Better schools through unschooling?


Unschooling is built on the idea that kids are naturally curious, naturally interested, and built to learn, says UBC’s Jennifer Vadeboncoeur. Photo: Ingo Bernhardt, Flickr

A UBC expert explains what we can learn from a radical educational philosophy that does away with traditional schooling altogether

The educational landscape includes public schooling, private schooling, alternative schooling, and homeschooling. But “unschooling”? UBC’s Jennifer Vadeboncoeur discusses the roots of a radical educational philosophy that offers insights into educational reform, even as it does away with traditional schools entirely.

What is unschooling, and how does it differ from homeschooling?

Unschooling is a philosophical approach proposed by educator John Holt in the 1970s. It’s a critique of the institution and structure of schooling which is commonly described as a factory model. Not all schools share these characteristics, but the factory model divides students into groups and pushes them through curriculum like products through an assembly line. The school day is broken into 40-minute blocks for subjects, as if they were unrelated. In this way, students are clumped and knowledge is fragmented.

Jennifer Vadeboncoeur

Jennifer Vadeboncoeur

Unschooling argues, not unlike other educational philosophies, that kids are naturally curious, naturally interested, and built to learn. So Holt’s notion is to build a curriculum with children that’s really driven by and responsive to their interests and curiosities. That’s very different from borrowing the curriculum from the Ministry and teaching it to children at home.

What types of children benefit most from unschooling?

I would argue that children will learn their way into any context, but they need practice and support to do so. The issue is, what kinds of supports can we give them? How much time can we give them to practice learning differently if their first several years were in a schooled context?

When we don’t have all of the resources available, the kind of child who is likely to benefit is confident in identifying and following their own interests, and will continue to be supported in exploring their world.

Is unschooling growing in popularity?

There’s been a bit of a resurgence, especially in the U.S., as a result of the last 30 years of standards-based reform. Standards-based reform is very assessment-focused and narrows the definition of learning and education to something barely recognizable. It has also placed an outrageous amount of pressure on kindergartners and their teachers to prepare children to enter school with literacy and numeracy in place. That’s what some people are responding to when they consider unschooling.

What are the benefits of unschooling?

One benefit is that, by drawing upon children’s interests, motivation problems are reduced. A second is that less work is required to highlight how activities and ideas are relevant to children and youth, because they’re learned in context and are authentic.

Another benefit is being able to maintain heterogeneous age-group connections—although it’s important to note that there are schools that have heterogenous classrooms, and that have projects that bring together different age groups. Heterogeneity is very rich for learning and development, and this has also been advocated by other educational philosophies.

What are the downsides to unschooling?

The proponents of unschooling would likely disagree with me, but I think it’s just not practical for many parents. Many households have two parents in the workplace. Parents have to have the time and resources to do it. That also means that it’s not really practical on a wide scale.

Can traditional schooling learn anything from unschooling?

I think the conversation about unschooling could become one about how to transform school structures to create more humane and liveable learning contexts for both students and teachers.

We know about the problems with fragmented curriculum, large class sizes, and not having enough support in classrooms, for both students and their teachers. Educational researchers, and probably everyone in general, know about the difficulties posed by a lack of resources for teachers and schools.

Perhaps because Holt was, himself, an educator, I think the critique of schools that comes from unschooling is kind of a hopeful critique. It keeps our eye on ways of reforming and doing school differently, where learning and teaching are the focus.

Jennifer A. Vadeboncoeur is Associate Professor in the UBC Faculty of Education, Education and Counselling Psychology, and Special Education.


Corey Allen
UBC Public Affairs
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