Monday, July 08, 2024

Unschooling Is the Parenting Trend That’s Pissing Everyone Off No math. No social studies. Kids set the curriculum. Is this trend in education helping or harming kids?


"Unschooling." Put that word into your vocabulary. It overlaps with the concept of "homeschooling," which tends to have an anti-government, individualistic, libertarian bent to it. I can see how this can be a class issue with families requiring sustained, inordinate resources and parental time, which are luxuries that most families do not have. 

I think there are legitimate critiques of education, including many which I share. My concern is what is expressed by Indiana University professor of education Robert Kunzman as follows:

"Perhaps the biggest drawback of an unschooling education, according to Kunzman, is one that is less quantifiable via research. In a world that has become increasingly polarized, where there is far less focus on being civic-minded or community-minded and there has been increasing emphasis on the self, Kunzman is concerned that unschooling in a limited, siloed environment can further contribute to children growing up in an isolated bubble, without exposure to outside ideas or perspectives."

The anti-thesis of this kind of education for me is expansive, meaning interdisciplinary where young people of all ages can learn an array of topics across many fields where they can make connections across them. Children optimally develop the capacity to think analytically, evaluate and synthesize evidence, and become independent thinkers. Empathy and interpersonal skills, especially involving working in and with one's community, help prepare youth to first know and love themselves so that they can know and love others. This has never been more important in our increasingly connected and highly diverse world.

Fostering a sense of personal responsibility and being an active citizen to make the world a better place can't happen in a silo that diminishes not solely children's worlds but as a system, diminishes democracy to that which one can get out of it as opposed to what one can do to perfect the union.

-Angela Valenzuela

Unschooling Is the Parenting Trend 

That’s Pissing Everyone Off

No math. No social studies. Kids set the curriculum. Is this trend in education helping or harming kids?


“WE DON’T TEACH our children anything,” the spiritual influencer Mami Onami proclaims in a TikTok. “Anything that they learn is in response to either their interest or their questions.” She has near-translucent 

“WE DON’T TEACH our children anything,” the spiritual influencer Mami Onami proclaims in a TikTok. “Anything that they learn is in response to either their interest or their questions.” She has near-translucent blue eyes and razor-sharp cheekbones, with tattoos snaking across her neck, arms, and taut abdominal muscles; one of them is the word “gentleness” on her forehead, in neat cursive. She then flips open to a page of her six-year-old son Rainer’s notebook, where he has scrawled the words “egg,” “lamp,” “jar,” and “lion.” “This is him doing it by himself,” she says, adding, “If you do not like this idea of sending your kids away for 40 hours a week, if you are not into your kids conforming, trust that you can follow their interests and they will learn everything they need to learn, not what other people need them to learn.”

There are 4,075 comments on the video, almost all of which are vitriolic. “You’re crippling your children,” one top comment sniffs. “It’s fine if you want to keep them ignorant forever….I personally want better for my kids.” Many call her “lazy,” accusing her of shirking her responsibilities in educating her children. Some of the most vicious comments are directed not at Onami, but at her son, mocking him for being developmentally “behind.”


The best part is that my son LOVES learning, LOVES beginning something new, and is experienced with practicing things until he improves. They do this school because they want to, and when you want to know something; your retention is 💯. Learn more about what we teach our kids at the story highlight “we teach them” #freeschool #unschool @Your Natural Learner

♬ original sound – Mami Onami

Onami is no stranger to controversy: A spiritual influencer and teacher with more than 250,000 followers on TikTok, she has advocated for such practices as “free birth,” or pregnancy and labor without medical intervention, and drinking her own menstrual blood. But she says she was shocked by the venomous reaction. “I wasn’t expecting that video to blow up,” she tells Rolling Stone. “If I had, my hair wouldn’t have been looking like that.” She says she posted it because she was genuinely proud of her son’s achievements. She had been concerned about his prior lack of engagement in reading or writing, and she was thrilled to see him starting to express interest in words of his own volition.

“To have a bunch of people on the internet say that my son is stupid, that I’m a negligent parent and people should call CPS on me — that really hurt my feelings at first,” she says. “[But] I’m not going to listen to a comments section about how to raise my kids. That would be like trusting the comments section on where to invest your money. You would really only have yourself to blame if it didn’t work.”

Onami is a mother of two children, ages six and three, with a third on the way. She’s a proponent of “unschooling” (though she refers to it as “free schooling”), an ideology that proposes that children learn best when their education is self-directed — meaning that they do not attend formal classes, have teachers, or adhere to a formal curriculum of any kind. 

Unschooling encompasses a wide range of pedagogical philosophies. Some unschoolers adhere to a semblance of a schedule and provide loose instruction on subjects like reading and math; others eschew structure altogether, allowing their kids to create their own schedules. There are also a number of self-directed, “free democratic” schools, such as the Free School in upstate New York and Summerhill in the United Kingdom, which allow children to learn at their own pace, without formal grade divisions or teaching instructors.  Overall, however, unschooling can broadly be defined as “a method in which there is no imposed curriculum on the child,” explains Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College and one of the founding members of the Alliance for Self-Directed Education. “So the child is in charge, in a sense, of their own education. It’s based on the idea that children naturally learn what they are naturally curious about.” 

But even though unschooling has become increasingly popular on social media in recent years, it has plenty of detractors, as the scathing response to Onami’s video amply demonstrates — many of whom believe that parents who “unschool” their children are misguided at best, and negligent or borderline abusive at worst. Others worry that the community interaction a child has at school is an important part of socializing them for a successful adulthood. But to Onami, not training them to be part of our current society is a feature, not a bug. “In so many different ways, people are saying the system is broken. The way that things are set up is broken; who’s on top, who’s on bottom, is broken,” says Onami. “And school is the institution that prepares people to live in that world.” 

As a pedagogical approach, unschooling has been around for decades. (It’s worth noting that many advocates do not like the term, preferring to refer to it as “self-directed learning.”) It was initially coined by John Holt, a 1970s educator who was also the cofounder of a newsletter called Growing Without Schooling. That helped popularize the idea that children could learn “through facilitation, not just direct teaching,” says Gina Riley, the program director of the adolescent special education program at CUNY Hunter College, and a former unschooling parent herself. 

Estimates vary in terms of how many unschoolers there currently are in the United States: Riley posits that 20 percent of homeschoolers would probably qualify as unschoolers, while Robert Kunzman, a professor of education at Indiana University and the managing director for the International Center for Home education research, puts that figure at about 10 percent. (Most data suggests there are a little more than 3 million homeschooled students in the United States.) Kuzman points out that nearly a quarter of states don’t require any form of registration from homeschooled families at all, making it difficult to get “good, comprehensive data” on the subject. “It’s a lot of guesswork and approximation and reliance on anecdotes and small-scale studies,” he says. 

What does seem clear, however, is that on social media, unschooling, much like homeschooling, has enjoyed a massive explosion of interest. There are numerous parenting groups devoted to unschooling on Facebook, some of which have tens of thousands of members, while influencers have garnered hundreds of thousands of followers by documenting their lives as unschooling parents. Searches for the term on Google have increased 22 percent over the past month, thanks to the explosion of unschooling discourse on TikTok and Reddit; and they have almost doubled over the past two years. 

“After Covid, you saw large jumps in homeschooling. Parents got a glimpse into their child’s classrooms and there was sort of this feeling of, ‘Oh, I can do this.’”

Riley, who has conducted numerous studies focusing on the unschooling trend, attributes this spike in popularity to the pandemic, when parents were forced to play an active role in their children’s remote learning. ”After Covid, you saw large jumps in homeschooling,” Riley explains. “Parents saw what was going on in school or got a glimpse into their child’s classrooms and there was sort of this feeling of, ‘Oh, I can do this.’” (Regulations for homeschooling vary by state, but many require children to be tested and to adhere to some form of curriculum, while others are less rigorous.) 

As these parents started remote education with their children at home, however, some of them realized “you can’t really replicate school at home.” They shifted from seeing themselves as teachers to seeing themselves as “facilitators of learning,” Riley explains, resulting in them being more inclined toward embracing a more self-directed model of learning. There was also, admittedly, an element of self-validation involved in embracing the label, says Gray. Because homeschooling is difficult and labor-intensive, parents who may have found themselves bored, or unwilling or unable to assume a more conventional teacher role, might have gravitated toward the community to alleviate their “guilt” over not assuming a more active role, says Gray. 

“They may feel like, ‘I’m homeschooling, but I’m not doing anything that looks like school,’” he says. “Then they somehow discover the term unschooling, and they feel better, because there are other people doing this, and then they get connected with them. And that sort of allows them to feel it’s legitimate.” 

Traditionally, the perception of homeschoolers has been that the majority of them are conservative Christians who have chosen to educate their children outside the home for religious reasons. But as homeschooling has increased in popularity, this is no longer true, says Riley. “We used to say that homeschooling was a white, two-parent family kind of thing, middle to upper class,” she says. “And all of those numbers are very, very different than they were in the Eighties and Nineties.” 

The same can be said of unschooling: As the movement has grown, it has become increasingly diverse, with Black families in particular increasingly gravitating toward it, viewing it as part and parcel with “a larger Black liberation movement,” says Gray. Unlike the widespread perception that only middle- to upper-class families can afford to homeschool their children, unschooling families also tend to be lower on the socioeconomic spectrum, he adds. “People who choose this route are people who have values other than material value,” he says. “They’re not as oriented towards high achievement in the usual sense — high-status job, high income. They want to be self-sufficient. They often have gardens, they make their own food. They live relatively simply.” (When I ask Gray if he is describing “hippies,” he concedes that that’s “probably a fair assessment” of many, if not most, unschooling parents.) 

Gray and other experts I spoke with also were of the opinion that unschoolers tend to be all over the political spectrum, though many have more of a libertarian bent, emphasizing the importance of “personal freedom,” he says. Indeed, there does appear to be some overlap between parents who unschool and those who harbor general anti-establishment ideologies, with many unschooling parents on social media also promoting anti-vaccine or anti-government views.

There are some children who appear to clearly benefit from this type of self-directed learning. Ben Riley, the son of unschooling researcher Gina Riley, is one such example. Ben was unschooled for the entirety of his childhood and adolescence, a process he refers to as “learning as living.” He never received formal math or reading instruction, instead learning quantitative reasoning by helping to write a grocery budget, for instance, or becoming interested in geology after amassing a giant rock collection. “It wasn’t like I learned about something and then had to learn the practical application much later,” Riley, now an editor and music educator, tells Rolling Stone. “The knowledge just happened very organically, as we went along. In retrospect, I’m very grateful for it.” 

Despite facing judgment from neighbors and family members, Riley says he enjoyed his unschooling experience, ultimately deciding to continue with it after briefly flirting with the prospect of public school when he was an adolescent. “There’s a lot of social pressure around it,” he says. “People are afraid of what they don’t know.” After getting a certificate of completion from his local school district, he eventually got a music degree from Nyack College and a master’s in music education from CUNY Hunter, becoming what he characterizes as a “normal, functioning human.” 

“There’s a misperception that homeschoolers and unschoolers are in their homes all day and they’re not interacting with the outside world, when in my experience, nothing could be further from the truth,” he says. “I’m a huge proponent of critical thinking, and I personally think that unschooling and homeschooling enhances that because we’re in the world, interacting with different ideas, opinions, and beliefs, all the time.”

But Ben’s experience is not universal. Though data on unschooling is limited, there is evidence to suggest that kids who do not have access to as much educational and community resources are not good candidates for unschooling. Onami says that contrary to the perception that parents who unschool are lazy and unengaged, it requires a great deal of time and energy to make oneself available to one’s children at all times. She is also open about the fact that unschooling requires a fair amount of economic privilege as well. “It’s quite a time commitment,” she says. “It takes quite a bit of privilege to be able to do it. It’s taken a lot of getting things financially correct to be able to do it in a way that I feel really proud of it.” 

Onami does not consider herself “dogmatic” about unschooling. “I’m not the type of person that thinks that unschooling is good for everybody,” she says. “I think that for every family is going to have a different culture.” But she feels that for her family, unschooling is less of an educational mindset than a complete reframing of what it means to be a successful, high-functioning adult in the modern world. School, she says, “is a framework that mimics the career path that the majority of achievers will be on. It’ll mimic the 40-hour work week, having a boss that you don’t question, being on a team with other people, having disagreements in the workplace,” she says. “And this is what 80 percent of high achievers lives’ will look like. But for the other 20 percent of high achievers, that framework is irrelevant.” 

As someone who runs her own spiritual coaching business, Onami hopes to teach her children to “use their creative gifts to start new things, as opposed to working for other people,” and she has incorporated her own business into her son’s education, encouraging him to run a produce stand to encourage “entrepreneurship” and selling his photographs on her website. (It is perhaps unsurprising that, according to Onami, many unschoolers are also members of the “entrepreneurship” community: “It just seems to make so much sense to focus on what you’re passionate about and what you’re creative about, and basically discard everything that’s not relevant to that mission,” she says.)

Some research also suggests that children who are unschooled underperform on academic assessments, particularly regarding reading. A handful of studies have found that children who are unschooled consistently underperform on academic testing compared to their traditionally schooled or more structured homeschooled peers, though Gray notes that such kids tend to catch up in their reading skills in particular as they get older. In my conversations with unschooling parents and researchers, I was told multiple times that it is not uncommon for unschooled children to learn to read as late as 12 years old. But Onami, whose six-year-old son still does not know how to read, is unconcerned about such statistics. “My number-one mission is just to make sure that my kids don’t get a bad taste in their mouth about learning and that they feel smart and confident,” she says. “Whatever it takes to make that happen is the goal for me.” 

There is also some evidence to suggest that many children, particularly those with developmental disabilities, may be negatively impacted by an unstructured academic environment. Gray cites one instance of a child on the spectrum who was enrolled in a free democratic school, who had to be asked to leave the school when it became clear that the self-directed model was not benefiting her. “She was not attending to other people, she was not interested in other people, at least not in any overt sense,” he says. “[That is not consistent with] a kind of a school setting where children are free to learn, and they’re learning from one another.” 

Gray notes, however, that he has seen other children on the spectrum thrive in schools offering self-directed learning environments. “By being in this school where nobody was telling them they had to do something that they didn’t really want to do, they were learning to be social, and they were doing what they were good at,” he says. And as a result of that, they were coming out of their shells and learning to talk to other people about what interested them.” But he concedes that unschooling “at home,” outside the context of a social environment, may not offer such benefits.

Perhaps the biggest drawback of an unschooling education, according to Kunzman, is one that is less quantifiable via research. In a world that has become increasingly polarized, where there is far less focus on being civic-minded or community-minded and there has been increasing emphasis on the self, Kunzman is concerned that unschooling in a limited, siloed environment can further contribute to children growing up in an isolated bubble, without exposure to outside ideas or perspectives.

“One of the traditional roles of public schools has been to prepare young people to be citizens in a democracy,” he says. “We can talk about reading and writing as crucial academic skills, but I think there’s something to be said for this idea that schooling, whether it’s traditional schools or alternative forms, somehow needs to help prepare young people to step into the role of thoughtful and respectful citizens. And so I think it’s an open question: When these alternative forms gained greater prominence, do they share that same commitment? And what does that commitment look like?”

When I pose this question to Onami, however, she is unconcerned. “Trying to make my kid a civic-minded being in a functioning democracy — that’s the fucking last thing I want for my kids is to is to be like everybody else, is to learn how to operate within a system that I think is fundamentally broken,” she says. “School is the institution that prepares people to live in that world and to not question the authority that is keeping that world turning.” This concern “pushes me so much deeper into being a homeschooling fan,” Onami says. “Because that’s not what I want for my kids at all.”

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