An article at MindShift this week (an excellent website, by the way, which every educator should closely monitor) describes research carried out by Boston College professor Peter Gray on the long-term effects of "unschooling," an approach to homeschooling that allows children a maximum level of self-direction. There are as many flavors of unschooling as there are unschooling families, but in general the method is marked by a lack of any structured curriculum other that what the child expresses an interest in studying.
A learning philosophy like this stupefies most professional educators who have spent their entire careers wrestling over massive state- and locally-mandated curricula, trying to figure out how to "cover" it all. How could kids possibly learn all the things they NEED to know by their (arbitarily determined) 18th year?
As the MindShift article explains, Peter Gray's research of former unschooling parents and of the unschooled "graduates" themselve reveals that, by and large, they turn out just fine. On a variety of measures, former unschoolers felt overwhelmingly positive about their learning experiences. Eighty-three percent of them attended a wide range of colleges, and about half graduated (similar to the college graduation rates of traditionally-school students). Getting into college was relatively easy, even though most had never taken the ACT or SAT, and few found college to be particularly difficult, though many found the rules and structures of university life somewhat stifling. Unschoolers had high levels of successful employment, and a large percentage worked in the creative arts.
The percentage of homeschooling families that practice unschooling is probably small, but Gray's findings are consistent with other research on homeschooling in general affirming that homeschool children do about as well as, if not better, than their traditionally-schooled peers on a wide variety of measures.
As I told CQ Researcher magazine when they interviewed me earlier this year on the topic, I believe that the success (and skyrocketing numbers) of homeschoolers poses a major challenge to those of us who work in the traditional education system. What does it mean that so many families - including those with relative low levels of income and education themselves - can successfully educate their children without the structures and supports of traditional schooling? And in the case of unschoolers, the evidence suggests that children don't even need a lot of direction from adults to learn and achieve at high levels.
The world has changed and the factory model of schooling, which was designed to create a compliant industrialized workforce, is no longer appropriate for the digital, hyper-connected world we now occupy. Learning must become increasingly fluid, personalized, and student-driven.
Correction: Learning is becoming increasingly fluid, personalized, and student-driven, thanks to technology and the abundance of educational options families now demand and utilize. Schooling (as opposed to learning) is becoming increasingly obsolete as more families opt out or demand a more differentiated learning evironment for their children.
Professional educators can embrace the lessons of unschooling and homeschooling and accept that children can learn far more when they direct their own learning experiences, and transform the experience of schooling into something far more personalized, or they can watch their industry gradual crumble into a relic of the past.