Courier Journal Unschooling Article

'Unschooling' popularity grows: Children pursue what interests them

ST. JOHN, Ind. — As other children are waking up and heading toward the school bus on a Tuesday morning, Adele Schiessle asks her children if they want to spend the day playing on a 6,000-square-foot indoor inflatable play area.

Collin, 6, and Amber, 7, agree that would be a pleasant way to start the morning. After they play on the bouncy furniture, they head back to their home in St. John, where they spend the rest of the day watching TV, navigating XBox, working on art projects and playing games.
It is just another day in the Schiessle household, where the children learn through a branch of homeschooling called unschooling.

While the definition of unschooling varies, it generally reflects a concept of child-led learning.
For Carol Pozos' oldest child, it meant self-taught reading at age 4.
For 18-year-old Abby Stewart of Chicago, it meant the recent news that she had won early admission to Princeton.

"It's an awareness that learning is always happening because it's part of living," said Jane Van Stelle Haded of Hobart, who unschools her two children. "It's almost trying to capitalize on whatever your children are interested in."

Unschooled children don't go to school, but unlike other homeschoolers they don't necessarily learn through workbooks, educational guides or study sources. Instead, the children pursue what interests them. The unschooling concept has been around for decades, but it's been slow to catch on, as initially most parents shy away from letting their children have such control over their own education.

"I'm trying to get rid of the idea that learning happens at a certain time in a certain place," Van Stelle Haded said.

There aren't any statistics on unschoolers yet, but the popularity of unschooling is reflected in the number of message boards on the Internet, in the abundance of unschooling clubs, in the frequency of unschooling conferences and in the slow but steady movement of unschooling into the vocabulary of educators.

Marilyn Haring, professor of educational studies at Purdue University, said that while unschooling is valuable because it questions aspects of traditional schooling, it is not without problems.

"With regard to unschooling, I believe this is best described as utopian," Haring said. "A minuscule few youngsters may have the high intelligence and motivation to inquire broadly and also learn how to learn. The vast majority, however, have no idea what might be learned and why it is important."

Part of the increased attention on alternative education may be the rebellion against educational initiatives such as No Child Left Behind. It was one of the reasons Janna Odenthal of Chesterton embraced unschooling for her child. "The testing doesn't do any good," she said.
In a 2003 survey by the U.S. Department of Education, the number of children educated at home nationally was 1.1 million, an increase of 29 percent from the previous study in 1999.

Seth Odenthal, 10, has been unschooled since he was about 5.
"I went ahead and gave it a try, and I fell in love with the things we could do together, the flexibility in our schedule," his mother said. When Seth took an early interest in cooking and baking, Odenthal embraced his curiosity, and the two of them cook together. She even signed him up for a local cooking class. Seth never formally learned math, but Odenthal said he excels at it because it's a natural progression from his cooking interests.

Indiana doesn't require the unschoolers to take standardized tests, and parents are allowed to give their unschooled children high school diplomas when the parents believe the children are ready to graduate.

Since education laws in Indiana are loose, parents of unschoolers can take different approaches to learning. But most tend to have a few common practices. Students don't sit at desks to learn, as parents believe learning happens all the time. And while they aren't taught how to read or write or do science, the children usually ask their parents enough questions that they eventually learn on their own.

"My oldest was reading on her own without being taught before she turned 5," said Carol Pozos, who unschools her three children in her Michigan City home. "I did not do anything except read to her, and she soaked it up and was reading full sentences. I thought to myself, 'Obviously, this works.' " Pozos, who has a degree in elementary education, enrolled one of her children in preschool because the child had been begging her to go to school since she was 3. But when her daughter refused to return to school halfway through the year, Pozos decided to try teaching her children herself. Her children are 8, 7 and 4, and other than a half-year of preschool, all three have been learning at home their entire lives. They also have chores they're required to do every morning.
And once they finish their chores? "We do whatever we want," said 8-year-old Isabel, who spent a recent afternoon on the floor of her living room flipping through a picture book with her 4-year-old brother. On Thursday mornings the children attend an art class filled with unschoolers and their parents. "Books are out, and if they want to draw they can draw," Pozos said of the class. "If they don't want to participate, they can go off in the corner and play."

To prepare for the SAT college admission tests, 18-year-old unschooler Abby Stewart bought some test prep books and took some old subject matter tests. She posted an overall SAT score of 2,350 out of a possible 2,400.

Pozos said she'd be happy if her children went to college, as long as they are happy with their decision. "I'm not one of those people who says, 'I want my son to be a doctor and my daughter to be an attorney.' I just want them to be happy. If Armand wants to be a stay-at-home dad and Isabel wants to be a marine biologist, that's just fine."