The latest trend in education: Unschooling

Aidan practices writing his ABCs.
Courtesy "Chris and Jenni", Creative Commons license

It's one thing to home-school your child, where parents become the teachers. They can download lesson plans, buy workbooks, and register their kids for online classes.

It's another thing to "unschool" your child. Kelli Traaseth insists she is not the teacher for her three children.

Abbi Traaseth likes unschooling. She says that when she gets to explore her own interests she is much more likely to remember what she learns.
MPR Photo/Sanden Totten

"I used to describe myself as a tour guide," Traaseth laughs. "I thought that was kind of corny but kind of true, because I help them along."

During the hours most kids are at school, Traaseth's house is full of activity. Her kids spend the day surfing the Internet, playing music, reading, painting or whatever else catches their fancy. Unschooling is about letting a child decide what to do and what to learn.

For Traaseth's 12-year-old daughter Abbi, that means studying piano, updating her blog, or reciting Shakespeare. Abbi read her first play by Shakespeare when she was only 9. It was "Macbeth." She found out about the play after reading a quote from it in Harry Potter.

Abbi says on any given day, she has dozens of interests. She'll wake up in the morning and start researching, writing or asking her mom about whatever is on her mind. Together, they'll look into one topic, but often end up studying something completely different.

Abbi's older brother Alec is much more focused. He delves into his studies for days at a time, sometimes staying up late in the night working out a single problem. He's only 14, but he has the determination of a graduate student.

Alec Traaseth
Alec Traaseth is playing Kingdom Hearts 2. It's a Japanese import video game that has inspired him to consider learning Japanese.
MPR Photo/Sanden Totten

Except Alec is not solving complicated math equations -- he's playing video games.

"This game, there's so much to it," Alec says about a game he's been recently mastering. "Now I've put in a total of at least 300 hours into it."

Three hundred hours? On video games? Most parents would cringe in pain at the thought. Spending months on Shakespeare is one thing, but playing World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy and Halo 2?

But that part of unschooling. Kelli Traaseth says if you tell your kids what they can and can't learn from, you'll shut down their curiosity.

That's what she saw happening to Alec when he was in school. She says he was bored and depressed, that he was losing his drive to learn. So she pulled him out of the third grade.

Since then he's spent his time building massive Lego ships, studying Japanese samurai, and playing his Xbox.

Kelli Traaseth
Kelli Traaseth says her son Alec is picking up problem solving skills from video games. She also notes that he has excellent hand eye co-ordination.
MPR Photo/Sanden Totten

But Traaseth says video games inspire Alec to learn about other things, too.

"If you want to use school terms, geography, history, social studies. Alec has no time for mindless video games. It definitely has to be the problem-solving strategy to it," says Traaseth.

Unschooling isn't a new idea. Thinkers from Socrates to Jean Jacques Rousseau have touted the benefits of letting a child's interests lead their education.

But it was John Holt who penned the term "unschooling" in the late 1970s. He inspired some families to abandon the school system for a looser approach to education.

Recently, the idea has been catching on. Estimates are hard to come by, but within the roughly 1.1 million home-schoolers in the U.S., it's clear many are being unschooled.

Unschooling message boards and listservs are springing up around the country, some with several hundred members.

"Even someone who loves to read Shakespeare needs to know math, science and history."

But critics are on the rise, too. They say it's wonderful to think kids will soak up knowledge on their own, but that's not always the case.

"That is the romantic notion," says Gretchen Wheelwright, a retired high school teacher, principal and professor at Troy University in Alabama. "It was resurrected in the '60s for the hippies. Go out and everybody make love and the world is going to be a beautiful place. Our experience is that isn't what happens."

Wheelwright says unschooling is a disservice to children.

She remembers public schools trying a similar approach in the 1960s and '70s, when students could choose their own classes they wanted and work on self-directed projects.

"You saw the results five, 10 years later. They didn't know anything," says Wheelwright. "They had vast gaps in areas that they should have known." Wheelwright says even someone who loves to read Shakespeare needs to know math, science and history.

In states like Minnesota, children taught at home are required to take annual exams, but the state Education Department never looks at the results. That makes it tricky for college admission counselors. Yet some universities like Stanford and MIT have welcomed some of these unconventional students.

For Roya Sooroshian, getting into college wasn't a problem. She's been unschooled since the fourth grade. She passed the high school equivalency exam at 15. Now, at 22, she just graduated from California State University at Long Beach.

Sooroshian says when she first started taking formal classes, she was amazed at the difference between her and her classmates.

"I'd get homework and I'd go do it, and yet all the other students wouldn't do it at all, or they'd try to do the least they could," says Sooroshian. "I think that's because they're tired of school. They're tired of people telling them what's important to learn right now. I never had that."

Sooroshian says her education gave her plenty of freedom. And that freedom is at the heart of unschooling.

But many parents and educators wonder -- left to their own devices, will kids find their internal compass and succeed in life? Or will they lose their way without the road map of a more structured education?

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