Maybe I haven’t been paying attention, but I only recently discovered “unschooling.” Apparently unschooling has been around since 1977 when it was coined by educator John Holt, who believed homeschooling didn’t allow enough learning freedom. According to the website, http://unschooling.com, unschooling is “a method of homeschooling that puts the desire, drive, motive and responsibility for life—this thing we call learning, or education—in the hands of the learner.”

Reading between the lines, and from blogs and articles on the subject, this means that the student, no matter what the age, is in charge of what he learns, when he learns it, and how he learns it. If he doesn’t want to learn long division, no need. If he wants to design and build things out of hardwoods, so be it. If she doesn’t want to research the Civil War and write up a correctly cited report, no problem. If she wants to plant a vegetable garden and raise chickens, all the power to her. And vise versa on all of the above.

The idea of unschooling is intriguing. Students should be encouraged and allowed to pursue their interests, to go deep into those subjects, and to benefit from hands-on experience. And reading the many blogs and comments on various websites about unschooling, those who have experienced it and parents who have “taught” it, have nothing but high praises for this unusual approach to education.

Here comes my however: I read Huffington Post article from 2013 by Lorraine Devon Wilke that took a close look at one unschooling family, the Martins. Wilke wrote that the Martins allow their children, ages 13, 11, 7, and 4, “to make all their own decisions regarding what they do and when.” Wilke quoted Mother Martin as saying: “We live life like every day is a weekend. The kids have never been to school and we don’t force them to study at home. We treat them with the same respect as adults—there’s no punishments or chores. They can have ice cream for breakfast and go to bed at 4 a.m. if they want. They’re smarter and better behaved as a result.”

The mother goes on to say: “I’m not worried in the slightest that if any of the kids want to go to college they will be behind, as they are as bright as any other child their age. If the kids want to go to college, then they will just have to sit the equivalent of a high school exam, but more and more colleges are actually embracing unschoolers, as they are recognizing how self-motivated most of the children are. For now, we’re not going to obsess about what profession the kids will have and what they are going to do when they’re older—we just enjoy every minute.”

I think it is fair to say that most people would find the Martin’s approach extreme, as Wilke does. Wilke points out that the opposite—parents who dictate everything a child does—is just as extreme. I agree.

I do see the mother’s comments on college as a bit naïve. It takes much more to be successful in college than just passing a high school equivalency exam. Maybe her kids would be self-motivated, but what if they decided they didn’t want to write the papers required for a course? For a student used to being in charge of everything he or she learns, it could be a tough transition to suddenly be expected to adhere to strict guidelines, deadlines, and required tasks. On the other hand, not all students are successful in a one-size-fits-all education system. Unschooling may work for some; for others it could be a disaster. Educational options and diverse learning situations would benefit all students. We’ve got a ways to go.

To learn more about unschooling go to the website mentioned above, or read Wilke’s article at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lorraine-devon-wilke/unschooling_b_2225836.html. And be sure to comment: What do you think about the idea of unschooling?