I grew up with Good Housekeeping. It was the one magazine my mother subscribed to, and since there wasn’t a lot of reading material around my house and I liked to read, I read it.
Perhaps my familiarity with the magazine’s style contributed to my lack of surprise about the article it just published about unschooling. The piece by Caroline Picard combines the tendency of the press to misunderstand and pass judgment on unschooling with the magazine’s smiley, Disney-like, and slightly sensational tone.
The latter is in play with the headline: My Kids Don’t “Do” School and I’m Okay With It. The subhed is worse: Unschooling is an extreme form of homeschooling you never heard about. And yes, it’s totally legal.
Most readers of media (hopefully) know that in our digital world headlines are little more than click bait and thus are to be ignored, but “extreme”? Really?
Once we get into the text the reporter tries to educate readers about what unschooling is. “Back in 1977, educator John Holt coined the phrase to describe students who direct their own learning, whether it’s through hobbies, chores, work, travel and, yes, even TV and video games.”
Yes, gasp! Even TV and video games! Before we started homeschooling, my eldest spent a year at a public school kindergarten in a “good” school district and watched more Disney movies there than at home, where we got rid of our TV, but I digress with that irony. What strikes me about Picard’s definition is what’s missing from her list. Books were one of my children’s major learning tools, as they are for most unschoolers I know. The learning tools Picard does list are widely used by all people, not just unschoolers, but her failure to include books or anything else that society deems “educational” indicates that she, like so many others, believes that unschoolers make little use of materials that fall into that category, because the assumption, which couldn’t be further from the truth, is that kids would never choose those things.
Later in the article Picard cites a 2011 study which found that unschoolers between the ages of 5 and 10 scored below other students on academic achievement tests. I have no idea how my kids would have done on standardized tests when they were that small, nor do I care. The priorities of unschoolers are so far removed from whether they can excel on a standardized test at all, never mind when they are five to ten years old. Even the researchers acknowledge that little can be gleaned from their sample size of 12 unschoolers, and acknowledge that there is no way to know whether these kids would eventually catch up or surpass their peers in time.
Picard also trots out the old, tired beef about socialization. Schools don’t just teach “subjects,” she says. Developing social skills is important, too. Well, duh. Picard did, I assume, meet the kids she profiled in the article. She also talked to unschooled adult Nadia Sladkey, who is a nurse in a hospital, for goodness sake. She also interviewed Pat Farenga and learned that his three adult daughters all have full time jobs and earned varying levels of degrees. One would think any open-minded, inquisitive person might wonder, gee, these unschooled adults are all functioning in society, maybe socialization is something people get in lots of different ways, not just by going to school as a kid.
But, perhaps I complain too much. Picard does cite a 2014 survey revealing that 83% of unschoolers pursue higher education, and as Picard writes, “…yes, they did eventually get jobs.” Wow, what a relief. Even without a “common metric” to “judge objectively” how much they were learning, they did okay. I mean, that common metric guarantees that every kid who goes to school learns EVERYTHING they need to know to get into college, get good jobs, become contributing citizens, and be happy people, right?
Sarcasm aside, parents who choose to homeschool or unschool are just like other parents trying to do the best for their kids. The unschooling mom’s quote pulled out in big, bold letters (“I worry constantly that I’m ruining their lives”) seems damning in the article’s context, but I wager that any parent worth their salt has had the exact same thought at least once.
Which brings me to the theme of the article about unschooling I want to see, the one that, rather than harping on all the things that can go wrong because we’re so darn weird and “extreme,” finally sees us as regular people, more similar to our fellow parents who send their kids to public school, private school, charter school, or wherever than it might first appear. That’s a vantage point from which minds can open and begin to understand that differences aren’t threatening or bad, they’re just different. In a world where polarization and suspicion of the other are rampant, that would be welcome, indeed.