‘Unschooling’ and Readiness for Success: A Disconnect

We know that America’s education system needs to be revamped, but is the answer to “unschool” our young people? Disturbingly, some people think so.

We know that kids learn best when they are motivated and interested. We see that providing more choice for students in how, where, when and at what pace they learn helps them succeed. We applaud parents, educators and policymakers who are building on this knowledge to redesign education in various ways across the country.

But the idea that the best way to convey the power and promise of this research is through a movement called “unschooling” is disappointingly short-sighted.

What’s missing from the explanation of “unschooling” offered by Lauren Snow, co-founder of a primary school in Atlanta practicing this new trend, is the idea that there are competencies that young people need to learn to be successful in life, and eventually in college and work. Young people can stumble on those competencies. (Example: Kids want to create a comic book and realize that they need to write, draw, plan, work together.)  They can also be introduced to competencies by being presented with learning challenges to choose from.

In the best competency based education environments, the teacher is not a passive supporter of learning but a creator of learning opportunities and a “labeler” of competencies tried and mastered.

For a better example of the potential of self-directed learning, I suggest reading  “How a Radical New Teaching Method Could Unleash a Generation of Geniuses” in the October 2013  issue of Wiredmagazine. This is a powerful story about how a dedicated teacher in a poor Mexican border town helped his students move from the bottom to the top proficiency levels of the statewide language and math exams by scrapping the curriculum, asking them interesting questions that reflect the curriculum, then literally getting out of their way, following the methods of numerous self-directed learning experts.

There is no doubt that we need to transform education, starting with making huge shifts in how we think about student motivation, teaching and learning.  But this transformation requires discipline, not abdication of responsibility.  “Unschooling” may guarantee engagement, but it is not likely to guarantee readiness.