Could ‘Unschooling’ Be the Future of Education?
By BETH HARPAZ
As a 25-year-old single mom, Gina Riley made the decision to “unschool” her son. Instead of sending him off to kindergarten, or home-schooling him with a structured curriculum, his learning would be self-directed. He’d follow his interests, whatever those might be.
“In other people’s eyes, I was conducting a big educational experiment that might not turn out well,” Riley, now a professor at Hunter College, writes in her new book Unschooling: Exploring Learning Beyond the Classroom. “In my eyes, I was following my heart and the needs of the beautiful 5-year-old boy in front of me.”
But Unschooling is not a memoir. It’s a rigorous look at how the unschooling movement came about, how unschooling works, and what the experience is actually like for families. The book may be of particular interest to parents in pandemic times now that so many kids are learning at home.
Riley says unschooling is a “variation of homeschooling where, instead of following a set curriculum, children learn through everyday life experiences. These experiences are of their choosing and tend to match their strengths, interests, and personal learning styles … There are no assignments, no set curriculum, and no structured assessments. Within an unschooling environment, parents do not directly teach or provide direct instruction. Instead, they provide an environmental context that supports their child or teen’s learning and development.”
Unschoolers make up an estimated 20% of the country’s more than 1.7 million homeschooled kids. Famous unschoolers include the children of Ree Drummond, known for her Pioneer Woman blog, and Grammy winners Billie Eilish and her brother. Raised outside the strictures of conventional schooling, the Eilish siblings devoted themselves to music.
Data from several studies Riley co-authored shows that 44% of families turned to unschooling after their child had a bad experience in school—they were bullied, bored, depressed, or anxious. Another 32% of unschooling parents said they themselves had viewed school negatively and they didn’t want their kids to repeat that experience.
How do unschoolers fare as adults? Riley says 44% of those surveyed had bachelor’s degrees or were full-time undergrads, and that they had little trouble getting into college despite the lack of transcripts and test scores. Often they started at a community college and transferred. Among those who were employed, 52% described themselves as entrepreneurs, 48% were in the creative arts, and 29% were in STEM fields.
As for Riley’s son Benjamin, he’s now a master’s student at Hunter with his own music education business. In an article for The Alliance for Self-Directed Education, he noted a “cultural shift towards greater acceptance of alternatives to traditional educational approaches” and said he hopes that “raising awareness” makes it “easier for the next generation.”