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Monday, June 8, 1983



Unschooling - a learn-as-you-go experiment

By Nucy Mullen Special to Tbe Cbr1atian Science Monitor Boston

Author-educator John Holt. who coined the term " unscbooltng," estimates that some 10.000 families acrose the country are shunnine school in favor of teaching their children at borne. He expects that number to grow rapidJy 1li the next few years. _Tbe.treDd Ia a welcome one In Mt. Holt's *'tr. He bas beeo aaytoa for yean that cblldna doa't need to JO to ICbool to learn. In his book-stuffed Boston otnce. Mr. Holt apeats with quiet autbortty about the changes be'd like to see in education. ''nle tundameutal fallacy of our education system is the idea that teach.lng produces leamlng. Actually, in the drama of learning. tNrhtng playa a minor role." he says. "Most ol what children learn.·they find out on their OWD•••• CbUdren are by nature very curi()Us about tbe world around them. and very comPetent and resourceful in exploring and mas-


School gets In the way, In Mr. Holt's opbdon. instead of ilvtna that Internal motivation free play, scbool stifles 1t with external rewards and punishments. testa and regi· mena. "'Teaching, as It's done in the schools. •• be ~ -~'1.-gely submeraes curiOsity. confidence, i'ill1 'willingness ro ask questions. It luJ1lS etdlciren Into collectors of answers the teallbeftwant them to spew back." · Tbe i'eiUlt, he claims, Ia that many c~ dren - even kids who perfonn well - never learn to develop their own reasoning and problem-solving capablUUea. Far better for tJilm If they were left alone, Mr. Holt says lie'uoovinced that cb!Jdren get a better edu· eatioa when tbey are allowed to choose their own activities and learn whatever they w.ant tolmow, when they want to knowtt. ADd what Mr. Holt says squares witb what a good many parenu. have discovered Ollttbeii' own. Home schoolers often start out by st& Scribing to correspondence courses with dailY study guides, acd then scrap them when they find that their children do better wtthout all the regimentation. To encourage these families and keep them in touch with each other, Mr. Holt began publishing "Growing Without Schooling" (GWS) in 1977. This bimonthly new11letter Is a foitsy mix of home-schooling experiences. textbook and field trip suagestlons, news of court decisions, and hints on dealing with local school authorities. Much of It is taken from letters from parents.

Tbe parents' remarks reflect the pioneer spirit behind so many decentralizing trends today. These are people who suggest educa· tion has become over-institutionalJ.zed. They feel a deep personal responsibillty for their children's education and want a larger hand in it. They wact more time to ifve their youngsters moral and religious training. And they savor the daiJy adventure of watching and he~ their children learn. Arlean H.atgbt of Scottville. Mlch., says, "When the kids were In school, they were gone all day and came home at night wltJ'i these gigantic mounds of homework to db. and tMn it was a rush to get things done In time to go to bed. But DOW it's not like that. We're all involved In this as a famlly. Doing scbool work together. it's amazina some of tbe conversations we get Into now about values. We never seemed to have the time before." Home schooling is a learn-as·you-go project,' and parents often admit to feeling shaky at first. How much guidance to Jive chlldren Is always a question. Despite Mr. Holt's boundless faith in children's learning instincts, the parents aren't always comfort· able about leaving a child to himsell. But most are willing to experiment. as Mrs. Haight was when she " unschooled" her cblldren three years ago. Her third-arade son. Matt. bad always been behind in school, and be didn't read well. He had come to think ot himself as a failure at reading, and had developed an aversion to it. At home Mrs. Haight didn't push Matt, but she started taking him to the library to pick out books. With the time and freedom to ,read what he liked, Matt soon became an avid reader. Now, three years later, he reads three years ahead ot IWI erade level acd does sixth-grade work In the other subjects. Matt's sister Becky is an even more impressive ex~ple of what a self-motivated learner can do. For the first year out of scbool, Beclcy showed DO interest In learning "It seemed that seven years of pubHe scbool had successtully stamped out any inclination she might have had to learn," her mother wrote GWS. "By her own adrniaion. sbe had learned to cram for tests. make A's and B's on her report card, and promptly forget almost everything sbe bad 'learned.' " Given a tree rein at home. Becky spent aU her time reading paperback westerns. But gradually this progressed to an Interest In western h.lstory, then to the history of the United States. then to United States govern· ment. These days 15-year-old Becky ls busy memorizing the Constitution. ("How In the world could a schoolteacher ever motivate a kid to memorize the Constitution?'' asks her mother.) Becky has also discovered Shakespeare and is learning Spanish and typing.

Matt and Becky are also required to do some math every day and write a weekly theme to work on spelUng, grammar, and composition. Success stories abou.od in GWS, and Mr. Holt's bow-to book, "Teach Your Own." Fall· ure storiea are conspkuously absent. M.r. Holt sa.ya be mows ot very few C8.8e$ where borne acbooUng waa unsuccessful - and those few didD't work because the parents were overanxious and couldn't resist the temptation to push their children. He adds that ~hooted childten who later take achievement tests are shown to be substantially ahead of schooled children. U the lal.ssez-fatre ~ of teaching baa any shortcominp, Mr. &it doesn't acknowledge them. But Dr. Marilyn DeVore,lndepedent-study director for San Juan Ridge Union School District in California, says sbe feels tbere are losses as well aa gains in home schooling. "ODe negative is that the chJid isn't receJv· 1ng the social Interaction that takes place in the classroom," sbe says. " One of the things I loot for In a proposal for home schooling is : Are the parents aware of that fact. acd are they reaching out toward providing social experiences?" Another th1ng she loots for is "the will· lngneu of the parents to integrate what goes Oil around the borne into the learning experIences and to, in fact, view this as part of the education." Dr. DeVore says strong parental commitment and follow-through are important factors In the success of the 32 ..ttome scboolers in her diltrict. In some conununJUes, getting kids out of ICbool can be a baasle. Home-instruction proerama usuaJly must be approved by local tcbool authorities, and when the authorities won't cooperate, It can lead to a legal battle. "Teach Your Own" Ia tun of advice oo rea.ssurtng school submitting a currtcuJum. rete&rchtng state laws and court ruliDp, and - tt alJ e1Je fails - preparine a legal case. Mr. Holt claims that no parents who have prepared according to his guidelines have lost a court case. Tbe educational communJty. though It doesn't share the Holt vision, stands to benefit from his promotion of It aJI the same. As their numbers increase, home schoolers will open up new terrain for educational research. Mr. Holt says, "Home schoolers may be able to teach the schools some very Important general principles of teaching and learning."


Unschooling article in CS Monitor 1983