Among the ever expanding lexicon of alternative education is the trend toward unschooling.
Unschooling might best be defined as homeschooling without the school. It eschews standardization of education in favor of customization. Unschoolers don’t turn their kitchen tables into de facto classrooms, piled high with math textbooks, reading lists and maps of Asia.
Instead, unschoolers let their children take the lead, allowing them to decide whether they want to study algebra or Civil War history. The children determine whether they prefer to spend a day or a month playing chess or building a catapult.
Unschoolers shun tests, homework and work sheets, believing that a day spent skipping rocks and running barefoot in a meadow yields more science exploration than growing a plant on a windowsill.
Often described as “natural learning” or “independent learning,” unschooling and its belief in following children’s passions have something to teach traditional schools, says Clark Aldrich, author of “Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways to Unlearn What We Know about Schools and Rediscover Education.”
An e-learning guru and co-founder of SimuLearn, Aldrich believes that rather than raising their eyebrows at home schoolers and unschoolers, conventional classrooms ought to be borrowing from them.
In a telephone interview, Aldrich concedes that many parents have neither the will nor the ability to unschool, which requires an adult at home. (Aldrich prefers parents as the primary teachers, saying, “Parents care more about their children than some institution.”)
But Aldrich says unschooling offers a blueprint for meaningful and relevant education, helping children learn to be — who they are and who they want to be — and learn to do, developing skills through practice and passion.
At conventional schools children learn neither to be nor to do. Instead, schools focus almost entirely on learning to know, cramming kids full of facts that most of them will be able summon on their smart phones in seconds.
Nothing of value can be measured by multiple choice tests, says Aldrich. “They emphasize the memorization of massive amounts of facts that neurologically have a half-life of about 12 hours,” he says.
Students ought to be judged not by transcripts, but by portfolios that reveal their capabilities and their accomplishments over time.
After three decades of education reforms in this country, Aldrich says, “The argument can be made that we have made schools worse and we have to start over.
“The notion of parents dropping off their kids at school, organizing the kids into large groups, having those large groups sitting in classrooms being lectured to and taking tests to reach these weird standards set by a third party has no standing in real life,” he says.
“If traditional schools are the thesis and unschooling and home schooling are the antithesis, perhaps we can reach more synthesis,” he says. “For me, the question is how do we create as much diversity as we can in education because the more diversity, the healthier the eco system.
“Most new ideas die in the traditional school structure,” says Aldrich. “Our schools are monopolies. When you have monopolies of ideas, the problems you start seeing are standardization, rising costs and lack of creativity.
“If home schoolers and unschoolers can be incubators for new ideas, we may be able to introduce some of these new ideas back into traditional schools,” he says.
His 55 unschooling rules offer points of unanimity — “Animals are better than books about animals,” and “Have a well stocked library.”
But there are other more contentious rules, such as “Teaching is leadership. Most teaching is bad leadership,” and “Homework helps school systems, not students.”
“We have built a reward structure to praise those students who can sit in classrooms better than anyone else,” he says. “We let them run our planet.”
Schools are teaching too many children too many things that don’t excite them and have no relevance to what they need or love, including accelerated math, says Aldrich.
While he understands the need for more science and math talent, Aldrich says we are going about it in a hamfisted way.
“We need 5 percent of our citizens to be really good at this,” he says. “What is our solution? Let’s have every single kid spend a lot more time learning stuff they will never use to find the 5 percent who are exceptionally good at it.”
In one passage bound to cheer math-weary high school students, he writes, “For most students, calculus should be covered in history classes, if at all. It is a towering invention in the same vein as the potter’s wheel or the loom.”
As someone who traffics in new media, gaming and e-learning, Aldrich says traditional math curriculums overemphasize long division, calculus and geometry, while slighting discrete math, logic and programming —the skills that are more applicable now.
Aldrich understands that few may be ready to heed his call to dismantle the “education industrial complex.”
But he says, change is urgently needed. “If we spend more time on one standardized curriculum and trying to force everyone down that one path — which fits for some but not for most — we will have this problem of kids constantly checking out.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog