I know I'm naïve to expect the mainstream media to cover a subject like "radical unschooling" as anything other than a freak show, but the recent hatchet job that George Stephanopoulos and Good Morning America did on the topic was so hopelessly biased that it'd make Rupert Murdoch blush.
Unschooling is a type of homeschooling that promotes organic, self-directed learning without the structure of traditional education. My family has unschooled our kids for over a decade. I'm working on a film about the subject called Unschooling: The Movie that explores the subject and includes interviews with people like unschooling advocate Sandra Dodd.
One of the reasons I'm making the film is that it's not a topic that a lot of people understand or have experience with. Unfortunately, Good Morning America provided a very poor introduction that used hyperbole and video editing in place of facts.
Many people seem to have theories about how unschooled kids will turn out. The GMA story is certainly full of them -- we're told that unschooled kids are being damaged by being brought up far outside the mainstream and will be unprepared for life. We are warned that parents who unschool their kids are limiting their options.
Here's reality -- any parenting choice that you make for your kids means that there are other parenting choices that you didn't make. If you send your kids to public school, that's what they know and they don't know how life would've been if they'd been homeschooled or sent to private school or a military school or to a madrasah or to Catholic school or to be tutored at a castle high in the Alps. Making choices means you're precluding other choices.
My experience is that raising kids outside of the educational structure actually gives them more options than the kids I see shivering outside at the bus stop at 6:30 in morning and waiting for a school bus to deliver them to an institution full of strangers.
The GMA segment raise the specter that children raised outside of the education system will be unable to cope with going to college, if they so choose. And of course, Good Morning America didn't have much trouble finding "educators" to back them up.
You can keep your theories; I have my son.
My oldest son Shane is about to turn 18 this summer, and he was unschooled nearly his entire life. He briefly attended first-grade until he broke his arm on the playground and we pulled him out of school. We briefly tried traditional homeschooling, which is the structure of "school at home" and we all really hated it. So for the next six years or so, Shane was unschooled. He learned what he was interested in learning, traveled with me extensively and was able to move freely between the homes of my first wife and her husband in California and my new family's homes in Texas and Florida.
Then after years of working freelance, I got a job at NBC on the TV show Access Hollywood in Burbank California. Shane had decided that he was interested in seeing what traditional schools was like and given my new job, it seemed like a good time to try the experiment of public school and we enrolled Shane in seventh grade.
Now, at this point, many people would make the assumption that my unschooled son would be hopelessly behind all the other kids and unable to catch up academically. After all, he had had almost no formal training in subjects like math or science and he'd never even learned quaint skills like writing in cursive. My unschooled son had never learned long division and hadn't spent hour after hour for years trudging away at math worksheets like his classmates had. According to the hysterical speculation of the GMA piece, Shane should have been a basket case.
Instead, he was able to catch up with the other kids in a couple of weeks. It turns out the learning things like long division isn't really that tricky, especially when you aren't trying to force feed it to a child. He spent two years in middle school and did very well; he was an honor roll student. (The middle school he attended in Burbank recently made the news when it was revealed a female teacher had been having sex with one of the students -- Shane wasn't part of that fine example of socialization, though.)
My son went on to high school for a little bit. After a few weeks, he realized that high school sucks so we withdrew him. He'd tried the school experiment. At age 16 , he took a number of classes at Pasadena Community College, where he got a 4.0 GPA.
Hysterical theory aside, my unschooled son has had no problems either adjusting to academia or to learning on his own. He wasn't limited, hampered or ruined.
I love Shane, of course. But I also really like him and I'm proud of the independent, intellectually curious young adult he's become. He's been really helpful in raising our younger kids, he's helped me many times with my work and I've had the pleasure of being able to stay up late and discuss the ideas of Noam Chomsky or Alan Watts with him based on reading he's done on his own.
Shane is heading off to Canada in a few months, to work on organic farms and write. He's going to be doing what adults do -- making his own life, choosing his own adventures. And I have no doubt that unschooling prepared him well.