Creating your own curriculum

Unschooling, self-teaching or life learning—an educational philosophy where children don’t attend school but “learn through life”—is growing in popularity as an alternative to traditional blackboards and books

Supporters of the unschooling movement say traditional school oppresses students’ needs and reduces their interest in learning.
Supporters of the unschooling movement say traditional school oppresses students’ needs and reduces their interest in learning.

It’s only been a week since the start of classes and universities, high schools and elementary schools are now buzzing with the routine that school brings.

Carlo Ricci’s daughter is currently engaged with this routine in the second grade; however, his youngest daughter is not.

“Both my children make the choice of whether they choose to attend school,” said Ricci, an associate professor at Nippissing University.

He’s one of many parents engaging in the “unschooling” education movement.

“Unschooling,” “deschooling,” “life learning,” “home-based education”—all describe the concept of learning without attending a formalized school.

Ricci, a member of the Ontario Federation of Teaching Parents (OFTP), said he was attracted to the learner-centred and democratic aspects of unschooling.

“Learners decide what they learn ... when they learn, how they learn, when to opt in and when to opt out,” he said, adding that he first learned about unschooling while reading the work of writer John Holt, an influential name in the unschooling movement.

“Learning is living,” he said to describe the unschooling philosophy.

Ricci was also attracted to unschooling because he said the structured school environment is oppressive, and unschooling allows children to explore their own interests and drives without an externally imposed curriculum.

“Children who are in school suffer—they always have adults supervising and intervening ... it’s a very artificial setting,” he said, adding that children often aren’t trusted with responsibility in school.

“If you want people to be social and responsible as adults you need to allow them to practice being responsible as young people,” he said. “You can’t confine them to institutions and prevent them from taking responsibility for themselves.” Wendy Priesnitz began the Canadian unschooling movement in the 1970s.

“I knew from the time I was a child in school in the 1950s that there must be a better way to learn,” she told the Journal via email.

Although she said she did well in school as a child, she was often bored and her self-esteem dropped in math and music subjects. She said she later became a teacher largely because of her family’s expectations and not her own desire to teach.

“I realized very quickly that neither I nor the grade five kids I was supposed to motivate to learn wanted to be there. Aside from the regimentation, I saw bullying (by kids and adults), systemic injustice and sexism, coercion, stress and much more with which I disagreed,” she said, adding that she eventually quit teaching to pursue research about how people learn.

“I began to articulate that learning is not generally difficult, but that school can make it an oppressive experience when children’s interests, motivation, and needs aren’t taken into account.”

Priesnitz said her two daughters grew up learning at home.

“Their dad and I watched them eagerly and relatively effortlessly learn how to walk, talk, identify numbers and letters, understand basic scientific principles, experiment, ask questions, pursue their curiosity—all without being taught or artificially motivated, but with our support.”

She soon began contacting and organizing with other like-minded unschoolers and writers to gain national and provincial support, she said.

The difference between homeschooling and unschooling is pretty significant, Priesnitz said.

Homeschooling involves a prepared curriculum, testing, marking, grading and everything else a structured school curriculum provides, Priesnitz said, adding that this style of learning has often been popular among conservative or Christian families. On the other hand, unschooling is much freer and much more child-centric.

Homeschooling brings the curriculum into the home environment whereas unschooling does away with it all together and places the onus to learn on the individual.

“Although there are no definitions or rules, unschooled children are motivated to learn by interest and need—in the same way they learned to walk and talk,” she said, adding that children are more motivated to learn once an externally imposed environment is taken away.

“Virtually all real learning happens as a result of want, need or interest,” she said.

“That sort of learning is different than memorizing some aspect of a “subject” that is on a course of study, because a teacher requires a report on a topic, or because the information needs to be regurgitated on an exam.”

Unschoolers learn these basics through doing, playing, experimentation, manipulation and questioning the world around them, she said, adding that the Internet, mentors and books play a part in their learning as well.

As technology makes at-home learning more possible than ever before and the pace of change makes lifelong learning a necessity, the historically heated debate over whether or not to keep children out of school is getting even heavier.

Priesnitz said these criticisms about proper functioning in a university environment or in a career are often the result of misconceptions about how unschooling works, largely due to the term “unschooling” itself.

“The term means nothing more than the absence of school,” she said. “And since most people equate schooling with being educated, they assume not attending school means not being educated.”

However, Priesnitz said this isn’t the case. “These kids grow up to be doctors, lawyers, artists, entrepreneurs, plumbers, mechanics, writers, gardeners, teachers … the whole spectrum of careers.

“Some choose to attend post-secondary institutions; some don’t ... but when they do attend, anecdotal reports are that they generally do well,” she said, adding that this is largely due to the fact that they grew up as active, independent learners.

Judy Arnall has unschooled all five of her children.

Her eldest son now attends Memorial University in Newfoundland for engineering. In order to make the transition from unschooling to a formal university environment he spent his grade 11 year in public school.

“In grade 11 he couldn’t get over how slow the pace was,” Arnall said. “You couldn’t go your own pace anymore.”

She said her son decided to do his final year of high school online so he could go at his own pace but still get the credits he would need to go on to post-secondary education.

“He’s always been a self-directed learner. He’s taught himself math, physics, chemistry ... pretty well everything.”

Arnall said the first few weeks at Memorial required some adjustment while her son got used to deadlines, schedules and exams.

The Ontario Federation of Teaching Parents (OFTP) provides an unofficial list of post-secondary schools who have accepted homeschooled or unschooled students.

Queen’s wasn’t on this list, which may explain why the admission requirements for homeschooled or unschooled students are unclear and why Queen’s admissions officers seemed to know little about the subject when contacted by the Journal.

As a member of the OFTP, Ricci has worked on the Post-Secondary Admissions Project.

He said there are countless ways someone who didn’t attend traditional school can get into a post-secondary institution.

“There are all kinds of myths out there on how difficult it is,” he said.

Many open universities, such as Athabasca University, allow anyone to attend as long as they are 16 years old, he said, and from there, once people have a few credits, they can transfer to another school if they wish.

According to Ricci, many post-secondary institutions that accept students who haven’t followed a traditional high school curriculum require that students achieve the six core grade 12 credits to be considered for admission; some institutions also require a completion of standardized tests such as the SAT’s.

These credits can be achieved in a number of ways, such as going to traditional school or taking online courses, which are often offered for free through school boards, he said. Once they get to university, they tend do perform very well.

“Those who go to schools traditionally—there’s a huge dropout rate for them. They’re used to being told what to do,” he said.

Homeschoolers and unschoolers have an advantage in this respect.

“They’re used to learning on their own,” he said.

Christine Bibic, the Kingston area representative for the OFTP, said she has homeschooled her two children and has started to look into post-secondary admissions policies for them.

“It varies from university to university,” she said, adding that her children want to go to Queen’s once they graduate high school

“They’ve decided to go back into school going into grade 9,” she said.

She said that while an at-home education is great for inspiring learning, a traditional curriculum helps to make sure students are prepared for university. Bibic said some aspects of traditional school will take her children some getting used to, such as test writing, but the transition should be relatively easy.

“I don’t think it’s as difficult as most people would think.”

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