To school or not to school….

Most children are well into their second or third week of the new school year. Parents have sent them off and into the care of professional educators with varying mixtures of regret, anticipation, relief or dread.  Not all parents have sent their children off, however.

Estimates range on the numbers of  young people who are home schooled – or “unschooled” – (see but there is some agreement that the numbers are around 2.2 million US school-aged children.

A friend of mine who is a staunch advocate of unschooling (related to the entirely unpleasant educational experiences of his own youth) contacted me the other day about where I stand on this question. Peter writes, “Your unschooling work is unique and it is much of what sets you apart from other educational professionals.  I have sometimes wondered about your advocacy in favor of public education, coupled with your experience in unschooling. It seems to me that there is an inherent contradiction there, but perhaps not.  Can you define how the two might be brought together in a creative manner?”

Point well taken – it may seem odd indeed that one and the same person might author a book on unschooling and one titled Defending Public Schools. I play with this seeming contradiction in the chapters that bookend my new book, Unschooling in Paradise, with a preface titled “Do We Need School?” and a closing chapter titled “So, Do We Need School?” I answer that last question with a totally ambiguous “Yes—and no” and go on to say that “We need something. But it is possible that the brick and mortar concept of school, with its restricted ways of organizing space, time, relationships, work, and the flow of information, is an outdated and inadequate template for learning in the twenty-first century.”

I am a willing taxpayer, and strongly believe that a major function of a society should be to marshal its resources for the education and socialization of the next generation. I think that kids and their well-being are the collective responsibility of everyone in a community, not just the parents. I have equally strong feelings about the rights of young people to be in learning environments that reflect joy, justice, inquiry, exploration, and creativity.  And because many schools are not such places, I support alternatives to public schooling, though I am not a conservative advocate of vouchers or charter schools.  Too many of those exclude certain young people or are more rigid, even militaristic, in their pedagogical practices, and I can’t help but see these mostly market-driven initiatives as yet another way to privatize important human activities and defund the common good.

To respond to my friend Peter’s main question:  “Can you define how the two might be brought together in a creative manner?” I point to the promise of Vermont’s Act 77, legislation that requires every student in the state to have a personalized learning plan, and that there be “flexible pathways” to high school graduation.  I have been researching the implementation of this policy since 2014, and hope to have a new book on the subject in the coming year. There are a wide range of understandings of what is meant by “personalized learning” just as there are a wide range of meanings of “unschooling.” Suffice it to say that some young people in this state are earning credits towards graduation engaging in all sorts of experiential activities that are “not-school”: apprenticeships, internships, community service, theater groups, self-directed study, learning networks, and clubs. I have interviewed a number of young people who have graduated from high school while spending little or no time in a traditional classroom, young people who would have dropped out of school without these personalized opportunities, and young people who really “found their calling” in non-traditional experiences and in working with community mentors.  Time will tell whether this initiative becomes a genuine enlargement of what we commonly think of as “school,” or if it just becomes another bureaucratic box to check off.  Stay tuned: I will write more about this in future blogs and about the intellectual roots of unschooling and deschooling society.