbitrary calendar. There is no ending my children are anticipating this month. If there was something they didn't want to be doing, they wouldn't be doing it.
Summertime rhythms will be similar to springtime ones. They will continue to play with friends and pursue passions. Tomorrow will look much like yesterday and next week. We'll do just as much swimming in September as we do in June. Reading, writing, arithmetic--and so much more--will be explored, freely and joyfully. Photos or not.
I am excited to launch a new, weekly podcast series called Unschooling And... that explores how unschooling connects to broader topics in education and culture, history and philosophy, innovation and entrepreneurship, and so much more.
A special thank you to my nine-year-old son, Jack, for doing all of the production work! I know nothing about podcasting, but fortunately he does. He was the one who suggested that I create a podcast and he did all of the behind-the-scenes producing, editing, music arranging, recording, and uploading work to get this show to you!
And... if you like what you hear on this podcast--as well as on my blog and other articles--please consider subscribing to the podcast and donating to my Patreon page (or make a one-time donation here) so that I can bring you great content more regularly. I am so grateful for your support!
Let me know what you think of the podcast--and what other topics might interest you for upcoming episodes!