Let Me Follow My Bent

The Gist: What happens if kids have no curriculum at all?

A review of multiple books on the topic of unschooling and early childhood education.

“Nancy was concerned for her son. At eight years old, in school for the first time in his life, Tom was not doing well. After three months, his teacher, Mr. Engle, called him ‘addled,’ or unable to think clearly. Tom had spent his childhood up to that point freely playing and exploring near his home, and he found the adjustment to school difficult. He especially disliked the emphasis on sitting, memorizing, and repeating, and he found the teacher’s ways harsh and rigid. Tom was miserable. Nancy went to speak to Mr. Engle about her son, but she was turned off by his sharp ways. Frustrated by the teacher’s tactics and his low opinion of her son, Nancy removed Tom from school and homeschooled him. Thomas Edison was done being schooled.

At home, free to be a curious boy once again, Edison developed a passion for books and knowledge. Nancy mostly allowed Tom to learn naturally, following his own interests. Edison biographer Matthew Josephson writes that ‘she avoided forcing or prodding and made an effort to engage his interest by reading him works of good literature and history that she had learned to love.’ A former teacher, Nancy Edison facilitated her son’s learning by noticing the things that interested him and gathering books and resources to help him explore those topics more fully. Tom became a voracious reader, reading at age nine the great works of Dickens and Shakespeare and many others. Also at nine, Tom became interested in science, so his mother brought him a book on the physical sciences… and he performed every experiment within it. This led to a passion for chemistry, so his mother gathered more books for him. Edison spent all of his extra money to buy chemicals from a local pharmacist and to purchase science equipment, and he conducted his first experiments in a makeshift lab in his home’s basement while still just a tween. Josephson writes that in allowing Edison so much freedom and autonomy, his mother ‘brought him to the stage of learning things for himself, learning that which most amused and interested him, and she encouraged him to go on in that path.’ Edison himself wrote about his mother: ‘She understood me; she let me follow my bent.’”

Lightbulb

Figure 1. Enlightened learning in this case led to much broader enlightenment.

 

This story about Thomas Edison is provided by homeschooling mother of four and Harvard education school graduate Kerry McDonald in her book Unschooled and demonstrates an especially different approach to education in which children self-direct their own learning. But – my gosh! – if children choose what to do day in and day out, will they learn anything at all? Won’t kids endlessly play games, fail to get into college (much less the Ivy of their parents’ dreams), and then be totally unprepared for the “real world” that awaits them in adulthood? There is a really small sample size of kids who are brought up this way but advocates claim that trusting children yields amazing results. Whether you’re prepared to completely abandon the traditional curriculum or not, there’s something to learn from their experiences.

It’s probably worthwhile exploring the origin story of the Sudbury Valley School, one of the rare institutions that practices unschooling. Daniel Greenberg was a popular physics professor at Columbia University who became frustrated that his students “seemed motivated to get the highest grades they could while learning the least possible amount of the subject matter.” Students gave him high marks for teaching but practically none used his class as inspiration to read and learn deeper about physics outside his curriculum. Greenberg became convinced that conventional school had so strangled the natural curiosity of kids that college was much too late to fix them and so he abandoned his prestigious position to found Sudbury, a 10 acre campus in rural Massachusetts. His ideal was “a free market place of ideas, a free enterprise system of talents” where “students should be free to explore any ideas that engage their interests” and, incredibly, without any required curriculum at all. Operating since 1968, about 75% of alumni have gone on to college and, according to one survey done by Boston College psychologist and Sudbury parent Dr. Peter Gray, the vast majority have been “remarkably successful in finding employment that interested them and earned them a living.”

Panda

Figure 2. I once took a seminar on the history of Chinese-American relations in which one of my peers soon confessed that she was a proud “panda-hugger” who adored the People’s Republic. That description seemed to capture the mood of the class, except for myself and a couple of others who vigorously dissented against the party line (thankfully, there was no Cultural Revolution to dispense with us.) My professor was not exactly sympathetic to the minority. At one point, he proposed a rule that each person get equal time to air their views; I countered that each view deserved equal time and there wasn’t much learning from continuous echoes. But, more remarkably, he asked me to stop reading material outside the curriculum because my unique knowledge of the area disadvantaged my classmates.

 

What unschooling relies on is children’s natural curiosity about how the world works – and then fanning that curiosity into a roaring flame. As McDonald insists, “The deepest, most meaningful, most enduring learning is the kind of learning that is self determined.” Adults unschooling kids do three things: model the behaviors you want your kids to pursue, give your kids a rich variety of opportunities to explore, and empower your kids to chase their curiosities to the maximum.

Lighter

Figure 3. Be an arsonist of curiosity! 

 

John Holt, who became so frustrated with conventional school that he helped popularize homeschooling as an alternative, described an incredible semester at an open-minded 1960s-era elementary school in which the teacher was in the habit of writing down any unanswered questions that her children had on big pieces of paper hung around their homeroom, to be investigated at leisure as much as children’s curiosity persisted. One spring, as children put away their winter clothes, one asked why they could not be washed. “Many of them knew that it was because the wool would shrink. But why did wool shrink?” The class wrote a letter to the state university asking for use of a microscope, which eventually arrived. The kids excitedly learned how to use the microscope and soon examined “wool fibers before and after washing,” followed by a “number of other fabrics,” noticing differences based on how they were woven. So these elementary school children then decided that they wanted to learn how to weave, wrote another letter to get raw wool, “washed it, carded it, spun it, and wove it.” One kid “thought it would be interesting to find out how much work it would take to make the cloth” and so they tracked the man hours to produce one “small square of cloth” and were shocked to discover it was 72! They then got interested in calculating “how long would it take to make a whole suit,” which “brought in a good deal of arithmetic, plus the problem of calculating the area of an odd-shaped object.” Once discovered, “they began to wonder how people like the early colonists ever managed to find time to make their own clothes” and researched history, which led to both to looking at the innovations of time-saving devices and labor relations, even prompting a class field trip to a textile mill. From there, they researched how to dye their cloth (which led to an exploration of botany); then they got interested in the diversity of wool and wondered why different kinds cost different prices, so one kid began to map out the origins of wool across the world, others investigated the different animals wool came from and how hard they were to raise. They did all this while investigating other questions of interest. “In a year the class of thirty-five children borrowed seven hundred books.”

Warren Buffett

Figure 4. Sure, this sounds like an impressive semester. But, with just a little more effort, the class could have discovered the undervalued textile mill stock Berkshire Hathaway.

 

Perhaps the most vital skills your child should learn are literacy and numeracy – both subjects wind up being tested ahead of college (for now) but they are also genuinely useful in the real world. Unschooling seizes on that second point: showing your kids the actual uses you and they have for math and reading will be infinitely more engaging than a compulsory examination of abstract blackboard formulas or reading at a preset pace a boring book of no special relevance or interest. Between kindergarten and 6th grade, the average Tennessean spends over 7,000 hours attending school. But according to award-winning public school teacher John Taylor Gatto, “reading, writing, and arithmetic only take about one hundred hours to transmit as long as the audience is eager and willing to learn. The trick is to wait until someone asks and then move fast while the mood is on.” Sudbury more specifically reports that “it takes about twenty hours to learn the entire K–6 mathematics curriculum when a child is interested in learning it.”

Many unschoolers initially get excited about math due to interest in games – adding and subtracting from their Monopoly money, calculating probability for Dungeons and Dragons dice rolls, comparing on base percentages for baseball players. McDonald insists that her kids just treat math workbooks as fun puzzles to work on, the same way you might fill in the daily crossword for your own fun. The idea is to explicitly discuss all the math around your kids – the measuring and timing of daily cooking, the list-making and bargain-hunting of weekly shopping – and then cultivate their interests until the political kid examines campaign contributions and creates a pie chart of the federal budget, the budding businesswoman follows stock market price-to-earnings ratios and learns accounting, the hands-on tinkerer reads manuals and takes apart and rebuilds equipment to precision. Notably, unschoolers are openly skeptical that every child should study all advanced math that never comes up in day to day life – if a child loves the subject and wants to study it further, by all means, they should do so; if a teenager wants to go to a college with certain requirements they have not yet hit, they’ll be incentivized to hit them on their own.

Ace of spades

Figure 5. One economist helpfully suggests making bets with your kids. This can be especially profitable shortly after a birthday check arrives from Grandma: kids make perfect poker marks!

 

Meanwhile, perhaps the primary motivation for unschoolers to read is envy. In an institution like Sudbury, children “became motivated to read primarily by observing older students reading and talking about what they had read.” As one reported, “I wanted the same magic they had; I wanted to join that club.” In a home, if you want your children to read, you should read – yes, aloud to them, but also tell them about what you’re reading and let them see you read and let them see the fruits of your reading, including the books spread across the house for little hands to thumb through. The same principle applies if a particular subject is important to you: if you want your kids to love the Gospel, then make it a center of your home with your own personal Bible study, grace at meals, your own prayer at bedtime, etc. If you really want your child to love reading, let them read what they’d like. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Samuel Johnson is “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history;” he advised:

“I would put a child into a library (where no unfit books are) and let him read at his choice. A child should not be discouraged from reading anything that he takes a liking to, from a notion that it is above his reach. If that be the case, the child will soon find it out and desist; if not, he of course gains the instruction; which is so much the more likely to come, from the inclination with which he takes up the study”

Once they have the basics, the world is their oyster! Gatto insists anything in the world of any significance is accessible to a 13 year old mind – the question, as ever, is what engages your child’s ambition and delight? Gatto recalls that “until pretty recently people who reached the age of thirteen weren’t looked upon as children at all” and that “only a few lifetimes ago, things were very different in the United States. Originality and variety were common currency.” Draw attention to the heroes of America: “A considerable number of well-known Americans never went through the twelve-year wringer our kids currently go through, and they turned out all right. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln…” And, yes, these are exceptional historical figures who had meaningfully different experiences from contemporaries who instead had to spend their time cultivating fields or practicing a trade – but presumably your kids don’t have to do those things, either. Indeed, “if David Farragut could take command of a captured British warship as a preteen, if Ben Franklin could apprentice himself to a printer at the same age (then put himself through a course of study that would choke a Yale senior today), there’s no telling what your own kids could do.” 

This flexibility can lead to kids truly pursuing their passions. At Sudbury, “Classes in specific subjects are offered when students request them, but no one is required or particularly encouraged to join a class and many students never join one. Classes have no formal status and last only as long as student interest lasts.” One girl, Carol, “developed a love of boats,” first playing with small models in a pond on campus but later “took advantage of the school’s open-campus policy to spend as much time as possible at a nearby seacoast area, where she studied navigation and sailing.” She became captain of a cruise ship. Another girl, Fran, got fascinated with making clothes for her dolls, “then, as a teenager, she began making clothes for herself and her friends.” She graduated to become a “master patternmaker and head of a facility in the high-fashion clothing industry.” One boy, Henry, was enchanted with science and biology – and was able to regularly retrieve dead animals for dissection. He wound up becoming a successful mortician!

Lightning

Figure 6. A tad more challenging, at least for a muggle, would be if your child is primarily interested in a wizarding career. To this end, you may instead embrace the advice of Cal Newport, who argued that most people’s biggest passions (such as sports or movies) do not have commensurate employment opportunities and that you should instead focus on what you’re good at. But don’t count out flexibility! Perhaps your child may become, if not a wizard, a magician.

 

The core of unschooling involves entrusting children with responsibility with the understanding that it’s the best preparation for adulthood they could receive. In Gray’s survey,

“Graduates explained that at Sudbury Valley they had always had to make their own decisions about how to spend their time, that there was nobody to blame but themselves for mistakes they made, and that they had had to work through the school’s democratic procedures for any changes they had wanted in the school. The resultant sense of personal responsibility remained with them, they said, and served them well in higher education and employment.”

But if your kid does not have a particular, immediate focus to pursue to the ends of the earth, then try to draw it out. At its purest, unschooling repositions education as an invitation – for better or worse, “A primary characteristic of unschooling is its emphasis on noncoercive education, or the ability to say no.” McDonald offers the analogy of a museum: 

“Information, exhibits, and lectures are offered, usually centered on the museum’s focus (art, science, nature), and museum guides are available to answer questions or lead a demonstration. Nothing is forced. If you want to explore a particular exhibit for a long period of time and ignore the other ones, you can. If you want to spend time in the contemporary art wing and ignore the impressionist painters, go for it. If you want to listen to a lecture on animal behavior or do a hands-on geology activity, it’s there for you. If you don’t want to, that’s OK too. You can come and go as you choose. The museum won’t cajole you or evaluate what you know. With unschooling, as with museum learning, resources, materials, and opportunities are made widely available for exploration and discovery—without coercion.”

For reasons that are probably obvious, the small number of kids who are unschooled can underperform conventionally schooled kids on early standardized tests (though those conventionally schooled kids underperform structured homeschoolers). Unschoolers are not especially concerned. William Stixrud argues that “brain development makes it easier to learn virtually everything (except foreign languages) as we get older.” Gatto notes that there was no widespread formal schooling in the American colonies, yet literacy was near-universal among free adults. When it matters, it will come – and stay. “Most of us learned the periodic table through a preestablished schooling curriculum with various learning objectives and assessments. How much do you remember? In one family McDonald describes, most of the kids learned to read early – but, incredibly, the parents let one kid’s illiteracy persist until he was 13 – at that time, he really wanted to read his sports schedule – and he went from reading Dr. Seuss to Shakespeare in a matter of weeks.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I personally would have a difficult time letting illiteracy persist into teenage years. My own read on unschooling is that it can give you hope that if a complete abandonment of the traditional curriculum seems to work out not too shabbily, giving kids substantial autonomy to pursue their interests within the broad goals of advancing literacy and numeracy offers a lot of promise. If our goal is to teach kids how to effectively communicate ideas, I don’t mind if they read and write about topics that they themselves are curious about rather than are imposed upon them – but I do rather think they may need the broad requirement to indeed read and write on a regular basis. I’ve reviewed the work of the economist Bryan Caplan before on how schools are wasting lots of time – he homeschooled his kids and gave them lots of flexibility on what to read but required that they do math problem sets for at least 90 minutes a day. But beyond those basics – read, write, and calculate – there’s a lot of room for parents to curate kids’ adventures and curiosities.

There are still other elements of unschooling that I have mixed feelings about.

Unschoolers are very wary of evaluation. At Sudbury, there are two exceptions: “students who wish to use expensive or potentially dangerous equipment… must first become ‘certified’… by proving they can use it appropriately” and, if they wish to acquire a diploma, they must “prepare and defend a thesis explaining why they are ready to graduate and how they have prepared themselves for responsible adult life outside of the school” – to be graded by outside reviewers not present at the school. Unschoolers do this because they want kids to constantly explore their curiosity rather than chase grades and scores. They also argue that testing does not necessarily enforce genuine learning and that it’s artificially outside the real world experience with arbitrary restrictions (such as forbidding the use of calculators or notes). They also point to evidence that the very act of knowing you’re being evaluated has two effects: people are generally less creative and novices in particular underperform. But on the flip side of that equation, experts actually perform better when they know they’re being evaluated. My sense is that mastery requires relatively constant feedback on performance and I am not sure, based on my reading, whether unschoolers reject that entirely or are open-minded to it so long as kids are actively asking for it. 

Unschoolers are also quite zealous about the opportunity for kids to play – some of the benefits of which you may very well agree with. Gray argues:

Free play is nature’s means of teaching children that they are not helpless. In play, away from adults, children really do have control and can practice asserting it. In free play, children learn to make their own decisions, solve their own problems, create and abide by rules, and get along with others as equals rather than as obedient or rebellious subordinates. In vigorous outdoor play, children deliberately dose themselves with moderate amounts of fear—as they swing, slide, or twirl on playground equipment, climb on monkey bars or trees, or skateboard down banisters—and they thereby learn how to control not only their bodies, but also their fear. In social play children learn how to negotiate with others, how to please others, and how to modulate and overcome the anger that can arise from conflicts.

Sudbury believes that free play is especially powerful for kids playing with other kids, especially of mixed age and without adult interference (in other words, a pick-up sandlot baseball game rather than Little League). Sudbury believes that by mixing children of different ages, younger children can get exposure to advanced topics familiar to their older peers and also be effectively taught by near-peers who might better understand their difficulties. Further, mixing ages allows younger children to participate in activities that would otherwise be beyond their skill level, such as a game of catch where their throws aren’t very precise. Meanwhile, older children get the benefit of reinforcing their skills by teaching younger kids, apparently inducing more nurturing behavior. Younger children also apparently inspire older kids to be more creative. For better or worse, Sudbury also rejects adult-organized sports in order to foster kids’ ownership of their activities, including negotiating mutually satisfactory conclusions to disputes. There are some interesting arguments here and I am quite open-minded to letting kids play but I am not quite there at letting it go on indefinitely and I do wonder if fully embracing every kid’s opportunity to exit at any time undermines resilience.  Of course, all of these benefits of play with other kids can be more difficult to regularly achieve in a homeschooling environment.

Baseball

Figure 7. The real question is how kids on the sandlot resolve the infield fly rule.   

 

I suspect, however, that there is a bigger problem: what if a kid only wants to play video games? At Sudbury, “all [kids] have unlimited access to computers and television, and almost all of them play and enjoy video games.” Unschoolers argue that it’s essential to give kids exposure to and understanding of the tools of the adult world – and that prohibition may even make tech more appealing. Sudbury further reports that kids are learning to read faster as a result of early exposure to social media – and various authors cite additional benefits to video gaming, including problem solving and hand-eye coordination. One homeschooling parent suggests that her kids were inspired by playing video games to learn Japanese, take music lessons to be able to play the theme song to their favorites, and work to earn money for more games. And, ultimately, Sudbury argues that, for most kids, video games are a release from their hyper-controlled daily life, the digital realm being a place where they can “make their own decisions and strive to meet challenges that they themselves have chosen. At school and in other adult-dominated contexts they may be treated as idiots who need constant direction, but in the game they are in charge and can solve difficult problems and exhibit extraordinary skills.” Sudbury reports that their students strike a healthy balance – and indeed prefer to be out in the woods playing with their friends than playing a game. Unschoolers generally advise that as kids are given control over their time, the appeal of screens dissipate. 

I am not so sure. If you look at time data on unemployed adult men, who have presumably complete control over their time, they are spending 7.5 hours a day on leisure via screens. Further, as Stixrud notes, “If you’re a kid, the formula begins to look like this: the more technology you use, the poorer your self-regulation. The more technology you use, the worse your executive function (your Pilot). This matters a lot; self-regulation and executive function are about twice as good predictors of academic success as IQ at all grade levels, including college.” Screen leisure has significant opportunity cost: sleep and time in real life with family and friends, not to mention reading, writing, and math. I’ve reviewed Andy Crouch’s thoughtful take on technology for families before – and he recommends a total prohibition on kids using screens until age 10, with limits thereafter. I also think of the neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who was doing pretty poorly in conventional school until his mother limited his television time and required that he write for her two book reports a week and – wouldn’t you know it? – his grades improved as he went on to bigger and better things.

Amidst all their trust for kids, unschoolers do like to cite the doctrine of A.S. Neill, who said he gave the children at his British boarding (un)school Summerhill, “freedom, not license” – that is, responsibility, not permissiveness. It meant that kids were welcome to play the trumpet – but not in the middle of the night when people were trying to sleep. It also meant that kids were welcome to swear – but were not allowed to insult each other. A related concept is distinguishing hazards and risks: “The minute a child thinks an adult is in charge of the space, and in charge of determining risks, setting limits, and managing conflicts, the play space can become both more sterile and more dangerous. In such instances, the responsibility for safety rests outside the child.” All of which sounds like at least some cabining of total freedom, except that Summerhill allegedly permitted underage sex and had anarchic problems associated with its completely democratic operating structure (in which students, outnumbering teachers by a significant margin, exercised full power – Sudbury operates similarly but without the same reported problems). As if that wasn’t enough, some of its teachers were prominent British Communists and Neill himself was sympathetic – though, to his credit, he realized that his anarchic school was rather inconsistent with totalitarian Stalinism.

All of which is to say: I both recognize the benefits of play but also think it ought to have limitations – that kids should be directed to learn but with empowerment to take that whatever direction they might. Especially with more structure, I don’t think college should be much of a problem – McDonald reports that one successful applicant remarked “For my application transcript, my dad and I sat down and tried to list out all of the books I had read. Books were my curriculum.” The standard curriculum has problems – especially if it is true that it teaches in 7,000 hours what only takes 100. Ultimately, trusting kids to pursue their own interests has great promise, especially in that it much better prepares them for the “real world” than the compulsory abstractions of conventional school.

Unschooled

Figure 8. Click here to acquire Unschooled by Kerry McDonald, a Harvard education school graduate and homeschooling mom of four. In addition to her overview of how to unschool your kids at home, she also thinks ahead to a broader reform: “When trying to envision what an unschooled future might look like, public libraries are ideal examples. Publicly funded, sometimes supplemented by private donations, libraries are free, self-directed learning spaces in the truest sense.”

Free to learn

Figure 9. Click here to acquire Free to Learn by Dr. Peter Gray, a Boston College psychologist who sent his son to Sudbury Valley School. Much of the book is a profile of how the school works, though he does begin with some underwhelming anthropology about the nature of childhood. Gray rather boldly predicts that most schools will adopt the Sudbury model in the decades to come – but also notes that at Sudbury, there’s quite a bit of self-selection going on, with about half the students having trouble in conventional school before arriving and the other half being the children of true-believing parents. To give you a sense of how much he entrusted his son with responsibility, I relay this anecdote:

When he was thirteen, my son went to London for two weeks by himself. I must admit, that was back in 1982, when it was easier to be a trustful parent than it is today. He had approached his mom and me in the spring, when he was still twelve, with this proposal. He would earn all the money for the trip himself, so we couldn’t use cost as an excuse to stop him. He would plan the whole trip himself—in fact, he had already planned much of it. He wanted to prove to himself that he could organize and do something this complicated without adult help. He also wanted to see certain castles and museum treasures, which he had been reading about and which were prominent in the Dungeons and Dragons games he played. He had never been abroad. Neither, for that matter, had his mom or I.

Free to learn

Figure 9. Click here to acquire Free to Learn by Dr. Peter Gray, a Boston College psychologist who sent his son to Sudbury Valley School. Much of the book is a profile of how the school works, though he does begin with some underwhelming anthropology about the nature of childhood. Gray rather boldly predicts that most schools will adopt the Sudbury model in the decades to come – but also notes that at Sudbury, there’s quite a bit of self-selection going on, with about half the students having trouble in conventional school before arriving and the other half being the children of true-believing parents. To give you a sense of how much he entrusted his son with responsibility, I relay this anecdote:

When he was thirteen, my son went to London for two weeks by himself. I must admit, that was back in 1982, when it was easier to be a trustful parent than it is today. He had approached his mom and me in the spring, when he was still twelve, with this proposal. He would earn all the money for the trip himself, so we couldn’t use cost as an excuse to stop him. He would plan the whole trip himself—in fact, he had already planned much of it. He wanted to prove to himself that he could organize and do something this complicated without adult help. He also wanted to see certain castles and museum treasures, which he had been reading about and which were prominent in the Dungeons and Dragons games he played. He had never been abroad. Neither, for that matter, had his mom or I.

Unschooled

Figure 10. Click here to acquire How Children Learn, by John Holt, an educator who helped popularize homeschooling. The book is a bit odd, sometimes reading like diary entries of interactions with specific children, other times having general observations of education. The edition I read also included commentary by Holt more than a decade after he first wrote the book about how his thinking had developed – and that actually was often quite interesting as a contrast. Holt said: “this book can be summed up in two words—Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple—or more difficult.”  Holt was an advocate of youth rights and believed that “A child has no stronger desire than to make sense of the world, to move freely in it, to do the things that he sees bigger people doing. Why can’t we make more use of this great drive for understanding and competence?” Kids needed to get real exposure to the real world because “[Children] want to be able to do what the bigger people around them do—read, write, go places, use tools and machines. Above all, they want, like the big people, to control their immediate physical lives, to stand, sit, walk, eat, and sleep where and when they want.

 

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, forward it to a friend: know anyone who is a parent? How about a grandparent? How about anyone who is a former child?

For more, check out my archive of writings, including my review of the Case Against Education

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