What would happen if you let your child stay out of school to explore whatever she is most interested in doing—for as long as she wanted to do it? It’s not as outlandish as it might sound. It’s called “unschooling,” and thousands of families find it just the ticket to a creative, individualized education. About 750 unschoolers from all over the country will converge at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Irving Aug. 30 through Sept. 3 for Rethinking Education, an international confluence for unschooling families.
The 11th annual event, founded and produced by unschooling parent and Colleyville resident Barb Lundgren, features nonstop workshops and activities for parents, teens and children alike. “It sort of turns into a ‘land cruise,’” Lundgren explains, “where everybody is off doing their own things, and there’s a lot of stuff to choose from and everybody’s learning and having fun at the same time.”
Also known as “child-led,” “interest-led” or “inquiry-based” learning, unschooling is a style of home educating that follows a child’s individual and developmental passions. “Interest-initiated learning works well for children with a deep, abiding interest or hobby, as well as for students with clearly delineated goals,” writes Karen Taylor in the California Home School Network’s The California Home School Guide. On the flip side, she admits, “Some say that unschooling results in educational gaps, holes in a student’s knowledge.”
Gaps? Many unschoolers worry about those later, rather than sooner. Unschooling is more of a whole-family lifestyle than an educational approach or curriculum. Unschooling parents strive to deluge their families with a rich stream of educational opportunities and “real life” experiences. The aim is to give kids not only the space to discover their own interests, but also the tools to dive in when they’re ready to “fill the gaps” with gusto.
If that sounds like a full-time proposition for parents, it is—and it should be, asserts Dr. Mike Sacken, professor of education at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. “You can’t be casual about this,” he exclaims. “If someone wants to be able to do this, they need to be available full time, guiding the child’s inquiry-based learning. It’s not like you can leave a child alone most of the time, and at the end of the day, you can do reflection with them and they’ll have discovered physics. You have to be with them all the time.”
Lundgren cautions parents who appreciate the guidance and safety of tried-and-true educational systems from rocking the boat with something as radical as unschooling. “But if the [school] structure seems meaningless to them,” she adds, “and they’re looking for ways to break out of all of the rules that have been set before them, and they find themselves saying, ‘Is this all there is to life—simply following rules and jumping through hoops?’ then this is a fabulous eye-opening event for them.”
Are unschoolers actually succeeding in college and later in life? According to Sarah Spooner, senior admission counselor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, the answer is a resounding yes. “These students are really well motivated, have done their homework and done their research,” she affirms. “They’re the type of students who excel when they get on a college campus because they can keep themselves in check and make sure they’re doing well and succeeding.”