Unschooling -- a learn-as-you-go experiment for some

Author-educator John Holt, who coined the term ''unschooling,'' estimates that some 10,000 families across the country are shunning school in favor of teaching their children at home. He expects that number to grow rapidly in the next few years.

The trend is a welcome one in Mr. Holt's view. He has been saying for years that children don't need to go to school to learn.

In his book-stuffed Boston office, Mr. Holt speaks with quiet authority about the changes he'd like to see in education.

''The fundamental fallacy of our education system is the idea that teaching produces learning. Actually, in the drama of learning, teaching plays a minor role,'' he says. ''Most of what children learn, they find out on their own. . . . Children are by nature very curious about the world around them, and very competent and resourceful in exploring and mastering it.''

School just gets in the way, in Mr. Holt's opinion. Instead of giving that internal motivation free play, school stifles it with external rewards and punishments, tests and regimens. ''Teaching, as it's done in the schools,'' he says, ''largely submerges curiosity, confidence, and willingness to ask questions. It turns children into collectors of answers the teachers want them to spew back.''

The result, he claims, is that many children - even kids who perform well - never learn to develop their own reasoning and problem-solving capabilities. Far better for them if they were left alone, Mr. Holt says. He's convinced that children get a better education when they are allowed to choose their own activities and learn whatever they want to know, when they want to know it.

And what Mr. Holt says squares with what a good many parents have discovered on their own. Home schoolers often start out by subscribing to correspondence courses with daily study guides, and then scrap them when they find that their children do better without all the regimentation.

To encourage these families and keep them in touch with each other, Mr. Holt began publishing ''Growing Without Schooling'' (GWS) in 1977. This bimonthly newsletter is a folksy mix of home-schooling experiences, textbook and field trip suggestions, news of court decisions, and hints on dealing with local school authorities. Much of it is taken from letters from parents.

The parents' remarks reflect the pioneer spirit behind so many decentralizing trends today. These are people who suggest education has become over-institutionalized. They feel a deep personal responsibility for their children's education and want a larger hand in it. They want more time to give their youngsters moral and religious training. And they savor the daily adventure of watching and helping their children learn.

Arlean Haight of Scottville, Mich., says, ''When the kids were in school, they were gone all day and came home at night with these gigantic mounds of homework to do, and then it was a rush to get things done in time to go to bed. But now it's not like that. We're all involved in this as a family. Doing school work together, it's amazing some of the conversations we get into now about values. We never seemed to have the time before.''

Home schooling is a learn-as-you-go project, and parents often admit to feeling shaky at first. How much guidance to give children is always a question. Despite Mr. Holt's boundless faith in children's learning instincts, the parents aren't always comfortable about leaving a child to himself.

But most are willing to experiment, as Mrs. Haight was when she ''unschooled'' her children three years ago. Her third-grade son, Matt, had always been behind in school, and he didn't read well. He had come to think of himself as a failure at reading, and had developed an aversion to it. At home Mrs. Haight didn't push Matt, but she started taking him to the library to pick out books.

With the time and freedom to read what he liked, Matt soon became an avid reader. Now, three years later, he reads three years ahead of his grade level and does sixth-grade work in the other subjects.

Matt's sister Becky is an even more impressive example of what a self-motivated learner can do. For the first year out of school, Becky showed no interest in learning anything. ''It seemed that seven years of public school had successfully stamped out any inclination she might have had to learn,'' her mother wrote GWS. ''By her own admission, she had learned to cram for tests, make A's and B's on her report card, and promptly forget almost everything she had 'learned.' ''

Given a free rein at home, Becky spent all her time reading paperback westerns. But gradually this progressed to an interest in western history, then to the history of the United States, then to United States government. These days 15-year-old Becky is busy memorizing the Constitution. (''How in the world could a schoolteacher ever motivate a kid to memorize the Constitution?'' asks her mother.) Becky has also discovered Shakespeare and is learning Spanish and typing.

After relating these successes, Mrs. Haight is quick to add that she does give her children a few academic guidelines. ''I just don't have the faith that they would develop a spontaneous interest in every subject they need to know about,'' she admits. So in addition to the projects they choose themselves, Matt and Becky are also required to do some math every day and write a weekly theme to work on spelling, grammar, and composition.

Success stories abound in GWS, and Mr. Holt's how-to book, ''Teach Your Own.'' Failure stories are conspicuously absent. Mr. Holt says he knows of very few cases where home schooling was unsuccessful - and those few didn't work because the parents were overanxious and couldn't resist the temptation to push their children. He adds that unschooled children who later take achievement tests are shown to be substantially ahead of schooled children. If the laissez-faire mode of teaching has any shortcomings, Mr. Holt doesn't acknowledge them.

But Dr. Marilyn DeVore, indepedent-study director for San Juan Ridge Union School District in California, says she feels there are losses as well as gains in home schooling.

''One negative is that the child isn't receiving the social interaction that takes place in the classroom,'' she says. ''One of the things I look for in a proposal for home schooling is: Are the parents aware of that fact, and are they reaching out toward providing social experiences?''

''Another thing she looks for is ''the willingness of the parents to integrate what goes on around the home into the learning experiences and to, in fact, view this as part of the education.'' Dr. DeVore says strong parental commitment and follow-through are important factors in the success of the 32 home schoolers in her district.

In some communities, getting kids out of school can be a hassle. Home-instruction programs usually must be approved by local school authorities, and when the authorities won't cooperate, it can lead to a legal battle.

''Teach Your Own'' is full of advice on reassuring school officials, submitting a curriculum, researching state laws and court rulings, and - if all else fails - preparing a legal case. Mr. Holt claims that no parents who have prepared according to his guidelines have lost a court case.

The educational community, though it doesn't share the Holt vision, stands to benefit from his promotion of it all the same. As their numbers increase, home schoolers will open up new terrain for educational research. Mr. Holt says, ''Home schoolers may be able to teach the schools some very important general principles of teaching and learning.''

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