This was posted back in January but I forgot to share it, so here it is.
Monday, January 30, 2006:
Unschoolers' chart their own course
Mandy Ridiman is 17 years old, but she's never been in a classroom, taken a test or followed a school schedule.
When it comes to Mandy's education, her curiosity dictates what she learns. Take, for example, the time she got interested in mummies after seeing one on TV. Soon she was soaking up the science of mummification, the history of ancient Egypt, comparative religions, hieroglyphics, how rivers flood and mathematical riddles of the pyramids — until she decided to move on.
"I was just amazed at so many things," she said.
Mandy and her family, who live in Newport in Northern Kentucky, are "unschoolers," followers of an unconventional branch of home schooling in which children learn mainly what they want, when they want -- no teachers, curriculum, schedules or tests.
They probably represent 5 percent to 10 percent of the more than 1.1 million home-schooled children in the country, experts say. But unlike traditional home-schoolers, most unschoolers reject structured coursework and age-appropriate learning.
Instead, they believe that most lessons can be learned from everyday life, from cooking to gardening; that children don't need to master a skill such as reading or multiplication until they're ready; and that children's interests can largely guide their education.
"You're saying, 'We're going to trust the child, trust that they're going to learn, and by following what they're interested in, it will happen naturally,' " said Debbie Harbeson, an unschooling parent who lives in Sellersburg, Ind.
Critics question the logic of that approach.
They imagine children doing nothing all day, or failing to learn all they need to know for college. And they worry that children will develop their strengths but ignore their weaknesses.
"The premise … that children automatically know how and what to learn … is utter nonsense," wrote Gail Withrow, the author of a home-schooling Web site in Texas who has argued that unschooling takes self-directed learning too far.
Ian Slatter, a spokesman for the Home School Legal Defense Association in Virginia, acknowledges that the method requires a radical rethinking of how children learn.
"People think if you just allow children to do what they want, then no education is taking place, or a child won't read, write or function in society," he said. "I don't think that's accurate."
Experts estimate that unschooling is growing at about the same rate of home schooling, which increased 29 percent between 1999 and 2003, according to federal statistics. Kentucky has 12,170 home-schoolers, a number that has not increased substantially since 2000.
Unschooling gained popularity in the 1960s and 1970s. The term was coined by education reformer John Holt, who argued that children should be trusted as capable learners and that schools squelched their natural curiosity.
Like all home-schoolers in Kentucky, unschoolers are not required to take state achievement tests, exams or learn skills by any specific date.
Parents must register with the state, and then provide occasional reports stating that the child is attending the home school, identifying what they are learning and acknowledging that they are progressing academically.
When unschoolers graduate, they receive a diploma from their home school -- no final exams are required. Some take college entrance exams, and it's then up to schools to decide how valuable their education has been.
Unschooling parents "facilitate" their children's learning by providing resources, stocking the home with books, computers and microscopes, and helping their children join activities. Some explain the academic concepts involved in their child's current interests, such as how geometry was integral to building Egyptian pyramids. They also set up unschooling groups, in which others can help explain higher-level concepts or can aid socialization.
Unschooling parents tend to have a college education and be part of two-parent households in which one parent can stay home. They observe their children closely, and at times might nudge them toward concepts to help ensure that they're learning everything they should.
"If I am concerned that they need to learn something, I set up situations that ease them into it," said Kathryn Ridiman, Mandy's mother. "Giving them a grocery list and asking them to buy the groceries and make change, for example, taught them that they need to know how to add and subtract."
Higher-level math and science concepts often are tackled by teens using books after they find out what's needed for college.
Although unschooling parents acknowledge that their children probably won't learn all the concepts in the state curriculum, they argue that public schools push too many topics and teach them too shallowly.
"Who decides what is important and what is not? … How often in my adult life have I used the periodic table?" Ridiman said.
Making up a gap in college:
Some unschoolers find they must take remedial coursework in college.
Debbie Harbeson's daughter, Melissa Harbeson, 22, of Floyds Knobs, was an unschooler whose interests drew her to a broad range of subjects. Gardening, for example, led her to the chemistry of soil testing and scientific planting trials.
She filled her days reading history books and visiting museums. She said she almost never "just sat around," but took breaks when she felt like it.
She took a German class at a community college. When she heard her public-school friends talking about Modern Language Association format for writing research papers, she got a book and learned what it was.
Although her math skills weren't as accomplished, she did well enough on her SATs to be accepted at all five colleges to which she applied, including Notre Dame.
She decided to stay close to home, choosing Indiana University Southeast. She had to take some lower-level math courses but found she could think critically and learn quickly.
"I didn't understand the concept of learning as a chore," said Harbeson, who today works at the DePaul School in Louisville.
Some unschooling parents admit they worry. "Any parent who cares will have moments where they wonder if they're doing the right thing," said Laura Derrick, president of the National Home Education Network. "Unschoolers are on the fringe, doing things that most parents wouldn't consider doing."
Carrie Otterson has had doubts, but so far she has been reassured by how her 8-year-old son, Oren, learns without receiving explicit instruction.
His day might include an art project, reading magazines and hunting for fossils.
"My son picked up multiplication and division without knowing what they're called," she said.
Janet Futrell unschooled her children while living on 25 acres near Big Hill, Ky.
Futrell decided schools wasted time and arbitrarily pushed learning expectations. So she let her children, Andrew and Brook, guide their schooling.
Andrew "spent half of every day of the year roaming around in the woods. He just wandered, watched and looked. He came back with stuff he found, looked it up and asked about it. Now, he's an ecologist working on his Ph.D in freshwater systems," she said.
Some experts say that the idea of self-directed or child-led learning -- although taken to an extreme with unschooling -- could hold lessons for public schools seeking ways to engage students.
"There's no question we have to organize schools more around the interest of kids," said Phillip Schlechty, director of the Louisville's Schlechty Center for Leadership in School Reform.
This was posted back in January but I forgot to share it, so here it is.