Unschooling — letting children pursue their own interests without classes, textbooks or adult direction — is the choice of some homeschoolers, reports the New York Times.

The Billings children are not graded. Weekends are no different from weekdays, summer from winter. They draw or read or play outside, or go on family outings to libraries, museums or the gym. They also attend activities and take lessons familiar to pupils in traditional schools like Girl Scouts, swimming for Gaby and piano — if they express an interest — but none has seen the inside of a regular classroom.

Unschooling parents believe children will learn more in the long run if they’re allowed to follow their natural curiousity. I suspect they’ll have large gaps in their knowledge.

About Joanne


  1. Students of children are fungible mass market education have large gaps in their knowledge too; it’s just that they have the right ones.

    I know one young man who was specifically and overtly unschooled (as distinct from our fairly casual approach to homeschooling). When he was about thirteen, he got into Dungeons and Dragons, and found that he needed to know multiplication in order to game. So he sat down and learned multiplication. It took him much of a day, rather than from 9:45AM to 10:30AM five days a week ten months a year for a couple of years before he had a reason to learn it. He is no a productive succesful adult, and one of his hobbies is geometry.

  2. I suspect that the distribution of unschooled kids will be a lot like that of all the other homeschooled kids I’ve taught in college: They will either be some of the best students you can have, or some of the worst, with no in-between. Which end of the bell curve they end up on will probably be a function of their parents’ motivations and what they conceive of as success. If the motivation is real learning and the parents want to hold their kids to some kind of objective evidence that learning has taken place, then the kids will probably be as good as any other kid. If the motivation is a misplaced sense of giving kids freedom, or just sheer laziness, and there’s no accountability involved, then those kids are going to have a hard time of it.

  3. Kirk Parker says:

    Well, if it worked for Ivan Illich…

  4. Cardinal Fang says:

    Robert, is it possible that you are more likely to know about the education of your best students and your worst students than of your average students? How do you know the education status of some average kid who does the work, mostly, but never talks to you or comes to office hours? I bet you have some average students who are homeschooled, but you don’t know who they are. When homeschoolers go off to college or community college, they often don’t advertise that they’re homeschoolers.

  5. They may have gaps; most people do. (I certainly don’t know anyone who doesn’t.) I was a public-schooled student through college (SJSU) and have huge gaps, which I am discovering now as I homeschool my own kids – including in my own major (English).

    Extreme unschoolers such as this family are a small minority, in my experience. Of course they make better copy than the more mainstream families…

  6. Mark Roulo says:

    Re: Cardinal Fang

    It is quite possible that we have selection bias at
    work here, but one more piece of anecdotal evidence
    (it that an oxymoron?) is from the MIT dean of
    admissions. From a Technology Review article:

    And according to MIT dean of admissions Marilee Jones,
    the homeschooled students are “absolutely extraordinary
    or not even close.”

    We still have selection bias here (MIT does not attract
    a representative sample of high school graduates), but
    still …

    -Mark Roulo

  7. Alex Bensky says:

    Let ’em learn whatever they want, if anything. Sounds good. I wonder if the parents take such a relaxed attitude towards table manners.

  8. The odds of a child getting a good education through unschooling can’t be any worse than that same child getting a good public school education. Why is unschooling always criticized for uneven results when public schools, where the vst majority of children are educated, provide amazingly uneven results.

  9. Cardinal Fang says:

    The comment from the MIT admissions dean is interesting, but here’s another way to consider it: Elite colleges get a few applicants who are extraordinary, a few applicants who are clearly not qualified, and a giant mass of very qualified, almost indistinguishable applicants in the middle. They’re in the top 5-10% of their high school classes, they have activities, they have scores, and they’re all strong applicants.

    The colleges quickly accept the top kids and reject the bottom kids, but then they have to choose between a big group of kids all of whom would make good students.

    Homeschoolers are different; whatever their qualifications, they won’t be indistinguishable from big mass of traditionally schooled kids. They’ll always be different. That may be what’s making the MIT dean think the homeschoolers are always easy admissions decisions.

    Applicants who are waitlisted at elite colleges are clearly neither extraordinary or not eve close. I wonder if homeschooled students are waitlisted at the same rate as traditionally schooled kids. I run a mailing list for homeschoolers working toward college, and I know of quite a few homeschoolers who were waitlisted, so it does happen.

  10. Indigo Warrior says:

    Good unschooling, like good schooling of any type, is not so much a matter of what the children want, but what they need. In some cases, that means covering material too advanced (or politically verboten) for teachers to handle. If institutional schools did such a great job with all children, even brilliant freethinkers, then this website would not need to exist in the first place.

  11. I think that it’s more likely that unschooled kids who are exceptional have the time to go much deeper in the areas that interest them. I know some world-class mathematicians, and the ones that went to regular high schools didn’t show what they had until they were 20 or so, because they were in high school through 18, and that doesn’t leave a lot of time to do graduate level work in math. One of them, who has a Fields Medal, was educated non-traditionally, and he had a PhD by the time he was 19. Clearly these are people far into the tail of the curve, but I think that their experiences reflect those of less extreme cases. If MIT is looking for kids that, say, they know can get doctorates at MIT/Caltech/Stanford/Harvard/…, it’s far easier to tell that this is the case if the kid has actually learned the level of material that usually derails the high-end physics/math/chemistry major that doesn’t make it through.

  12. I think the biggest problem with unschooling is not the presence of knowledge gaps, but the utter and complete failure to self-discipline oneself to learn subjects that are uninteresting.

    Those people who are smart or naturally curious can get very far along the road of unschooling, but sooner or later, it’s a cul de sac. The truth is, to succeed at life, you must have trained your mind to do tasks that are unpleasant, and to do them at least marginally well. This is true whether the task is washing the dishes, bookkeeping, organic chemistry or measure theory. Every single job, every single relationshp, every single major life activity of adulthood requires periods of time where you are doing work that is unpleasant, boring, or otherwise unstimulating. Doing it anyway, and learning that material, is a requirement to achieve further levels of success.

    Those who are smart often learn this lesson too late. The current lack of rigorous and broad course requirements in college often mean that young adults don’t learn this fact until they are working. Unfortunately, they take the wrong lesson from that: they believe “this job is boring, I should quit and immediately find my dream job” rather than learning how to discipline their own mind and emotions, building the skills needed to work at a profession, etc. Dream jobs still have boring, unpleasant tasks associated with them. Unschooling by the parents is an unfortunate attempt to create a utopia for the children because of their own wish fulfillment. But like most utopias, it’s a dystopia for them when they see reality.

  13. Cardinal Fang said, re: the MIT admissions dean’s comments: “The colleges quickly accept the top kids and reject the bottom kids, but then they have to choose between a big group of kids all of whom would make good students”

    Well, not at MIT. They don’t quickly accept “the top kids” because they’ve already got a list of top kids that is larger than their incoming class. At MIT, each student is now chosen by considering who is left behind. It’s not a choice between A and not A; it’s a choice between A through Z.

    Now, wrt homeschooling, I think the selection bias is extremely severe. the homeschooled who are applying to MIT were focused on that before high school; of them, those who were concerned that their home prep wouldn’t get them into MIT *put their kids in high school*. That means that only those who were already exceptional students and who had exceptional opportunities through homeschooling–better than provided by the best science/math school in their area–stayed at home for high school and applied to MIT.

    Another selection bias is the parental attitude. Many homeschoolers I talk to are still anti establishment. They are anti private colleges, and whether true or not, discount the value added by a degree from MIT or Princeton. Again, they wouldn’t be pushing their kids to apply to MIT, and it’s not clear what, exactly, they’d be pushing academically, either. Like everything else, the homeschooled who are exceptional are probably no less rare as the exceptional in general.

  14. Indigo Warrior says:

    I tend to agree that un/home-schooling provides more opportunities for depth education for the truly exceptional, who develop their talents at a very early age. If Beethoven or Mozart lived in this century, they would have to be homeschooled, or schooled at a very specialized music-based private school into order to develop their talents. None of this prostitute’s lifestyle for the masses, under the “socialization” and “well-roundedness” rubrics.

    It’s also horrible to stick a gun to a child’s head to force them to do unpleasant tasks. Everyone will go through life having to do something or other they don’t like. That’s a given, and it applies to everyone, and I don’t think anyone is an exception. Life itself is cruel enough here on this planet; no need to make it artificially worse. Besides, slaves are notorious for poor quality work; and the resources used in supervising them could be better used elsewhere.

    Colleges are not like public schools either. “Anti-establishment” means little in this context. Believe me, if a college was run like a typical middle school in the 1950s, the president would end up in the electric chair, and many of the faculty in a maximum security prison for most of their lives.

  15. Griefer,

    Coming from the top end of the testing curve, there was nothing in public school (through a MS) that taught me to learn or work at uninteresting subjects – 95% of it was easy, interesting, or both. I even managed to get a Ph.D. without really acquiring the skill, although it took longer than usual because the skill would have been useful at that point. So I don’t see that as a reason not to unschool my kids. On the contrary, many of my just-out-of-public-school students *do* have a great deal of trouble in the major, apparently because it’s more difficult for them and *they can’t bring themselves to work at it*.

  16. I’ll second Tom H.’s comment: A very good public high school did not teach me the self-discipline to put any effort into subjects I found uninteresting. If I wasn’t interested, I could pull out a B without spending any out-of-class time on it. I didn’t learn to work hard even on the subjects I was fascinated by. The difficult part of public schools was staying awake through classes when I could get so far ahead just by spending a few minutes reading… And I’m no genius, but I am very good at gaming tests like teachers usually write, including the SAT. (IQ about 120, SAT 1590/1600.)

    I do wonder what Tom’s major was if he could continue slacking off through a PHD. Somewhere around Differential Equations and 3rd year Physics, I had quite a shock. This stuff was hard, and I had no experience with that!

  17. Cardinal Fang says:

    Griefer– When I said the MIT admissions committee quickly accepts the top kids, I meant the top kids, kids like these boys or this girl. In other words, superstars. MIT gets high-level applicants, but there are only a few superstars, and I doubt that MIT has to think very long before admitting them.

    I’m going to third Tom H. I went to a very good public school and didn’t learn to work at studying– to my later regret.

  18. I’m sorry, but I don’t understand your logic. I criticized alternative A. you respond that that B is bad, too. I didn’t claim A was worse than alternative B. why the straw man?

    just because you failed to learn discipline in one school is not a pro-argument for not learning discipline in another. why not homeschool AND teach discipline?