The ultimate (un)school choice

To Beth and Bill Ward, there's no separation between life and learning.

When their family starts the day, there's rarely a set plan. "We get up, and the kids say, 'Let's go to Rocky Mountain National Park,' and I say, 'OK,' " Ms. Ward says.

The Wards are part of the fastest-growing segment of homeschooling - one that thrives on a lack of definition. But if "unschooling" has any guiding principle, it may be the notion that all kids are learners by nature and shouldn't be inhibited by the formal structure of school. Families typically follow no set curriculum, and the child's interests largely determine what he studies.

The schedule at the Wards' home these days revolves around fencing lessons - something which fiercely engages both 10-year-old Becca and 14-year-old William.

Becca also plays a lot of chess, often with adults at the nearby Barnes & Noble, and has started a candlemaking business. William is into role-playing games and blacksmithing. He attended a blacksmithing conference this summer, while Becca's highlight for the year was winning a gold medal for her age group at the national saber-fencing finals.

The term unschooling was coined by the late John Holt, an educational reformer in the 1970s and '80s whose books, including "How Children Fail," have influenced many families to homeschool.

"The term 'homeschool' gives the idea that you turn your home into a school," says Patrick Farenga, president of Holt Associates. He says the subheading for unschooling could be: "because schooling is not learning."

Michael Soguero, a math teacher at the New York School for the Physical City, is choosing to unschool his four children. In looking at how any adult learns, free of an institution, Mr. Soguero says, the key elements are that the subject be "relevant and fun. And there's a strong element of choice in the matter. When you have an institution built around mandating, you start killing that initial tendency to want to learn things."

A common reaction to unschooling is that it might work - but only for a small fraction of precocious children who will choose to read Shakespeare and create rocket plans rather than sit and watch TV. Soguero, however, says that if adults start from the premise that children will learn, it can work for anyone.

Unschoolers are quick to point out that no set curriculum doesn't mean the philosophy is opposed to structure. But "[adults] wouldn't dictate the structure first and expect the learner to fit into it. If my child wanted to learn karate, I'd bring him to a structured place, but the structure doesn't precede it all," he says.

Few unschooling parents describe themselves as "teachers." The terms "facilitator" and "guide" arise the most. "You're keeping your eyes open to opportunity," Soguero says, "listening and understanding your children, encouraging them to do some things they wouldn't necessarily do [on their own]."

One of his sons, he says, doesn't do much math. He's on the lookout for a big project they can do together that would be mathematically rich in the process - like building a pond. When Mr. Farenga's daughters got excited about a girl detective in books they were reading, they asked their mother to create a mystery for them. Very soon, they had a regular "detective club" of nine children that met every Wednesday night. They learned about hair analysis, fingerprints, and, in the process, Farenga's wife introduced quite a bit of math.

Many unschoolers, however, point out that they don't label these experiences as "educational." When Beth Ward talks about visiting the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., she notes that "there was such a difference between the attitude of my kids and others whose parents were saying to them, 'OK, now it's time to learn something.' "

The community also is a resource. When Farenga's 10-year-old daughter wanted to learn sign language, she practiced while helping a family with an infant and a deaf child. Later, an interest in science prompted her to find a community college biology course.

Many unschooled children may never encounter elements of a traditional curriculum, and their lack of familiarity with the Sistine Chapel or Herman Melville might bring shudders to E.D. Hirsch, the proponent of "cultural literacy." But that's of concern to few parents who have chosen this route.

"There's so much knowledge in the world," Farenga says. "We feel [it] is abundant and interconnected."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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